Russia, Serbia, and the Complexity of their Relationship

CEAS, by Savely Zakharenko22.07.2014

4russia serbia

CEAS intern Savely Zakharenko, a 2nd year college student from Duke University in the United States, has written about Russia, Serbia, and the complexity of their current relationship. Cultural, historical and political aspects are analyzed during three unique historical epochs of the two countries' relationship since before World War I.

“The only thing I love more than Russia… is Serbia ” – President Tomislav Nikolić, 2012

Effects of History on Relations

Serbia and the Russian Federation have shared fairly benevolent relations since both countries emerged from the collapse of communism and their individual dissolutions in the 1990s. Yet, friendly relations were not always the norm. Unlike most communist countries in Eastern Europe during the 20th century, Yugoslavia, of which Serbia and its capital, Belgrade, were the political center of, was never directly under Russian/Soviet influence or control; instead, Yugoslavia’s long-time dictator Josep Broz Tito instead helped form the Non-Aligned Movement as a direct affront to Soviet communist leadership and a pathway for open, friendly relations with the competing West. However, both nations renewed their foreign relations once communism, as well as the USSR and Yugoslavia themselves as nations, collapsed.
Serbia, its current leadership, and plethora of its citizens are continuing to strive for more friendly, open, and profitable relationships with the European Union, the United States, and the West since the upheavals of the 1990s put the two sides at odds. Such an agenda is most evidenced by Serbia’s continued pursuit of EU membership, which is seen as a major checkpoint for greater economic growth, infrastructural development, investment, political stability, greater standard of living, global openness, etc. Until the last few years, however, Serbia’s pursuit of integration with Europe and the broader “West” has not been at odds with the similarly friendly relations developed with Russia after the 1990s; only as recent political complications began redeveloping between Russia and the West, especially in regards to the crisis in Ukraine, has Serbia’s bilateral relations been called into question.
The current political relationship largely developed in the 1990s due to Russia’s continued support of Serbia in regards to the issue of Kosovo. The breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s plunged the region into a series of horrible wars that were characterized by gruesome atrocities and massacres. The West lost its strategic need for unrestricted support of Yugoslavia after the collapse of its longtime communist enemy, the Soviet Union, thus allowing the international community to fully voice its outcry and take a very hostile stance towards Serbia, who was seen as largely causing and supporting the violence. Russia, emerging from the ashes of the Soviet Union into a environment of questionable international influence, initially joined the UN Security Council’s series of resolutions that included denouncing the violence, sending peacekeeping forces, and setting economic sanctions on Yugoslavia from 1992-1996. However, after hostilities erupted again in 1998 in Kosovo, Russia joined the opposite side of the international discussion. Russian imports were fundamental in assisting Serbia when the EU and US employed another series of economic sanctions against Milošević’s regime in 1999 . Serbia-Western relations further worsened, if not completely collapsed, during the NATO bombing campaigns of 1999, the second in five years.
Meanwhile, pro-Russian sentiment developed in Serbia as Russia’s President Yeltsin famously expressed open support for Serbia at the UN and condemned the illegal aggression of NATO forces in Serbia. Russian volunteers also went to Serbia to oppose Kosovar and NATO forces . Rumors have also been circulating that Igor Girkin, also known as Igor Strelkov, who is one of the leaders of the pro-Russian paramilitary Donbass People’s Militia, had previously volunteered on the Serb side during the war in Bosnia . After the end of the crisis, Russia-Serbia relations remained very strong as Russia continues to be the key partner in supporting Serbia’s stance against Kosovo’s independence.

