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Serbia: Sitting Between Russia and NATO


Jelena Milic and Aleksandar Radic

Jelena Milic and Aleksandar Radic

“Most” (Bridge), RFE/RL’s program featuring exchanges of opinion on issues of the day, this time is focused on Serbia’s military cooperation withRussia and whether it might endanger the European aspirations of the country. Jelena Milic, Director of the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies in Belgrade and Aleksandar Radic, a military analyst from Belgrade, discussed the military exercises between Russia and Serbia titled ‘Slavic Brotherhood’ in early September.

They talked about the reaction of Brussels to such activities, the consequences for Serbia if it insists on maintaining a close relationship with Moscow even while it is in the process of European integration and whether Serbia will agree to joinmilitary exercise with Russia next year.

Karabeg: What is the goal of the policy known as sitting between two chairs – Russia’s and NATO’s – which Serbia has been practicing when it participates in military cooperation?

Radic: The policy of sitting between two chairs is actually a natural consequence of a fact that, in our region, not only the West has great influence, but also Russia. Russian business and companies founded by Serbian businessmen in Russia in the 1990s are largely present on the Serbian market and that also affects the political scene in Serbia. We should also not forget that the Russian Government has lent money to the Serbian Government in the past to cover Serbia’s budget deficit. There is also Russia’s role in supporting Serbia’s stance towards Kosovo and Metohija.

All those influences – at a moment when there is a high level of misunderstanding between the Western forces and Moscow – occur when Serbia seeks strategic support in both the East and the West. How did that happen? For years, Serbia had nothing important to show for in its military cooperation with Russia. Here and there we had an airplane or helicopter maintenance, a commercial contract, but nothing to speak of a serious cooperation in the defense sector. Then, several weeks before the crisis in Ukraine started, the Russian Defense Minister visited Belgrade.

And the idea of joint military exercises was born, and we started concrete cooperation. Unlike those who say that sitting between two chairs is part of a policy, I believe it is about inertia. Obligations have already been agreed to, and giving up on them at the moment the Ukrainian crisis started would have sent a wrong message to Moscow. Belgrade realized that would be much more harmful than dealing with criticism from the West, becauseofficial Belgrade can always rely on the fact of Serbia’s military cooperation with the NATO members, which is much more developed.

Karabeg: Mrs. Milic, do you think this is about inertia or a policy of sitting between two chairs?

Milic: A policy of sitting between two chairs is the policy of playing a game between the East and the West by the current authorities. The situation was not better during the previous Belgrade administrations. Unfortunately, there is no strategic dedication or thinking of the best interests of the citizens and Serbia in the long run, just maneuvering. That maneuvering is supported by the confusion the European Union is in. The Serbian authorities actually believe they can extend their reign by irresponsibly sitting between the two chairs.

Karabeg: In early September Serbia participated in joint military exercise with Russia and Belarus despite opposition from the EU. The exercise was named ‘Slavic Brotherhood’ and it was held in southern Russia. How do you comment on the lack of reaction from Brussels following the exercise? The EU officials seem to have forgotten their statement warning against such exercises would send the wrong signal to the West.

Radic: I believe that the West clearly recognizes that the general stance of the Serbian authorities is pro-Western and that the defense policy is being developed through strengtheningthe country’s connections with NATO, considering that there is a whole network of joint activities with NATO member countries. The West is obviously pragmatic in its estimate there is no need to make noise about Serbia’s military cooperation with Russia. One of the indicators of such actions is the Pentagon Blog in which official Washington commends Serbia for its work with NATO and participation of its soldiers in NATO’s international operations.

The message of that blog goes something like this: “It is all right if you do not want to join NATO because you are acting as a responsible NATO member.” That is why I believe there is a certain benevolence towards Serbia. The West understands that those exercises with Russia are not crucial, that they do not change Serbia’s political orientation. On the other hand, Russia’s interest in those exercises is noticeable, which can be seen in the name of the last one.

