Russia, Serbia and the New Balkan Geopolitics

Tony Rina (New Eastern Europe)

A great deal of discussion regarding current European geopolitics between Russia and the West has centred on recent events in Ukraine, with warnings and forecasts about Georgia and Moldova as well. In the strategically critical Balkan peninsula, however, Russia is quietly but rapidly making headway in shoring up ties with a major regional power – Serbia.

Throughout 2013, Serbia made a series of pivotal steps towards closer integration with Russia in a variety of spheres, a fact that has not garnered the attention that events in the other aforementioned Eastern European states have.

One thing that distinguishes this geopolitics from the situation in Ukraine is that Serbia is not being badgered or bullied into closer ties with Russia. Russian overtures toward Serbia have been in many ways more subtle and lacking the political divisiveness witnessed in Ukraine. This is not to say that Serbia has been wholly willing and compliant to Russia, but that Russian encroachment on Serbia has been quieter and a lot less controversial.

This more favourable inclination toward Russia, however, should not come as a surprise, given a shared Eastern Orthodox religious culture. In addition to this, the Balkans, according to the late Samuel Huntington, have been a staging ground where the West, Russia and the Islamic World have converged in a clash for control of the region via proxy countries. Russia had traditionally supported Orthodox Serbia, while Bosnia and Croatia had tended to receive support from Catholic Austria and the Muslim Ottoman Empire, respectively (Huntington points to, in the more recent Balkan crisis in the 1990’s, German support for Croatia and Turkish support for Bosnia, while Orthodox Russian and Greek volunteers came to the aid of the Serbs).

Since the collapse of Yugoslavia, Serbia’s territory has slowly been whittled away, to the point that it is not only a rump state of the former Yugoslav Federation, but is even a much-reduced version of its post-Yugoslavia self. Yet Serbia today remains an important power in the Western Balkans, with the largest military and one of the strongest economies in the region. The strengthening of Russian ties with Serbia has occurred on three major fronts: military, economic and political.

Militarily, Serbia has cast its defence lot with Russia. In early 2013 Serbia became a permanent observer at the Russia-led defence alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). In November, 2013, Russia and Serbia have signed a bilateral agreement on military cooperation which was fifteen years in the making. NATO has expanded its membership deeply into the Balkans, and has three more countries—Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and the Republic of Macedonia (FYROM)—as candidates. If these three countries end up joining the Atlantic Alliance, Serbia will be completely surrounded on all sides by NATO states. This means Serbia may become an Eastern island surrounded by a Western defence alliance. The likelihood of Serbia becoming a NATO member is rather remote, seeing as the alliance will not allow members that have any types of territorial disputes, and despite Štefan Füle’s praise for the progress achieved between Serbia and Kosovo, the disagreement is far from over.

Serbia’s economy is now predominantly a market economy (although the state still controls much of the country’s economic activity), and is presently the strongest in the region. The country’s Gini coefficient has averaged at 28.9 since 2006. Although its real GDP growth for 2012 was 0.5 per cent (down 1.3 per cent from the year before), this is still more than Bosnia and Croatia. Thus, Serbia is relatively healthy and stable. In terms of trade, Serbia presently balances fairly well between Europe and Russia. Serbia’s main trading partner for exports is Italy, while Russia is Serbia’s main trading partner for imports, although Germany is only slightly behind Russia in this regard. But Russia has gained an edge over Europe vis-à-vis its ties with Serbia on two fronts- the Serbian liberalisation of trade with the Russian Customs Union and the construction of the South Stream pipeline.

The recent victory of the Russia-backed South Stream pipeline against the EU-supported Nabucco pipeline represents the economic encroachment by Russia on Serbia. According to Gazprom, the South Stream pipeline will create 2.5 thousand jobs and lead to a direct investment of 0.5 billion euros in the country. The South Stream pipeline will indeed continue into the heart of the EU – Alexei Miller, Gazprom’s CEO, stated that the next portion of the project will be undertaken in Hungary, but seeing as Serbia is not already a member of the EU or NATO it represents a major victory for Russia in this particular aspect of new Balkan geopolitics.

While much of the Balkans has gravitated toward greater integration with the West since the end of the Cold War, Serbia has been a notable exception. To be sure, Serbia is set to begin talks with the EU on accession starting January 21st 2014. But while Serbia is, at present, a candidate for EU membership, the truth of the matter is that this can be a rather hollow state of affairs. Turkey is also an EU candidate but membership seems increasingly elusive. This has prompted Turkey to search for alterative foreign policy orientations. Croatia acceded to the EU in July 2013, but this should not be taken as a reliable metric for gauging the possibility or likelihood of Serbian accession to the EU. Croatia has had a notable history of closer ties with the West as exemplified by its historic ties with Austria-Hungary, and its Catholic religion which, in line with Huntington’s thesis on the “Clash of Civilizations”, helped strengthen its ties to the West. As many observers and analysts state, the EU is experiencing “expansion fatigue” with regard to its eastward candidate states, Russia may continue to ramp up its efforts at courting Serbia politically, which it has done thus far using methods of soft power.

Aside from this, Russia has fomented territorial divisions within states on its periphery (namely Georgia and Moldova) as it hopes to prevent them from joining the West militarily and politically. A great deal of Serbia’s progress in relations with the EU has stemmed from greater flexibility on the Kosovo issue. The West should therefore take care to monitor any Russian attempts at undoing the progress and rapprochement thus far achieved between Kosovo and Serbia to prevent the latter from closer ties to the EU.

Serbia has been demonised to an extent in the West because of the actions carried out by Serbs in the Homeland War in the early 1990’s. According to Edward S. Herman of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, the Western demonization of the Serbs has aided NATO’s eastward expansion, and if the Serbs know that they have been demonized by the Western media, it is not likely that they will want to become integrated with the West, but rather sidle closer to their traditional Russian protector. Russia has seized upon the traditional ties and affinity Serbia has had with Russia and has invested in aid for Serbia. In 2011, Russia opened an emergency centre in the city of Niş, a prime example of Russian soft power appeal.

Serbia’s increasing of its ties and integration with Russia has been swift, relatively uncontroversial and seems to have been lost in the West’s geopolitical conscientiousness. In some ways similar to Armenia, which is a close ally of Russia surrounded by NATO member Turkey and the generally more pro-Western states of Azerbaijan and Georgia, Serbia appears to be becoming an important strategic lever for Russia in the Balkans, one that does not border Russia directly, but which nonetheless represents an access point for Russia in this geopolitically critical region. The West should therefore not ignore or discount the risks to its interests inherent in this grand development.

Tony Rinna is a contributing geopolitical analyst at the US-based Center for World Conflict and Peace. His areas of focus include Russia, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.