Russian Diplomat’s Visit Highlights Serbia’s Dilemma

As Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visits Serbia, pro-Western and pro-Moscow analysts trade opinions about whether Belgrade should prioritise EU membership or uphold its ties with its Slavic ally.

 Sergei Lavrov flies in on Wednesday for a two-day visit as Belgrade keeps up its balancing act between Moscow and the West - a point that the Russian foreign minister was keen to highlight as he urged the EU not to force Serbia to sever its alliance with Russia.

Lavrov argued that trying to push Belgrade into signing up to Brussels-backed sanctions against Russia would be to repeat the mistakes the EU made in pushing Kiev westwards before the armed conflict in Ukraine broke out.

“To try to demand from the government in Belgrade to make a choice: whether you are with Russia or you are with the West, well, it is to step on the same rake as in the Ukrainian crisis,” he told Euronews on Saturday.

The occasion for his visit is the 180th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries, and Lavrov will meet Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic and Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic.

But although Russia is Serbia’s ally over issues like the independence of Kosovo, Belgrade wants to join the EU, not the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union which includes countries like Belarus and Kazakhstan.

There are also serious differences of opinion within Serbian society about whether the country should align itself fully with the West or Moscow.

To explore this debate, BIRN asked two analysts - the head of the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies, Jelena Milic, known for her pro-NATO stance, and Belgrade-based analyst, Dragomir Andjelkovic, known for his pro-Russian stance - to talk about the key issues from their contrasting standpoints.

What do you think will be on the agenda of Lavrov’s meeting with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic?

Jelena Milic: I don’t know what will be on the agenda, no one knows that. But I would not be in the same skin as Aleksandar Vucic tomorrow, considering all the pressures by the Russians on the Balkans.

However, it must be clear that process of European integration is best possible solution for the Balkans, and that Russia is not offering any alternative, but only ‘empty promises’. There is no any tangible argument for any country which wants to be democratic and have the rule of law to consider joining the Eurasian Economic Union.

Dragomir Andjelkovic: First of all, this is a protocol visit and we shouldn’t expect big topics to be addresed. This will be event to mark an important jubilee and to point out the positive trends that are ahead of us in relations between the two countries. 

How important is this visit?

Milic: I think Lavrov already sent an insulting message to all citizens of Serbia, to the government, and to Ukraine when he compared Serbia to Ukraine. Especially if we know that he comes from a country in which it is not known what democracy and the free will of citizens is. It is an authoritarian country which disrupted international relations, and now we have proof that it has meddled in the elections of stable democracies.

Andjelkovic: If the US president or a high-ranking official came to visit Serbia it would be presented as very important. The chief of diplomacy of one of two or three world powers is coming to visit us and it is very important. This visit will be good foundation to improve Serbian-Russian relations, which are on high levels on both sides.

Should Serbia distance itself from Russia, as the EU is advising?

Milic: I was negatively surprised when EU experts and analysts missed out on commenting on the most important line in the [recently-published] EU Strategy [for the Western Balkans], which says that wannabe member states have to harmonise their foreign policies with the EU. Member states know who is their ally and it will be an important fact for the EU when deciding on enlargement.

,Andjelkovic: We see pressures on Serbia, asking it to distance itself from Russia, but it is not realistic and it won’t happen. Serbia wants to keep a high level of relations with Russia and to improve these relations. 

How do you see Russian influence in Serbia?

Milic: Russia is the one that is illegitimate undermining the sovereignty of Serbia. The EU has that right [to exert influence], as Serbia is a candidate country [for membership] of its own free will, so the EU has the right to check the quality of the laws, their compliance with EU standards and so on. 

Andjelkovic: I don’t think Russia has such a great influence in Serbia, as it doesn’t own media. Only Sputnik, but it is small media outlet. And it doesn’t have a wide network of NGOs that it funds like the West has. But that influence is important, as citizens are more oriented towards Russia, as pressures from the West create more and more Russophiles. Citizens always know who their friend is.