Serbia, together with 140 other UN member states, condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and demanded the withdrawal of its army, but its position, which it has had for eight years not to impose economic sanctions on Russia, remained. The reason is that Russia is the protector of the Serbian position on the international scene regarding Kosovo not being an independent state, as well as the fact that Serbia is dependent on Russian gas. The President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, said recently that there are no sanctions because 85% of the citizens of Serbia support and love Russia.
Is this policy of the largest country in the Western Balkans sustainable in a situation when Russia is excluded from the whole of Europe and the West? The answer is – no and only one question deserves being discussed – when, and not whether there will be a big change. Here we will offer arguments for both answers.
When it comes to principles in international relations, which Serbia insists on, the Serbian president knows very well that the only right thing to do is to join the EU’s measures towards Russia, because his country was also subject to violations of international law in the case of Kosovo’s secession, just like Ukraine in the case of Crimea and Donbas. The same applies to NATO’s military action against Serbia in 1999 and the current Russian aggression against Ukraine. From that point of view, Serbia should have no dilemma to join the European response to the Russian invasion.
Serbian President Vučić does not exaggerate when he talks about the huge percentage of Serbian citizens who have friendly feelings towards Russia. But that is not a parameter according to which a statesman should make the right decision for his citizens. His job and state duty is to put aside the feelings of the majority, and the big question is how sincere they are, and to make decisions based on reason and facts.
Contrary to this sentiment, there are irrefutable rational reasons why the decision should go in the other direction. There is less and less patience for Serbia among Western partners due to its reluctance to join the strongest European response to Moscow’s state violence which has been seen since World War II.
Everyday life of not only these 85%, but 100% of the citizens of Serbia is firmly connected to Europe, not Russia. Two thirds (about 61%) of Serbia’s trade is with EU economies, with Russia only about 5%. Of all foreign investments in Serbia, and they are by far the largest in the region, almost 70% come from the EU, less than 10% from Russia. Along with domestic companies, Western investors are by far the largest employer in Serbia, with hundreds of thousands of people working in their companies. What will the Serbian economy give up when (and not if) it imposes economic sanctions on Russia – a little less than a billion dollars in exports, mostly of food and industrial products. That is less than Serbia exports, for example, to neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina ($ 1.35 billion), or almost as much as it exports to Kosovo, which it does not even recognize as a state.
In anticipation of a change in Serbian policy towards Russia, an analogy with 1948 is appropriate, when the leader of the then Yugoslavia, Tito, severed ties with the USSR and Stalin. It was incomparably harder for the leader of communist Yugoslavia to make that decision than it is for Aleksandar Vučić today, because he had hundreds of thousands of USSR soldiers and allies on his borders with Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria ready to invade Yugoslavia at any moment. At the same time, sentiment towards Stalin was so strong that thousands of Stalinists in Yugoslavia were ready to support the invasion from within, even at the cost of long-term imprisonment. Many Yugoslav generals and security officials considered Moscow and Stalin their bosses, not Belgrade and Tito. They were ready to die for the USSR and Stalin.
There is no such danger in Serbia today. More importantly, Serbia is surrounded by NATO members, so regardless of the warm emotions towards Russia, there are no people in Serbia who would be ready to go to prison, let alone die for Putin. Tito’s decision was extremely risky, not only for the country and the Yugoslavs, but also for him personally. Stalin was constantly trying to kill him, as many as 22 assassination attempts on Tito were mentioned, and then the Yugoslav marshal sent a letter to the Kremlin – “Stop sending people to kill me, we have already captured five, one with a bomb and one with a rifle. If you don’t stop sending assassins, I’ll send one to Moscow very soon and I certainly won’t have to send another one”. This was a showdown with the then USSR, incomparably stronger than today’s Russia. The risk was beyond comparison with the small consequences that today’s Serbia can have, but the decision was still made.
There is a story that Putin, in a conversation with his associates after one of his numerous visits to Serbia, when asked how the talks went, ironically answered – “I saw two people, one who doesn’t love me and the other who pretends to love me”. He meant Serbian President Vučić and then Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić. This could be just a story, but I mention it because it describes very well the real relations of the Russian leader with his partners in Belgrade.
The fact is that Russia has been behaving destructively towards Serbia for years, treating it as its province, convinced that everything is allowed. Russian intelligence services are the main exponent of that aggressive attitude, not only towards Serbia, but also towards the entire Western Balkans. This was shown by exposing the attempted armed coup in Montenegro in 2016 and the plan for the assassination of Montenegrin President Milo Đukanović, when Russian intelligence used Serbia as a ground to prepare for this action. It was confirmed by Serbian President Vučić, when he provided Montenegro with key information to prevent a coup. This was also confirmed by the then urgent arrival of the head of the Russian intelligence community, Nikolai Patrushev, to Belgrade to evacuate two of his agents who were involved in the plan for bloodshed in Montenegro.
The Russian FSB has loyal associates and agents of influence in all institutions in Serbia, especially in its BIA security service. Aleksandar Vučić complained several times to the Russian ambassadors in Belgrade, but also directly to the Kremlin about the destructive actions towards Serbia and him personally. A retired GRU agent was caught in Belgrade for photographing Vučić’s son at work, and in November 2019, an operation was discovered and recordings were published showing GRU agent Georgy Kleban paying his unnamed Serbian associate, a colonel from the military security agency. Russia’s secret services have been recruiting nationalist extremists and football hooligans for years, in order to provoke instability and conflicts when they need them in Serbia and the region. These are the people who protested twice in Belgrade in the past weeks, supporting the Russian aggression against Ukraine. All of Vučić’s objections to such actions towards Serbia were rejected in Moscow, and even treated ironically.
