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Serbs Dream of Russia but Travel to the EU

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) welcomes Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence, outside Moscow, July 8, 2014

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) welcomes Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence, outside Moscow, July 8, 2014

In the recent edition of RFE/RL’s Program “Most (The Bridge)” two Belgrade-based public opinion experts, Srdjan Bogosavljevic and Djordje Vukovic, talked about pro-Russian sentiment in Serbia.

Karabeg: What are the attitudes of Serbian citizens towards Russia, according to your polls?

Bogosavljevic: We do polls every month and have for almost 16 years. Among other things, we ask about the attitudes of the citizens toward other countries. Russia always comes first. When Putin came to visit, when there was a Military Parade that Serbia’s military participated in in Moscow and when Medvedev was here, we recorded an increase in positive attitudes towards Russia. After that, it went down for a while, but Russia is always ahead of other countries.

Vukovic: All relevant agencies get very similar information when it comes to the relationship with Russia, a country with which Serbian citizens identify the most. In a series of studies, we asked citizens which country helps Serbia the most. For many years we have gotten the answer that it is Russia, although that is far from reality. The same thing happened after last year’s floods. The European Union was tied with Russia in our polls, even though in reality the help of the EU was much bigger than the help of Russia. Another example that shows that this is a positive bias: when we asked the question what country they liked the most, the majority said Russia. But when we asked the question to which country should Serbia look up to when it comes to development, then the leaders were Scandinavian countries, Western Europe, the United States and Russia was at the end of the list.

Karabeg: How does the Russian position regarding Kosovo affect the pro-Russian sentiment in Serbia? Russia was against the independence of Kosovo from the beginning.

Vukovic: That is one of the key pillars of this positive sentiment of the Serbian citizens towards Russia. This is perhaps the main pillar, bearing in mind Russia's behavior towards other conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. All the studies show that Serbian citizens associate their hopes to preserve Kosovo exclusively with Russia.

Karabeg: Many analysts believe that Orthodoxy is one of the main links that connects Serbia to Russia.

Vukovic: That is one of the links and we don’t need any analysts to conclude that. There is a certain connection that is cultural. Serbs have a positive attitude toward all peoples who share their faith. This applies not only to Russians, but partly to Greeks and other Orthodox nations. Orthodox Christianity is recognized as an important factor that keeps us in a potential partnership with other Orthodox nations. The Church and the political elites nurture that. However, this is not only about the Church and the political elites. In Serbia there are strong non-parliamentary parties and civil organizations that work to promote the Russian state and the Church, and all the elements that accompany that.

Bogosavljevic: I would say that Orthodoxy is more an excuse than a factor. It is an excuse in terms that we are fraternal nations because we are Orthodox. By that logic, we should also have brotherly relations with the Bulgarians, but we don’t. We don’t care about Orthodoxy in Romania and Bulgaria, and we have a very clear negative attitude towards the new Orthodox churches in Macedonia and Montenegro. Orthodoxy is not something that brings closeness, but it is an excuse for closeness.

Karabeg: There is no doubt that the treatment that Russian President Putin has in Serbia encourages the strengthening of pro-Russian sentiment. Putin is an honorary citizen of 12 cities in Serbia, and he received the highest state and church decorations. Serbia has never paid such a tribute to any other foreign statesman.

Vukovic That is to be expected if we bear in mind the attitude of Serbian citizens towards authoritarian models and behaviors. Putin has succeeded in raising the standard of living for a large number of Russian citizens and Serbian citizens have been hoping for that for two and a half decades. But that is not happening. So this is their reasoning: if someone managed to achieve that in Russia, why couldn’t it be achieved in Serbia as well? It should also be noted that Putin became an honorary citizen especially in those areas where there are very similar, small local leaders who see themselves in a similar way.

Bogosavljevic: The polls show that about one quarter of people polled think that a firm hand is the best model. Putin is an example of a leader who rules with a firm hand and a huge part of Serbian citizens like that.

Karabeg: But regardless of that widespread pro-Russian sentiment, the poll conducted by the Medium Gallup agency shows that 59 percent of Serbian citizens support their country's accession into the European Union, although the relations between the EU and Russia are currently very tense.

Vukovic: In the years, since we started doing these polls, there was always a majority who wanted Serbia to join the European Union. In certain moments this number was almost 70 percent. Serbians mostly have a negative perception of the EU and they will tell you the worst things about that Union, but when asked whether they would want Serbia to join the EU, they mostly say yes. Because most people in Serbia perceive the EU as some kind of a bright future, where people have solid social and economic status, where the rules are obeyed and where it is possible to fight corruption and crime that have been destroying Serbia for decades.

Karabeg: At the end, could we define this relationship between Serbia, the EU and Russia in the following way: I adore Moscow, but I would like to live in Frankfurt?

Vukovic: It is exactly like that. People have a positive bias towards Russia and they like it, but they rationally know which direction Serbia should follow.

Bogosavljevic: It is just like that. I adore Russia, but if I have to choose between Moscow and Berlin, I will choose Berlin. If I have to choose where to send my child to study, to Russia or to the US, I will choose the US. We have always asked such questions and we always got the same answers that indicated clear rationality.