Russia in Serbia - out from the cold or feeling the heat?

By bne IntelliNews November 8, 2011

Ian Bancroft in Belgrade -

Russia's ambassador to Serbia, Aleksandr Konuzin, has for the second time in recent months courted controversy over public remarks unbefitting a diplomat. As Serbia heads towards general elections in spring next year, Konuzin's remarks have simultaneously exposed both the unease of political parties about Russian influence, and Russia's own sense of frustration about the nature of its relations with Serbia.

Back in early October during the inaugural Belgrade Security Forum - which deliberately avoided debating a Nato-led peacekeeping force's recent actions in support of the installation of Kosovo customs officials in the (Serb-dominated) north of the country - Konuzin took to the floor to ask, "are there no Serbs in this room?", before proclaiming that "there is nobody defending Serbia's interests" - except, of course, Russia.

Then there was Konuzin's active participation in a recent rally by the opposition Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) in Nis, which has led to accusations that the ambassador is interfering in Serbia's internal affairs, with the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina (LSV) calling for Konuzin to be declared persona non grata and Serbia's president, Boris Tadic, criticising his actions.

Konuzin's remarks highlight the tightrope that Serbia is being forced to walk. As Aleksandar Mitic, chairman of the Center for Strategic Alternatives in Belgrade, explains to bne, though the current pro-western government wants good relations with Moscow because of its diplomatic support over Kosovo, it is "cracking under the pressure of western diplomats urging Tadic to align with EU and Nato policies through the creeping recognition of Kosovo and behind-the-scenes moves to get closer to Nato".

"Such moves," he asserts, "were skilfully created to break close relations between Belgrade and Moscow."

Progressive vs reactionary

The forceful reaction to Konuzin from the country's more liberal elements highlights some of the tensions that will define next year's elections, particularly efforts to frame the vote in terms of "modern", "progressive" forces, versus those of "traditional", "reactionary" Russia. Such dichotomies are, however, ill-suited to Serbia's fragmented and fluid political party system.

The two main opposition parties and potential coalition partners - the SNS, which has already successfully wooed Brussels, and the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) - have, according to Mitic, both signed "documents on strategic cooperation with [Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's] United Russia" party and have "never had better relations with Moscow."

Foreign embassies and foundations have long-sought to influence electoral politics in Serbia - from the direct and indirect funding of certain parties, to the calculated timing of specific advancements towards the EU, such as the signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) just prior to the last elections, which was designed to boost the pro-Europe coalition. Such influence, however, tends to be more subtle and refined than Konuzin's very public approach.

But after being largely sidelined since the turn of the millennium, Russia has recently adopted a more assertive stance towards the region - and Serbia, in particular - one that can be traced back to President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to Belgrade in October 2009. As Professor Aleksandar Fatic, director of the Centre for Security Studies in Belgrade, asserts: "Moscow's decision to build South Stream [gas pipeline] through Serbia reflects the long-term strategy to maintain European dependence on Russian energy."

Though Serbia has not, in Fatic's opinion, always had a consistently favourable attitude to Russian investment and strategic interests, as demonstrated by Belgrade's reluctance to sell control of its oil company Nis to Gazprom, changes appear to be afoot. As Mitic notes: "Economic cooperation between Belgrade and Moscow is gaining ground - Serbian exports to Russia have increased more than 40% in a year as companies finally start to exploit the Free Trade Agreement with Russia."

Longer term, Russia's interests in the Balkans can be partly linked to its own domestic security concerns. "Were Serbia's section of the South Steam pipeline to be guarded by the Russian Army, then it would demonstrate how serious Russia is about countering Nato in the Balkans," says Fatic. "Don't forget, it is in Russia's vital interest to prevent a future expansion of Nato, and Serbia is the only Balkan country that still hesitates over Nato membership... It is therefore certainly a strategic marriage of convenience."

In mid-October, Russia's minister for emergency situations, Sergei Shoigu - alongside Serbia's interior and foreign ministers, Ivica Dacic and Vuk Jeremic - opened a regional humanitarian centre in Nis, in south Serbia. Though its stated purpose is primarily to provide responses to natural disasters, this hasn't prevented rumours about its potential use as a military base. Indeed, Fatic even raises the prospect of Russian missiles one day being positioned on Serbian soil.

Whether this "marriage of convenience" proves fleeting or fulfilling will in many ways depend upon Serbia's European course. With Euro-scepticism on the rise and Serbia's potential membership a good decade off - especially because of profound differences over Kosovo - Russia has an important window of opportunity to assert its influence. Trade, energy - particularly the construction of South Steam - and security co-operation will be pivotal in this regard.

Given Belgrade's recent unreliability, however, the Serb part of neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina, Republika Srpska - through which a section of South Stream is expected to run - will continue to be on the receiving end of Russia's affectionate glances. As such, Russian influence in the Balkans shows few signs of fading.

Russia in Serbia - out from the cold or feeling the heat?

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