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​Serbian Leaders on East-West Seesaw

Serbia - Russian troops stand after a training exercise in the village of Nikinci, west from Belgrade, November 14, 2014

Participation in military parades in Russia in May and in China this month and joining military exercises with Russia and Belarus last month. Visiting Kazakhstan.

And all the while professing a desire to join the European Union.

What is happening with the see-saw diplomacy of Serbian leadership between the East and the West?

Is Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic trying to obstruct Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s European agenda? The two sometimes seem to operate on different agendas. Vucic traveled to Brussels and Vienna and Nikolic went the other way, to Kazakhstan and China

Some observers think it is more a shrewd division of labor than a power struggle.

Eric Gordy, an expert on South East Europe from the University College in London, explained what that might mean:

“That means Nikolic is in charge of symbolic [policy], while Vucic is in charge of pragmatic policy. This government is playing on two fields. On one hand it is managing to keep itself in power by getting support from the European Union, especially Germany. So, those are the most important allies and that is why it gets many benefits from Europe.”

At the same time, he said, the government is keeping itself in power by its gestures to the East, which gain support from right-wing voters, who are suspicious of the EU.

Aleksandra Joksimovic agrees. The director of the Belgrade-based Center for Foreign Policy said that the European Union disapproves of any gesture of Western Balkan countries that leads to increased closeness with Russia, especially those of Serbia. Also, the Euro-Atlantic integration that Serbia leadership says it has chosen carries obligations to align Serbia’s foreign and security policy with Brussels at a faster rate, she said.

“It seems to me this is wide strategic coverage,” Joksimovic said, “namely their voters, in order to attract more votes. If we are talking about the Western point of view, I would say that [the Western powers] are now mostly paying attention to the actions of the prime minister. Also, his ratings support his policy at this moment, and that has a specific weight. And as long as [Western powers] measure the Prime Minister’s policy as pro-Western, I think there will be no severe reactions to cooperation with Russia," Joksimovic added.

Despite the warnings of the European Commission officials that it would not send a good message, tactical military exercise titled ‘Slavic Brotherhood’, proceeded and concluded last week in Russia. In roughly the same time period, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, on a visit to China, brought some members of the Serbian Army to the military parade in Beijing celebrating victory over Fascists.

Serbian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dacic responded sharply to criticism of Serbia’s participation in military exercises with Russia.

Dacic said: “Here, take a list of all the countries we hold military exercises with from the Defense Ministry. You will see that the military exercises with Russia are an absolute minority in comparison to all others. Also, you know that we have signed the IPAP with NATO… and we also agreed to develop that cooperation with them. We have not heard one word against our military exercise with Russia from NATO headquarters. So, who are they to lecture us?! The European Union is not a military bloc and they should mind their own business.”

Gordy, the South East Europe expert, said of such comments: “I believe that the right wing in Serbia has ‘swallowed’ many things; it more or less [ignored] the agreement with Kosovo, for example, but it is not giving up on the symbolic level. So, all of that – the parade in China, the military exercise in Russia, etc. – represent that symbolism.”