Non-aligned movement 2.0: a view from Australia

Dr Nina Markovic Khaze, president of the European Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand (ACT/NSW branch), offers the readers of Serbian Monitor some guidelines to decode the hidden meanings and relevance of the 60th anniversary of the Non-Aligned Movement held in Belgrade last week. 

Sava Centar—Serbia’s iconic cultural monument on the shores of Sava River in New Belgrade—hosted the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit (in 1989) for countries wanting to remain neutral during the Cold War. An initiative originally born at the Bandung conference in 1955 (co-hosted by Indonesia and India) saw 28 delegations (from 25 member and 3 observer countries) descending upon the region’s largest convention centre, Sava Centar, on 1 September 1961 in the spirit of supporting newly established nations and decolonization. The Belgrade Declaration adopted at the summit’s end warned against conflict among great powers amid their geopolitical contestation and competing military alliances that was making the world unsafe in the view of NAM members, who then called for global disarmament under the United Nations (UN) auspices.

View of the hall for plenary sessions during the session of the Belgrade Conference, 1 September 1961 (photo Museum of Yugoslavia, courtesy from nam60.rs)

Australia’s pre-eminent East Asia specialist and Professor of Strategic Studies from the University of Western Australia, Samina Yasmeen, remarked: “India played a significant role in the NAM being established and followed its principles for some decades. But currently, both India and Pakistan are members of the movement without necessarily operationally being true to its aims“. 

As Dr John Besemeres, Canberra-based Eastern Europe specialist from the Centre for European Studies at the Australian National University observed, today’s NAM could be seen as a “Titoist institution 2.0” attempt by countries such as Russia to “revive the Soviet Union in all its Stalinist glory— something which Tito would never have welcomed in his worst nightmares.” 

While it is certain that NAM summit in Belgrade has offered a useful platform for countries to pursue their national-centered foreign policy ends, countries such as Qatar had an important, less visible to the public eye role to play—to convince other countries to work with the Taliban as legitimate rulers of Afghanistan—with or without adhering to any formal recognition. Qatar championed multilateralism at this meeting as an answer to new problems facing NAM members and others that were not present sixty years ago, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and cyber security threats among others.

Multilateralism or alliances of interests?

In the spirit of global cooperation, the ever-reforming United Nations has been a frequently evoked theme at the 60th anniversary NAM summit, held once again in Belgrade, for the fourth time in its history (1961, 1989, 2011 and 2021). Former Yugoslav states like Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Montenegro, hold an observer status at NAM, which allows them to monitor global affairs from the NAM perspective and pursue stronger bilateral ties within this forum. Russia also joined NAM as an observer in July this year—signaling a major shift in the organisation’s history since NAM was originally formed to denote foreign policy neutrality in international affairs because of devastating effects from the global geopolitical contest between the NATO and Warsaw Pact countries. Interestingly, Cyprus which was the only Western-aligned European country to join the 1961 NAM conference was not invited to the 60th anniversary summit, possibly because of its poor diplomatic relations with several NAM members (including the co-host nation and NAM’s current chair, Azerbaijan). That begs the question: is Serbia abandoning its close European alliances (such as that with Cyprus, a traditional friend of Serbia’s) to support the foreign policy worldview of non-European players, including Azerbaijan?

President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic and President of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev, NAM chairman, inaugurate the High-Level Commemorative Meeting to mark the 60th anniversary of the First Conference of the NonAlignedMovement.

Belgrade and Baku have maintained expanding diplomatic relations since the ambassadorial exchanges in 2010-11 under the Tadic-dominated Democratic Party coalition governments and ever since under the Vucic-dominated Serbian Progressive Party coalitions. In an unlikely alliance of interests, Azerbaijan supports Serbia’s position on Kosovo (including in Islamic organisations) with Serbia holding Azerbaijan’s side in multilateral institutions on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Two countries have a higher level of bilateral relations through a Strategic Partnership Framework and the Serbian Government keeps on engaging Azvirt, an Azerbaijani company, in large road construction projects in Serbia.

