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24 July, 2012  ▪  Janusz Bugajski

Serbia's Eastern Dimension

The election of former ultranationalist Tomislav Nikolic as Serbia's President is generating uncertainty about the country’s future and the stability of the Balkan region. It has also raised questions about Russia's economic and political penetration in South East Europe.

Serbia's presidential contest in May was fought primarily over prescriptions to rescue a faltering economy and root out pervasive corruption. The majority of angry citizens voted against the incumbent Boris Tadic believing that Nikolic can help alleviate their material distress. But despite bold election pledges, Nikolic's Progressive Party has little room for manoeuvre during the Europe-wide recession. In fact, economic conditions are likely to deteriorate further in Serbia over the coming year and that leaves the question — how will Belgrade react?

Nikolic once served as the deputy prime minister under Serbia’s dictator Slobodan Milosevic. He was in the government when NATO bombed Serbia in the spring of 1999 to prevent the mass slaughter and expulsion of the Albanian majority in Kosova. At that time, he asserted that he would rather see Serbia ally itself with Russia than join the West. Illusions about Russia have been a common feature of Serbian nationalists, who would be well advised to consult with Moscow’s neighbours such as Ukraine before making brash statements about the benefits of a close union with the Kremlin.

Still, Nikolic promised during his campaign that "Serbia will not stray from its European path." Be that as it may, remaining on the “European path” will prove difficult if the new President begins to exploit the status of both Kosova and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Indeed, his election may encourage Serbian leaders in northern Kosova and in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska to harden their positions and press more vehemently toward secession.

Nikolic' other manoeuvre will be to pivot toward Russia in order to gain financial and political backing. On his first foreign trip, Nikolic was warmly received in the Kremlin where President Vladimir Putin confirmed that the Serbs were Russia's spiritual brothers. But despite all this melodrama, the relationship between Moscow and Belgrade over many years has been marked by mutual exploitation rather than enduring love.

For Russia's rulers, all Slavic nations in the Balkans have been useful bridgeheads for gaining strategic access to the Mediterranean. Over the centuries, Moscow has courted Bulgaria, Serbia, and Montenegro, claiming Slavic Orthodox solidarity against foreign occupation. Those fighting in these states for independence from Ottoman rule welcomed Russian assistance. Moscow in turn demanded support for Russia's foreign ambitions vis-a-vis the major European powers.

Muscovite policy was replicated by Stalin when the communists seized power in the Balkans at the end of World War Two. But while Bulgaria remained loyal to Stalin, the Yugoslavs were the first to break with Moscow and Belgrade was under constant threat of invasion by its Russian brothers. Tito smartly played off East against West and harboured no illusions about Russia's imperial ambitions.

When Slobodan Milosevic captured the state and tore up the Yugoslav federation in the early 1990s he cunningly exploited Russia to defend himself against Western pressure. He needed Boris Yeltsin to demonstrate that Serbia was not alone while carving up territories in neighbouring republics to create an ethnically-homogenous state.

In turn, Yeltsin needed Milosevic to trumpet that Russia was still a major power even though it had lost its satellites and the Soviet Union had disintegrated. Belgrade played on Russia's superpower lust while Moscow manipulated Serbia's mini-imperialist dreams. With Belgrade's insistence, Russia was involved in all the post-Yugoslav peace settlements.

But unlike Milosevic, who manipulated Russia to his advantage, Serbian nationalists today seem naive and gullible. Nikolic once asserted that he would prefer to see Serbia as a Russian province rather than as a member of the EU. The Kremlin now views Serbia as a useful surrogate in the middle of the Balkans where even its traditional ally Bulgaria has joined NATO and rejected several exploitative Russian energy deals.

Serbiais promoted by the Kremlin as a bastion against American influence throughout South East Europe. Combining pressure, incentive and blackmail, Russian officials have warned Belgrade that any move toward NATO membership would result in a loss of Russian support for not recognizing Kosova. Moscow would also prefer that Belgrade remain outside the EU to avoid implementing its legal standards especially in business transparency. Instead, Moscow proposes that Serbia join its opaque Eurasian economic block.

While in Moscow, Nikolic also claimed that he may recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states despite Georgia’s protests. Serbia’s parliament will evidently consider formal recognition during the coming weeks. Moscow has tried to entice and cajole various allies into recognizing the two breakaway territories but with almost no success. Although Serbia may calculate it will gain substantial Russian loans as a reward, such recognition will further dent its EU aspirations.

Nikolic took his begging bowl to Moscow seeking an $800 million loan as Russia had previously promised a $1 billion dispersal but has only delivered $200 million so far. But the new Serbian government must carefully read the conditions of any loan. Russia is not dispensing charity; it is seeking to create political dependence and to control Serbia's energy infrastructure as its state companies develop pipeline projects across the Balkans. It is Belgrade's responsibility to make sure that the undying love that Nikolic has declared for Russia on behalf of the Serbian people does not result in Serbia becoming a victim of date rape.

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