Brother Bear: Assessing the Importance of Russia for Serbia

On the 14th of December 2015, after nearly two years of preparatory work, Serbia officially started the EU accession negotiations. The first two aspects which are to be inspected, are chapter 32 and chapter 35.1 The former is on financial control, the latter on normalization of relations with Kosovo. With the opening of these chapters the current Serbian government, led by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, has made significant progress in one of its main foreign policy objectives: EU integration.2 Yet despite its strong focus on the EU, Serbia has not abandoned its traditional ally Russia. In the current atmosphere of deteriorating EU-Russia relations, this might become an obstacle for Serbia’s relationship with the EU. In this article I will examine the various aspects of the Serbia-Russia relations and its consequences for Serbia’s desire to become a EU member. (Featured Image © Kremlin)

Political ties

The main reason why Russia is still highly esteemed and considered as a very important political ally is related to the question of Kosovo, the most sensitive political issue in Serbia.3 Russia has never recognized the independence of Kosovo, which was unilaterally proclaimed in 2008.4 The continuous Russian support for Serbia’s territorial integrity is one of the main reasons why Russia is considered such an important partner.5

The most recent example of both countries’ cooperation was during the period of Kosovo’s campaign to become a member of UNESCO in the autumn of 2015. Serbia launched a counter campaign to stop Kosovo from becoming a member. This campaign was focused on the condition of the Serbian Orthodox cultural heritage. In Kosovo, there are a lot of Orthodox churches and monasteries, and Serbia is afraid that UNESCO membership of Kosovo would endanger these religious sites. Russia supported this campaign, and the main reason why it did so was because it considered Kosovo membership of UNESCO a breach of international law and a breach of UNSC resolution 1244, according to which Kosovo is governed by a UN interim administration.6

Much to the relief of Serbia, Kosovo was not accepted, and Russia was thanked for its support.7 The privileged position of Russia in the UN Security Council has also been of great importance for Serbia’s policy towards Kosovo. With its veto power, Russia can block any resolution concerning Kosovo becoming a member state of the UN, by which it would gain more international acceptance as a full-fledged state.

The position of Russia in the UNSC has also been of great use to Serbia concerning other issues. In the summer of last year Russia vetoed a UNSC resolution to recognize the massacre at Srebrenica, during the Yugoslav Wars in 1995, as genocide. Russia did so because it believed that such a recognition would be counterproductive and lead to tensions in the region. The resolution had initially upset Serbia, but thanks to the help of Russia it did not pass.8

“The political engagement of Russia for Serbia is not a one-way street. Every now and then, Serbia has to prove its support for Russia as well.”

However, the political engagement of Russia for Serbia is not a one-way street. Every now and then, Serbia has to prove its support for Russia as well. A good example is the Ukraine crisis. This crisis, and most specifically the declaration of independence by Crimea in 2014 brought Serbia in a difficult position and this was, once again, related to Kosovo. On the one hand, Serbia had to support the territorial integrity of Ukraine, because of the similarities between the Kosovo independence and the Crimean independence. On the other hand, Serbia could not risk to overly support Ukraine, because of its close relationship with Russia.9 Serbia supported the territorial integrity of Ukraine. At the same time, it found a solution not to insult Russia too much: Serbia abstained from voting in a UN vote which would reaffirm the territorial integrity of Ukraine.10 Although Serbia was criticized by the EU for this move, the country succeeded in not insulting Russia.

Military ties

The good political relationship between Serbia and Russia is also reflected in their military cooperation. These relations are very much influenced by Serbia’s aversion of the NATO. The unilateral bombings by the NATO in 1999 (without mandate by the UNSC) have left both physical and psychological traces in Serbia.11 The 1999 bombings are still fresh in the memory of the majority of Serbians. Unsurprisingly, whereas the EU enjoys relative popularity, there is no public support for NATO membership. According to a poll conducted by the Belgrade-based NGO Centre for Free Elections and Democracy, 73% of the Serbian population is against NATO membership.12

Belgrade. Building of the Former Yugoslav Ministry of Defence, bombed by the NATO in 1999. © Ward Rabaey

Belgrade. Building of the Former Yugoslav Ministry of Defence, bombed by NATO in 1999. © Ward Rabaey

Serbia claims military neutrality, but what this exactly means for Serbia is not clear nor is it well defined.13 A certainty is that Serbia cooperates with different actors, explained by Defense Minister Bratislav Gašić as a balanced policy of military and international cooperation.14

Military cooperation with Russia is frequent. Serbia has an observer status in the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization and regularly participates in military events organized by Russia.15 One example, which also has a cultural aspect, is the participation of Serbian military units in the military parade in Moscow on Victory Day 2015, Russia’s celebration of the end of WWII.16 What was especially striking, was the presence of Serbian president Tomislav Nikolić.

Besides this, in September 2015, Russia, Belarus, and Serbia conducted a military drill called Slavic Brotherhood on Russian territory. The European Commission criticized Serbia for this drill, saying that the country was sending a wrong signal and that it was not acting according to the EU accession process.17 Another area of cooperation is arms trade. At the end of October 2015, Serbia signed its latest arms deal with Russia.18

“Despite its frequent cooperation with Russia and despite the fact that it does not aspire NATO membership, Serbia does cooperate with the latter organization.”

