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Recent remarks by Ukraine's Ambassador to Serbia Oleksandr Aleksandrovych (pictured) have irked many in Belgrade. (file photo)

Ukraine has long expressed unhappiness about the presence of Serbian volunteer fighters among the Russia-backed separatist forces it is battling in its eastern regions. Now, Kyiv's ambassador to Serbia, Oleksandr Aleksandrovych, has seriously ratcheted up tensions. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)

Ukraine has long expressed unhappiness about the presence of Serbian volunteer fighters among the Russia-backed separatist forces it is battling in its eastern regions.

But Ukraine's ambassador to Serbia, Oleksandr Aleksandrovych, seriously ratcheted up tensions when he not only accused Russia of using its propaganda and security services to lure Serbians to fight against Kyiv, but hit close to Belgrade's heart by suggesting in an interview that Moscow was using Serbia to sow discord in the Balkans.

He rattled off a long list of alleged Russian destabilization efforts in his November 1 interview with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN): "Russia trains Serbian mercenaries to kill Ukrainians. Russia used Serbian extremists to make a coup d'etat in Montenegro. Russia encourages Serbian separatism in [the Serb-dominated Bosnian entity of] Republika Srpska to destabilize Bosnia and Herzegovina.... Russia uses the Serbian factor to destabilize Macedonia. Russia plays an active role in putting Serbian Kosovars against Albanian Kosovars. Russia sells its airplanes to Serbia to create tensions with Croatia."

The ambassador used those examples to highlight Kyiv's reasons to question Serbian intentions when it comes to their relationship.

"When you have Serbian politicians traveling to Crimea and praising Putin for his 'wise and strong policies', when you have Serbian mercenaries [fighting in separatist-held territories], when you have Serbia voting in the UN against Ukraine -- all of that naturally creates a negative image of Serbia in Ukraine," Aleksandrovych said.

Aside from Serbia's 2016 vote against a UN resolution calling for international monitoring of the human rights situation in Ukraine, Aleksandrovych's verbal volley referred to actions not officially endorsed by Belgrade: a trip to Crimea taken in early November by members of the opposition Radical Party, and, of course, the contentious Serbian volunteer fighters.

Cozy Relations

Aleksandrovych cited them as reasons to be wary of Serbia's cozy relations with Russia.

The Serbian Foreign Ministry did not react kindly to Aleksandroyvch's comments, warning Kyiv that it would be "forced to take steps" unless the diplomat corrected his "inadmissible behavior," and stressing that it was dedicated to building good relations with Ukraine.

Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic (file photo)
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic (file photo)

In a statement, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic reminded us that Serbia had taken a number of steps to prosecute its citizens who had fought abroad, including in Ukraine. And he sent his own zinger by noting that it was well known that Ukrainian mercenaries had taken part in "the crimes committed by Croatian forces against the Serb people in Croatia [during the 1990s], whom moreover Ukraine never officially condemned, unlike Serbia [in the case of Serbian fighters in Ukraine]."

That came after Aleksandrovych had been recalled to Kyiv for consultations -- officially to discuss the issue of Serbian mercenaries fighting on the side of pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine -- prompting Serbia's Foreign Ministry, in turn, to recall its ambassador to Ukraine for consultations.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin called on Serbia to respect his country's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Some 300 Serbs are said to be fighting in eastern Ukraine, some of whom were featured in a recent video produced by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.


The Serbian ultra-nationalist Radical Party called during a November 2 parliamentary session for Aleksandrovych to be expelled. It also stoked the growing dispute by announcing that two of its parliamentarians had visited Crimea at Russia's invitation, and had co-founded an international organization called "Friends of Crimea."

The Radicals made no bones about their support for Russian claims to the Ukrainian peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014, issuing a statement that the party "respects the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation with Crimea as its territory, as the Russian Federation respects the territorial integrity of Serbia."

Another group of Serbian politicians, including members of the Serbian People's Party, attended events in Crimea to mark the centenary of the 1917 Russian Revolution.

That led the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry to issue a statement in response expressing "serious concern about the illegal contacts by representatives of Serbia with occupied Crimea."​

Flip-Flopping

The Serbian government, rather than disavowing the actions of Radical and other opposition parliamentarians, chose to blame Ukraine for the breakdown in relations. Dacic described the ratcheting up of tensions as part of "an effort to wreck Serbia's relations with Russia."

On the other hand, members of some of the opposition parties in Serbia saw the situation as the outcome of an unsustainable foreign policy.

