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Even 'Proud Friend' Serbia Is Silent As EU's Balkan Aspirants Cautious About Belarus

Belarusian President Aleyaksandr Lukashenka (left) is welcomed by his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic, on a visit to Belgrade in December.
Belarusian President Aleyaksandr Lukashenka (left) is welcomed by his Serbian counterpart, Aleksandar Vucic, on a visit to Belgrade in December.

As Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has tried to beat back a wave of public anger over the mishandling of what critics say is his latest rigged election, voices have been raised all over Europe against the violence against protesters.

"The people of Belarus want change. And they want it now," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared on August 19, midway through the second week of unrest in Minsk and other cities.

Her statement followed a meeting with EU officials and European Council President Charles Michel at which political support and millions of euros were pledged to help Belarusians who had been fired, detained, and/or beaten for demonstrating peacefully.

It also expressed an EU willingness "to accompany peaceful democratic transition of power in Belarus."

It is too early to say how actively neighboring Russia and the West will ultimately respond to the Belarusians' unprecedentedly blunt calls for democratic change in one of the least reformed countries in the post-Soviet world.

And neither is likely to be looking for ideas from the gaggle of Yugoslav successor states eagerly seeking EU membership.

But even as official abuses have seemingly mounted against the democratic groundswell in Belarus, governments in the Balkans -- a region with its own recent and dramatic experiences with democratic reform -- have been uncharacteristically silent.

Targeted Arrests And Intimidation -- A New, Slow-Moving Crackdown In Belarus
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Only the caretaker government of North Macedonia has expressly taken sides, emphatically supporting Brussels' looming sanctions to punish five-term President Lukashenka and his regime for its latest crackdown after allegations of rigging the presidential election.

The responses of aspiring Balkan power Serbia and neighbors Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Montenegro have all been more muted -- possibly wary of provoking Belarus's "union state" partner, Russia, which has especially close relations with Belgrade.

But publicly cozying up to Lukashenka, whose largely coerced domestic support is badly dented and whose support abroad seems up in the air, would be highly risky, according to Florian Bieber, author of the recent book, The Rise Of Authoritarianism In The Western Balkans.

"It is not a surprise that the [Western Balkan] leaders are silent, especially [Serbian President Aleksandar] Vucic, as aligning themselves too much with Lukashenka is a high-risk strategy...[that] would put them at odds with the EU…as even signals from Russia are ambivalent," Bieber told RFE/RL.

Crickets In Belgrade

The dilemma over how to respond publicly to the Belarusian protests is the thorniest for Serbia, which only a month ago cracked down on its own postelection protests and whose president eagerly courted Lukashenka as recently as last month.

Serbia's close ties with Moscow have been a source of Western concern as critics accuse Vucic of chipping away at Serbian institutions, free media, and the rule of law instead of embracing EU values.

Standing alongside Vucic in Belgrade in December, Lukashenka boasted that the Serbian and Belarusian people were "united by centuries-old ties and common visions of the future."

"We are proud of our Belarusian friends," Vucic gushed to Belarusian state TV.

Since then, partly boycotted elections in June gave Vucic's Progressive Party and its allies a supermajority and contributed to opposition protests and a crackdown in Serbia.

Vucic has also doubled down on his strategy of trying to play the European Union off diplomatically against less-democratic rival Russia and communist China without endangering Belgrade's hopes of early EU membership.

But Vucic held off on any congratulatory message to the Belarusian president and has avoided mention of the Minsk trip he promised to take soon after the election.

Moscow's somewhat cautious approach so far to the Belarusian unrest -- amid Western fears that Russia could try to swallow up its smaller neighbor -- appears to have left Belgrade guessing.

Bieber noted that swaths of Serbia's opposition are potentially hamstrung, too, since some of the governing national populists' biggest critics are broadly pro-Russian parties.

Belgrade's situation was complicated by images -- subsequently dismissed by Serbian officials as old or misleadingly interpreted -- purporting to show Serbian troops present in Belarus seemingly in support of local security measures on election day and during the unrest.

Not All Quiet Within Serbia

A number of nongovernmental groups, activists, and a smallish opposition party in Serbia have not shied away from expressing support for Belarusian protesters.

The president of the pro-EU New Party, Uros Elekovic, signed onto a joint statement opposing "the trampling upon of democratic principles, freedom of speech, and freedom of the media" and urging pressure on Belarusian officials "responsible for the unprecedented repression" there.

Serbian youth activists lay flowers in front of the entrance to the Belarusian Embassy in Belgrade on August 14 as an expression of support for the citizens of Belarus.
Serbian youth activists lay flowers in front of the entrance to the Belarusian Embassy in Belgrade on August 14 as an expression of support for the citizens of Belarus.

Activists from the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR) in Belgrade, meanwhile, laid flowers at the entrance to the Belarusian Embassy. On August 14 they said "there is no friendship" with Lukashenka, whom they accused of "sacrificing the lives and freedoms of citizens in order to stay in power forever."

The YIHR urged Vucic and Prime Minister Ana Brnabic to cancel joint military exercises with Belarus and "join the international initiative, led by the European Union and its member states, to find a democratic, peaceful path out of the crisis brought on by fraud in the Belarusian election results."

If protests persist and Lukashenka's position seems more tenuous despite his increasingly desperate appeals for help from Moscow, any potential benefits for Balkan leaders of speaking out in support of him could evaporate altogether.

Kosovo Recognition?

With relatively meager trade and energy ties between Belarus and the Western Balkans, much of their interactions are transactional: a few donated MiG-29s here, some visa-free entry there.

But one of Belgrade's persistent foreign-policy priorities has been its legal and diplomatic opposition to the 2008 declaration of sovereignty by Kosovo, its former autonomous province.

"The behavior of the Serbian authorities with respect to Lukashenko is not illogical, keeping in mind long-term cooperation and mutual support and understanding, especially keeping in mind that Serbian diplomacy is based on taking care not to criticize countries that support Serbia's policy towards Kosovo," Bojan Stojanovic, of the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

His center posted a message on Instagram hailing the "struggle and strength of the youth" in Belarus in pursuit of "truth, goodness, and true values."

The specter of any of the non-Baltic former Soviet republics recognizing Kosovo's independence is likely to send shivers down Vucic's spine.

"One of the things that Belgrade will be interested to know is whether, if [Lukashenka] falls, his successor might reorient the country's foreign policy to the West and whether this could lead to the recognition of Kosovo," James Ker-Lindsay, a visiting professor with a focus on Southeastern Europe at the London School of Economics and Political Science, told RFE/RL.

Such a shift might be a long shot even if Lukashenka were pushed out quickly, as Belarus's opposition has seemingly coalesced around domestic problems rather than the country's international orientation.

"It might not be the first thing on their mind [in Belgrade], but they will be thinking about it," said Ker-Lindsay.

Mostly Quiet, But With Contrasts

North Macedonia is said to be among the furthest along of the Balkans' EU candidate states in implementing the bloc's regulations, and Macedonians are fresh off July 15 elections that appeared to consolidate their country's Western trajectory.

North Macedonia's foreign minister, Nikola Dimitrov. (file photo)
North Macedonia's foreign minister, Nikola Dimitrov. (file photo)

North Macedonia's foreign minister, Nikola Dimitrov, tweeted praise for Belarusians' "resolve for democratic change" that made them "the heroes of Europe today." He also welcomed the preparation of sanctions against Lukashenka's regime to punish "the violence, arbitrary arrests, and election fraud."

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the separatist Serbian member of that country's tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik, quickly issued his "warmest congratulations" to Lukashenka and wishes for "continuing cooperation with you bilaterally and multilaterally" to "strengthen friendly and fraternal relations between our peoples."

But both the full Bosnian Presidency that's responsible for the ethnically splintered country's foreign policy and its Foreign Ministry greeted the official Belarusian announcement that Lukashenka had won around 80 percent of the vote with silence.

In Montenegro, another EU candidate country with a significant pro-Russian opposition, officials have said they are following "with particular attention the relevant information on the excessive use of force against peaceful protesters" in Belarus, as well as restrictions on media and free expression. They have stopped short, however, of condemning Lukashenka's actions or explicitly supporting the EU's sanctions effort.

The government in Kosovo, Europe's newest state, has been mum on Belarus.

Its attention is focused more squarely on its own efforts to win recognition from Serbia and international bodies while absorbing the recent blow when powerful President Hashim Thaci was named in an indictment for alleged war crimes that include murder and torture dating back to Kosovo's war for independence in 1998-99.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden. 

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    Iva Martinovic

    Iva Martinovic is a video journalist for RFE/RL's Balkan Service.