international analysis and commentary

Why Serbia matters

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Directly or indirectly, Serbia is at the heart of key recent events in the Western Balkans: a new escalation of tension in Kosovo, elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro, and government formation in Serbia. All this in the wider context of the war in Ukraine.

Serbia’s general elections were held in April but the country’s strongman, President Aleksandar Vučić, delayed the appointment of the new government to October, in order to keep a low profile in the Russia-Ukraine crisis and to push back Western pressure to align Belgrade with Brussel’s sanctions towards Russia.

Serbia’s Aleksandar Vučić

 

The composition of the new executive reflects Serbia’s international stance. Since his rise to power in 2014, Vučić has positioned Serbia as neutral. A historical protégé of Russia, Belgrade has been an EU candidate since 2012. It maintains good relations with the US, while nurturing ties with China, Turkey and Arab states. Vučić has struck a balance between all these competing interests.

Prime Minister Ana Brnabić was re-confirmed. A former business manager who studied abroad, Brnabić embarked on a program of digitalization of Serbia’s economy. Perhaps more importantly in Vučić’s eyes, Brnabić is openly gay and backed by Scandinavian states on the promotion of LGBT rights. The confirmation of Brnabić allows Vučić to present the government to the West as progressive, promoting civil rights.

Consistent with his approach, Vučić also appointed to the post of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dačić, the leader of Serbia’s Socialist Party, the successor of Slobodan Milosević’s Party and Russia’s proxy in Serbia.

 

Balkan (in)stability and Serbia’s key role

Although the secessions of Kosovo in 1999 and Montenegro in 2006 had the power to advance the disintegration of the Yugoslav Federation, which started with the independence of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, Serbia remains the region’s pivotal country. With a central geographical position, the broadest territory and the largest population of the Western Balkans, Serbia has the power to (de)stabilize the region.

Vučić’s ambition is to make Serbia a leading regional power in a context of stability and peace and within a broad network of alliances and partnerships worldwide. He is confident that his approach to neutrality will continue to work in Serbia’s interests.

With over 3 billion in grants provided since 2001, the EU is the most generous donor to Serbia while EU member states are the origin of over 70% of foreign direct investments. However, in spite of its economic integration with the rest of Europe and NATO’s dominance in the region, militarily Serbia took another direction.

Vučić inherited Serbia’s membership into NATO’s Partnership for Peace. Far from denouncing the agreement, he counterbalanced it through moves that place Serbia in competition with the Western bloc. Over the years, Serbia has purchased, or received for free, a wide range of Russian military supplies, and since 2011 it hosts a Russian humanitarian center that some affirm to be a disguised military base. Earlier this year Belgrade purchased Chinese drones and asked Turkey to supply its dreadful Bayraktar models.

To reward Vučić for his friendly attitude over the Ukraine war, last May Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to supply Belgrade with gas for three years at a discounted price.

 

From our archive: L’Ucraina di Putin e le possibili lezioni di Milosevic

 

While Vučić tactically plays the role of a moderator who pursues the region’s stability, Serbia’s long-term goal is to build a “Greater Serbia”. The geographical boundaries and institutional shape of this entity are yet to be determined. What is certain is that the Republic of Serbia acts as a pole of attraction for the surrounding Serb-populated regions, such as Northern Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Republika Srpska and part of Montenegro. In this respect, the challenge to the status quo comes from the reality on the ground. However, this also explains the close ties that Vučić has established with Turkey’s Erdogan and Hungary’s Orban.

 

Kosovo’s unresolved statehood

The first thorny issue is Kosovo. After NATO’s military operation in 1999 and Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence in 2008, the former Serbian province is not recognized by around 80 UN members, including Russia, China  – with Security Council veto powers – and five EU members

Out of around 120,000 Serbs living in Kosovo, nearly 50,000 reside in the four Serbian-majority municipalities of Northern Kosovo. Bordering Serbia, Northern Kosovo has thus far been a no-man’s land, with Pristina unable to exercise its authority and Belgrade ruling de facto.

Hopes for a final settlement were raised in 2013, following the initialing by Vučić and his Kosovan counterpart Hashim Thaci of the Brussels Agreement, setting in motion a process that should have led to the creation of the autonomous Association of Serbian municipalities and the final recognition of Kosovo by Serbia. Neither has occurred so far, due to Pristina’s opposition to the establishment of the Association and Belgrade’s refusal to recognize Pristina’s independence without formal guarantees on the protection of Serbs’ rights. Kosovo Albanians fear that the Association of Serbian Municipalities would be a remake of Republika Srpska, which may challenge the state authority with acts of sabotage.

Last year’s rise to power of Albin Kurti in Pristina has made Kosovo less inclined to compromise. The Kosovar government’s decision to no longer allow transit to Serbia-plated cars belonging to Serbs residing in Kosovo has sparked harsh opposition by Serbs, who withdrew their representatives from Kosovo’s institutions in a sign of protest. Kurti’s decision to impose the replacement of Serbian plates with Kosovan ones by April 2023 was not supported by the EU or the US, who expect Pristina to extend the deadline for re-registration of vehicles.