Aleksandra Jerkov, a member of the Serbian Democratic Party's foreign policy committee, has said that flip-flopping between support for Russia's and the EU's stance on Ukraine only makes Serbia seem like an unserious partner.

"We cannot simply switch sides depending on which way the wind is blowing, or based on what suits us at any given moment," she said.

"Serbia seems to be forgetting its own position as an aspiring EU member, and the fact that Europe expects us to align our foreign policy with that of the EU," Jerkov added.

Others, however, see ulterior motives in the current spat between Serbia and Ukraine.

According to University College London Professor Eric Gordy, "Ukraine wants to exert indirect pressure on Russia, and perhaps also to put some pressure on Belgrade over its close relations with Moscow. As for the Serbian side, I would characterize much of the current rhetoric as pre-election posturing [a reference to possible early parliamentary elections in 2018], and a desire by various parties to goad the EU [as a means of earning their nationalist spurs]."

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (file photo)
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (file photo)

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, who exerts control over domestic and foreign policy, would like to give the impression of staying above the fray and acting as the peacemaker.

"Ukrainians are a friendly people to the Serbs, and I am convinced that we will resolve this quickly. I would refrain from commenting on any individual statements; the Serbian institutions are doing their job. It's important to defuse tensions and maintain our friendly relations. I will do everything in my power to achieve that," said Vucic on November 9.

Difficult Balancing Act

Yet according to some observers the current crisis in relations with Ukraine is a direct consequence of Vucic's foreign policy -- trying to stay loyal to Moscow while maintaining good relations with the EU.

Vucic has a twofold aim in pursuing this approach, according to Aleksandar Popov, the director of the Novi Sad-based Center for Regionalism. "On the one hand, there is a desire to send a message to Progressive Party voters that we have an alternative to EU membership, but also a message to Brussels that we have a backup if the EU accession process is delayed. But this policy has its limits."

Speaking to the RFE/RL Balkan Service's Most (Bridge) program, Popov pointed out that Serbia has been warned recently that it cannot occupy two seats at the same time.

The warning came from U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, Hoyt Brian Yee, who said that Belgrade's balancing act between Moscow and the West was unsustainable.

In response, Serbian Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin said that Yee's remarks represented "the greatest public pressure hitherto exerted on Serbia."

Vulin, whose pro-Russian stance is no secret, added that Serbia will pursue its course regardless of the demands of the "great powers."

Commenting on Vulin's statement, Popov is unconvinced by the bravado.

"In fact we've seen the anxiety that was caused by Hoyt Brian Yee's warning that Serbia cannot sit on both chairs at once. We were forced to look in the mirror, and were confronted by the reality that Vucic is not Josip Broz Tito, nor is Serbia the equivalent of the former Yugoslavia, and the international environment has changed. We will be in trouble when we are finally forced to choose -- EU or Russia."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
The center of the bridge on the Ibar River in Mitrovica under construction in July 2017.

Bridges are meant to connect people, but the one over the Ibar River in Kosovo has long been a tool of separation, used by ethnic Serbs to maintain isolation from the Albanian majority in southern Mitrovica. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.)

Bridges are meant to connect people, but the one over the Ibar River in Kosovo has long been a tool of separation, used by ethnic Serbs to maintain isolation from the Albanian majority in southern Mitrovica.

Parapets and barricades had impeded access to the other side since 1999. Now, as the bridge becomes passable once again, Russia appears to be stepping in to preserve the physical and political divide it symbolized in its ruinous state.

Russian influence is visible at every turn in North Mitrovica. Russian flags hang over balconies, while portraits of Vladimir Putin and graffiti honoring the Serbian-Russian alliance are everywhere.

The political leadership of the Kosovo Serbs boasted of having been summoned to Moscow for "consultations" prior to recent local elections (October 22), claiming to have forged closer ties with United Russia. It seems that Moscow is now the destination of choice for Serbian politicians facing elections or in the process of forming a government -- whether in Serbia or in Kosovo.

For Russia, northern Kosovo is useful because it allows Moscow to appear as the protector of its Balkan Slavic cousins with little effort, almost by default. The fact that since 2013 Serbia has been engaged in dialogue with the Kosovar government under EU auspices is seen as betrayal by Kosovo Serbs because it destroys the illusion that Mitrovica is still somehow a part of Serbia. Feeling abandoned, many Serbs in northern Kosovo instinctively looked to Russia. When the high-level talks between Belgrade and Pristina began, local Serbs demanded Russian citizenship -- which was of course unrealistic, but reveals the depth of their disappointment.

Serbian flags fly in North Mitrovica as local elections are held on October 22.
Serbian flags fly in North Mitrovica as local elections are held on October 22.

