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comment 12 Dec 16

Lavrov, Serbia, May Struggle to Find Common Ground

For all the talk of Slavic, Orthodox solidarity, Russia has little to offer Serbia these days except continued support in its diplomatic battle over Kosovo.

Dusan Reljic
Russian FM Sergei Lavrov. Photo: kremlin.ru

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrives in Belgrade on Monday for meetings with top Serbian officials, including President Tomislav Nikolic, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic.

No politician who takes himself seriously in Serbian politics can risk losing Russia’s support over the conundrum of Kosovo. And Russia’s unique value to Belgrade is its support in trying to prevent Kosovo from acquiring full recognition of its independence from Serbia by joining the United Nations.

Economically and politically, Serbia has no other rational choice than to continue integration with the EU. Russia cannot offer Serbia meaningful economic or political integration as long as there is a chain of NATO member states separating Russia from Southeast Europe.

Thus, Lavrov’s talks with Serbian leaders will be ambiguous. He will wish to ensure Serbia’s leadership fully acknowledges Russia’s importance in the region, and especially for Serbia.

A sign of this acceptance would be for Serbia to raise its military and security cooperation with Russia to the same level that it has with the US and NATO. Vucic and his entourage will meanwhile bow their thanks to Lavrov, but will also try to signal that their true allegiance remains with the West.

Lavrov to visit Belgrade amid espionage claims

Milivoje Pantovic

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will visit Serbia on Monday and Tuesday amid claims that some Russians spies were expelled from the country for illegal actions in neighbouring Montenegro.

Lavrov is expected to discuss collaboration between Russia and Serbia and the situation in the Balkans with Serbian leaders and to take part in a session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization.

During his visit to Serbia, Lavrov will meet Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and President Tomislav Nikolic.
Lavrov’s visit comes after late in October Russian Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev came to Serbia where he called for closer cooperation between the countries' respective intelligence agencies.

According to the Serbian daily newspaper Danas, Serbia recently expelled several Russians for alleged involvement in illegal activities in neighbouring Montenegro, where the authorities claim they prevented a coup from taking place there on election day in mid-October.

Two Russian citizens have been accused of involvement in the alleged coup attempt aimed at overthrowing the country’s pro-Western government.

Serbia has denied any involvement in this affair but some experts in Belgrade claim that Russian intelligence still has a strong influence on Serbia’s intelligence agencies.

Belgrade maintains close political and military relations with Russia and notably refused to join EU sanctions imposed on Moscow over Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its perceived role in the separatist armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Russia’s displacement from the region:

Russia lost its ability to project its military power towards the Danube and the Adriatic Sea soon after the end of the Cold War, when NATO completed its chain of members from the Baltic to the Black Sea in 2004.

Since then, its efforts to prevent further NATO enlargement in Southeast Europe and at least draw Serbia into its sphere of influence have become increasingly futile.
Alongside its strategic displacement from Southeast Europe, the three main instruments of Russian influence in the region are less and less effective, especially in Serbia.

“Soft power”, the oldest instrument of influence, was never sufficient to secure Serbia’s unrestricted loyalty. Although Serbs and Russians share Slavic roots and the Orthodox religion and while memories of historic alliances with Russia continue to play an important role in the construction of the Serbian [also Montenegrin and, to an extent, Macedonian] identity, Serbia’s numerous ethnic minorities, such as the Hungarians and Albanians, are unmoved by historic and religious ties with Russia.

On the contrary, exaggerated closeness to Russia generates ethnic tensions that Serbia can ill afford in light of its efforts to join the EU. Many Serbs also eye Russia sceptically as a major power whose actions, as demonstrated by several episodes in the 19th and 20th centuries, were not always compatible with Serbian goals.
Moscow’s second instrument of influence – Southeast Europe’s dependency on Russian energy supplies and especially natural gas – has also waned.

In 2015, Russia abandoned the planned construction of the South Stream gas pipeline partly on account of the EU’s strict conditions, alongside high construction costs and uncertain price trends for fossil fuels.

