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Balkans Without Borders

The Serbian cartoonist Corax’s vision of Vucic’s meeting with Putin in Moscow. The figure emerging from the babushka doll is Socialist leader Ivica Dacic.

When the newly reelected Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic promised to form a new government by mid June, few surprises were expected. Speculation was muted as the usual suspects were widely expected to land the most important ministerial positions. That is until Vucic’s trip to Moscow on May 26, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. All of a sudden, the composition of the new cabinet emerged as the hot topic of conversation in Belgrade.

Vucic’s trip was initially described as being private in nature. The Belgrade-based daily Blic quoted official sources saying that the prime minister was in Moscow for some medical tests. Yet the word from Moscow suggested otherwise. On the Russian president’s official website, Putin congratulated Vucic on his party’s recent election victory, and made pointed comments about the makeup of Serbia’s next government. All of a sudden the risks inherent in Vucic’s “balanced” foreign policy were exposed.

Vucic continues to insist that there is no contradiction between his commitment to the European Union and friendly relations with Russia. But with the formation of the new government imminent, there are more questions than answers. Is Serbia obliged to follow the dictates of Moscow? What are Putin’s primary interests in Belgrade, and how will these be reflected in the new government? How long will Vucic be able to walk the tightrope between Moscow and Brussels?

It has not escaped anyone’s attention that in 2012, Vucic also followed up his election victory with an unannounced trip to Moscow. Just like this time, it was later explained that he was there for a medical checkup. That prompted the chief editor of the Belgrade political magazine Danas, Draza Petrovic, to wonder if perhaps the EU is raising Vucic’s blood pressure -- and he needs Putin to bring it down.

This year, speaking at the Kremlin after meeting with Vucic, the Russian president said he hoped that “whatever the makeup of the new government, there will be a prominent place in it for those committed to nurturing relations between the Russian Federation and Serbia.”

This statement may be read as a thinly veiled request to give pro-Russian politicians three key posts: the Foreign, Defense, and Energy ministries.

Dragan Petrovic, an expert on Russia, told RFE/RL in Belgrade that Moscow is doing its best to protect its interests in Serbia and in the region. “In my opinion, Russia would prefer to see some other parties in power in Serbia, like [the far-right] Dveri [party], but as this is currently not possible, they want to see [Ivica] Dacic’s Socialists and possibly the Serb Populist Party of Nenad Popovic included in the government as a minimum guarantee of Russian interests.”

Vladimir Gligorov, a Vienna-based economist, told RFE/RL that as a result of Vucic’s meeting with Putin, the Socialists may indeed be included in the new government.

Commenting on why Vucic would allow the Russians to have a major say in the final shape of the Serbian government, Gligorov said: “Russian influence is strong in Serbia and it is strong within Vucic’s own party as well. Vucic is aware that he needs the support of Russian officials -- and that support has a price.”

Jelica Minic, from the pro-EU European Movement In Serbia, was struck by Vucic’s habit of visiting Moscow in the wake of his electoral victories (in both 2012 and 2016):

“If an event repeats itself, then we have a pattern. This time, whatever is said about it, the message is clear: Russia has a role in the formation of the Serbian government,” Minic said.

Minic highlighted Russia’s economic interests in Serbia and linked these to its growing political interests. Meanwhile, the EU has promised to help Serbia in diversifying its energy sources -- and reducing its dependence on Russia -- but it has been very slow in putting this into practice, in Serbia or within the EU itself.

Vucic may thus feel that he has little choice but to follow the Russian prescriptions, but the cost of his “medical consultations” in Moscow is rising. If Putin’s sway extends to the makeup of the Serbian government, the country’s sovereignty is surely at stake -- and staying on track for EU membership may prove even harder.

A screen-grab of Joan Baez on her landmark visit to Sarajevo in 1993. Billionaire philanthropist George Soros had helped arrange her trip to the besieged Bosnian city.

Two Czech citizens were recently deported from Macedonia for vandalizing historical monuments in the capital, Skopje -- at least, that's what one Macedonian news agency claimed.