Despite its frequent cooperation with Russia and despite the fact that it does not aspire NATO membership, Serbia does cooperate with the latter organization. Since 2015, Serbia has an Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) with NATO, and in the autumn of 2015 Serbian troops participated in a NATO-led drill.19 This clearly proves that Serbia does try to adhere to its balanced military and international cooperation.

Economic ties

Another important side of the Serbia-Russia relations, is the economic area. In 2014 Russia was the second biggest trading partner for Serbia, with mutual trade amounting up to 9.5% of Serbia’s total trade.20 The trade with countries of the EU, however, amounts up to 64% of the total. In this broader perspective, Russia is a smaller partner than the EU.

“Serbia produces only slightly over a dozen percent of its own total gas consumption and imports the remaining percentage from one specific country, Russia.”

Another important factor in Serbia’s economic ties with Russia is energy, more specifically gas. Serbia produces only slightly over a dozen percent of its own total gas consumption and imports the remaining percentage from one specific country, Russia.21 This provides Russia with a dominant position in the gas sector in Serbia. The prospect of being part of the prestigious South Stream project strongly boosted the relations with Russia, as it would have transported gas from Russia through the Black Sea, Bulgaria, and Serbia to the EU. The cancellation of the project in December 2014 by Russia was a blow to the Russian-Serbian energy relations. This blow was reflected in Serbia’s subsequent shift in policy. According to Prime Minister Vučić, instead of depending on only Russia, Serbia will try to diversify its energy suppliers.22

Serbia is interested in new projects, which can diversify gas import and increase energy security, but Russia is unlikely to lose its position as the sole provider of gas to Serbia in the near future. Serbian Minister of Energy and Mining Aleksandar Antić explicitly stated that Russia will remain the key partner for Serbia.23 In October 2015, during a visit of Prime Minister Vučić to Moscow, both parties signed agreements in the area of energy, including an agreement on cooperation on the expansion of the gas storage facility of Banatski Dvor in the Vojvodina region, northern Serbia.24

Cultural ties

Last but not least, are the cultural ties. First of all, there exists an idea of connectivity beteen Servia and Russia, because of both nations’ Slavic origin. This is still deeply rooted in Serbia as Russians are often described as Slavic brothers. In December 2015, when the OSCE ministerial conference was being held in Belgrade, president Nikolić said the following about Russia: “A person has friends around the world, but most often recalls their mother – Serbia is like that too, when it most needs help it thinks of the Russian Federation and that help has not been missing or withheld from us, through history.”25

Tomislav Nikolic, President of Serbia, addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventieth session. 30 September 2015, © United Nations Photo

Tomislav Nikolic, President of Serbia, addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventieth session. 30 September 2015, © United Nations Photo

Another cultural bond between both countries is the fact that they are both Christian Orthodox nations. Serbia is not the only Christian Orthodox country in the region. Others examples are Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania. The bigger question is of course whether this shared religious characteristic provides an effective impetus for good relations with Russia for all these nations. For Serbia, it is clear that this does a play a role to a certain extent. For example, at the beginning of 2016, the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Irinej, explicitly underscored the friendly and close relationship with Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church, and stated that Serbia would choose Russia if it were to come to clashes with the West.26


The above examples clarify one thing: while steadily advancing in the EU integration process, Serbia still maintains deep ties on many levels with Russia. Serbia seems to balance between the EU and Russia. One of the possible negative consequences of this balancing is that the relationship of Serbia with both sides primarily depends on the relations between the EU and Russia. Deterioration between these two international players means that Serbia will increasingly have to choose a side. This has become very clear since the Ukraine crisis: Serbia refused and still refuses to take part in the sanctions certain countries have adopted against Russia.27

But if Serbia eventually wants to become member of the EU, it will have to adapt its foreign policy to that of the EU, as stipulated in chapter 31 of the accession negotiations. Serbia is well aware that, in the end, it will have to change its foreign policy. Prime Minister Vučić accordingly stated so at the end of 2015 and said that he expected this to be done by 2017.28 Vučić possibly hopes that by that time, the relations between the EU and Russia will have improved. The question is how Russia would respond in case Serbia does eventually adopt sanctions against it.

“As a country with good relations with both Russia and the EU, Serbia could give an impetus to the dialogue between them.”

Even if the EU-Russia relations remain tense, maintaining close ties to both Russia and the EU does not necessarily have to be a problem for Serbia. In fact, as a country with good relations with both parties, Serbia could give an impetus to the dialogue between them. The recent request of Turkish Prime Minister Davutoğlu directed to Serbian President Nikolić serves as a fine example of the role that Serbia could play. Following the downing of a Russian airplane by Turkey, Davutoğlu had asked for Serbia’s assistance in resolving Turkey’s dispute with Russia.29 If Serbia can successfully fulfill this role as moderator between Turkey and Russia, perhaps the country will be able to fully use its unique position to mediate between the EU and Russia as well.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Perspective. Please be advised that all works found on International Perspective are protected under copyright, more information in the Terms of Use.

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By | 2017-02-03T22:03:39+00:00 January 19th, 2016|Categories: Insight|Tags: , , , , |0 Comments

About the Author:

Ward Rabaey
Ward Rabaey is a graduate of International Relations & Diplomacy, and Eastern Languages & Cultures. His main interests are Russia, Eurasia and the Balkans.

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