The recent exposure of a Russian intelligence operation in Serbia highlights the dual strategy that Russia pursues towards its neighbours. It also underlines the geopolitical position that Serbia finds itself in with both Russia and the West vying for influence in the west Balkan state. Divisions within Serbia, its history of conflict, and divergent economic, political, and economic trends may all shape in which direction Serbia goes.
In November, the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, revealed that the Serbian security services had discovered an attempt by Russia to infiltrate the Serbian army. The Russian operation emphasises how willing Moscow is to aggressively deploy its intelligence assets in pursuit of foreign policy goals.
Serbia’s response is equally illuminating. Vucic stated after the incident that “we will not change our policy towards Russia, which we see as a brotherly and friendly country.” The statement indicates that Vucic is eager to keep Serbian-Russian relations close despite an apparent provocation. The incident comes during a period of deepening ties between Moscow and Belgrade.
Since 2014, when Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party came to power, Russia has used economic and military incentives to court Serbia. Vucic recently signed a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a trade bloc that aims to solidify Russian control in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and ward off EU influence. Related: A Record Number Of Oil CEOs Dethroned In 2019
Additionally, the second leg of Gazprom’s TurkStream gas pipeline will begin construction through Serbia by the end of 2019. Energy policy is a key instrument of Russian influence in Europe and the Turkstream pipeline will further consolidate Russian energy hegemony in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Serbia is already dependent on Moscow for natural gas and their biggest oil company, Naftna Industrija Srbije, is majority-owned by Gazprom.
Serbia and Russia, both Slavic, Orthodox Christian countries, have also increased military cooperation. A recent military exercise, Slavic Shield 2019, saw the first-ever deployment of the Russian S-400 missile defence system on training outside of Russia. Serbia has also bought Russian MiG-29 fighter jets, helicopters and tanks in the last few years.
The spying expose also comes at a time of cooperation between Serbian and Russian intelligence agencies. Perhaps the strongest bond between the two states is Moscow’s persistent opposition to an independent Kosovo. Serbia refuses to recognise Kosovo as an independent state and Russia can use its UN Security Council veto to prevent a Kosovan attempt at gaining UN recognition.
Serbia’s westward path
Despite Russian attempts to gain influence through both covert and cooperative means, Serbia is on a path to greater engagement with Western institutions. While Serbia does not want to join NATO, it does engage in exercises and defence cooperation with the Alliance.
Any attempt by Serbia to accede to NATO would be met with significant displeasure by Russia, which objects to any attempt at perceived Alliance expansion – as the alleged Russian-backed coup attempt in Montenegro suggests. Furthermore, the 1999 bombing of Serbia by NATO forces, which forced out former president Slobodan Milosevic, means NATO remains highly unpopular. Related: The War For Ultimate Control Over Libya’s Oil
Serbia is, however, a candidate for EU membership which is forecast to be completed in 2025. The EU remains Serbia’s most important trading partner at 63 percent of total bilateral trade – this is compared to only 10 percent with Russia. According to a survey by the Bureau for Social Research in Belgrade, 45.5 percent of Serbians support EU membership compared to 17.6 percent who prefer membership of the EEU.
But divisions within the EU may derail Serbia’s accession into the political and economic bloc. In October, Emmanuel Macron, President of France, went back on the EU’s commitment to allowing fellow Balkan states Albania and North Macedonia to begin accession talks. Macron’s aversion to further expansion, in favour of consolidation, will likely have created significant worry in Belgrade that their future in the EU is unclear.
This uncertainty will encourage Russia to continue to influence Serbian politics. The competition between the West and Russia for sway over the Balkan state manifests itself in divisions within Serbian military and political elites. Some want to maintain a pro-Western trajectory and others who favour stronger ties with their Slavic cousin.
However, while Serbia’s position between West and Russia may seem awkward, it may be a fruitful one. It allows Belgrade to play the two parties off against each other, extracting concessions from both. Serbia can use overt displays of friendship with Russia to gain greater leverage and negotiate from a position of strength with Western powers.
By Global Risk Insights
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