There is a lot of symbolism in the fact that most pro-Russian media in Belgrade called former Milošević’s foreign minister, Živadin Jovanović, to be a commentator of Sergei Lavrov’s failed visit. There is no symbolism in the fact that he is a distinctly pro-Russian retired diplomat, but there is symbolism in the fact that Jovanović knows very well what it is like to be the head of diplomacy in a completely isolated country. During his two-year ministerial term (1998-2000), Živadin Jovanović barely left the country, he did not have international meetings, and rarely did anyone invite him to visit. In today’s post-covid vocabulary, he worked remotely and as such can be very competent to interpret the infamous days of his much more famous colleague Sergei Lavrov.
The first Russian diplomat failed to come to Belgrade on June 6, because three neighbouring countries – Bulgaria, Montenegro and North Macedonia – did not allow him to fly over their territory. This is the finale of this interesting episode, but the real question is – was the visit really supposed to happen, that is, did Lavrov really plan to visit Serbia? In short – no!
Neither the Kremlin nor Lavrov planned or expected this visit to take place. First of all, they have known for two months that the head of Russian diplomacy cannot travel through Europe, because personal sanctions (according to the Magnitsky Law) and a ban on movement and entry into European countries apply to him as well as to the entire Russian state leadership. Also, they know very well that the sky over the whole of Europe is closed for planes with the Russian flag, whether state or commercial. In Serbia, however, there are no sanctions against Lavrov, nor against Russian planes, but Serbia is lonely in an environment that does not allow people from the Russian leadership to travel, which has now practically been demonstrated, when Lavrov tried to come to Belgrade.
So, there was not even an elementary logistical prerequisite for Lavrov to come to Belgrade. Even more convincing is that there was no political reason for this visit. Namely, only a week earlier, on May 29, two heads of state – Vladimir Putin and Aleksandar Vučić – talked (by phone). What would be the point of Lavrov’s visit to Belgrade only seven days later? What topics should he have with his Serbian interlocutors, without them already being discussed by the two presidents, and what would be the goal of this visit for Russia, if it had been achieved. There is no such goal and it never existed for the Kremlin.
The whole story about Lavrov’s visit to Belgrade was a typical Russian “maskirovka”, though in a diplomatic, not military sense, but for the aggressor against Ukraine, they are now merging into one, and under a joint command. Moscow’s goal was to announce this visit, down to the smallest detail, to create tension at the international level and to examine the limits to which it will be able to provoke. For Moscow, Serbia is not important here, but it is a very suitable training ground for a hybrid war exercise in which Russia would test its own and the capacities of its Western opponents to wage that war. All that was missing was one more test, for Lavrov to take off and, despite the ban, to try to break through to Belgrade through the airspace of some of the NATO members in the Serbian neighbourhood. Would he be shot down?
As far as Serbia is concerned, and Serbia is really a second-rate goal in this Russian farce, the Kremlin has also prepared an elaborate strategy for it. Apparently, Lavrov invited himself to Belgrade, because Serbia had no reason to initiate a visit, seven days after the presidential talks. June 7, when Russia celebrates its Statehood Day, was chosen as the day of the visit, another in a long series of visits timed to important days in history, whether Serbian or Russian, so that there would be enough space and occasion to praise centuries-old friendship.
On that day, a reception was scheduled at the Russian Embassy in Belgrade on the occasion of a national holiday, and officials from the ranks of pro-Russian politicians in Belgrade said that Lavrov was expected to come to this reception. On that occasion, why wouldn’t several thousand fans of Russia and Putin “spontaneously” gather in front of the embassy to applaud their “operation” in Ukraine? Maybe Lavrov himself would greet them with some appropriate speech? The opportunity is great.
The Serbian leadership, and especially President Aleksandar Vučić, have been under enormous tension for days, because hosting Lavrov would not bring any new pluses in interstate cooperation, and the minuses on the other hand would be huge. Their effect would be seen in just a few days, when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is due to arrive in Belgrade (June 10th).
With this, Moscow also tested Belgrade, that is, Belgrade’s readiness to withstand the policy it has chosen – not to give up on European integration and at the same time not to impose sanctions on Russia. In the game – who will be the first to blink, Belgrade received assistance from its neighbours – Bulgaria, Montenegro and North Macedonia. There will be no time for eye rest, only until June 10 and the visit of Olaf Scholz, and it will, unlike Lavrov’s play, be of essential and long-term significance for Serbia.
Serbia has received another, very strong proof, that after the attack on Ukraine, Russia cannot be its foreign policy supporter. It has not been in the past, but since February 24, Moscow has not been trying to hide its traditional strategic disinterest in Serbia. Sergei Lavrov’s non-existent visit was a practical presentation of this Russian attitude towards Serbia, its brutal demonstration, aimed at spreading a hybrid front towards Western opponents, at the cost of humiliating Serbia, which Moscow is indifferent to. Serbia has received indisputable proof that its important foreign policy supporter so far is, in fact, an isolated and rejected state whose foreign policy influence reaches only to its state borders. It is not a partner who can be expected to have any support or influence on the international scene, because it has been demonstrated, among other things, that its first diplomat can only work remotely.