Effects of Recent Political and Economic Actions on Relations

The current relationship with Serbia and Russia is still largely the product of recent history, but it is also connected with recent economic agreements and the uneasiness the Crimea situation has placed EU-seeking Serbia. PM Vucic has been keen to take a neutral stance on the issue of Crimea and respect his Russian allies rather than adhere to proposed, but not required, EU-policy.
Both the West and Russia have made a series of gestures regarding Serbia in order to build support. RT, a pro-Russian news source, reported that Obama stated that unlike the gun-toting situation of Crimea, Kosovo was more of a democratic secession since it gained independence through an internationally organized and supervised referendum ; Kosovo, however, never employed a referendum to gain independence after the NATO bombings, further building on the question of Western opposition to Serbian Kosovo and Russian Crimea. On the other hand, RISS, a Russian strategy research institution that recently expanded with a branch in Belgrade , widely reported how rallies were held during the unfolding crisis in front of Russian embassies in Serbia, Republika Srpska, and Montenegro in support of Russian actions in Ukraine. RT also heavily publicized the seemingly widespread support of Russian actions , especially in relevance to Russia’s support of Kosovo ; pro-Russian forces seem determined to legitimize their actions by publicizing support in Serbia.
Another major instance of Russia widespread campaign for Serbian support can be seen in the response to the floods that terrorized much of the former Yugoslavia in May-June 2014. Russia sent aid to Serbia and Bosnia in a very quick fashion, allowing for the few cargo planes worth of supplies and first-responders to seize many headlines and create major splashes in the media, such as: “Russian rescuers are credited with saving thousands of lives.” Although large swaths of EU aid were soon to follow, and in a much larger amount, but Russia’s aid was much more publicized and was able to dominate the Serbian conversation and political mindset during the crisis .
The Russo-Serbian relationship is also being cemented by many of the Russian investments being implemented in Serbia. In 2007, Russian state-owned Gazprom bought a controlling 51% stake in the largest Serbian oil and gas company, Nis; the deal has come under a lot of criticism, however, as Gazprom paid €400 million for the company, which was valued at more than €2 billion and current has a net income of €400 million . The expansive investments brought by this deal, which stipulated that Gazprom also invest €500 million into the company and pay off Nis’s debts to the Serbian government (worth around €600 million), along with the launching of the South Stream pipeline, which includes a €2.1 billion construction contract to stretch the proposed 420 kilometers of pipeline over Serbia , will make Serbia, according to President Putin, one of the “key energy centers of Europe.” The PM of Serbia at the time of the deal’s signing, Dačić, claimed that the project will help make Serbia an “energy hub” in the region, attract major economic development and investment, and create over 20,000 jobs in Serbia . Such optimistic predictions, despite problems with actually starting construction, have created much support for the Russian-led project. However, problems continue to persist regarding the project. The EU, in a desire to diversify and open up its energy markets, entered into force the Third Energy Package in 2009. The Third Energy Package, which among its mandates most notably requires separate ownership of the transport and production of the energy in order to protect from monopolistic price and power manipulation, has come into a head-on confrontation with the South Stream project because in many of the states in which the pipeline is to be built, Russian state-owned Gazprom will control both the gas and the pipeline itself ; implementation and adherence to the Energy Package is of course required for all member states, and, obviously, all aspiring member states like Serbia, thus plunging many of the current South Stream states into conflict with EU regulation. However, in as early as 2010, the European Energy Community, of which Serbia is an adhering signed member of, warned that the South Stream agreement with Gazprom was against the legal framework of the Energy Community and the EU, who share similar legal codes; the Secretariat of the Energy Community specifically warned that continuing to not adhere to the EU and EEC will definitely complicate Serbia’s EU accession talks and may bring significant penalties for the former-Yugoslav nation . Serbia is an especially dire situation, for it passionately seeks EU membership, but also has risked a lot in pursuit of the South Stream.

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Gazprom banner - economic cooperation turned political

Russia is also a key lender for Serbia. Serbia borrowed over $800 million from Russia at the beginning of 2013 in order to overhaul the country’s obsolete rail network , and later that year another 10-year, $500 million loan from Russia was approved in order to fill a budget gap and reinvigorate growth that stalled following the Euro-zone crisis .
Conscious efforts are also being taken to draw more clearly defined cultural-historical links between Serbia and Russia, especially after the fact that both nations have returned to their traditional Slavic and Orthodox Christian roots after the collapse of communism. However, a lot of such links are noticeably fabricated or unnaturally emphasized in an effort to improve political ties. A recent financial move by Gazprom has attempted to reinvigorate Russo-Serbian relation when the gas giant “saved” the famous Belgrade-based Red Star football club, a team that commands the die-hard loyalty of millions throughout the former Yugoslavia, by signing a new, long-term, multi-million euro sponsorship deal .Religion also, for example, although not that entirely prevalent in either country, has recently been highlighted by political officials as a tool for cooperation, as have these mystical, “brotherly Slavic roots.” Yet, apart from business deals and politically motivated cooperation, Serbian and Russian culture, do not share any special relationship.

Culture and Media: The Effects of Politically Fueled History

The influence of Russian culture and media in Serbia is largely outlined by the three unique eras of Serbia/Yugoslav history in the 20th century. Goran Miloradović, PhD, clearly identifies that “cultural cooperation is connected to political relations and is conditioned by them,” and the tumultuous political relations between Serbia and Russia during the three unique eras of Serbian/Yugoslav history during the 20th century have changed the influence of Russian culture and media in Serbia drastically.
After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1918, the very anti-communist Kingdom of Yugoslavia “actively inhibited and controlled any such cultural exchange” because of fears of Soviet messages being channeled as a form of enemy propaganda; in the mid-thirties, a few Soviet films did appear in Yugoslavia, but carefully censored to not include any political content . Wartime cooperation in the 1940s did cause a brief resurfacing of Soviet culture, especially in the few years after the war since the Soviet Union was applauded as the main force behind the victory. Soviet films were 62% of the cinema repertoire in 1945 and over 50% between 1946 and 1950 . The Russian language became the “obligatory foreign language in Serbian primary and secondary schools” until 1948.

