If decades of pro-European rhetoric, summits with the participation of high representatives and special envoys, pastoral visits of EU officials, hundreds of millions of euros in donations and advertising campaigns such as “#EUzatebe” (The European Union for you), heartfelt appeals, friendly invitations, insincere wishes and more or less veiled threats by European diplomats had made us forget, the war in Ukraine has reminded everyone that Serbia is the most pro-Russian country in Europe.
On March 4, many Westerners preferred to dismiss the large procession that marched through the streets of Belgrade in support of Russia as an event staged by the chauvinist and pan-Slavic right and to reassure themselves in the light of the voting condemning the invasion that Serbia cast at the UN Assembly the day before. But the two events are not two opposite or contradictory, neither indicative of a rift between the country and its representatives, or the evidence of a willingness of the political leaders to anesthetize the widespread pro-Russian sentiments through a right to organize forums and pro-Western political choices. On the contrary, there is a substantial consistency and uniformity of views between many state officials, prominent political leaders and the sovereignists, a fact of which the Serbian right-wing sovereignist and nationalist movements are fully aware.
To use a concept very much in vogue today, the Serbian “deep state” and its strategic, economic and geopolitical elaborations are far from Atlantic affiliations and, if anything, aimed at safeguarding state sovereignty, while promoting regional hegemony and avoiding joining NATO. The NATO bombing of 1999 is still an open wound, not only in memory, and no government would stand up to the popular protests that would follow an eventual NATO membership. The persuasion remains widespread that, without a then weaker and pro-Western Russia, the conflict in Kosovo would have seen another outcome.
It is true that in the recent years the Serbian army has been reorganized in a similar fashion like NATO armies, and that joint military maneuvers regularly take place, but today this level of collaboration is the maximum that Serbia wants and can grant. The very appointment of a US-sensitive defense minister like Nebojša Stefanović is, on the one hand, a concession and on the other, a limitation of the political agility of a ministry entrusted to a politician who is now far from the good graces of President Vučić.
In his article titled “Geopolitical Determinants of Serbia’s Foreign Policy at the Beginning of the 21st Century”, political scientist Dušan Proroković explains the geopolitical options facing Serbia today: “(…) Atlanticism (…) is not favourable to the overall position of Serbia. The ambition of this concept is to limit the political projection of Serbia, and this is partly motivated by events of the recent past, when NATO intervened militarily against Yugoslavia, a fact which determined the position of the United States in the Balkan region in the long run.” Central European continentalism of the tellurocratic type, radiating from Germany through the European Union, could be an acceptable option for Serbia, if it were not for the historical background that saw Germany attack the country three times during the twentieth century (1914-1918, 1941-1945, 1999), actively promoting the fragmentation of Yugoslavia and Kosovo secessionism. The neo-Ottoman direction elaborated by Erdogan’s Turkey to replace Kemalism, based on Islam, cannot find a real partner in orthodox Serbia. Thus, according to Proroković, the only option left is to join the Eurasian vision, “the geopolitical construction of Russia and position Serbia as the south-western gateway of the emerging Eurasian integration”. However, Proroković underlines, Serbia has to interject with Washington, Berlin and Ankara to avoid devastating consequences.
So here we are, at the places defined as the “four columns of Serbian foreign policy”, namely Washington, Brussels, Moscow and Beijing, developed during the presidency of Boris Tadić and renewed by Aleksandar Vučić with the addition of a sovereignist axis with Orban and Erdogan and borrowing the successful elements of Abu Dhabi on the global chessboard.
Certainly, for those who come from a country with a one-dimensional foreign policy like Italy, the multidimensional foreign policy of a small country that aims to continue to have its own geopolitical agility seems difficult, contradictory and perhaps vague.
Of course, there are no official documents explicating this multipolar, if not notably Eurasian, policy pursued by Serbia. The foreign policy documents of the Republic of Serbia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicate five strategic priorities: the accession to the European Union, the pursuit of stability in the region, the neutrality of the Serbian Army, maintaining good relations with the Russian Federation, promoting relations with other countries. But if the first objective has been held back for years by the effective policy of the past governments, there are different ideas on how to pursue stability in the region: for the Atlanticists, this means NATO membership for Serbia, for others it means balancing the powers of the various players operating in the region, thus balancing the NATO presence. The Army’s neutrality leaves room for loose interpretations, allowing cooperation with NATO (Partnership for Peace) and substantial purchases of armaments from Russia. In the last three years, Serbia has bought from Moscow five Mi-17V-5 helicopters, four Mi-35M combat helicopters, the Pancir S1 missile launchers and the 9M133M Kornet-M anti-tank guided missiles. Thus we come to the fourth priority of Serbian foreign policy, namely good relations with the Russian Federation. Serbia is the only country born from the ashes of former Yugoslavia to have concluded a free trade agreement with Russia and not to have introduced trade sanctions against it after the annexation of Crimea in 2014 nor, so far, following the war in Ukraine. As far as relations with other countries are concerned, the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the establishment of the Non-Aligned Movement last October in Belgrade seems to be one of the many indications of a multipolar vision that is substantially distant from Western globalization.
