Russian Ambassador to Belgrade Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko is right when he says that “incredible pressure” is being put on Serbia. He strikes at the core even harder when he says that – “Brutal twisting of arms and attempts to stifle the country and its will, completely ignoring its interests, seem completely wild”. The mistake here is that he is talking about the West’s attitude towards Serbia, and he would be right if he tied all of this to Russia and its behavior towards the country that provided him with diplomatic hospitality.
But one needs to have an understanding for an experienced Russian diplomat. His country is at war as an aggressor, so its ambassadors have no choice but to spread the main points of war propaganda, created at the headquarters, even if they appeared as in Botsan-Kharchenko’s interview for “Politika”, where everything that was said was true by Freudian slip, except that the roles were changed.
The public in Serbia is also used to the word “pressure” being accompanied by the word “West”. This habit has been going on for decades, since Milošević’s stellar years, when he chose war and isolation instead of democracy and Europe, and between the reformers in the Kremlin and the communist coup generals, he chose the latter. No subsequent government had the guts to change this propaganda framework, they more or less maintained the state of consciousness that “the West is pressuring” us. For some, it was a matter of sincere conviction, and for others, it was simply cowardice and fear of decline in ratings.
What kind of “brutal twisting of arms” is Ambassador Botsan-Kharchenko talking about, and he means the West and Serbia? What does he mean when he says that the West “is trying to stifle the country and its will, to ignore its interests”? Russia is at war, it wants to expand its territory to Ukraine, to absorb it into its national and state framework, so the ambassador cannot understand that Serbia has its own will and interests. And he still can’t understand that Serbia has clearly expressed it with the desire to join the European Union, which it has been negotiating about for eight years, changing the society from the bottom up according to the standards of modern Europe. Serbia wants it of its own free will, so there is no pressure or twisting of arms when someone from Europe says that Serbia should adjust its policy with the European, if it really wants what it says it wants.
But that is why there is a huge Russian pressure on Serbia and painful twisting of arms, and especially a Russian attempt to stifle the will of Serbia and to ignore its interests. Botsan-Kharchenko is also exerting that pressure, as much as he can, just by ignoring Serbia’s interest in becoming an EU member. His government has been seemingly indifferent to Serbia’s strategic commitment for years, the Kremlin has always said – we have nothing against you joining the EU, that is your business, although things are a little different with NATO membership.
However, there is no longer such a policy of Russia towards Serbia. Russia has never been sincere, Russia always hoped and worked hard to prevent Serbia from becoming a member of the Union, even though it spoke differently. But the invasion of Ukraine was the moment when even that ketman’s courtesy towards Serbia ended. Moscow is telling Belgrade for the first time what it really thinks.
What Russia thinks of Serbia was recently expressed in Sarajevo by the Russian ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Igor Kalabukhov told the citizens of BiH that they do not need EU membership, because it does not offer them anything good, only neo-imperial politics. It’s just a matter of time before Botsan-Kharchenko will say the same to the citizens and the leadership of Serbia. This will twist their arm, ignore their interests, and stifle their country and its will, just as he told “Politika”.
Botsan-Kharchenko is just walking the path that his bosses have long walked on. There is hardly more pressure on Serbia, its policies and its interests than Putin’s equalizing Kosovo with Crimea and Donbas, in the context of international recognition. Although he has been doing that for years, Serbia only now perceives his policy as sobering and is beginning (finally) to look with distrust at the outpourings of love and brotherhood it receives from the Kremlin.
Enormous pressure and twisting of arms is when Maria Zakharova, cynically, reminds Serbia that it should remain friends with Russia, because “Russia does not turn its back on its friends” when they are in trouble. Strong pressure also comes from Alexander Dugin, the creator of the “Russian world” and Putin’s aggressive and conquering mythomania. “The turn of Serbia in the Russian geopolitical agenda of Slavic revival will come. You will see when we formulate the goal concerning Balkans. Now we should finish what we started”, Dugin said with a smile. And the translation reads – we will absorb Serbia into our imaginary empire, and on the example of Ukraine, you should conclude whether it will be the easy way or the hard way. Your interests do not exist, your will does not exist, not even the right to have a goal as a nation and a community. We take care of that.
If anyone is putting pressure on Serbia, it’s Russia. Its twisting of arms especially relates to the preservation of the “umbilical cord” of its influence in Serbia, which is the ownership and management of NIS. Hence the pressure to sell the surplus ownership in the hands of Gazpromneft, which is under sanctions, not outside the family, but for that surplus to remain in the hands of Gazprom, which is not under sanctions. It will be just a short bypass, which harms the interests of Serbia because it portrays it as a weak partner, who will agree to avoid the inevitable, rather than say “no” to an unreliable and isolated Russian partner.
Even Russian Patriarch Kirill is in the function of state pressure on Serbia, convincing his “brothers” that the West provoked the First World War, and that Serbia would “cease to exist”. Unfortunately, someone will believe him, because they forgot or never knew that their ancestors, their victorious army and their proud state were saved from ruin by the West. It was France, Britain, America and their allies, not Russia.
Russian pressure on Serbia is huge, and it will be even stronger and more brutal. It will be as fierce and frequent as Russia’s war goals in Ukraine fail and its exclusion from the civilized world grows as a result. No one in Serbia should be surprised when Russian officials start addressing us with direct threats; some of them have already started. That is the regularity in the behavior of Putin’s Russia, so the next step is completely certain.
The great circumstance is that because of these pressures, Serbia will be able to confirm its important decisions, which it made earlier, much faster and easier, to join Europe, not Russia. The more difficult Russia makes that decision with its growing pressure, the better it will be for Serbia.
Whether that will be enough depends on the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić. His enormous legitimacy, confirmed in the elections a month ago, even gives him the right to decide based on his emotions towards Russia. The citizens gave him that right and no one could dispute such decisions. Even if he had behaved irresponsibly in the campaign and indulged in pro-Russian sentiment among the people, he would have received 80% of the vote.
But great support is just one element that makes a true leader. It is necessary, but it can also be dangerous. Margaret Thatcher said that state leadership is a “lonely job” and that “it cannot be led from the crowd”. She must have had herself in mind, but also her great predecessor Winston Churchill and his “darkest hour”, when, against all his ministers, against a large part of the political elite, he refused to speculate and negotiate with Hitler, but led the battle. He won and he is remembered as a great man, precisely because he went in spite of everyone, consistently following his idea of what is best for the country he leads, as the only pressure we can give in to.
But, on the other hand, Vučić received huge support because the citizens expect him to make rational and pragmatic decisions, which will make their lives better, regardless of their emotions. That is why Vučić’s leadership is on a big test today, his personal ability to swim against the current, but in the right direction, is being tested, as far as possible from the cliff and the waterfall. He will not be the first leader in history to follow that difficult path, but that is the only way he will be remembered as a good statesman. Everyone else broke on the rocks, along with the current that carried them.