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Two chairs

Daniel Serwer

October 24, 2017

 

 

Hoyt Yee, the deputy assistant secretary of State whose bailiwick includes the Balkans, said yesterday in Belgrade that Serbia “cannot sit on two chairs at the same time.” He was referring to Belgrade’s efforts to both accede to the EU and maintain close relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. These goals are just too far apart, he suggested.

I agree, but the question arises: why would anyone in a country that needs economic and political reform latch on to Moscow? Russia has an economy the size of Spain’s (with Catalonia) and a political system that resorts to prosecution and assassination to eliminate competition. While the Russian military has enjoyed some success in its interventions in Ukraine and Syria, it has nowhere near the capacity the West has to protect its friends and allies. Russia is a declining regional power, one heavily dependent on hydrocarbons rather than a diversified economy.

There are nevertheless people in Serbia who feel they need “the warm embrace of the Russian bear,” as one of them put it to me. “When,” he asked, “was the last time an American president visited Belgrade?” I didn’t know it at the time, but the correct answer seems to be Jimmy Carter, in 1980. That is indeed a long time ago. President Trump has allegedly promised to visit next year.

What does the warm Russian embrace entail? While fundamentally a political link, Belgrade’s affection for Moscow also entails military cooperation, economic interests, and Slavic cultural affinity. The Russians have given Serbia MiGs, involved Serbia in military exercises, and established a “humanitarian” logistics base near Nis. They prevent Kosovo from entering the United Nations. They have also taken possession of much of the Serbian energy sector. Belgrade might prefer F16s, but Washington doesn’t give them away, and lack of appropriate pipelines hinders efforts to wean Serbia from Russian gas. Russia Today and Sputnik News are making big efforts to sustain the long history of Slavic brotherhood with Serbia, not to mention the efforts of the Serb and Russian Orthodox Churches.

The Russian embrace also entails acceptance of Putin’s governing norms. They include assassination. Last year, Moscow attempted to mount, through Serbia, an assassination plot against Montenegrin Prime Minister Djukanovic, a good friend of Vucic. To his enormous credit, Vucic not only helped to foil the plot but also provided vital testimony as to its reality. Fear of such an attempt in Serbia is motive enough for some politicians to hedge their bets.

But they have other reasons too. The reforms the European Union seeks as a condition for accession require political leaders to do difficult things that block at least some of the corruption endemic to the Balkans. At least one Balkan leader, Ivo Sanader (erstwhile prime minister of Croatia) found himself arrested, tried, and convicted as a consequence of the judicial reforms for which he himself was responsible. The “Sanader effect” has made other Balkan leaders extra cautious about judicial independence and anti-corruption prosecutions.

President Vucic, who has repeatedly won elections on a pro-EU platform, would make an enormous mistake not to opt for the EU chair, though in doing so he will need to give up his control of the press and accept a far more independent judiciary ready to take on corruption and other official malfeasance. Those are not easy things for a former Information Ministry in a Milosevic government to do. Some bad habits are so ingrained they are hard to break, even if you in principle want to do so. I even wonder whether the Serbian media and courts would believe Vucic if he were to signal clearly that he was surrendering his influence over them.

That however is what he needs to do, not to please me or Hoyt Yee but to enable Serbia to emerge as a real and liberal democracy politically more tied to the EU and far less to the Russian bear.

 

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