Economic and ideological ties with Russia
The excess heat, sometimes suffocating, in Serbian houses and apartments is a constant reminder of Russia supplying fuel to Serbia. Yet energy dependence is not the foundation of the bond between Russia and Serbia, because the “brotherly agreement” signed last November and valid for six months stipulates that Serbia pays 270 US dollars per thousand cubic metres for Russian gas while the Germans pay 230 US dollars.
And while Germany and its industrial and political lobbies decided, in the last two decades, to hang itself to Russian gas pipelines, the same cannot be said of Serbia. The EU has ordered Serbia to renounce to Russia’s South Stream pipeline (and to the relative transit rights) and side with the Russian-Turkish successor clone, the TurkStream, constantly being postponed until last year while the Americans pushing Serbia to use the regasifiers located on the Croatian island of Krk and in Alexandroupolis, Greece.
And yet the trade between Russia and Serbia would be completely negligible without natural gas and hydrocarbons. A recent study conducted by Professor Goran Nikolić for Finansije magazine shows that the trade between the two countries has been stagnating since 2013 and remains focused on natural resources or trading in primary goods on the Serbian side and almost exclusively on oil and gas on the Russian side, with a constant tendency of decline compared to Serbia’s total trade with the rest of the world. Between 2000 and 2020, Serbian exports to Russia increased from 92 to 800 million euros and Russian exports to Serbia from 303 to 1,388 million euros, but the dynamics of recent years indicate that if, in 2011, imports from the Russian Federation had a 12.9% share in the total and Serbian, the preliminary data show that, in 2021, the share of Russian exports stood at 5.2% of in total trade and while a share of Serbian exports was reduced to 4.1%.
This is a trend assessed last November and which the war should, if anything, exacerbate, as Serbia aims to open up to other countries and export value-added products and services.
For its part, Serbia essentially sold off Naftna Industrija Srbije (including its oil wells in Angola) to Russia in 2008 for a mere 400 million euros, thanks also to the Socialist Party of Serbia, which has always been supported and a supporter of the Kremlin.
These seem to be Leonine partnerships for a country that suffers from a sort of fascination with Russia and Putin, as evidenced by the rock-star-like acclamations the Russian president received during his last visit to Serbia in 2019, when at least 120,000 Serbs came from all over the country to express their admiration for the Russian president.
In reality, the country’s leadership is well aware that its foreign policy ambitions are tied to Russia’s ability and willingness to ultimately protect them from the expansionism of other political options, be they Atlanticist, German-centric or even linked to Chinese mercantilism.
The ambitious and complex picture we have outlined is an exclusive characteristic of the Republic of Serbia, which has repudiated everything related to Titoism, the ideology, the economic approach, the social model, but not the vocation to a multipolar foreign policy, regardless of being a small country.
There is a distant ideal, Pan-Slavic and religious root in the relationship between Serbia and Russia. In the last pages of his masterpiece “Migrations” (Seobe), published in 1929, the writer Miloš Crnjanski describes how Russia might have appeared in the aspirations of his protagonist Vuk Isajković, a veteran in 1745 of the military expedition of the Serbian army corps during the War of the Austrian Succession:
“Russia appeared to him as a supernatural kingdom. He had heard that some people, coming from the most diverse parts, had become rich and powerful in a short time, that they were quickly promoted and lived and waged war as lords, that the churches were wonderful and sweet Orthodoxy. The opposite of the endless misery and sadness that awaited him here and that threatened to make him mad, desperate and increasingly bizarre. Here there was only nothingness and emptiness, which he now felt looming over his old age. […] as for the future, the only bright prospect was Russia, that immense snow-covered country, which he contemplated moving to sooner or later, to have a better life, rest, quietness.”
Orthodoxy as a spiritual homeland. The idea of a boundless country with infinite opportunities, of an immense territory that promised the freedom of not having to submit to the Turks or be forced to be a soldier for the Catholic ruler, Maria Theresa.
Even today, the idea that freedom, autonomy and the same identity of the Serbs can be safeguarded only by an ideal and idealized Russia, the sister and at the same time, the stepmother of a nation too small and fragile in relation to its ambitions.
By Biagio Carrano
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Dušan Proroković, Geopolitika Srbije, Sluzbeni Glasnik, Beograd, 2020
Aleksandr Dugin, The Fourth Political Theory, NovaEuropa Editions, 2017
Miloš Crnjanski, Migrations, Adelphi, Milan, 1981
“Politički odnosi Republike Srbije i Evropske unije,” Ministarstvo Spoljnih Poslova Republike Srbije, Beograd, 2017, www.mfa.gov.rs/sr/index.php/spoljna-politika/eu/rep-srbija-eu?lang=lat
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