Prime Minister Aleksander Vucic’s visit to Moscow just days before Serbia’s April 2 presidential election has raised suspicions that he made the trip to consult with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the composition of the next government.
Polls show Vucic is virtually certain to win the presidential election, which would leave the PM seat empty. The timing of his visit to Moscow has led to speculation that Putin could be putting pressure on Vucic to pick Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) leader and Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic as his replacement.
This was denied by Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who said on March 27 that the Kremlin has no intention of interfering in the upcoming election, Tass reported.
However, there are already rumours of growing Russian influence in Serbia and – to an extent – on the Serbian government, even though Vucic’s priority is to steer the country into the EU.
In 2014 Vucic travelled to Russia shortly after the early parliamentary elections. On his return to Belgrade, Dacic’s pro-Russian SPS was suddenly brought into government in a coalition with the Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), even though the SNS had more than enough MPs to form a government alone. Even more surprisingly, after that visit to Moscow then energy minister Zorana Mihajlovic, an energy expert and high-level SNS member who had already started implementing reforms in the sector, was replaced by SPS official Aleksandar Antic who didn’t have any prior experience in the energy field. He still serves as energy minister and supports Vucic’s candidacy for president.
Vucic’s latest tête-à-tête with Putin could prove beneficial for Dacic, who was previously prime minister and has often put himself forward for the role of PM again. Dacic and his SPS back Vucic’s candidacy for president and, assuming Vucic wins the presidency, would be more than happy for his current position to be filled by an SPS candidate.
The SPS has had close ties with Moscow since 1990 when its initial leader, the dictator Slobodan Milosevic, built business links with Russia, most of them based on corruption. Today, Milosevic’s wife and son (who are wanted in Serbia for smuggling tobacco in the 1990s) are in hiding in Russia to avoid facing trial in Serbia.
“Russia and Serbia have a special nature of mutual relations and it determines a high pace of maintaining a political dialogue at the highest level,” Peskov told journalists on March 27. “No doubt, there can be no talk that the Kremlin interfered in any electoral processes.”
During his meeting with Vucic at the Kremlin, Putin said he was confident about the further development of friendly relations with Serbia.
According to the Serbian government’s statement, Vucic presented Serbia’s position in the region, noted that peace and stability are crucial for the country and pointed out the challenges that it faces. Summarising the talks he had with Putin, Vucic told reporters in the Kremlin that Russian support to preserve the territorial integrity of Serbia is crucial, but he added that support in other areas, such as the economy, is no less important. According to Vucic, the two leaders discussed how to work together to further increase trade. Vucic pointed out that Putin, in his introductory remarks, commended the government of Serbia, adding that it is most responsible for increasing trade cooperation between the two countries.
Russia officially doesn’t recognise Kosovo and has vetoed on its membership in the UN at the Security Council. Russia also openly opposes Serbia’s potential membership of Nato.
“I told Putin that Serbia is firm in its military neutrality as it is a matter of freedom and independence of our freedom-loving nation, which the head of the Russian state supported,” Vucic said.
During his visit to Moscow, Vucic confirmed that it is only a matter of weeks before six Mig 29 aircraft will arrive in Serbia, since it is expected that Putin will soon sign an order for the planes to be quickly transported to our country.
Vucic announced on December 21 when he met Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow, that Serbia will pay between €180mn and €230mn to overhaul six old MIG-29 aircraft, which Russia has donated to Serbia. He also announced that Serbia had received 30 T-72 S tanks, 30 BRDM (armoured patrol cars), two combat reconnaissance armoured vehicles and 14.5mm cannons.
“I expect the decree to be signed soon so that the planes can arrive in Serbia as soon as possible. Only technical problems remain to be solved – whether the planes will fly over foreign territories or be transported in parts,” Vucic explained.
In the new defence deal with Serbia, Russia’s interest is in strengthening the non-Nato bloc, which Putin’s team has said is its goal. Serbia is surrounded by Nato members or countries which intend to become a member. However, it is the only country that officially wants to build the best possible relations with everyone but to remain militarily neutral. This makes room for Russia to push harder for the non-Nato bloc.