Putin goes to Serbia


IN the days before the Kremlin press clampdown, a Russian newspaper once reported that Vladimir Putin’s aides were insisting that the president not be pictured standing up alongside anyone taller than his own 1.68 meters. On Friday Putin’s people will be able to do nothing about his handshake with Serbia’s towering president Aleksandar Vucic, who is all of two meters tall.

This, it might be thought, is the limit of Serbian ascendency over the mighty Russian bear but in fact Vucic has something which Putin wants and for which the Russian leader is apparently prepared to pay handsomely.

The value of Serbia rests in the fact that it is a candidate state for EU membership. It actually began accession talks in 2007, at a time when Brussels was still focused on growing the Union and had just welcomed Bulgaria and Romania, bringing the number of member states to 28. However Serbia had a range of hurdles to cross, the most significant of which were the surrender the final Balkan war crimes suspects and the normalization of relations with Kosovo, which rebelled in 1998 and, after UN military intervention, unilaterally declared its independence in 2008. Serbia still refuses to recognize Kosovo insisting it remains the autonomous province of Kosovo within the Serbian state. However, under pressure from the EU, six years ago it signed an agreement in Brussels whereby it recognized Kosovo’s elected government and its institutions. The EU commission appeared happy with this fudge but the reality is that Kosovo still has a Serbian minority, largely in the north alongside the border with the old country. Moreover, the very name Kosovo carries huge emotional weight among Serbs, marking as it does their 1448 defeat along with Hungarian allies by the Ottoman Turks. Even 571 years later, Serb sentiments over the battle demonstrate that in the Balkans, memory is the longest distance.

Russia has historic links to its Serbian Orthodox Christian coreligionists and fellow Slavs. Indeed Russia’s 1914 mobilization after the Austro-Hungarian empire invaded Serbia triggered the carnage of the World War I.

Putin’s high-profile visit, which will see the signing of a range of commercial deals and generous Russian investments is designed to re-cement these old ties. The Kremlin’s purpose is clear. It wishes to extend its influence in the face of what it sees as the West’s geopolitical encroachment. It has already stymied plans by Brussels and Washington to join Ukraine with the EU and NATO. Bringing Serbia closer into its fold, the Russian leadership hopes to frustrate any US or European attempts to consolidate their reach in the Balkans. Besides his seizure of the Crimea, Putin is also congratulating himself on his now close relationship with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the effective suborning of a key NATO ally, to whom he has sold a Russian anti-aircraft missile system.

In Serbia the Russians are actually pushing at an open door. The increasingly authoritarian Vucic government is still failing EU membership tests on governance and the rule of law. There is little Brussels enthusiasm for Serbian accession, given the problems it already has in this area with fellow Balkan states Bulgaria and Romania. The EU is unlikely to try very hard to counter Moscow’s push for influence in Serbia. However, the longer-term ramifications of a solid Russian client state in the Balkans could be far-reaching.