Like all the other states in the region, Serbia is a member of the EU’s Energy Community and has agreed to adopt its acquis. This has prevented Russia’s Gazprom from using South Stream to expand its predominance in South-Eastern Europe, which in some places amounts to a monopoly. Furthermore, the EU is financially supporting the construction of regional gas interconnectors. On November 11, Bulgaria and Romania opened a new natural gas pipeline that runs under the Danube as part of Bulgaria’s efforts to reduce its dependence on Russian gas.

Bulgaria, like most other countries in the region, buys more than 90 per cent of its gas from Gazprom. The country is also building gas pipelines with Greece, Serbia and Turkey.

Belgrade would meanwhile prefer to have Gazprom leave Serbia. NIS, the Serbian state-owned oil and gas company in which Gazprom holds a commanding share, in the last few years received astonishingly little support from Belgrade in its struggle to become exempted from EU sanctions against Russian assets in third countries.

The punitive measures prevent NIS from securing funding from EU banks for further investments in Serbia and Southeast Europe, particularly when it comes to satisfying EU environmental standards, which the region is obliged to implement. If Moscow’s annoyance with Belgrade escalates, it could order Gazprom to wind down its operations in Serbia.

Russia fears rapprochement with Kosovo:

Moscow’s third instrument of influence is the threat to use its Security Council veto if the West attempts to make Kosovo a member of the United Nations.
This forms the only firm tie between Serbia and Russia – but only as long as Belgrade insists that Kosovo remains legally part of Serbia.

President Putin has repeatedly told the Serbian government that Russia cannot be “more Serbian than the Serbs themselves”. The Kremlin fears Belgrade will sooner or later agree to recognise Kosovo as a condition of joining the EU. This instrument of influence would then become worthless. On December 10, ahead of Lavrov’s visit to Belgrade, the Russian Foreign Ministry reminded Serbia that it “can still fully rely on Russia's support in protecting its sovereignty and territorial integrity in relation to Kosovo”, a topic that was not mentioned in the matching statement by Serbia’s Foreign Minister, Ivica Dacic.

Obviously, Belgrade is not comfortable when Serbia’s dependency on Russia’s protection is emphasized. However, without Moscow’s threat of a veto in the UN Security Council, Western powers would speedily ensure Kosovo’s membership of the UN. Subsequently, for Belgrade, accepting Kosovo’s secession would then become the prime condition for further steps towards Serbia’s EU membership.

However, Brussels and the leading EU member states should avoid rushing to force Belgrade to choose between recognising Kosovo and joining the EU. In view of the crisis in the EU and the sluggish pace of economic development and reforms in the Western Balkans, Serbia’s accession is not imminent in any case. Moreover, five EU member states – Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia and Spain – also refuse to recognize Kosovo, fearing it could encourage secessionist movements in their own territories.

As long as the EU is at odds over the Kosovo question, and as long as there is no basic treaty between Serbia and Kosovo, it would be counterproductive for the EU to press Belgrade, or Pristina, into making far-reaching decisions. Excessive Western pressure would only improve the perception in Serbia of Russia as its sole ally.

If the EU wishes to promote the region’s long-term Euro-Atlantic orientation, it has above all to find ways to address the economic stagnation and grave financial imbalances in the Southeast European states. Serbia, the other post-Yugoslav states and Albania, should receive access to European Structural Funds, be permitted to join the EU’s financial stability mechanisms and thus enjoy a kind of “shadow” EU membership.

The crucial aspect is to raise the standard of living in the Western Balkan states and open up perspectives, especially for the younger generation. That is the only way to preserve the attraction of the EU’s model of democracy in Southeast Europe and curtail the influence of other actors like Russia, Turkey and the Islamic states as well as a possibly unpredictable US under Donald Trump.

Dusan Reljic is head of the Brussels Office of SWP, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

This text is an abbreviated and updated version of Dusan Reljic: „Russia Gives Serbia the Choice: Satellite or Bargaining Chip”, in: Sabine Fischer, Margarete Klein (eds.) „Conceivable Surprises, Eleven Possible Turns in Russia’s Foreign Policy“, SWP Research Paper 2016/RP 10, October 2016, 78 Pages;

The opinions expressed in the comments section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

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