slika2A political split, resulting in a cultural one as well

The massive ideological and political conflict between Socialist Yugoslavia and the USSR in 1948, however, put the two countries at odds, and Soviet culture was afterwards severely limited - a process that was very easily executed in Yugoslavia with such outright state control. By 1951, there were no Russian films being screened in Yugoslav cinemas; only in 1955 did Soviet films marginally return with 2.32% of the film repertoire in Yugoslavia, by which time American films made up nearly 40% of films Yugoslavs were watching . By the 1960s, Russian films made up 14% of the film repertoire, Americans films 20.2%, and local Yugoslav films 14.98%, but such a change is fairly relative, as television programming had surfaced by that point and began dominating the market from another angle. Another interesting phenomena is that most of the Soviet films that did permeate themselves into Yugoslav society were actually adaptations of classics by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Sholokov, etc. that were required reading in Serbian schools; it became a tendency amongst the youth to watch the films rather than read the lengthy novels . Other films that did surface were either co-productions with many Serbian actors or a very few films of superb quality. Hollywood’s expertise in rich production and advertising allowed it to dominate over 80% the Serbian/Yugoslav market by the 21st century, with only a handful Russian films of similar production and advertising quality able to enter the Yugoslav markets in the last 20 years .
In regards to language, after 1948 “university authorities attempted to make the teaching of the Russian language difficult at universities” by reducing the number of available lecturers, by having poorly educated teachers in secondary schools whose students often knew more Russian than them, and poorly/falsely translating examples and texts into a faux “Serbian-Russian.” By the 1970s, 70-80% of students were choosing to learn English over any other European language; a brief resurfacing of Russian in the seventies coincided with growth in Soviet science and technology, but such a phenomena had largely disappeared by the end of the 1990s . Regardless, the Serbian Slavic Society claims that around 15% of the population has some proficiency in Russian, though largely this is characteristic to the older generations . Generally, however, the Russian language has largely fallen out of commonality and favor in Serbian society.
Another indicator of possible Russian cultural spread in Serbia is translated literature. In the 1990s, 2573 items were translated from Russian into Serbia, while 9440 English items were translated, 2412 French, and 2039 German . Russian literature, though a sizeable portion, were still a minority that barely competed with European languages without the same claimed “Slavic cultural and religious ties.” In the first decade of the 2000s, 17126 items were translated from English to Serbian, 3500 to French, 2519 to German, and 2908 to Russian22. English in all cases significantly dominated the literature that was being translated, and Russian was not an exceptionally significant minority when compared to the incidence of other European languages. Furthermore, the Russian literature that was translated was mostly either Belletristic novels, such as the Russian literary classics, or Theological material; Chess literature and literature regarding alternative medicine were also represented .

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Where are all the Russian books, Serbia?

The cultural influence Russia has had on Serbia in recent history is largely the product of the tumultuous political history the two countries shared during the last century. Anti-communist sentiment limited Russian sentiment in Yugoslavia in between the wars. After the war, the communist brotherhood caused massive cultural exchange, but it was short lived and ineffectual in the long term as the fallout between Yugoslavia and the USSR soon followed in 1948. While Russian culture was severely controlled and limited, Western media and language truly dominated Serbia and Yugoslavia. Brief resurgences of Russian culture occurred later in the century, though in a minor form. Yet, the disintegration of both the USSR and Yugoslavia in the 1990s caused a return to “traditional values, conservatism, and religiosity… [and] a return of cultural cooperation, or of Russian cultural influence in Serbia.” Yet, ever more convincingly it seems that such claimed relationships are more of a political ploy developed from the Kosovo legacy and Gazprom’s growing economic interests in the region.


Although Russia and Serbia’s historic relationship in Europe goes back for hundreds of years, the massive changes of the last century have completely altered Russian and Serbian relations. Policy determines cultural exchange, and the Orthodox and Slavic cultural and political brotherhood that permeated the imperial environment before WWI was completely annihilated after Russia’s communist revolution. Russian culture, in fear of communist influence, was actively limited under the Yugoslav monarchy until WWII. Tito’s communist Yugoslavia after WWII embraced the Soviet culture and brotherhood, born from ideology and military cooperation during the war rather than culture, did not allow for Russian ideology to truly spread, as the politics of the Cold War claimed victim such a friendship. It was only after the collapse of communism and the dire political situation that collapsing Yugoslavia found itself in during the 1990s that a relationship, and a promoted cultural exchange, could develop once again. Russia’s unflinching support of a Serbian Kosovo has, more than anything else, brought the two nations closer and has allowed for, most notably, tremendous economic cooperation. Gazprom’s cheap acquisition of Serbian gas giant, Nis, and the promise of the massive project of the South Stream pipeline, has further economically connected the two countries – all while claiming that Russia and Serbia’s eternal and traditional Orthodox and Slavic brotherhood made such partnership inevitable, although such “cultural roots” had failed to exist not so long ago. Yet, despite the dreamy aspirations published by political elites and business executives, complications are coming to light as the South Stream project’s legal complications stall the project and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and Crimea once again upsets Serbia’s relationship in regards to Kosovo and the EU. For in the end, despite whatever mystical claims of Slavic brotherhood are espoused, it is all a political ploy… a ploy that has its roots in Kosovo… and a ploy that has disconcertingly grown in influence amongst Serbia’s political and business elites as the country is conducted into a strange crescendo of uncertainty and russified dilapidation by Putin’s Orchestra.