NAM in Serbia: defence, energy security and responses to Covid-19 pandemic

This year’s NAM summit which took place at the Belgrade Fair coincided with Serbia’s staging of the 10th International Defence Exhibition entitled “Partner 2021” (11–14 October 2021). This military equipment and arms “bazaar” showcased locally and regionally made military equipment, including from the neighbouring Republika Srpska (Serb-dominated part of Bosnia-Herzegovina). Although the Serbian Government is trying to kill two flies with one stone by hosting two international events concurrently, it is quite ironic considering NAM’s history as a global disarmament champion in the 1960s. However, the times have certainly changed with the majority of NAM’s members being today some of the biggest acquisition clients of Western and Eastern-made military equipment, as well as arms producers (both well-established and developing military equipment and arms producers, like Turkey). Perhaps it is also a way to keep Serbia’s other partners involved on the margins of the NAM summit, including from NATO members showcasing their military equipment (e.g. France, Germany, Croatia, Canada, Turkey, US, UK, Italy), the European Defense Agency and China.

By moving the biannual international arms fair to October (from June as it was being customarily held), Serbia is once again following the Titoist logic of East-West balancing in the times of rising military and geopolitical tensions between the West on one hand, and China and Russia on the other hand whilst trying to promote further technical and scientific-military cooperation with state- and non-state based (commercial) actors. Rather than being an observer, Serbia is perhaps positioning itself as a direct conduit between the great powers. But a balancing bridge put forward by a small Balkan power could be easily burnt (if not threaded very carefully) amid escalating tensions between great powers in the foreseeable future.

Key topics at the NAM

Key themes at the 60th anniversary NAM summit included energy security (amid the currently ongoing energy crisis in Europe); the condemnation of the so-called vaccine nationalism and the lack of access to Covid-19 vaccines and medicines by the world’s poorest nations; and peace and security. With delegates from 111 countries and six organisations meeting in Belgrade during the global pandemic, NAM summit represented both a biosecurity challenge and a foreign policy opportunity for Serbia as the co-host of this year’s summit. Serbia is using NAM as a unique platform to further its links with non-Western countries, especially those with an economic interest in the Balkans. As the largest in-person gathering after the UN General Assembly, countries like Indonesia have been lobbying for a more equitable access to vaccines, two of which Serbia has been involved in producing (for Russia and China).

The role of Indonesia and India

An expert on Indonesian military and the Executive Director of Verve Research, Natalie Sambhi, observed for this article that: For Indonesia, NAM is significant not just because its first president Sukarno was one of its founders but because the principle of non-alignment has been a crucial component of the country’s foreign policy posture and postcolonial identity since Independence. Jakarta has always strived to push back on global polarity and sought to bring emerging and established powers together through diplomacy as well as fight for representation of smaller, developing states.” 

Sambhi furthermore added: At this year’s NAM anniversary Indonesia will no doubt be looking to reinforce the critical role that such groupings play in service of the Global South, especially since they are not dominated by Western powers like the UN. At Belgrade, we can expect Jakarta to continue to call for burden sharing in global health and economic recovery due to covid-19 and for countries to abstain from acts that undermine international peace and stability.” 

Indonesia was hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic both in terms of restricting its inbound tourism flows which provide the lifeline for many Indonesian households, especially in popular tourist hot spots such as Bali, and in terms of accessing the Covid-19 vaccines and medical supplies. Its geographical (archipelago) and demographic conditions prevented Jakarta from acquiring Western-made mRNA vaccines requiring deep refrigeration, warranting its President Joko Widodo to turn towards Beijing and Moscow for vaccine assistance. Australia, Indonesia’s closest neighbour also committed to support Indonesia with locally made AstraZeneca vaccine doses—the assistance which has been seen as slow but nevertheless welcomed by Jakarta. The NAM chair (Azerbaijan) and members criticized the so-called “Western vaccination nationalism”—a tendency by the upper-income economies to stockpile the global vaccine supply (by pre-purchasing the vaccine orders), while the countries in the poorest countries of the South accounted for less than 5% of the world’s inoculated. Indonesia called for a more equitable global distribution of Covid-19 vaccines and medical supplies in the current times of crisis for the Global South.

Why is Russia present in NAM’s observer capacity now?