And, when, in the end, we come to the “umbilical cord” between Serbia and Russia, and that is the alliance regarding Kosovo, we can say that this connection was broken on February 24, when Putin attacked Ukraine. Isolated in the most important international forums, Russia is now rejected from the world community. No one needs its support anymore, nor is it possible. In Moscow, they will continue to say that they are protecting Serbia and Kosovo, both in the UN and other important organizations, but that is what the helpless and isolated bully, whose voice is worthless in international relations, says. Isolated in the Security Council, where important decisions are transferred to the General Assembly, expelled from the Council of Europe, under possible suspension in the IMF, the OSCE, in a number of international forums, Serbia does not need such Russia, moreover, it must distance itself and turn to its own interests.
Supporters of Russia in Serbia will often say that Moscow has never imposed sanctions on Serbia, which is simply not true. Out of about 150 resolutions passed by the Security Council in the early 1990s regarding the disintegration of Yugoslavia, a dozen provided for penalties and sanctions against the then FR Yugoslavia that is, sanctions against Serbia, and none had a Russian veto. It began with a ban on arms exports on September 25, 1991 (Security Council Resolution 713), until May 30, 1992 (Security Council Resolution 757), when an economic blockade was imposed on Serbia and Montenegro, followed by expulsion from the UN.
Russia continued this attitude towards Serbia even before the 1999 bombing. Peace Resolution 1244, which ended the bombing of Serbia, was preceded by four UN Security Council resolutions warning Serbia of violating the peace (resolutions 1160, 1199, 1203 and 1239), an embargo on arms imports (UN Security Council Resolution 1160), and request to the Hague Tribunal to collect information on crimes in Kosovo (Security Council Resolution 1199 of 23 September 1998). All with the support of Russia, because that was in its interest.
Therefore, Russia has often participated in the imposition of sanctions on Serbia, so now, when it should retaliate with a similar measure, Belgrade should not have any consideration for Moscow. By joining the sanctions of the EU, Britain and the United States, Serbia will respond to Russia with the same measure as it has experienced from it several times in recent history.
Today’s Russia, after the brutal invasion of sovereign Ukraine, cannot be a choice, because support for crimes cannot be a choice for any nation and its leadership. Today, being a friend and collaborator of Putin’s Russia means being an accomplice. It is no longer a question of geopolitical affection for a certain side, but a question of civilization. Putin’s Russia is behaving like a gang of thugs, whose bosses, for example, are threatening Finland and Sweden if they join NATO, and more recently Bosnia and Herzegovina if they do the same. “If Bosnia and Herzegovina decides to be a member of anything, it is an internal matter. But the other thing is our reaction. On the example of Ukraine, Russia is showing what it expects”, Russian Ambassador Igor Kalabukhov threatened in Sarajevo.
It is as if the rapist told the victim that he would stop as soon as the victim stopped resisting, so it would look like they were making love, Putin told Ukraine that he would stop as soon as the Ukrainians laid down their weapons and stopped fighting. As a violent husband who cannot stop bothering his wife who left him, Putin’s Russia does not allow Ukraine to fulfill its desire to be part of the EU and NATO with the message of the aforementioned violent husband “if you are not mine you are nobody’s!” Punishing Ukraine for daring to break away from the “Russian world” is a model that Russia wants to apply to everyone else it considers its “natural” prey. In the Balkans today it is Bosnia and Herzegovina, and tomorrow it will be Serbia, Montenegro. The aggression is no longer hidden, and it seeks a stronger response from the West and NATO than harsh statements.
Putin will not stop, he will continue until someone stands in his way. The great ones only see their interest; they do not enter into a direct conflict with him, as when parents do not prevent the abuser from abusing a child, because that child is not theirs, they are afraid that the abuser will turn to their children.
Serbian President Vučić has a historic chance to secure a permanent place for his country in the family of the most advanced nations. He is a man who wants to be remembered for something great, to leave a legacy. Now he has a chance. Such big decisions are not easy to make a few days before important presidential and parliamentary elections, but immediately after them there will be no obstacles to gather strength and act correctly, because a true statesman leads his people, does not follow them. That’s why they choose him.
Vučić has already made many difficult decisions during his ten years in power. At the very beginning of his mandate, he reduced the already low salaries and pensions, because it was necessary to consolidate the chaotic public finances. I am convinced that 100% of Serbian citizens would be against such a decision, if he asked them. But he did not; he made that decision because he knew that the state would go bankrupt if it did not implement financial consolidation. The decision to distance himself and say “no” to Putin’s war adventures, which killed thousands of innocent civilians in Ukraine, is much easier than cutting pensions in his own country.
Dante Alighieri said that “the hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality”. Serbia cannot remain neutral, that would be disastrous for it. It would not be able to withstand even some partial sanctions, which are well remembered by generations of its citizens after an extremely difficult life, let alone complete isolation from Europe and the world.
The decision must be quick, because otherwise others will decide on Serbia. That decision, in fact, is not difficult either. It is imposed, because the choice does not really exist. Russia is not a choice. The only choice that remains is Serbia in the European Union. It has been on that path for 19 years. That is why it is important for the EU to start integrating Serbia and everyone else in the Balkans as soon as possible, because the Ukrainian tragedy showed what danger lurks if the European Union is slow, indecisive and confused towards those who want to join it. If this continues, nothing will stop Putin and Russia from trying to move their aggression from Ukraine to the Balkans, which they also do not want to see in a large European family. And there will be no brave Ukrainians in the Balkans to oppose the Russian aggressor, I am afraid there will be those who will celebrate them as liberators.
To prevent that, important decisions must be made quickly, in Belgrade, Brussels and other European capitals. They will only seem difficult, and the dilemma does not really exist. There is only an irrational fear from the wrath of one cornered bully whose strength turns into self-destruction. Serbia should not and must not be a partner in that suicidal adventure, there is no reason for that.