Military exercises are usually given a geographical name or one that reminds of a military operation, but when you name it ‘Slavic Brotherhood’ it is obvious you are insisting on closeness of the peoples participating in it. All in all, we are talking about several joint military activities with Russia throughout the year, and if you compare that with dozens of exercises organized with the Partnership for Peace and NATO, it is clear that the Serbian Armed Forces participation is largely focused on the West.

Milic: I would not agree with you, Mister Karabeg, that the EU has easily forgotten the exercise in southern Russia. This is an issue of foreign affairs, because the military acts only on political decisions by the country’s leadership. That is why European Commissioner for Neighborhood Policy Johannes Hahn warned before the start of the ‘Slavic Brotherhood’ exercise that by holding a joint military exercise with Russia, the wrong signal is being sent to the EU. Our Foreign Minister responded to that rather impolitely by saying, in essence, what is it to the EU what Serbia does with Russia; it is a military issue. Well, it is not a military issue. It is a political one.

An argument we hear from Serbian officials that the number of military exercises with NATO is much higher than the number of exercises Serbia holds with Russia might make some sense if Russia were not currently under the EU sanctions because of the Ukrainian conflict. And when it comes to the title ‘Slovenian Brotherhood’ – when did Polish, Czech, Slovakians and Bulgarians stop being Slavic people, just to mention some of the nations that did not participate in the exercise.

Secondly, what was the exercise about? The goal seemed tocriminalize an uprising of the citizens against totalitarian and corrupt regimes, and the military response to such actions, which is controversial at the least. But to get back to the question-- whether Brussels let Serbia’s participation slide, despite a warning, it is often believed in Serbia that, when the West is expressing concern, it does not indicate serious criticism.

What that concern meant we shall see after [full examination of] [EU] Commissioner Hahn’s Progress Report of the European Commission.Only after that will we know whether our participation in the ‘Slovenian Brotherhood’ exercise went without any consequences. Let us not forget one more thing. One of the issues mentioned in that famous letter of five US congressmen to US Vice-president (Joseph) Biden – one that [Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar] Vucic received when he recently paid a visit to Washington – was focused on Serbia’s participation in that controversial exercise.

Radic: The scenario of the ‘Slavic Brotherhood’ was a lot like the scenario of ‘Srem 2014’, a military exercise held last year at Nikinci training ground – and I would say that both were politically acceptable. Yes, a Russian general said something about the protests, but the scenario of those exercises is similar in all the countries in the world, whether we are talking about NATO members, Russia or China. Today, everyone is focused on fighting the rebels and terrorists.

In my opinion, the message from the West to Serbia is very clear. They are telling us that past is past, but we want to see what you are planning for 2016, because during the summer Moscow sent a signal it expects to increase in military cooperation next year. This will be the true test for the Serbian policy. The message of the EU and NATO is very clear – watch what you are signing and what obligations you are taking on. In the context of the strategic dedication of Serbia to move towards the EU and to strengthen its cooperation with NATO, it would be natural for the country to decrease its cooperation with Russia.

Milic: I would also like to comment the content of the exercise. It is one thing to practice how to stop the actions of rebels and terrorists on someone else’s territory, but the problem with the ‘Slovenian Brotherhood’ exercise was that it was a criminalization of the Ukrainian Euromaidan – an exercise to learn how to prevent internal civil uprising.

Karabeg: The Defense Minister of Serbia, Bratislav Gasic, is not concerned over Brussels’ remarks. He says that the military cooperation of Serbia with the United States is dominant in comparison with other countries, including Russia.

Milic: The Center for the Euro-Atlantic Studies has publically criticized the State Department’s statement… that the military cooperation is the best aspect of bilateral cooperation between Serbia and the United States. I think that such statements do not account for crimes Serbian forces committed in Kosovo, that this actually represents their annulment. I think those were superficial statements that are not helping establish mechanisms of transitional justice that are necessary to reform the security systems or to deal with a past burdened by war crimes.