Aleksandar Vucic, Serbian President, utilized Serbia’s position as the host nation for this year’s NAM summit to have a joint press conference with the Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov. In his speech, Vucic listed many areas of joint cooperation between Russia and Serbia when further Russian support would be welcomed—including, amongst others, the construction of Belgrade-Budapest railway, the concessional price of energy (gas) which Serbia is obtaining from Russia, and Russia’s support for Serbia’s position on Kosovo in multilateral institutions.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with Foreign Minister of Azerbaijan Bayramov Jeyhun and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Serbia Nikola Selaković

There are several possible reasons for Russia obtaining the NAM’s official observer status in July this year during Azerbaijan’s chairmanship of NAM.

First, Russia’s attempt to show that UN-centric multilateralism still matters—therefore awkwardly aligning Russia with the key principle of the European Union’s multilateral diplomacy which privileges UN processes as opposed to unilateralism. In a carefully worded speech, Lavrov also lashed at the “non-inclusive concepts like the rules-based order” as the Western-backed power bloc that Russia claims has “undermined” the UN Charter and global solidarity.

Dr Gorana Grgic, Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sydney, however, observed that NAM did not receive much media attention in the US: The [NAM] movement is a relic of the Cold War era, but as many similar fora, keeps on trying to reinvent itself and stay relevant. The summit has barely been registered in the US media. US-Russia relations are mired with many more pressing issues on the agenda than Russia’s NAM observer status.”

Joining NAM signals Russia’s willingness to raise its profile in the Global South. Dr. Yelena Zabortseva from the Australasian Association of Communist and Post-Communist Studies noted that there are views in Russian academic circles to consider the NAM as an opportunity for Russia to regain its position that was lost during the 1990s westernization era. There are also arguments, expressed among Russian academics that Russia’s engagement with NAM aligns with the increasingly supported Eurasian philosophical concepts.

In that spirit, Russia’s renewed interest in NAM could be interpreted as Moscow’s attempt to engage with both the Global South and the former Soviet space. Dr Ellie Martus from Griffith University in Queensland sees Russia’s NAM engagement as part of its global energy diplomacy. Martus remarks: Russia sees the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) as posing a significant threat due to the anticipated cost for business, with Lavrov referring to it as a form of ‘climate protectionism’. Declining European coal consumption due to climate concerns has already hit Russia hard, particularly given the government is still forecasting growth within the industry and committing to its expansion. Despite a shift in focus towards Asia-Pacific exports, Russia is keen to increase its exports, and the energy shortages currently facing Serbia, and Europe more broadly, present it with an important opportunity to do so.”

Concluding remarks

Although Belgrade has proven its capacity to host a large international gathering, NAM’s 60th anniversary summit was ultimately a multilateral platform for its members and observer nations, including Serbia, to pursue bilateral aims. It offered a useful stage for countries like Russia and Qatar to forge new energy deals in the case of Russian coal exports and champion a multilateral resolution to Afghanistan’s economic collapse, as advanced by Qatar and further supported by Italy at the virtual G20 extraordinary summit. For Serbia specifically, NAM was a continuation of its economic diplomacy, which sees non-European countries (including the Gulf States, Egypt, Azerbaijan and others) as a pole of financial attraction. While not meaning Serbia’s break with Western partners, NAM has provided a further opportunity for small states like Serbia to diversify their foreign, defence and security policy—at the possible detriment having their focus fixated on alignment with the EU acquis. With the recent delay in EU membership commitment by EU members, it is not surprising that Western Balkan membership candidates and potential candidates will continue to eye a wide range of external opportunities to advance their development. With Serbia’s turn to domestic and Russian coal to ease off the energy crisis, its European membership dream might be, in reality, evaporating away.

Biography

Dr. Nina Markovic Khaze is the Director of Communications at Solve Law, Manly, NSW and President of the European Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand (ACT/NSW branch). She obtained Ph.D. in Political Science from the Australian National University in European Union studies, and master’s degrees in International Relations and Diplomacy. Dr Markovic Khaze was working as a sessional lecturer at UNSW and Macquarie University in Sydney from 2014 until 2021, teaching international relations, security studies and diplomatic history of great powers. Prior to joining academia, she was a senior parliamentary and public servant in Canberra. Nina also works for SBS Serbian radio program as a political analyst.

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