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Last Friend in Europe: How Far Will Russia Go to Preserve Its Alliance With Serbia?

Serbia plays for time in the hope that its ties with Russia will be cut indirectly, as an inevitable by-product of the EU’s actions and regardless of Belgrade’s position.

Published on June 10, 2022

The events of the past few days have shown that Russia remains determined to preserve its special relationship with Serbia despite its confrontation with Europe over the war in Ukraine. On May 29, the presidents of the two countries spoke on the phone and reached a gas agreement that secured Serbia another three years of Russian gas at a price several times lower than the current one in the EU. On June 6–7, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was scheduled to visit Belgrade—just days ahead and in clear defiance of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s June 10 trip to Serbia.

When neighboring Bulgaria, North Macedonia, and Montenegro closed their airspace to Lavrov’s plane, making the visit impossible, the Russian leadership minced no words in expressing its outrage and called for redoubling efforts to preserve the country’s “eternal friendship” with Serbia. But is Russia able to deliver on its promises?

The war in Ukraine has made Russia’s seemingly omnipresent influence in Serbia even more conspicuous. According to polls, only 26 percent of Serbs blame Moscow for the invasion, while the majority view the West and Ukraine as the real culprits. Leading Serbian media uncritically reproduce Moscow’s version of the events; Gazprom still controls local oil giant NIS; and Belgrade refuses point-blank to join the EU sanctions against Russia.

In the April parliamentary elections, the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, pro-Russian with minor reservations, received 44 percent of the vote, while political movements with even stronger pro-Russian agendas gained an aggregate of 25 percent, leaving little hope for politicians who want to bring Serbia closer to the EU’s policies toward Moscow.

Still, beyond this celebration of brotherhood and solidarity, other less obvious developments bode ill for the Russian presence in Serbia. The two countries’ ostentatious alliance has been hollowing out for years, and the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to bring this process to completion.

To begin with, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has never been sincere in his pompous pro-Russian rhetoric and is even less so today. He has been playing the Russian card in several different ways, depending on the audience. At home, he touts Russia as a mighty and benevolent world power, which only he knows how to deal with. He threatens the West with the strong pro-Russian sentiment in Serbian society, claiming to be the one politician capable of keeping the country on a pro-Western path. Finally, when talking to the Kremlin, Vucic portrays himself as the last pro-Russian bulwark preventing Serbia from being completely absorbed by the West. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made this scheme unsustainable without major adjustments, which are already under way. In his statements for the domestic audience and in government-controlled media, Vucic is now emphasizing turbulent times ahead. To weather the coming storm, the narrative goes, Serbia must treat relations with Moscow more critically, prioritizing its national interests over blind loyalty to the Russian brethren.

The most vivid example of this shift was a scandal that erupted in Serbia in April, after Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the Kosovo precedent to justify Moscow’s recognition of the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics in Ukraine. The Russian leadership has been manipulating the history of Serbia’s breakaway province for years, using it to justify its actions in the post-Soviet space since the war in Georgia in 2008, but the Serbian leadership had never voiced objections. This time things played out differently.

Feigning betrayed innocence, Vucic tragically stated that Putin’s words had severely undermined the Serbian position vis-à-vis Kosovo, and the Serbian media erupted in an unprecedented wave of criticism of Moscow, going as far as to claim that Russia had stabbed Serbia in the back. 

In public, Vucic still defiantly rejects Western calls for Serbia to join sanctions against Russia. But he is more amenable when out of the public eye. In the UN, Serbia has repeatedly voted in favor of resolutions condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The country has also joined a range of Western sanctions on Moscow’s proxies and satellites, including Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovych and Belarus’s strongman Alexander Lukashenko. These steps were taken almost secretly and revealed by the independent media only months later.

In a similar vein, in the energy domain, Vucic never publicly questions the benefits of close cooperation with Russia. But Serbia’s eagerness to take part in LNG projects in Greece or rent gas storage facilities in Hungary betrays a search for alternative sources of energy imports.

Overall, Vucic seems to realize that Serbia is unable to avoid a break with Russia, but he doesn’t want to be seen as the one who precipitated it. Thus, he plays for time in the hope that Serbia’s ties with Russia will be cut indirectly, as an inevitable by-product of the EU’s actions and regardless of Belgrade’s position.

His calculations have already proved correct in various spheres. Serbia has not joined financial sanctions against Russia, but this did not protect Russia’s state-owned Sberbank from having to sell its Serbian subsidiary. Serbia has never supported the embargo on Russian oil, but the country will stop receiving it simultaneously with the EU, because it had been delivered through the Croatian port of Omisalj. Belgrade may be bursting with enthusiasm about hosting Lavrov, but it couldn’t help but cancel the visit because neighboring states closed their airspace to Russian planes.

This leaves open the question of whether Russia is ready to tolerate the EU’s rapid destruction of the Russian presence in Serbia with little resistance from Belgrade. Apparently, Moscow has few other options.

At the moment, the unwieldy machine of the Russian state is focused on the war with Ukraine. Its top-down management style rarely welcomes initiatives from the lower levels of the system. This is especially true in the case of Serbia, where Vucic boasts direct access to Putin’s ear. Since the start of the war, he has talked to Putin twice—more than many Russian dignitaries.

Moreover, Vucic tends to complain to Putin about Russian officials he dislikes with unpleasant consequences for the latter. Such well-connected figures as Foreign Ministry press secretary Maria Zakharova and Russian international aid agency (Rossotrudnichestvo) head Yevgeny Primakov Jr. have learned firsthand that messing with the Serbian president can backfire, discouraging others from taking the risk. No wonder Russian Ambassador to Serbia Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko and the Kremlin’s unofficial point man on the Balkans Alexander Babakov praise to the skies Vucic’s putative efforts to salvage Russo-Serbian cooperation.

The Kremlin prizes Serbia above all for favoring Russia over the West, even if in public rhetoric only. Vucic is ready to offer Moscow this service regardless of the real state of the two countries’ relations. He helps Russia save face, presenting even anti-Russian steps as forced and taken despite Serbia’s enormous affection for its Russian brethren. To be sure, the war in Ukraine has shown how reckless the Kremlin may be in taking irrational risks, but Serbia does not look like the next target for Russia’s disruptive toolkit. Lulled by Vucic’s eulogies, for now Moscow seems ready to let him manage the relationship in order to concentrate on numerous problems it faces on other fronts.