“Serbia has yet to resolve the damage of the Milošević era”. An interview with Vuk Vuksanović, expert of Serbian geopolitics

22.03.2021 – 13.10 – Trieste hosts one of the largest Serbian communities in Italy, rooted in the city for about three centuries, as the Serbian Orthodox Temple of the Holy Trinity and St. Spyridon testifies plastically. It is also one of the few Italian seats of an honorary Serbian consulate. For many, however, the image of Serbia as a geopolitical player has remained crystallized in the troubled 1990s, which saw Belgrade start and lose two civil wars to prevent the secession of Slovenia (1991), Croatia (1991-1995), Bosnia Herzegovina (1992-1995) and Kosovo (1998-1991), which together led to the collapse of the Yugoslav Federation conceived by Tito in 1943. After last month’s in-depth study dedicated to Germany, we interviewed Vuk Vuksanović, an expert in Serbian geopolitics, to find out how much Serbia in 2021 has in common with Serbia in 1991, and with the previous ones. Vuksanović is a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and a researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy. 

What are Serbia’s foreign policy guidelines today? 

Like all small nations, Serbia pursues a reactive foreign policy, not a proactive one. It moves in a context where the rules are decided by others. Having said this, the priority is certainly to repair the damage of the 1990s: the country has not yet managed to emancipate itself from the consequences of the Milošević era. This is a necessary step if the country is to find its own place in the strategic EU and world architecture.  

What are these consequences?

Certainly, the relationship with Kosovo. Non-recognition remains the central issue of Serbian foreign policy, as well as the main obstacle in the process of approaching the EU. Then come all the disputes that pit Serbia against all its post-Yugoslavian neighbors: Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro and North Macedonia. Finally, the country must fully integrate into the global market. A necessity that makes the EU, with all its limitations, the best partner with which to dialogue. 

At the moment, however, the process of integrating the Western Balkans into the EU seems frozen. How much does this factor weigh?

The fact that entering the EU is currently seen as an unrealistic scenario diminishes the influence that Brussels can exert on all six Western Balkan countries. As long as EU entry remains a chimera, why settle down, Serbian elites ask themselves. It is much more profitable to continue to diversify one’s friendships. 

A tradition of the house. 

Yes, Serbia has always skillfully juggled different partners. Since the early nineteenth century, when it tried to gain independence by juggling the Ottoman Empire and Western powers, or as in the Cold War, with the foundation of the Non-Aligned Movement. Today this tactic is being reproduced even within the EU. 

How? 

The dynamic is this. No Serbian government can exist without the convinced support of at least one Western partner. Until recently, President Aleksandar Vučić was able to count on that of Germany. But certain moves have alienated the Serbian president from Angela Merkel’s support. Above all, the proposal to resolve the dispute with Kosovo through an exchange of territories, an option opposed by Berlin, but supported by the Trump administration, on which Vučić had staked so much. Also what (not) happened in the last elections, where the president’s party won thanks to the boycott of almost all the oppositions, has cooled the Berlin-Belgrade axis. So, with Trump’s defeat, Vučić was left with only two options among the heavyweights of the West: the United Kingdom, which, however, has never had much interest in the Balkans and has yet to find itself after finalizing the Brexit, and France. Thus Paris became Belgrade’s best friend in the EU.

Can anything concrete come of it? 

Doubtful. The Western Balkans need a 24/7 approach, not a few one-off flare-ups of attention. And Paris has neither the capacity nor the interest to guarantee this degree of commitment.

Are there any other EU partners with whom Belgrade is particularly attuned? 

Certainly, Hungary. First of all, Budapest appreciates how Belgrade treats the Hungarian minority in Vojvodina. Moreover, the two countries meet on many common dossiers, such as the construction of the Belgrade-Budapest freeway and the ambition to import even more energy from Russia. And the personal relationship between Vučić and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is very good. 

Why?

They are both advocates of a kind of “illiberal democracy”, or at least of a political model that deviates significantly from the EU standard. It should be noted, however, that Vučić is much more ductile in ideological terms. Unlike his Magyar colleague, he did not stand for the defense of the traditional family and the fight against LGBT rights. He has even appointed a lesbian woman, Ana Brnabić, as his premier. A move to wink at Brussels and present himself as a convinced Europeanist, of course. 

But are Vučić and his people really interested in promoting Serbia’s accession to the EU? 

