Russo-Serbian relations; a set menu

Russia has a tendency to act more like Serbia than the Serbians. This is within Russia’s interests as her leaders understand it, says Manfredi Mangano.

Tomislav Nikolic, Nixon to Kosovo's China.

Tomislav Nikolic, Nixon to Kosovo’s China.

The recent agreement between the Serbian government of Ivica Dacic and the Kosovo authorities, which normalises relations between the two countries without granting de jure recognition to Kosovo, has sparked controversy in Serbia. The capital, Belgrade, saw mass rallies organised by the Democratic Party of Serbia, a conservative organisation led by former President and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. DSS is often labeled as “Moscow’s party in Serbia”, an image which has far outweighed the reformist credentials of Kostunica, the once-moderate leader who had brought an end to the Milosevic age.

But what is really at stake for Russia in the Kosovo issue ?

Moscow in the past has both constantly and consistently backed Serbia’s rights over Kosovo in every possible international arena, to the point of trying to physically prevent Pristina’s representatives from speaking in international bodies without an UNMIK presence.

This support has sometimes expressed itself in paradoxical ways, as can be seen by some reactions to the recent Brussells deals between Pristina and Belgrade. Addressing concerns from some 21,000 Serbian residents of Kosovo, which had petitioned for Russian citizenship as a protest against their government’s ‘treason’, both the Communists and vice-Prime Minister Rogozin proposed a relocation of Kosovan Serbs to Russia.

This staunch support, which spreads outside political elitès to popular feelings in both countries, was always clearly recognised by Serbian rulers of the post-Milosevic era, without marked differences between the more pro-Western phase of Boris Tadic and the current ‘nationalist’ government and Presidency.

The extent of Russian help to Serbia is not just confined to foreign politics either, as Moscow has vowed to lend Belgrade $1 billion between 2012 and 2013, at a time of strong pressures on the Balkan country’s budget. Indeed, Russia has brought several benefits to Belgrade. Apart from the geopolitical usefulness of maintaining a presence in the Balkans with the region is becoming increasingly critical for energy and transport corridors, Belgrade is also a good recipient of Russian investments, as shown by the selling of national energy company NIS to Gazprom at a very low price.

Besides high power, identity and business, Moscow has also very concrete national interests to support Serbia. Itself a multinational country with some rebellious minorities, Russia naturally opposes any independence movements born out of a revolt supported by a Western unilateral military intervention. Nonetheless, international politics can be complicated. Moscow is also the privileged patron of the South-Ossetian and Abkhazian breakaway republics, and refers explicitly to the Kosovo precedent as their source of legitimacy.

This raised Serbian fears that the international battle against the ‘illegal’ Kosovan declaration of independence might have been weakened by its most prominent supporter behaving exactly like its adversaries. Even worse, in exchange for international acceptance of the status quo in Georgia, Belgrade feared that it might be dismissed by Moscow (despite the DSS’ convinction that Moscow might prefer to return the two republics to Tbilisi to help Serbia retain back Kosovo).

As always, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle: in the current political climate, the chances of Moscow recognizing Pristina are close to nil, as the Kosovo issue alive keeps NATO entangled in the area, while Russian public opinion is strongly pro-Serbian and anti-Kosovo. Russia is likely to hold the Kosovo stalemate a potential bargaining chip with the West. After all, a Serbia which solves its problems with Pristina would have no trouble fully joining Western diplomatic circles, weakening Belgrade’s dependence on Moscow. The Brussels deal over Kosovo is the product of the efforts by Serbian politicians to carefully manoeuvre between Russia and the West. It remains to be seen whether Moscow agrees to its relationship with Belgrade becoming a little bit less special.


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