An interesting poll conducted in 2019 in Kosovo and Albania found that the majority of Albanians in both countries, as well as the majority of Kosovan Serbs, would be in favor of a settlement under which Kosovo would be united with Albania upon a re-union of Northern Kosovo with Serbia. Such a solution would not be impossible to achieve if properly prepared diplomatically, politically and economically. Not surprisingly, Kurti, as well as Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama, have both expressed support for such a federation.

 

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s outdated Dayton Agreement

The US-led Dayton Agreement allowed for an end to the 1992-1995 bloodshed in Bosnia-Herzegovina but devised a dysfunctional state.

While there is consensus on the need to reform the state’s constitution, there are deep disagreements on the future of its institutional architecture. On the one side, Bosniaks would like a higher degree of centralization. On the other, Croats aim at breaking the Muslim-Croat Federation in order to create a Croatian entity, while Republika Srpska threatens secession from Sarajevo.

The most immediate challenge to state survival is posed by Republika Srpska and its leader, Milorad Dodik. Although Vučić’s claims that Belgrade is committed to Bosnia-Herzegovina’s territorial integrity, Dodik and most Bosnian Serbs make no secret of their aspiration of self-determination. Consistently, last year Banja Luka’s parliament voted in favor of provisions that would allow the entity to opt out of national institutions. The war in Ukraine, however, withheld Dodik from carrying out his secessionist plan.

Against this backdrop, elections for parliament, presidency and top posts in the Muslim-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska took place in early October. The main nationalist parties (the Bosniak SDA, Serb SNSD, and Croat HDZ) took the lead in all of the main elected bodies, although significantly less than in the previous election.

All this leads analysts to conclude that the question is not if Bosnia-Herzegovina will disintegrate but how and when.

 

Montenegro’s divide

The small Adriatic country has been an EU candidate since 2012. It joined NATO in 2017 after a failed coup orchestrated by Russia and enacted by pro-Serbian forces. Following the 2020 elections, the country fell into a political stalemate as two coalition governments lost the parliament’s confidence. The current crisis was determined by a controversial law recognizing the properties claimed by the Serbian Orthodox Church. Administrative elections held in October confirmed the stalemate.

The country is divided between a pro-EU and pro-NATO majority, a large pro-Russia and pro-Serbia minority and an Albanian minority that tries to balance between the two.

Belgrade has never challenged Montenegro’s territorial integrity. However, some political leaders call for the introduction of measures to protect the Serbian minority.

 

The war in Ukraine and the geopolitical shape of the Western Balkans

The war in Ukraine added a new factor of complication.

Many Serbs find inconsistence in the West’s adherence to the principle of self-determination to support Kosovo’s secession from Serbia, and to the principle of territorial integrity to condemn Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

 

Read also: How the Ukraine war deepens divisions across the Balkans

 

More importantly, Russia’s degree of success or failure in Ukraine will have an impact on Serbs’ aspirations. Should Russia succeed in retaining Crimea and Donbass, Republika Srpska will most likely declare secession and Northern Kosovo’s Serbs will start a new uprising. This may encourage Croat cantons of Herzegovina to secede from Bosnia, Albanian-majority regions of North Macedonia to secede from Skopje and Serbian forces in Montenegro to gain more power.

 

The West’s task

To defuse the risk of a possible outbreak of violence in the region, European countries and the US need to acknowledge the cultural specificities on the ground, accept that the process of reorganization of the former Yugoslav space is not over and try to co-govern the events together with the regional stakeholders. Once the war in Ukraine will be over, an international conference on the Western Balkans should be convened to design a more sustainable geopolitical landscape.

The West should accept Serbs’ sentimental ties with Russia and their willingness to preserve their neutrality. However, a red line must also be drawn. Belgrade must understand that military cooperation with Russia and China cannot cross certain thresholds, and threats to Europe will not be tolerated. In addition, the path to EU membership cannot be taken for granted, especially if Belgrade decides to cultivate its ties with other powers that Brussels considers problematic to say the least.

At the same time, efforts to embrace Western Balkan countries in the European family should be strengthened. The region’s citizens need to feel that they have much more to gain from an alliance with the West than with Russia, China or Turkey. The new package of EUR 400 million in EU grants worth EUR 1.2 billion in investment value approved by the EU-Western Balkans summit held in Tirana as we write, confirms that our view is correct.

An enhancement of the EU’s Erasmus+ Programme with the Western Balkan countries would help deepen the bonds between younger generations.

Reconciliation should also be pursued. It should be achieved through the drafting of an agreed history of the tragic events of the wars of the 1990s and World War II. Readapting a famous quote of the 19th century, “When Serbia has a fever, the Balkans sneeze.” Europe and the US should remember this well before it is too late.