RFE/RL spoke with ordinary people on the streets of Mitrovica, and the pro-Moscow feelings were unanimous. A typical comment was that of pensioner Jova Jovanovic: "The Russians have been our friends for centuries. Whoever has a problem with the Russians is an enemy of the Serbian people."

Another person interviewed, Bosanka Prodanovic, also expressed admiration for Russia and added: "We have no idea what kind of agreements they are making in Brussels. But we have confidence in Putin."

The reconstruction of the Ibar Bridge was part of the agreement between Belgrade and Pristina guaranteeing "freedom of movement" for both ethnic groups. The reconstruction project is estimated to cost 1.2 million euros ($1.4 million) and is being financed by the EU.

Yet, like so many agreements brokered by Brussels, it has been subject to delays and obstruction. Europe is doing its best to nudge ethnic Serbian communities toward integration with the rest of Kosovo, while Russia supports those who continue to insist that Kosovo is a part of Serbia.

"Kosovo is also effectively used by Russia to highlight the hypocrisy of the West's commitment to preserving states' territorial integrity in some cases while supporting the principle of self-determination in others. This has served to both discredit the West as well as justify Russia's own foreign policy actions in Georgia and Ukraine, with Russia citing Kosovo as precedent," the Center for Strategic and International Studies writes in its study on The Kremlin Playbook.

Nevertheless, the bridge over the Ibar River that has been the scene of so many incidents and violent clashes is now open in both directions, albeit so far only for pedestrians. Italian Carabinieri who are part of the KFOR peacekeeping mission are still posted on the bridge, but the tensions are lower than they have been for a long time.

A mural in Mitrovica stating that "Kosovo is Serbia and Crimea is Russia."
A mural in Mitrovica stating that "Kosovo is Serbia and Crimea is Russia."

Faruk Ahmeti, a Kosovo Albanian who lives in Bosnjacka Mahala, at the entrance of North Mitrovica, told RFE/RL's Pristina bureau that crossing from one part of the town to the other is easy, but that some apprehension remains.

"I am still anxious, because I work in the southern sector, and my family lives in the north, and I am constantly wondering if they are safe."

Besides freedom of movement there are signs of progress elsewhere, but it is slow, and many obstacles remain. It is estimated that around half of the inhabitants of the four ethnically Serbian municipalities in the northern sector have Kosovo ID cards, but only 3 percent have Kosovo driver's licenses -- even though Serbian documents are not accepted as valid by the Kosovar authorities.

According to RFE/RL reports, the problem is not only that the majority of ethnic Serbs refuse to identify with Kosovo as their country, but that even those who do try to obtain a Kosovo ID or passport find that the process is made unnecessarily difficult by the local bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, those who stubbornly refuse to make any compromise with the reality of living in the state of Kosovo have put their faith in Putin's Russia, even more than Serbia. It is Putin's face smiling down on passersby from a giant billboard in Mitrovica's main square.

Russian meddling is no surprise for Daniel Serwer, senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

"Russia will use any opening to try to make trouble in the Balkans, where doing so is cheap and productive. If Moscow can wreck the progress made in the dialogue, all the better from its perspective," Serwer told RFE/RL.

Naim Rashiti of Balkans Policy Research Group feels that Russia is keen on sabotaging any project where the West is actively involved, and Kosovo is no exception in this sense -- although it is seen as particularly fertile ground for disruption.

Naim Rashiti
Naim Rashiti

The Russian state-supported media outlet Sputnik habitually refers to Kosovo as "the West's most expensive project."

"It is in their interest to keep tensions high in the Western Balkans in order to divert Euro-Atlantic integrations of the countries in the region," Rashiti says. In Kosovo, the goal of Russian interference is "to impede reconciliation [between Serbs and Albanians] and to prevent the integration of northern Kosovo."

According to a recently published paper on Russian interference by the Kosovo Center for Security Studies (KCSS), the country's biggest challenge will be finding a way to prevent the Association of Serb Municipalities in Northern Kosovo from becoming Russian government proxies in the manner of Republika Srpska in Bosnia.

The official opening of the bridge over the Ibar River was scheduled for March, and EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini was due to attend. With the bridge only partly functional and the opening postponed again, she said that it is "a symbol of the fractures, the wars, and the pain that has marked the history of the Balkans in the last 25 years."

But she added that it could become "a symbol of dialogue, reconciliation, hope." The barricades and walls on the Ibar Bridge may be gone, but it will take longer for the walls in people's minds to come down.

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

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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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