Commemorations are held in Serbia every April 12, on the day when a civilian passenger train was hit by missiles on the bridge at the Grdelica gorge in 1999, which was one of the biggest individual tragedies of the three-month bombing of Serbia. However, few remember that on April 12, 1999, Serbia and Montenegro, then united in FR Yugoslavia, decided to join the Union of Russia and Belarus. By the decision of the Federal Assembly, and with the signatures of the presidents of the then two parliamentary houses Srđa Božović and Milomir Minić, Serbia and Montenegro stated that they join the Union of Russia and Belarus, and accept the goals of that union and the obligations arising from membership.
This decision never came to life, nor was it ever ratified by the partners. It remained in the vague memory as a bluff by Slobodan Milošević to try to drag someone else to his losing side in the middle of the bombing. They never took the bait in Moscow or Minsk, more precisely – only in Moscow, because that is enough.
From 1999 until today, Serbia and Belarus have come a long way. Relations between the two countries are constantly accompanied by harmony on friendly, fraternal ties, closeness in every respect, and constant calls for raising economic cooperation. But does reality really fit these worn-out, protocol clichés?
Belarus is one of the few countries in the world, and certainly the only one in Europe, against which Serbia is actively implementing some kind of interstate sanctions. It did so recently, when, together with other countries in the Western Balkans, it joined the EU sanctions against Belarus regarding air traffic. As of June 21, Serbia, like all other European countries, does not allow Belarusian civilian planes to land at its airports, and domestic carriers will bypass the airspace of Belarus.
The overture for sanctions was played in August last year, when Serbia joined the EU Declaration condemning the regime in Minsk because it did not conduct the presidential elections in a free and fair way. Shortly afterwards, when mass demonstrations raged across Belarus over Lukashenko’s election theft, Serbia cancelled its participation in a joint military exercise with Russia and Belarus, scheduled for September in Brest, Belarus.
All the while, Serbia keeps on a “low profile” its decisions directed against the authorities in Minsk. Participation in the Slavic Brotherhood military exercise was cancelled by the Ministry of Defence, saying that the cancellation of joint exercises refers to “all partners”. And we learned about Serbia’s joining the EU’s moves towards Minsk both times from Brussels, not from Belgrade.
In the last year, Serbia had pragmatic approach towards Belarus and its leader Lukashenko, whose regime has been shaken by the biggest crisis in almost 30 years. If a cost-benefit analysis of relations with Belarus was made anywhere in Belgrade, it had to show that the benefits of distancing from Minsk were incomparably greater than it would have been to stand by it in all the adventures it has undertaken in recent months. Even the long-term treatment of Belarus as a friend, partner, and even “brother” did not have much strategic justification. Serbia trades with Belarus in a year (in both directions) as much as it exports to Bosnia and Herzegovina in one month before the pandemic. If the donation of four MiG-29s, with the overpaid overhaul we paid for , was one of the most important axes of cooperation between Serbia and Belarus, then that would certainly not have happened without Russia’s participation.
On the other hand, maintaining (verbal) closeness with Belarus, the only European state that is not a member of the Council of Europe, more or less isolated for decades, has become unsustainable with the intensification of internal repression carried out by Lukashenko in the last year. Joining the European condemnation for election fraud and repression of the opposition was a step that had no alternative for Serbia as a candidate for EU membership, and the same goes for canceling participation in a joint military exercise. The introduction of sanctions in air traffic was an even easier move, because this is about opposing organized state-sponsored air piracy, unimaginable on European soil. For Serbia’s foreign policy position, these were ideal situations to improve its statistics when it comes to harmonization with EU foreign policy. And it took advantage of that.
On the other hand, the “damage” from these decisions is zero. The regime of Alexander Lukashenko, with the intensification of repression, is accelerating its path to the only possible outcome, complete collapse. On that path, it is left without any real international support, except, of course, Moscow, and that may be only when it comes to Lukashenko personally, not the fate of his rule.
In that regard, the Serbian decisions directed against Minsk do not harm the relations between Serbia and Russia. From this distance, and from this phase, a question seems logical – did direct relations between Serbia and Belarus ever exist, or were they just an echo of the relations between Serbia and Russia? A kind of “tied trade” in which the seller forces you to buy some goods from his younger partner, if you want to do the main, big deal, with the real boss.
Serbia no longer has any reason to hide its criticism and negative decisions towards the government in Minsk. The European Union does not stop at the air embargo and the previous sanctions against the Lukashenko regime. It continues by applying the Magnitsky Act to new groups of state officials in Belarus, and will raise new economic sanctions that will further weaken Lukashenko’s rule. At the same time, it is “waving” with three billion euros, which will be pumped into the Belarusian economy in Minsk immediately after the change of government. Therefore, Serbia will have another opportunity to show solidarity with the steps of the EU, as a true candidate for membership. It will also be an opportunity for Serbia to talk about it itself, without waiting for its solidarity with the EU to be announced from Brussels. Especially not waiting to hear what Moscow thinks about it.