I would also like to mention that the Humanitarian Law Fund has drafted a rather serious dossier about the case of General (Ljubisa) Dikovic, current Chief of Staff of Serbian Armed Forces, recording crimes by Serbian military forces in Kosovo for which nobody has been held accountable. Participation of our officers of lesser rank in training in West Point or somewhere else cannot be compared to a political decision to give Russia legitimacy through our participation in joint exercise, especially since it is under sanctions of the West because it its annexation of Crimea and the war in Eastern Ukraine. This is no longer an issue of what NATO, the US or the EU is going to say. We are now in a phase when we should say what is in our best interest in the long run.

Radic: The fact is that both in quality and quantity, our military cooperation with the United States is the most important one. There is alsoWashington support andthe US is offering us military assistance. With the US assistance in the Jug military base, we are building the Training Center for multinational operation that should have a regional character, and it will focus on tasks for the NATO members. All of that tells us that Washington trusts Belgrade. I would say that the West is in general agreement that Serbia’s actions are acceptable. The Americans recognize Serbia as their partner and it is up to Serbia to define its policy more precisely in the future.

Of course, NATO membership is an issue. That was the stance of all the governments of Serbia after the October 5th (Demonstrations that helped remove Slobodan Milosevic from power were held on October 5th, 2000, in Belgrade). Insisting on military neutrality was the easiest way to avoid discussion on NATO membership. I, however, am among those who do not believe it is possible to achieve the European vision of Serbia and avoid NATO membership at the same time. Regardless of the lack of a formal request to join NATO before ascending to the EU – and there will be no such request in the future – NATO membership is implied with all the countries in transition, especially the Western Balkan countries that were in a conflict not so long ago.

Karabeg: Russia often acts as Serbia’s protector on the international scene. It took on that role regarding the issue of Kosovo and this year it prevented the UN Security Council from adopting a resolution on genocide in Srebrenica. How strongly Serbian authorities wanted to prevent its adoption can be seen in a recent statement by Vucic, who declared the failure of theSrebrenica Resolution one of the two biggest victories for Serbia this year. Is close cooperation with Moscow, including military cooperation, in some way Serbia’s attempt to pay its debt to Russia?

Milic: Russia’s veto on the Srebrenica Resolution has nothing to do with Russia’s affection toward Serbia. It only has to do with Russia’s positioning on the global scene and articulating its interests. Serbia was against the Srebrenica Resolution because the document insisted on assigning responsibility for war crimes, and that is why it needed a Russian veto. Russia did a great job, while Serbian officials looked tactless. Just look at the speech of President (Tomislav) Nikolic who openly denied genocide in Srebrenica before the United Nations, a founder of The Hague Tribunal and the International Justice Court. That court’s rulings determined that genocide was actually committed. That was a move harmful to the interests of Serbia and it will come back to bite us one day.

We are currently dealing with the umptieth wire tapping affair. We have a completely discredited parliamentary board for control over the security agencies that claims terrorists are all around us. Serbia will never have Russian support in strengthening democratic control over the armed forces, because Russia is not interested in that. Those are things that can only be given by the EU and NATO members. Those are the issues Serbia is facing, not performance of its units in peace missions.

Karabeg: Is the policy of sitting between two chairs a consequence of differences between President Nikolic and Prime Minister Vucic? It has been said about Vucic that he is pro-West, while Nikolic is not hiding his adoration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Radic: I believe that is too black and white. There is no such thing. Different interests are entwined and there is no division between groups strictly connected to one or another side within the authority. We can speak only of what we see on the surface, and that is a single stance of Serbian authorities.

Milic: I see that division aswishful thinking on the part of the Western community... What we see now are three rather different centers of articulation of Serbian foreign policy positions, which is absolutely unacceptable. I am talking about the Serbian Prime Minister [Vucic], the Foreign Minister [Ivica Dacic] and the President [Nikolic]. And there is no discussion on foreign policy in the Parliament, and that is the only place to express and discuss differences. Also, in my opinion, there are two key centers in Serbia obstructing the country’s path toward the West. One is in the security system and another is in the people with big economic interests in dealing with public and state-owned companies.

