Serbia Has No Coherent Foreign Policy

New Eastern Europe, 3.6.2015.

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An interview with Jelena Milić, a political analyst and director of the Belgrade-based think tank Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies. Interviewer: Bartosz Marcinkowski.

Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić and Serbian soldiers took part in this year’s Victory Day military parade in Moscow. Most of the other European leaders refused to visit Moscow on May 9th, keeping in mind tensions in relations between Russia and the West. What does that mean for Serbia, from the perspective of its rapprochement with the EU?

First of all, it means Serbia has neither a coherent foreign policy nor even a strategy for its foreign policy. It cannot be interpreted as an attempt to “sit on two seats” – to keep good relations with Russia and the West at the same time. What is important is that the Serbian president is not responsible for foreign policy; he just represents Serbia. Foreign policy is shaped by the government, while the president is in charge of the army as the chief army commander. It was the president’s executive decision to send Serbian troops to participate in the parade, though there have been some suggestions coming from the Serbian foreign ministry that rather veterans should be sent there instead of currently-serving soldiers as a compromise solution.

I do not think it is going to jeopardize the Serbian position that much simply because in the meantime a few important seminars with NATO were organized in Serbia. Serbia has also announced its intention to conduct more military exercises with NATO. As time is passing, we can observe that the Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić has been making more and more statements – not so much efforts, though – in favour of the EU and the West in general. On the contrary, Serbian President Nikolić still represents this “old school” way of thinking that Serbia cannot betray Russia or reject its requests. To me, it is more a result of Russian pressure than genuine Serbian willingness to fulfil Russia’s expectations.

The problem is that although the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) does not have to be signed by any side, it was adopted by Serbia and NATO. But some parts of it related to SOFA (a status of forces agreement, an agreement between a host country and a foreign nation stationing military forces in that country – editor’s note) have to go through the parliament. Here I see some potential problems with the smooth implementation of IPAP as it would mean stronger ties with NATO, which would certainly not be warmly welcomed by Russia.

This incoherence can be seen also in the field of energy policy. How to interpret Serbia’s ambiguous attitude towards South Stream and then its recently expressed political will to diversify the energy sector by joining the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline?

Those who deliver money first will get Serbia’s friendship. The fact that Aleksandar Vučić mentioned diversification of gas resources has been presented in Serbia as a miracle. It is strange because this is a common thing that every country has in its portfolio. It is indeed something new that the Serbian prime minister finally put it on the agenda and stressed that it should be one of Serbia’s priorities.

I am still waiting for someone to say that the Serbian security sector should also be reformed. Diversification and security reform are two issues that the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies has been repeating for years, but they have never been seen by politicians as a priority. It is a positive sign that the Serbian prime minister mentioned it eventually. According to the EU, every country in South-East Europe should have at least three different sources of energy supplies. These are not empty words.

This spring, Serbia was visited by several US congressmen and US State Department officials. One of the issues discussed was energy as an important part of economic cooperation between the US and Serbia. Also in the field of energy, relations with the EU are very important now and such a policy as performed recently is a smart move of the Serbian government.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić recently visited Albania. This visit was widely described as a historical one as he is the first Serbian leader to visit a country that Serbia has had tense relations with for a long time. What does this visit mean for Serbian-Albanian relations? What does it mean for the whole region?

One visit cannot change everything. There are still many issues that were not addressed during that meeting. But certainly it went very well in general. Apparently it will be followed by an agreement on highway construction that would connect these two countries.

The visit took place in a moment when the situation in Macedonia was very tough. When Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama visited Belgrade in November last year, his trip was accompanied by some stupid, unnecessary provocations. That was not the case this time.

Nevertheless, it was an icebreaker. Edi Rama was clearer in his statements saying that he sees the future of Albania within the EU and that he wants to follow the Serbian example of staying on the EU path. Luckily, there were no signs of Rama’s previous remarks he made about the possible unification of Albania and Kosovo. This statement was condemned by Serbia and widely misinterpreted by the Serbian media and Serbian officials.

Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović was elected Croatian President at the beginning of this year. Her political party, Croatian Democratic Union, which has a tougher stance on Serbia than the current government, is likely to win the parliamentary elections later this year. Are you expecting any significant changes in the Serbian-Croatian dialogue?

What we usually forget about Croatia is that it is a NATO and EU member state. Some statements coming from veterans, individual members of the parliament, or even from the president are certainly not helpful in developing good relations but they are not going to change the general course of Croatia’s foreign policy. They are mostly for so-called “domestic consumption”. There are some issues in our mutual relations, but they are not that big.

The biggest concern of Croatia is related today to its own economy, and that the government may use relations with neighbours to avoid discussing real problems. However, there is a long-standing problem of the Croatian minority living in Serbia, which might cause some problems with opening chapters 23 and 24 of the EU accession which deal with, among other things, minority rights. Serbia does not provide Croatian‐language textbooks in schools for the Croatian minority, and it is not about big amounts of money, but it is still a problem. There has been progress in exchanging prisoners who are serving sentences in Croatia and in Serbia. Vojislav Šešelj and his style of politics are talked about in the past tense in Serbia. Although his release by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia caused a mess, his ideas do not enjoy any significant support now in Serbia, so he should not be a problem for Serbian-Croatian relations.

The recent unrest in Macedonia has brought the world’s attention to the Western Balkans once again. Some Serbian media described it even as a “war”. How do you see the situation in Macedonia?

The problem is that some events in Macedonia are very peculiar so I do not know what can happen there in the future. I do not fully understand the actions that took place in Kumanovo, for example.

What is indisputable is that there is a genuine dissatisfaction of many citizens with the ruling elite, regardless of their ethnicity. The Serbian media initially reported on the situation in Macedonia in the same way Russia did, as well as pro-Russian parties in Serbia. What was underlined was that the EU integration process is not that alluring and it cannot address all the problems that the Western Balkans has been facing. On the other hand, Russia was presented as an alternative to the European development model. Then all the geostrategic theories occupied the media – that the events in Macedonia were all about the Turkish Stream and its possible route through Macedonia, etc. The events in Macedonia have also been used to fuel the threats of a “Greater Albania” and to mobilise people in Serbia around this non-existing threat.

Just like in the case of Ukraine, the Serbian media have totally put aside the fact of dissatisfaction of people with corrupt governments and huge political scandals. Instead, the narrative was that “the West is destabilising Macedonia” through another colour revolution. They did not see Macedonia itself but the conflict between the West and Russia.

I think that currently the atmosphere has calmed down a bit since the US and the EU advised Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and Zoran Zaev (the leader of the opposition in Macedonia) to talk with each other.

In fact, many analysts point out that the EU is falling asleep when it comes to the Western Balkans and it is not paying enough attention to what has been going on there. Do you agree with such a statement?

I suppose that the truth is somewhere in the middle. The EU should do more. It has been sending a message that the leaders of the Balkan states should carry out more reforms on their own.

The EU should adopt a more tailored approach to all countries which are in the process of European integration. The EU should also focus more on overcoming current institutional, constitutional and international problems of the Western Balkans. In terms of Serbia and Kosovo, it needs to be more clear with Serbia that the Brussels Agreement (an agreement signed under the auspices of the EU between the governments of Serbia and Kosovo on the normalisation of their relations on April 19th 2013 – editor’s note) is just a first step and that the new conditions and issues that appear in the normalization process are not to blackmail Serbia in any way. They are just normal steps to reach a comprehensive normalisation.

In Macedonia the main issue – which is a governmental crisis – needs to be addressed more decisively. The Macedonian political leadership has failed to recognize that the Euro-Atlantic path and the assistance the country gets on its way towards European integration is geopolitical bliss for a Western Balkan country. Not many countries in transition around the world have such an opportunity. But an alliance of technocrats and corrupted elite in Macedonia abused their power, and the EU needs to work on that issue with more commitment.

The EU should also decide to start negotiations on accession chapters with Serbia in spite of some problems in Serbia’s security sector, but only if the EU is ready to assist Serbian authorities to resolve them.

Jelena Milić is a political analyst and director of the Belgrade-based think tank Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies. She previously worked as a political analyst and researcher for the International Crisis Group and the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia.