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Serbia, Beware Russians Bearing Gifts

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic (right) meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Belgrade on December 12.
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic (right) meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Belgrade on December 12.

What to make of Serbian-Russian relations at this critical juncture in global affairs?

The pace of diplomatic visits and gift exchanges has picked up recently, but one gets the sense that both sides doth protest too much. The sudden burst of enthusiasm may be all that it appears, or it may be a sign that relations between Belgrade and Moscow have hit a rocky patch that requires smoothing over with gifts and visits.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic is currently in Moscow, and less than 10 days ago Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Belgrade. Meanwhile, it has been announced that Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev, whose visit has been postponed a few times, will visit Belgrade in the first quarter of 2017.

On his recent visit, Lavrov said that "the Kremlin is ready to boost Serbia's defense capacity." In Moscow, Vucic is scheduled to meet with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to finalize the arrangements for a special gift to Serbia of six MiG-29 fighters. The warplanes are out of service in Russia, and Serbia will pay for their overhaul and modernization.

Russian MiG-29 jet fighters
Russian MiG-29 jet fighters

B92 quoted Ivan Safronov, a journalist with the Moscow daily Kommersant, as reporting that Russia's aim is to boost its interests in a region where most countries are now NATO members.

Kommersant also quoted one of Moscow's most reliable friends in Belgrade, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, as saying: "Serbia will never become an anti-Russian state and we will never join sanctions against Russia."

He might as well have said: "We will never be like Montenegro."

Montenegro, Serbia's smaller southern neighbor, is on the brink of becoming NATO's 29th member, pending approval by its parliament and the rest of the current member states of the alliance. Montenegrin prosecutors and other officials in Podgorica, meanwhile, have implicated Russians in an attempted coup on election day whose aim was to assassinate the outgoing prime minister and install a pro-Russian government in Podgorica.

This failure, and Montenegro's likely "defection," may explain Moscow's perceived desire to rein in Serbia and increase Belgrade's dependence on Russian military equipment.

The Russian "gift" of six jets, for which Serbia may in fact end up paying around $50 million according to media estimates of the cost of the necessary overhaul, has nevertheless been welcomed in Serbia.

An opposition lawmaker from Vojvodina, Nenad Canak, is virtually the lone voice expressing concern over his country's dependence on Russia: "It's clear that Russia views Serbia as its colony in the heart of Europe...and it is equally clear that we should be wary of what appears to be a concerted Russian diplomatic offensive [aimed at destabilizing Europe]."

However, Florian Bieber, a Balkan expert and director of the Center for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, in Austria, disagrees, and says that Russian influence in Serbia is overstated.

"Both Serbia and Russia have much to gain from playing up their ties," Bieber said. "The current Serbian government can pour cold water on its nationalist [and anti-Western] critics, while at the same time using supposed Russian influence as a bargaining chip in its negotiations with Europe over EU membership. This is a game of high-stakes poker in which Serbia is bluffing with its Russian hand, which is far weaker than it appears, while Russia gets to appear more influential in the region than it is in reality."

In either case, Russia's gift to Serbia of fighter jets, which not only need refitting but also come with so much else attached, brings to mind the saying that the most expensive lunch you can get is a free lunch.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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