Serbia’s balance between the West and Russia

US Vice President Joe Biden and Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic. Photo Source: Serbian Government Website

Summer is usually the time when political activities tend to subside, but that has not been the case in the Balkans this year, particularly in Serbia. With a new government sworn in, economy still struggling, tense relations with its neighbors, and amid a visit by the US vice president Joseph Biden, Serbia was a hot name in Balkan geopolitics this summer.

New Serbian government : Reforms vs. Controversies

It took Aleksandar Vucic, the recently re-affirmed Serbian Prime Minister about three months to form a new government. Mr. Vucic’s new cabinet won the popular mandate on a platform that promised increased reforms and completing talks for Serbia’s entry into the EU by 2019, while at the same time maintaining close ties with Russia.

Mr. Vucic comes from an ultra-nationalist background. He lately started to nurture  more of a centrist image after his party started to hold state power since 2014.  The fresh elections of 2016 reasserted Mr. Vucic’s popularity, and provided an opportunity to broaden his coalition to share the responsibilities of his proposed reforms.

Although there were signs that the Mr. Vucic was considering coalition partners outside of the SPS, the party formed during the early nineties by Slobodan Milosevic, the final changes in the Vucic cabinet were limited. Some local analysts have even started asking the question what was the utility of the fresh elections, given that cabinet changes were so few and far between?

Prime Minister Vucic’s reform minded policy plans appear as follows: to establish his personal status as the great leader who resolved Serbia’s economic blights, bring the country on the brink of the EU membership, resolve the status of Kosovo permanently, mend relations with the neighboring states, particularly Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and at the same time, remain in good relations with Russia besides developing strong ties with China and Arab states.

The centrist Serbian weekly magazine “Vreme” characterize Mr. Vucic’s rule as that of holding the country in a “state of perpetual election campaign”.

Mr. Vucic wants to assert himself as the policy lead and chief negotiator in negotiations with the EU. As part of that plan, he took positive steps in improving relations with Serbia’s neighbors, for example, signing adeclaration of understanding with the Croatian President Ms. Grabar-Kitarovic in June 2016, and agreeing to hold a trilateral meeting between Serbia, Albania and Kosovo later in the year. There were also noticeable attempts at developing stronger relations with the West.

Prime Minister Vucic’s ministerial appointments reflect his agenda for improved international ties as well. He retained the finance minister Dusan Vujovic, a former World Bank economist, whose confirmation is seen as a signal of continuation of economic policies undertaken since 2014 when Mr. Vucic first came to power.  This is a welcome news given that the Serbian economy is still sluggish and lagging other countries in the region, and Mr. Vucic’s centrist policies have shown some serious promise fixing the economy.

Mr. Vucic replaced Ms. Kori Udovicki, the previous minister for state administration, a sensitive post in a country that needs deep reduction in state administration costs. Ms. Udovicki was an Yale graduate and former UN assistant secretary. Mr. Vucic gave Ms. Udovicki’s portfolio to Ms. Ana Brnabic, a graduate of the University of Hull, England, former USAID official in Serbia, who also happens to be the Balkan region’s first openly gay minister.

To nurture stronger ties with Russia,  Mr. Vucic is going to rely on his main coalition partner SPS and its leader Mr. Ivica Dacic. Along with the current Serbian President Mr. Tomislav Nikolic, a key member of Vucic’s ruling SNS party, Mr. Dacic is widely seen as the key “Russia guy” within the Serbian government.

Russia, for its part, has made it clear that it is keenly interested in developments in Serbian politics  and also counts on its “allies” within the Serbian government for advancement of its regional goals.

Controversies around monuments and statues

The dualism inherent within the reformist agenda of Prime Minister Vucic, where he wants warm relations with both the West and Russia  is expected to not go without controversies. The SPS leader and Foreign Minister Mr. Ivica Dacic and Labor Minister Mr. Aleksandar Vulin,  known to be an “old fashioned” anti-West politician, recently proposed erection of a statue of former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic as part of a new national monument in Belgrade. President Slobodan Milosevic was controversially claimed by Serbian Foreign Minister Mr. Dacic as being “exonerated” by the International Crimes Tribunal for Yugoslavia.