According to an unnamed, high-ranking Macedonian police source quoted by the agency, the two allegedly admitted that they had been hired to carry out the vandalism by the U.S. billionaire philanthropist George Soros's Open Society Foundations.

"The people we see in Skopje vandalizing monuments are simply paid local and foreign mercenaries, who will be dispatched to another location tomorrow, depending on where their employer wants them," the police source was quoted as saying. The article also showed photographs of two Czech passports.

Needless to say, this little report caught my eye, not just because I live in the Czech Republic, but more importantly because I remember well the things Soros did to lift the spirits of Sarajevo's besieged citizens during the 1992-95 Bosnian war. As a journalist, I remember the support he gave to independent media and a fragile, nascent civil society in the aftermath of that conflict.

So I looked around a little. According to a spokeswoman for the Czech Foreign Ministry, the Macedonian Embassy in Prague had no knowledge of any Czech being expelled from Macedonia for vandalism.

The Macedonian news agency reported that "the two deported Czechs also admitted having been active in several other foreign-sponsored 'revolutions' on the European continent." However, a look at the Facebook page of one of the accused Czechs reveals he is rather more interested in music than in "regime change" anywhere. There is also no sign of any connection to Soros or the Open Society Foundations.

Over the past few weeks, Skopje has been rocked by waves of protests. Now it seems the authorities would like to portray this discontent as part of some nebulous foreign conspiracy. It's an old trick -- blaming foreign "enemies" to avoid responsibility for one's own malfeasance (in this case, issuing an amnesty for 55 politicians and their associates accused of election fraud, corruption, and illegal wiretapping).

A Popular Target

Soros is a favorite target of progovernment media in Macedonia. For any authoritarian regime, Soros's commitment to open society is a nightmare. Soros's support for independent media and civil-society organizations put him solidly in the crosshairs of many in the Macedonian establishment.

Which is why I think it is worth taking a moment to remember the hugely positive role Soros played in Bosnia during the early 1990s. Thanks in part to Soros, Sarajevo was able to keep its unique spirit alive and to preserve a semblance of normalcy during the prolonged siege it endured. In addition to humanitarian aid, Soros brought international artists, writers, singers, theater directors, and others who wanted to do something to relieve the terror of daily shelling and sniper attacks and the tedium of the numerous deprivations.

George Soros (file photo)
George Soros (file photo)

A friend of mine was working for Soros back then. I remember once how he told me without any particular enthusiasm that he was arranging for the U.S. folk singer and political activist Joan Baez to perform in Sarajevo. He was not happy to have to make the dangerous trip to the airport to pick her up -- a trip that involved crossing the front line separating the Bosnian Army from the besieging Serbian forces.)

It was April 1993. There was no running water or electricity in the city. Yet he was supposed to find a relatively safe place where Baez could perform. He had to arrange for a generator for the sound system. And so on. He didn't relish the responsibility of keeping Baez and her audience safe.

But I felt immediately that the appearance of an outside celebrity like Baez was perhaps even more precious to residents of Sarajevo than bread or information. It was a much-needed reminder that the outside world still existed and that isolated Sarajevo was not forgotten.

Baez was amazing. She quickly made friends throughout the city. She formed an instant connection with local musician Vedran Smajlovic. He became known as the Cellist of Sarajevo, because after the first "bread-queue massacre" in May 1992, he came to that spot every single day to perform Tomaso Albinoni's Adagio in G Minor. There was one amazing moment when Baez sat in his usual spot and sang a powerful a capella version of Amazing Grace.

Before her official performance, Baez learned the words of the popular local song Sarajevo, ljubavi moja (Sarajevo, My Love). By the time of her farewell party, my friend was desperately in love with her. He was ready to take her anywhere, even across the front line to the airport.

Since that time, I have seen Soros as a man devoted to repairing the injuries of the world, to bringing hope to places that so desperately need it. Which I guess is why his vision is not welcome in Macedonia these days.

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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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