Serbia’s push into Africa revives old Cold War ties

Serbia’s push into Africa revives old Cold War ties
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (left) with his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic on a visit to Belgrade in July. / Serbian presidency
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow July 24, 2022

Belgrade is reviving ties forged during Yugoslavia’s leading position in the Cold War era non-aligned movement to expand its influence and trading relations in Africa. 

African countries and other emerging markets are growing in geopolitical importance as a new Cold War looms. While Russia abruptly pivots towards the East and South in response to Western sanctions, Belgrade has been quietly building up its relationship with a number of African countries for several years. 

Serbia lacks China’s economic clout or the long-standing, albeit troubled, relationships between former colonial powers and their former colonies. However, it still benefits from the former Yugoslavia’s role in founding the non-aligned movement alongside some of the major emerging economies.

A case in point is the visit by the president of Egypt, one of Africa’s richest and most populous countries, in mid-July. Serbian officials stressed during Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's visit which saw the signing of a strategic partnership agreement and a dozen co-operation agreements in a range of sectors that it has been decades since the last visit by an Egyptian president to Belgrade, that being by former president Hosni Mubarak in July 1987.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic described the meeting as ‘historic’, elaborating: “We often like to call something historic, but I am sure that the deepening of relations will bring us a lot in the future.” 

Co-founders of the non-aligned movement 

Egypt and Yugoslavia were founding members of the non-aligned movement during the Cold War. Yugoslavia’s long-standing president Josip Broz Tito was the main driving force, along with leaders of some of the major emerging economies, behind the movement that grouped together states that declined to formally align themselves with either of the two superpowers, the US or the Soviet Union. 

The roots of the non-aligned movement came in 1950 when Tito and India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru refused to take sides in the Korean War, one of the ‘hot’ theatres of the Cold War, instead declaring their countries ‘non-aligned’. The movement was formally launched in Belgrade in 1961. Other key figures were President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and President Sukarno of Indonesia. 

Indeed, the majority of the movement’s members were from Africa and Asia, and were in the process of building their nations and asserting their independence in foreign policy as they emerged from colonialism. Yugoslavia and Egypt hosted the first and second conferences respectively. Their co-operation was highlighted by a series of reciprocal visits between Tito and first Nasser and later Mubarak of Egypt. 

The movement made Yugoslavia a relatively small Southeast European country an important player on the global stage. 

Along with the political aspect of the non-aligned movement, there was also an increase in trade and investment. “In the last century, Yugoslavia had significant co-operation with countries from the African region, which were liberating themselves from colonial rule, and strengthened their independence through economic co-operation with members of the non-aligned movement,” a Serbian Chamber of Commerce (PKS) spokesperson told bne IntelliNews

“Across Africa and the Middle East, from the 1960s to the late 1980s, Yugoslav architects built numerous conference centres, airports, ministry buildings and entire housing estates, important infrastructure projects.” Among the high-profile projects were the parliament of Nigeria, the international fair complex in Lagos and Energoprojekt’s hotel and congress centre in Harare. 

Another legacy was the student exchanges among members of the non-aligned movement. Nemanja Petrovic, co-founder of Serbian energy blockchain startup Traken, said in a recent interview with bne IntelliNews that he believes Serbia still benefits from its relationships with developing countries forged during the Cold War. Even today, Serbia is well known among those nations. “We’re a brand in these countries, [young people are] still coming here to go to college,” he says. This brings talented graduates into Serbia. 

Renewing ties

Following the end of the Cold War and the breakup of Yugoslavia their ties languished. Now, however, Belgrade has been reaching out to Yugoslavia’s former partners in Africa. 

In October 2021, Serbia hosted a gathering of the leaders of 120 states that are members of the non-aligned movement, marking the 60th anniversary of its founding. To give an idea of the scale of the gathering, in terms of membership the UN is the only international organisation with more members. 

On July 8 this year, Serbia opened an embassy in Accra, Ghana the first new embassy the country has opened in Africa for over 40 years. Serbian Foreign Minister Nikola Selakovic said the two countries would work closely together in areas such as agriculture, defence, digitalisation and education. He also referenced that Ghana is a long-standing ally; its President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo was one of the leaders at the non-aligned movement summit last year. 

Similarly, when Somalian ambassador Mohamed Abdullahi Ahmed handed his credentials to Vucic on June 22, becoming his country’s first ambassador in Belgrade since the collapse of the central government back in 1991, Vucic talked of the “friendly relationship from the time of the former Yugoslavia and membership in the non-aligned movement”. He also stressed that “one of Serbia’s foreign policy priorities is strengthening co-operation with the African Union Commission”.

Trading potential 

Some of the Yugoslavian companies that secured major contracts in fellow non-aligned countries still have footholds there today. Among them are Energoprojekt, Croatia’s Koncar conglomerate and Bosnia’s Energoinvest. Energoinvest, for example, was broken up into smaller parts after the fall of Yugoslavia, but the core of the company remains active in engineering projects and continues to operate in the Southeast Europe region as well as Africa and the Middle East.

