When two Serbian Embassy staff were taken hostage in Libya last November, Serbia’s prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, initially voiced his optimism that they would be quickly released. Such hopes were shattered on February 20 when it was confirmed that the two had been killed in US airstrikes on an Islamic State training camp in western Libya. “Terrible collateral damage”, stated Vucic, leader of the country where the term was first used during Nato’s 1999 bombing campaign of Serbia during the Kosovo War.
Coming only a day or so after the signing of a controversial logistics support agreement between Serbia and Nato, and following military hardware and cooperation deals with Russia, the spotlight is once again being shone on Serbia’s complex foreign policy and security orientation. Faced with an increasingly incompatible position between east and west, the costs for Serbia of failing to resolve this dilemma – especially for its European accession – continue to rise. And with Serbia’s neighbours looking on cautiously, a full-blown Balkans arms race could well ensue.
The long-delayed deal between Serbia and Nato grants diplomatic immunity and freedom of movement for all members of Nato forces. The signing prompted several thousand Serbian nationalists to take to the streets of Belgrade to protest what is in their view an act of betrayal; whilst Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, termed it a "special kind of humiliation” and an attempt “to impose ‘Stockholm Syndrome’”.
Yet even with former members of the Serbian Radical Party at the helm of government, militarily-neutral Serbia’s cooperation with Nato continues to intensify. The country finalised its first Individual Partnership Action Plan with Nato in 2015, focusing in particular on defence planning and counter-terrorism. Serbian troops have also recently participated in US-led military exercise on European soil alongside other Nato member states.
Whilst membership of Nato remains an unrealistic prospect in the near term, this closer alignment has raised concerns in Moscow about Serbia’s future orientation. Furthermore, Russia has been looking for new forms of commitment to its Balkan partner since the collapse of the South Stream gas pipeline that would've run though Serbia.
With this in mind, Russian military and technical cooperation with Belgrade has rapidly accelerated. In mid-January it was announced that Serbia was preparing to buy short- and intermediate-range air defence systems and MiG-29 fighters from Russia, and will open a regional centre for the maintenance of Russian-made helicopters. Figures of $2.5-5.0bn have been muted, though there is no official confirmation as yet. Russia already maintains a humanitarian centre in southern Serbia focusing on emergency responses, though many suspect more sinister intentions.
Serbian special units have also participated in a joint-military exercise – entitled appropriately enough “Slavic Brotherhood” – with Belarus and Russia, which took place in southern Russia in the autumn of 2015. A follow-up exercise involving Russian airborne units and Serbian special forces will be hosted by the latter in 2016. Serbia’s involvement has been described as sending “a wrong signal” by Maja Kocijancic, the European Commission spokesperson, at a time of deteriorating relations between Russia and the EU.
There are latent fears that these moves could ignite an arms race in the Balkans. Serbian officials have stressed that Croatia’s own purchase of surplus multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) from the US motivated their Russian procurement. With the two having already traded barbs and reciprocal measures over the refugee crisis, relations are unlikely improve given the stance of Croatia’s newly installed right-wing government.
Russian involvement in Republika Srpska (one of Bosnia & Herzegovina’s two entities) is also arousing concern. Special units of the Republika Srpska police are soon to receive training in Russia, whilst the entity’s government is keen to purchase military equipment (such as armoured vehicles equipped with Kalashnikovs). Combating terrorism and radicalisation are the prime, yet opportunistic, justifications advanced for this cooperation.
Serbia’s deepening military cooperation with Russia is causing considerable unease within the EU, in part because of concerns about a resurgence in Russian influence in the region. There is an increasingly stark contradiction between Serbia’s EU membership aspirations – which ultimately demands that its foreign policy be aligned with that of the EU – and its ties with Russia. Despite considerable diplomatic pressure, Serbia continues to refuse to join the sanctions regime against Russia for its actions in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Nato’s expansion in the region continues. Having received a membership invitation at the last Nato summit in December 2015, neighbouring Montenegro has recently moved ahead with accession talks that would see it become the Alliance’s 29th member. The move has been met by vehement anti-Nato street protests in Podgorica, with widespread allegations that Russia and Serbia were behind the unrest.
With Russia and Nato seemingly on the verge of a major confrontation – whether over Ukraine, Syria or Turkey – the position of Serbia is going to come under increasing scrutiny. As the incompatibility of simultaneously balancing relations with both factions grows, so Serbia will take strategically tough and politically contentious decisions.
In the interim, stemming fears of an arms race in the Balkans would go a long way to ensuring that a region beset by the challenges of the refugee crisis leaves little room for further misunderstanding between neighbours.