Attempts to interpret the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and especially the consequences of this action on the world, often begin and end with the statement that “nothing will ever be the same anymore”. We do not learn from these visionaries what “will not be the same”, but we appreciate their effort to describe in dramatic words the crisis caused by the Russian aggression on Ukraine. Because things are really dramatic and have consequences in the long run.
For the Balkans, and especially for Serbia, things will not really be the same as before, but it is good to start by establishing the point to which the “old” ones function, and from which the “new” circumstances begin. It is time to include “the day after Putin” parameter in the projections of future relations in which the Balkans will be included. We will insert this determinant into the equation as certainty, as a constant, and not as a variable, that is, an assumption that can but does not have to be realized.
It is inconceivable that the Ukrainian crisis will end, in any way, with the return of Vladimir Putin to the international arena as an acceptable partner and equal interlocutor. Maybe one day Russia will return to the international stage and its institutions, but then its leader will not be Putin, but someone else. In both cases, it is a long period, years, maybe decades, which no partner close to Russia so far can wait.
As for the Balkans, this is especially true of Serbia, which is considered a close ally of Russia, a country that wants EU membership and is making progress on that path, but is explicitly against NATO membership. By aggression against Ukraine, Russia opened a seemingly worst-case scenario to Serbia, forcing it to reconsider its long-standing policy of simultaneous closeness with both the West and Moscow. Belgrade has been successfully passing through these scissors for years, but since February 24, they have been closing and forcing Serbia to find a new foreign policy strategy.
That strategy can be successful only if it is based on the assumption that “the day after Putin” has begun, and that Russia should be excluded from the calculations on the protection of state interests. Serbia no longer has any reason to link its foreign policy and internal interests to Russia’s support. Support may still exist, but it will simply be invisible and without any influence at the international level. Therefore, it will be completely useless for Serbia and its interests.
The main point of the Serbian-Russian political alliance is in protecting Serbia’s interests in relation to Kosovo. Russia, as a permanent member of the Security Council, but also an influential member of other important international forums, has so far had the power to block the intentions of Kosovo, as well as Western countries, to fully include Kosovo in international institutions. However, this power disappears with the Russian aggression on Ukraine, since Moscow has become an isolated and rebellious state.
Russia’s influence in the UN Security Council, as its permanent member with the right of veto, has so far been the most important point of contact between Serbian and Russian policies of opposition to Kosovo’s independence. However, it turned out that with extremely important decisions, decision-making in the Security Council can be overcome by delegating decisions to the UN General Assembly, as was the case with the condemnation of Russian aggression, which Serbia also joined. This very convincing vote (141 to 5) showed that there is almost a consensus in the World Organization against Russian action, and therefore from the diplomatic side, and not only the formal-bureaucratic one, Russia becomes a factor that must and can be bypassed overnight when making important decisions.
Things are even “cleaner” when it comes to the Council of Europe, where Russia’s membership was first suspended, and a few days later Russia announced that it was leaving the organization. This is happening at the moment of Pristina’s intensive campaign to become a member of the Council of Europe, which Serbia explicitly opposes, and of course Russia, which, however, no longer participates in the work of the forum in Strasbourg. Kosovo does not meet one of the conditions for membership in the Council of Europe, it is not a member of the UN, but it has the support of more than two thirds of the members of this organization to join it, which is another important precondition for membership. In this sense, Serbia’s opposition without Russia’s support has far less power.
Russia’s membership is still being reconsidered in a number of important international organizations, such as the IMF and the OSCE, so Serbia is losing one important ally in these important forums as well. This is especially true of organizations such as Interpol or UNESCO, in which Belgrade has long and successfully blocked Kosovo’s membership. In these organizations, the influence of Russia, under Putin, as a tightly isolated country, will be minor, and therefore unusable for Serbia.
When it comes to the Balkans, the Russian invasion of Ukraine only confirmed that the Balkans is traditionally of lower importance for Russia’s foreign policy interests. It is in their function, but only as a proxy space in which it is possible to divert the diplomatic and security attention of competitors (the West) from those regions in which Russia is primarily interested. And that is, first of all, Ukraine.
Russia’s conscious “withdrawal” from the Balkans in order to shift the focus completely to Ukraine has been very visible in the past few months. It was visible first, through very mild, almost non-existent, Moscow’s resistance to the appointment of Christian Schmidt as High Representative in BiH, and then through Russia’s silence on the collapse of the pro-Russian government in Montenegro in early February. The one-year term of this government was one of the most important Russian projects for destabilizing the entire region, in which Moscow invested significant resources, but accepted its demise without saying a word, because attention was largely focused on top priority, Ukraine.
On “the day after Putin” in Serbia and in the Balkans in general, there will not be many traces of close political cooperation so far. One of such “monuments”, the Serbian-Russian Humanitarian Center in Niš, completely lost its meaning and purpose overnight, if that was really its purpose, to be a hub for action in case of natural disasters in the region. This center is made senseless by the complete political and security isolation of Russia and especially its physical cut-off from the rest of Europe, by the abolition of air traffic. Serbia has reason to breathe a sigh of relief because of such fate of the center in Niš, because for years it has been exposed to suspicions that this is not about any firefighting and rescue, but intelligence activities, led by Russia. At the same time, there is a chance that the center in Niš, with all its resources, will grow overnight into a regional hub for missions in natural or traffic disasters, whose beneficiaries could be Albania and North Macedonia, which are, with Serbia, the creators of the initiative for free economic zone, the Open Balkan.
The political level of the Balkan situation before and after the Ukrainian crisis is quite clear, and it is even clearer if viewed through the prism of “the day after Putin”, which is especially true for Serbia and its interests. When we add to that the severe economic consequences that Russia will suffer due to international isolation, it is clear that there is no reason to maintain a partnership of any kind with this country for years and decades, and especially to rely on its international support.