Today, Serbia is highly integrated with the European Union, which it borders and hopes to join, in terms of trade and investment. Emerging economies such as Egypt and other African counties are less important to it economically. In 2020, Serbia’s exports to Africa were worth $387.8mn, while imports were about $224mn, though both increased compared to 2019, according to figures the Statistical Office of the Republic of Serbia provided by the PKS. 

Tobacco and tobacco products made up a significant part of Serbia’s exports to African countries, along with industrial machinery, beverages, fertilisers, animal feed and a variety of other products. Coming in the other direction were metal ores, crude fertilisers, coffee and other products from Africa. More controversially, Serbia is an exporter of arms to a number of African countries. 

One deal signed during el-Sisi’s visit to Belgrade highlights the ways Serbia and Egypt aim to complement each other. Serbian agribusiness company Elixir Group agreed to work with Egypt’s Misr Phosphate Company (MPCO) on joint activities such as the exploitation of new ore fields in the Red Sea area, the exchange of knowledge and technologies and the construction of a phosphoric acid factory in Egypt. Stanko Popovic, owner of the Elixir Group, said that the connection would ensure a stable supply of phosphoric acid which is used to make fertiliser to the Serbian market in the long term.

The PKS has been doing its bit to build economic relations between Serbia and African nations, including organising a seminar with the Chamber of Commerce of Kenya on the possibilities for increasing co-operation between Serbia and Kenya in 2021. “With the introduction of the free trade agreement on the African continent, great opportunities are arising for investment co-operation, joint investments and trade,” said the PKS spokesperson, pointing to the “significant potential” to increase this co-operation.

“As you know, Africa is a growing market in terms of population and sophistication of demand. Therefore there are initiatives and they are currently mostly focused on the markets of East Africa, Angola and Egypt, with which (Egypt) there is already significant economic co-operation.” The PKS listed areas with potential as energy, agriculture, trade in fruit, vegetables and other food products and tourism.

Several African countries have been eyeing Serbia as a source of wheat imports after the squeeze on the market following the war between Russia and Ukraine, two of the wold’s top grain exporters. Serbia imposed a temporary ban on wheat exports in March, while committing to continue supplying its near neighbours, but this was lifted in July. 

The new geopolitics 

The efforts to build on Serbia’s ties with non-aligned nations started long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February changed the global geopolitical situation, and started what some are already calling the New Cold War. 

Serbia itself is seeking to remain neutral on the war in Ukraine, a position that has infuriated its European partners. While joining UN resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Serbia has so far refused to join Western sanctions on Russia, resisting calls from the EU to fall into line with EU foreign policy along with the other candidate countries. 

The Serbian stance is partly because of the very strong pro-Russian sentiment within the country but it is also a continuation of the ‘four pillars’ policy pursued by Vucic for years, in which he tried to balance Belgrade’s relations with the EU, US, China and Russia. This was visibly successful during the pandemic, when Serbia secured vaccines from multiple sources, putting it at the forefront of the vaccine rollout in Europe. 

It also echoes to some extent the role of Serbia as a leader of the non-aligned movement during the Cold War. This became less relevant with the end of the Cold War but now that is changing. 

Indeed, Serbia is not the only county looking to build ties with countries in the global south. 

The PKS spokesperson noted “certain obstacles” that Serbian companies faced in Africa, namely the influence of the former colonial relations. “Although political influence declined, economic ties between the former colonies and home countries remained very strong. It is difficult to play market competition with countries that are present to such an extent and with such an impact on the local market. For that reason, the successes of Yugoslav companies in these markets should be appreciated.” 

Further problems came with the breakup of Yugoslavia. “Unfortunately, because of the political issues in the 90s, there has been a significant break in co-operation between Serbia and former African partners. Nevertheless, friendly relations have been preserved,” according to the PKS spokesperson. 

Today, China is highly active in Africa and on a scale a relatively small country like Serbia can’t hope to emulate. China’s trade with the African continent is hundreds of times larger than Serbia’s, and it has invested into almost all the African countries under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), building infrastructure across the continent as well as securing access to African natural resources. This was made possible by its huge economic firepower, and (unlike international development banks) willingness to extend finance without attaching conditions on issues such as human rights or corruption.

More recently, as bne IntelliNews has reported, following sanctions imposed by the EU, Russian companies have started re-directing their Europe-bound trade to the Global South, which accounts for 80% of the world's population and just over half of global GDP.

A recent comment from bne IntelliNews argued that rather than simply a new East vs West divide, the world is being split between the West on one side vs Russia and the non-aligned countries on the other. There has been little interest outside Europe and North America in joining sanctions on Russia. While the Western-dominated G7 nations have all sanctioned Russia, it is a different story with the G20 that has among its members some of the fast-growing emerging economies; Russian President Vladimir Putin has been invited to the G20 summit in Indonesia in November. 

Serbia is still aiming for EU accession, as Vucic has repeatedly said, even while saying the country will not abandon its traditional friends (i.e. Russia). At the same time Belgrade is trying to continue its strategy of building relations in multiple quarters. This strategy is now in trouble as far as balancing relations with Russia and the West is concerned, and — just like Russia — Serbia may benefit from increasing its focus on Africa and other emerging markets.