While Serbia pursues EU membership, its President Aleksandar Vucic is playing a seemingly perfect balancing game between his close ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the West — and apparently is getting what he needs for the moment.
Vucic, who is so keen to show loyalty to Putin he is taking Russian language lessons in the mornings, has said he is looking for the Russian president’s opinion on everything during Putin’s upcoming visit to Serbia.
"I always consult with President Putin, I ask him for advice, and I request his advice. I familiarise him with what is happening and I don't lie, I tell the truth, although he does not always like everything I say. I think this is one of the things which Putin respects very much. And I respect this because he is the leader of a great country and I'm the leader of a small country, and he shows respect for this country, and I'm very grateful for that," Vucic said in an interview with Tass ahead of Putin’s visit.
He is not alone as Russia is seen as Serbia’s true friend by many Serbians, even now that the majority in the country want it to become an EU member.
Moreover, media in Serbia are predominantly pro-Russian, while Moscow’s economic influence is even stronger.
Putin, who will arrive in Serbia on January 17, is expected to set the tone for relations between the two countries for 2019 and is anticipated with huge excitement by Vucic. There are even rumours that the Serbian president has arranged a demonstration to welcome Putin, demanding local organisations of his ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) to send a certain number of people for the gathering – a move that has caused controversy even in otherwise Russia-friendly Serbia.
Looking ahead to the visit, Belgrade is hoping to get stronger commitments from Putin for energy and infrastructure projects, including for Turkish Stream.
Vucic is also hoping to continue getting support from Moscow on the Kosovo issue. So far, Russia has backed Serbia in its refusal to admit Kosovo as a state and helped keep Kosovo out of the UN and other international organisations. In return, Belgrade is opposing the western sanctions against Russia even as it pursues EU membership.
Vucic has said that entry to the EU is Serbia’s top priority and his loyal ally, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, continued the balancing act by reiterating that the country is determined to join the EU in 2025 – the date indicated by the bloc for the possible entry of Serbia and Montenegro.
Moreover, Vucic has repeatedly said that Putin does not attempt to influence Serbia’s European path, though some analysts have seen in this Putin’s personal interest to put a Trojan horse in the EU.
On the other hand, Vucic has little choice but to continue his tricky balancing act between Russia and the West as the majority of his voters are pro-Russian, mainly due to the long cultural relations between the two countries.
Within the regional prospective, Russia needs Serbia to be on its side as its influence in the Western Balkans has significantly suffered. Montenegro, once loyal to Moscow, became a Nato member in 2017 and is accusing the Kremlin of staging a coup plot with the aim of installing a pro-Russian party in power during the October 2016 general election. The plot failed, and Montenegrins stuck with the pro-EU Democratic Party of Socialists in the election.
Macedonia is also moving further from Russia’s influence. Earlier this month, the country’s parliament approved constitutional changes that will allow a historic name change in order to unlock its Nato and EU membership.
The vote was slammed by Russia, with a foreign ministry statement describing it as a “continuation of the process of artificially changing the state name imposed from outside with the aim of forcing Skopje into Nato.”
In Bosnia, Russia still has strong influence thanks to Milorad Dodik, the secessionist leader of the main Serb party, the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), who became a member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency last year. Dodik is openly pro-Russian and dreams of his entity, Republika Srpska, seceding from Bosnia. US analysts have said that Russia is supporting his aspirations and is financing the establishment of military units that could lead to another conflict in the already highly unstable state.