On an ideological level, the current ruling class is certainly not very sensitive to EU values, especially if compared to some predecessors. It is composed, for the most part, of nationalists from day one who later recycled themselves as pro-Europeans and were accepted by Brussels as such. Being an extremely pragmatic leadership, it adopts a transactional approach in its interaction with Brussels. Serbian decision-makers know that their country is already too integrated with the EU (economic exchanges, social ties, emigrants’ remittances) to even think of giving up this interaction. At the same time, however, slowing down the enlargement process is convenient for them: only in this way can they remain in power. 

Are there clear divisions in the Serbian political spectrum, as far as foreign policy is concerned? 

The question is complex. It cannot be traced back to the simple East-West divide, as it is lazily told. There are Serbs who are openly pro-Western, but who criticize the foreign policy of the EU and the US, just as there are Serbs who know nothing about the functioning of Russian society, but admire Russia only because it is an alternative to the West. In general, however, the major parties do not show significant differences among themselves when it comes to foreign policy. They all try to avoid unpopular choices, such as recognizing Kosovo, joining NATO, or imposing sanctions on Russia. They all try to attract the votes of both the pro-Western segments and those who would prefer more interaction with China and Russia. All always try to have the support of the largest number of external actors. 

Among them, a lot has been written about China for some years. Has Beijing’s influence in Serbia really increased?

It is higher than ever. China has replaced Russia as the second partner of Serbia in every aspect, from diplomatic to economic. This is evident from a variety of examples. China has become one of Serbia’s main donors. Political ties and technological exchanges have been strengthened, as confirmed by the partnership with Huawei. Cooperation in the military field has also increased.  

So the link between Belgrade and Moscow is weaker than what is usually said?

In the West the myth of a bisecular continuity in the bond between Serbia and Russia conveyed by the common Orthodox faith continues to persist, but this has never been reality. Like all diplomatic relations, the Moscow-Belgrade axis has been influenced over the decades by the geo-strategies of the two countries and the ruling classes that governed the two states at that given time. The Kremlin’s influence is weaker today than even two years ago. Certainly, Russia’s non-recognition of Kosovo remains an unbreakable pillar of this relationship. And, from a Serbian point of view, until the prospect of joining the EU becomes realistic, there is no reason to break with Moscow. Triangulation with non-western partners can always bring advantages, as seen in the case of vaccines.

Russia also has very strong ties with the Serb Republic, the administrative entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina where the majority of Bosnian Serbs live. Their leader, Milorad Dodik, often threatens with the secession. What does Belgrade think about this scenario? 

I believe that if surveys were conducted among the Serbian and Albanian populations throughout the region, it would emerge that both the majority of Serbs and the majority of Albanians would like to live in a single mono-ethnic state. That said, nothing of the sort will ever happen. And the Serbian Republic is there to prove it. In Belgrade, the current conditions imposed in Dayton after the end of the 1992-1995 war is more than fine. It guarantees a fair level of autonomy to the Bosnian Serbs and allows them to have a say in the affairs of the neighboring country. The possibility that the Serbian Republic secedes to unite with Serbia or proclaims independence remain two unlikely scenarios. This situation, however, creates constant frictions with Sarajevo, where the three main ethnic groups (Serbs, Croats and Bosnian-Muslims) do not have any common idea of the future.

Speaking of ethnic groups, but in Serbia, what role do the minorities in the country play, geopolitically? 

They participate in the same tactic we have talked about so far: to continue to keep wide and diversified the spectrum of actors with whom we interact, as long as this is possible without losing the support of the most decisive ones. We have already mentioned Vojvodina and Hungary. The most significant case, however, is that of the Bosnian-Muslim community in Sandžak. Its presence helps to maintain cordial relations with the most influential Muslim countries. First and foremost Turkey, as seen in the triumphant joint visit Vučić and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made there in 2017. But mention should also be made of the United Arab Emirates and Azerbaijan, which, for example, frequently intervene to restore historical and cultural heritage related to Islam and provided assistance to the people of Sandžak during the pandemic. 

Last issue: access to the sea, one of Serbia’s handicaps. Can Trieste, by virtue of its historical ties with the country, be the “port of Serbia”? 

Only for Yugoslav history buffs, I think. In the domestic public debate, Trieste’s name hardly ever comes up. 

What are the most credible alternatives, then? 

To connect to maritime trade routes, Serbia has three options, each with its own critical issues: Antivari/Bar, in Montenegro, which is, however, very lacking in terms of infrastructure, and furthermore Serbian-Montenegrin relations are no longer as idyllic as they once were; Thessaloniki, in Greece, which could, however, be fully exploited only by improving relations with Northern Macedonia, where goods landed in Thessaloniki would necessarily have to pass overland; Fiume/Rijeka, in Croatia, an even more complex solution than the two previous ones, given the still complicated relations between Belgrade and Zagreb.  

[Simone Benazzo]

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