While the Serbian President Mr. Tomislav Nikolic remained ambiguous in his support for the Milosevic monument by stating that “he is being torn between being in favor and against” such a monument, Prime Minister Mr. Vucic remained more measured and calculative, even though  he allowed Mr. Dacic and Mr. Vulin go out to the public with their controversial monument building proposal. For his part, Prime Minister Vucic publicly stated that “he did not want to remain in the Nineties”, and that he was “angered by the glorification of Milosevic’s policy and of what he did.” Media reports suggested that Mr. Vucic thinks it is  “neither the right place nor the right time” to engage on the Milosevic monument.

Mr. Vucic’s statements are helpful in de-escalation of nationalistic sentiments in the Balkans, particularly in response to latest radical moves in neighboring Croatia, where there was a similar issue around building amonument commemorating Mr. Miro Baresic, the man who infamously murdered the Yugoslav ambassador to Sweden in 1971.

US Vice President Joe Biden’s visit : Serbia showcases US support

The Milosovic monument controversy crept into the affairs surrounding the visit of the US vice president Joe Biden to Belgrade. While it was first planned that Mr. Dacic as the foreign minister of Serbia would greet Mr. Biden at the airport, at the last minute it was the Prime Minister Mr. Vucic who greeted Mr. Biden first.

Mr. Vucic had to cancel his Washington D.C. visit in June 2016 for undisclosed reasons. He reportedly have worked hard to mend ties with the US during the Vice President Biden’s visit.

After the talks, Mr. Biden publicly stated that “The United States and Serbia do not agree on every issue”, and the Vice President also extended his condolences “to the families of those whose lives were lost during the wars of the 1990s, including as a result of the NATO air campaign [of 1999].”  The NATO air strikes referred here by Mr. Biden lasted from March 24, 1999 to June 10, 1999, under the operational code name “Operation Allied Force”. The NATO bombardment continued until the withdrawal of Yugoslav armed forces from Kosovo and till the commencement of the UN peacekeeping mission there. The NATO intervention was to protect the Albanian population in Kosovo who were being persecuted by ultra nationalist Serbs, Serbian police, and Serbian paramilitary forces.  The NATO bombing was not authorized by the United Nations due to veto threats from Russia and China.  NATO went ahead with the bombings, which killed about 600 people in today’s Serbia under the operation which was described as a humanitarian intervention at that time by NATO.

During the talks between Mr. Vucic and Mr. Biden, the former got the much needed promise of economic support from the United States,  as well as the promise that the latter will put pressure on Kosovo to continue the stalled Brussels negotiations.

The US Vice President kept his words during his visit to Kosovo as part of the same tour, when he urged Kosovo to seek reconciliation and work towards normalization of relations with Serbia in order to make progress towards joining the European Union. From the standpoint of US interests, Mr. Biden went to the Balkans to initiate engagement and peace making among former enemies namely Serbia, Kosovo, and Albania.

Serbian Prime Minister Mr. Vucic made few concessions of his own during the talks with Mr. Biden. Serbia agreed to play an active role in the trilateral talks between Serbia, Albania and Kosovo. Mr. Vucic also promised to put pressure on Bosnian Serb president Mr. Milorad Dodik to cancel a referendum that is increasingly likely to take place in the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska on their “Republika Srpska day”. The referendum is drawing condemnations and warnings from Bosnians and Western officials. A constitutional court declared the day unconstitutional, and this referendum may eventually work as a precursor to the entity’s secession from Bosnia in the future.

During the talks between Mr. Biden and Mr. Vucic, the Serbian Prime Minister also accepted to receive more former Guantanamo Bay detainees along with the two that were already sent to Serbia.

Vucic’s balancing acts to continue

Serbia is expected to continue its attempts to balance as much possible between the West and Russia, improve ties with its neighbors and former enemies. The Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is expected to visit Serbia later this year.

After receiving 19 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles or “HMMWVs” from the United States for participating in UN peace keeping operations, Serbia announced a set of joint military exercises with Russian armed forces to be held soon.

Since non-alignment is not an option any more, Serbian Prime Minister Mr. Vucic’s balancing acts between the West and Russia are quite intriguing, however, their eventual outcome will remain murky for quite sometime. This will for sure keep the Balkan observers engaged for years to come.

About Ljubinko Zivkovic 5 Articles
Ljubinko Zivkovic is a columnist for The GeoStrategists. He was the Editor-in-Chief of the Balkan Media and Policy Monitor. Ljubinko worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of former Yugoslavia. He also worked with the UN International War Crimes Tribunal for former Yugoslavia.

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