Serbia's Complicated Relationship with Russia

OrganizationsOther ♦ Published: January 19, 2023; 15:27 ♦ (Vindobona)

Serbia's relatively close relationship with Russia, while based on a somewhat haggard history, has been rather positive in recent years. Since Russia's attack, but also before, this relationship has been crumbling more and more. There are several reasons for this, some of which are currently intensifying.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (l.) visiting Serbia with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (r.). Whether relations between Serbia and Russia will remain good is questionable. / Picture: © Wikipedia / Presidential Press and Information Office / (CC BY 4.0)

Serbia is the only European country besides Belarus that does not support the West's sanctions against Russia, even though Vucic's government has condemned the invasion of Ukraine. A not inconsiderable number of Serbians support the Russian attack on Ukraine, and there have also been pro-Russian demonstrations in the capital Belgrade.

Serbia's traditionally close relationship with Russia is crumbling. While the population is divided into a pro-Russian and a pro-Western camp, Serbia's government is also still divided on Russian-Serbian relations. On the one hand, it wants to move closer to the West and the EU and strives for European integration; on the other hand, it does not want to sacrifice its good connections, especially concerning Russian gas and capital.

Russian support for Serbian claims against its former province, Kosovo, is also important because Kosovo's independence is still a major political issue of its own in all camps in Serbia.

But Russia always seems to be more concerned with its own advantage in relations with Serbia, and this is clear to the government in Belgrade and to Serbia's President Aleksander Vucic. This is once again evident now, as the Russian mercenary group Wagner recently attempted to recruit fighters for deployment in Ukraine. Serbia's President Alexandar Vucic reacted indignantly and with direct criticism towards Russia.

"Why are you doing this to Serbia? Why are you calling for this from Wagner, even though it is against the rules?" asked Vucic in an aired TV interview, according to the Beta news agency. The controversial ad aired this month on the Serbian offshoot of Russian state broadcaster RT. In it, the mercenary force called on Serbs to fight in Ukraine.

A small number of Serbs have fought alongside Russian-backed forces in Ukraine after Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in the spring of 2014. Serbia's intelligence services even monitor some of these Serbs, and some of them are classified as enemies of the state. The authorities have not yet published an exact number of Serbian volunteers in Ukraine.

According to ORF, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti published footage purporting to show two Serbian citizens taking part in weapons training in Ukraine. However, the exact number of Serbian volunteers fighting in Ukraine is not known, mainly because the complex ethnic relations in the Balkans make it necessary to distinguish between Serbian citizens and ethnic Serbs, because ethnic Serbs can come from other former Yugoslav republics too.

Russian propaganda does not always distinguish between the ethnic groups in the Balkans either, but in this case, and with the help of the Orthodox faith, it specifically tries to convince ethnic Serbs to support its cause. With the other ethnic groups in the Balkans, such as the Bosnian Muslims, attempts are made to score points with propaganda about Chechnya, although this has not been very successful.

Russia mostly tries to influence the population of Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro and North Macedonia indirectly, especially because of the larger number of Orthodox Christians. In the case of Serbia, it is also trying to play off its aversion to NATO, since Serbia was bombed in 1999 during the Yugoslav wars.

Recap of Russo-Serbian Relations

Although Russia was also considered an ally for most of Serbia's history, it was not the most important and a very passive ally. Russia's passivity in proper support for Serbia has always been seen as a stumbling block.

Serbia's government is aware that Russia has rarely been a real ally in Serbia's history. During Serbia's struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century and the Balkan Wars just before World War I, Russia always pursued its own agenda and hardly kept its promises.

Russia was quite an passive ally for Serbia during the 20th century, following its interests and geostrategic goals, except for the First World War, where Tsar Nikolay helped the nation with his involvement in the Great War, siding openly with Serbia against Germany and Austro-Hungary.

In the 20th century, the West, especially the U.S., proved to be the better ally for Serbia and later Yugoslavia, considering that the U.S. was one of the first to recognize both Yugoslavias and tried to establish good diplomatic relations.

Also in World War I, the U.S. supported Serbia's wishes and the establishment of a South Slavic kingdom, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, in the reorganization of Europe after World War I.

After World War II, relations with Moscow were at a low ebb with the Tito-Stalin split and communist Yugoslavia deciding to walk an independent path from the then Soviet Union. At that time, Belgrade built up a neutral standing and also later founded the non-aligned movement and maintained good relations with the East and the West.

The wars waged by the Milosevic regime and Serbia's internationally recognized misconduct in its warfare in the 1990s and Serbia's isolation through harsh Western sanctions led relations with the West at an unprecedented low. NATO's intervention in Bosnia in 1995 against the Bosnian Serbs also intensified relations with the West. The fact that Serbia was not supported by the West for the first time was perceived by many Serbs as a kind of betrayal, particularly after NATO's 1999 bombardment of Serbia itself. This NATO bombing, coupled with the ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox spirit in the Serbian population at the time, created an uncanny aversion to the West.

In terms of relations with Russia, however, Moscow was rather passive again but was able to score points with some decisions, such as not recognizing Kosovo's independence and condemning the NATO bombardment, and has since been considered an important ally of Serbia.

Even if the relationship was rather shirked by both parties at the time, Russia only filled the gap that had arisen due to Western sanctions, the isolation of Serbia and the subsequent negative feelings of the Serbs towards the West. However, Moscow stayed passive but aligned publicly with Serbia. Russia used propaganda to ensure some kind of stable relationship with Belgrade also so that the passive role is maintained and there is no need to actively intervene politically, militarily, and economically for Serbia.

This scored well with many in Serbia, especially as the nationalist spirit in Serbia was awakened by the Milosevic regime in the 1990s. Above all, the anti-Western resentments that arose from the wars around and partially in Serbia in the 1990s are one reason for Russia's positive influence. The orthodox faith of the Serbs is also taken up by Russia in its propaganda as a connecting element between the two countries.

Serbia is trying to move ahead

President Aleksander Vucic, despite his authoritarian course, is trying, like presidents before him, to restore Belgrade's former good standing and build good relations with the East and the West. However, this is not easy because of Serbia's recent history and the resulting closeness to Russia. In particular, the Kosovo issue is dampening further relations with the West.

Serbia has tried to improve this low with the West in recent years and has tried to approach the West with individual cautious steps, but without sacrificing the traditionally good relations with Russia. As for all Balkan countries, the European Union is also a kind of declared goal for Serbia, which has been torpedoed by Vucic's authoritarian style of government in recent years. The good relations with Russia made it possible for Vucic to get a deal on Russian gas supplies but also important monetary support from the West.

In recent years, Serbia has tried to get closer to its neighbors in a few correct but still few steps and so the presidents of Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania founded the Mini-Schengen, the Open Balkans Initiative. Unfortunately, an unsuccesful attempt was also made to improve relations with Kosovo, but these are at a new low at the moment.

The Russian attack on Ukraine, however, tests Serbia's ability to move forward or to abandon the previously elaborated efforts and return to the black sheep in Europe, as it has been struggling to break away from isolation and its disruptive role in the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Beta news agency