Of course, they will not say ‘we do not want European integration because that means control over public and state-owned companies and that will cut the branch we are sitting on’. They cannot publicly say that is why they do not want to see Serbia on the European path, but they can and will say they have solidarity with brother Russia…. When it comes to the security structures, they know very well that the process of EU accession also means insistence on continuation of war crimes’ trials before domestic courts.

They also cannot say ‘we are against Europe because we fear transitional justice’, but they will support Serbia’s not moving towards the EU and NATO, and instead Serbia strengthening its cooperation with Russia. And when it comes to Russia’s interests, I believe that a thesis that Russia wants Serbia to be its Trojan horse in the EU is strained, because in the best case Serbia will only enter some form of the EU in some ten years.

What Russia cares about now is to show that the 1990s, when the Eastern European countries left for the EU and NATO, were a moment of Russian weakness that will never happen again. That is why Russia is offering an alternative to European integration, pointing out the challenges Europe is facing today. The interest of Russia is to have support for the European integration lessen in Serbia and [to paint [ pro-European forces [as]… pushing the country towards the West against the will of the majority of citizens.

Karabeg: Can being close with Moscow represent an obstacle on Serbia’s path in the process of the European integration at some point?

Radic: Of course it can if the relations between the leading EU powers and Moscow continue to deteriorate. And that could happen if conflicts in Donetsk [in Ukraine] are renewed. However, at this point the trend is different. Problems in the Middle East have gotten Brussels and Moscow closer. Brussels’s mild approval of Russia joining the Syrian story is also noticeable.

Milic: I think that being close with Moscow is already an obstacle for the democratization of Serbia, and that process is one of the main criteria for EU membership.

Karabeg: In conclusion, how long is Serbia going to sit between two chairs and how long will the West on one side and Russia on the other tolerate such a policy?

Radic: The important thing at this moment is what is being planned for 2016. If the Serbian leadership wants to send the West a message it will distance itself from Russia, they will simply not hold joint military exercises with Russia next year, and they will reduce military cooperation with the country to, let us say, participation of Serbian soldiers in a competition of combat skills. That will satisfy the majority of the Serbian public that supports cooperation with Russia, but it will not have any political or security significance.

However, when it comes to the more important issue, and that is the economic and political influence of Russia, there is no clear line. Russian capital and Russian influence achieved through that capital is present in the EU countries too, so regardless of Serbia’s European ambitions, we must count on a significant presence of Russia on our political scene. Whatever you do, however you look at things, we must count on the fact that Russia is a force in the Eastern Europe and that Serbian policy will always have to cautiously move between the EU and Russia.

Milic: If Serbia wants to continue to act self-destructively, it can continue to sit between those imaginary two chairs, but I do not see the point. I do not see what Russia is offering, so we have to have special consideration towards it. Putin is only using interventions in Ukraine and Syria to collect political points and to distract from the state of the Russian economy and numerous other problems. Unlike Russia, the West is closer to us geographically and when it comes to the values we share. The EU countries are much more stable economically and they were not involved in mutual conflicts in a long time. In my opinion those are key arguments that Serbia should consider in deciding its path.

[B1]NEDIM” do we need link to metojija?tnx, rls

[B2]please check wording. I am trying to avoid using a past date and if there is an update needed, please make a link for it. tnx, rls

[B3]NEDIM::do we need links to either nikinci, srem or vojvodina? tnx,rls

[B4]I found this distracting, but if you can put it in more smoothly, I have no problem with it. tnx, rls

[B5]does this need to be boldface? tnx, rls

[B6]link question again. tnx, rls

[B7]I am not sure what you mean here. should it be clueless? or perhaps another word? tnx, rls.

[B8]this seems to me to warrant a link, nedim. rls

[B9]we should be more specific than this, which could be used to frame any question. even if it is as simple as “some [even better if you could specify what type of]commentators have speculated ….” tnx,rls

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