Serbia's balancing act between Russia and EU

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (centre) watches parade in Belgrade, 16 OctoberImage source, AFP
Image caption,
Russia's President Putin (centre) watched a rare Serbian military display in Belgrade

It seemed like a flashback to the 1980s, with long lines of military vehicles filing past a platform of solemn-faced Russian dignitaries.

Yet this was not Moscow's Red Square - resplendent with onion domes - but Belgrade's Nikola Tesla Boulevard, with a backdrop of the Danube and the unlovely Usce shopping centre.

Serbia had not seen such a military display for almost 30 years, when it was part of Yugoslavia. And the official explanation for this event was that it was a celebration of the 70th anniversary of the release of Belgrade from Nazi occupation, towards the end of the Second World War.

Indeed, Soviet troops and Yugoslav partisans led the liberating forces in 1944. And Serbia's government insisted that it was only correct that the head of the Soviet Union's successor state should be the guest of honour at the commemoration.

"The president of Russia officially represents the successor of the Soviet Union - that's it, nothing more and nothing less," said Aleksandar Vulin, Serbia's minister of labour and veteran affairs.

He does, however, question why Serbia's warm relations with Russia are coming under particular scrutiny: "Germany is allowed to have great connections and ties with Russia; they even made a pipeline together. And we have no right to have good relations with Russia?"

'A great bond'

To invoke a well-worn aphorism, nothing is ever simple in the Balkans and Serbia is finding its foreign policy is becoming more complicated as it tries to balance its longstanding relationship with Russia with its more recent ambition to become a member of the European Union.

Serbia has made plenty of concessions in its successful drive to start EU accession negotiations. It arrested suspected war criminals and sent them to the Hague tribunal. Relations with its breakaway province, Kosovo, have been normalised. And Belgrade even finally managed to host a gay pride event without any violent incidents.

But loosening its ties with Russia has remained strictly off the menu.

Both nations are proud of their Slavic origins and united by their Orthodox Christian faith and use of Cyrillic script. Supporters of the major sports clubs enjoy fraternal ties and people in both countries feel they have come on the receiving end of unfair treatment by the EU and the US.

"There's a great bond," says the director of the Historical Museum of Serbia, Dusica Bojic. "It's a fact that all our people feel."

The relationship also makes sense economically. Russia is one of the largest investors in Serbia, while Serbian companies enjoy free-trade access to one of Europe's largest markets. With faith, culture and commercial interests in common, it is hardly surprising that Belgrade has refused to join the EU in imposing sanctions against Moscow.

"The EU has stated that it understands Serbia's special relationship with Russia but it [Serbia] needs to manage that relationship, so that it doesn't undermine its aspirations and progress towards EU membership," says the EU's ambassador to Serbia, Michael Davenport.

He also points out that during the accession negotiations, Brussels will expect Belgrade to harmonise its foreign policy with the EU. That may result in some awkward conversations with Moscow unless relations between Russia and the EU warm up over the next few years.

'Equally divided'

But some are concerned that Serbia's relationship with Russia is already unhealthy. Critics point out that Belgrade's liberation celebrations should have been held four days later - the actual date of the anniversary. Instead the timing was changed to suit Russian President Vladimir Putin's travel schedule.

"That made it a parade to Putin, not a parade to mark the anniversary," says Politika newspaper's veteran foreign policy columnist, Bosko Jaksic.

He believes that in trying to balance its relations with the EU and Russia, Serbia is in danger of causing splits in a society which has only recently emerged from decades of turmoil.

"It's like Real Madrid and Barcelona," he says. "The country is equally divided between those who are for the EU, led by the prime minister, and the Russophiles led by the president. Putin's visit will boost the support of right-wing forces in Serbia who are obsessed with Slavism and Orthodox brotherhood."

Certainly, right-wing organisations revelled in Mr Putin's arrival, plastering Belgrade city centre with posters. These groups have seemed increasingly marginalised over the past two years as Serbia's formerly nationalist Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vucic, has made clear his government's commitment to joining the EU.

Even as he greeted Russia's president in Belgrade, Mr Vucic stuck to that line. As EU accession negotiations continue, the next few years may reveal the true strength of the bonds between the two countries.