Serbia is an EU candidate country that Brussels considers a frontrunner for EU membership. At the same time, the Serbian government refuses to sanction Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, Serbian public opinion and the press is overwhelmingly supportive of Russia and last week Belgrade became the only city in Europe where thousands took to the streets in support of Russia and Vladimir Putin. While EU countries have banned flights to or from Russia, Air Serbia has doubled its Moscow flights, which offer a safe corridor for mostly rich Russians to access Europe.
Many attribute Serbia’s pro-Russia stance to the often-touted Orthodox brotherhood or to the fact that NATO bombed Serbia for 78 days in 1999. Whatever the reason, over the past decade, successive governments in Serbia, often including former ministers from the Milošević regime, have been actively pro-Kremlin. Among other similarities between Russia and Serbia are their continuous attempts to destabilize neighboring countries and their twisted narratives about themselves.
For example, Putin has reiterated multiple times that he does not see Ukraine as a real state, but a mere territory that is up for grabs. He also claims medieval Kievan Rus represents the essence of the Russian Empire. And well into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is claiming that Russia has “not attacked anyone.”
Similarly, in the Serbian narrative, Kosovo is considered the cradle of the Serbian nation, a view that is enshrined in the current Serbian constitution. The justification for the brutality of the Serbian military against Kosovo Albanians in 1998 and 1999 was that it was necessary to protect Kosovo Serbs and the holy land of the Serbian nation. Both narratives portray the act of invasion or occupation as the recovery or preservation of the very essence of the nation.
Additionally, just as Putin views Ukraine’s potential NATO membership as a threat to Russia, Serbian Minister of Interior Aleksandar Vulin views Kosovo’s potential NATO membership as a threat to Serbia. In both Russia and Serbia, the prevalent narrative is that they are fighting, almost single-handedly, against NATO expansion and Western imperial aggression.
NATO’s intervention against Serbia during the Kosovo War in 1999 was used as a cynical pretext for a series of actions that Putin took afterwards to try and assert Russia’s doubtful status as a superpower. In 2008 he de facto annexed Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia following a long existing “passportizacija” policy that provided Russian-speaking Georgians with Russian passports. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its military intervention in Syria in 2015 were to a large extent acts aiming to bolster Russia’s fight against the West.
Over the past 20 years, the EU has been silent towards Serbia’s meddling in BiH and Kosovo.
Granted, Serbia’s power is nowhere near that of Russia’s. However, over the past 20 years, Serbia has routinely exacerbated protracted political conflicts in the region, primarily in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). They do this by openly supporting Milorad Dodik, the genocide denier and secessionist leader of Republika Srpska. They do this by actively preventing Kosovo Serbs from integrating into Kosovo institutions. They do this by fueling ethnic tensions in northern Kosovo and with their concerted campaign to get other countries to derecognize Kosovo’s independence.
Over the past 20 years, the EU has been silent towards Serbia’s meddling in BiH and Kosovo. What is more, it has rewarded the Serbian government by supporting Serbia’s leadership role in important regional agendas, including the Berlin Process and the Open Balkan initiative.
Throughout, Russia has been increasingly present in the region, exacerbating concerns that its pursuit of hybrid war will become a permanent feature in Serbia’s protracted conflicts with BiH and Kosovo. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only given more impetus to Dodik and Vučić and their supporters. For example on March 12, local members of the Night Wolves Russian motorcycle club — a group that participated in the occupation of Crimea and that is frequently referred to as “Putin’s Angels” — held a protest in Banja Luka in support of Russia.
Vučić’s authoritarianism is most apparent in the current Serbian media landscape.
In his domestic politics, Vučić has been criticized for his authoritarianism, monopolizing the media, corruption in large public projects and for abetting genocide deniers. But in the 1990s, Vučić served as the Minister of Information during the Milošević regime and in that time he implemented one of the most restrictive media laws in 20th century Europe. These included fines for journalists who criticized Milošević, banning foreign TV networks, confiscating media outlets’ property if they failed to pay fines as well as charging several independent newspaper editors with “disseminating misinformation” because they referred to Albanians who had died in Kosovo as “people” rather than “terrorists.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is precisely in the current Serbian media landscape that Vučić’s authoritarianism is most apparent. The overwhelming majority of Serbian media is directly or indirectly affiliated with the Serbian government, including once independent media outlets such as B92.
As a result, on February 24, the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, the front pages of several Serbian newspapers announced that Ukraine had attacked Russia. Ever since, they have been repeating this claim, praising Russia for protecting the “Eastern world” from U.S. threats and spreading conspiracy theories that the Americans are collecting the DNA of Russians to wage biological warfare.
One of these newspapers recently published an opinion piece written by Radovan Karadžić, the wartime leader of Republika Srpska who is currently serving a life sentence after having been indicted by International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. What is more, in mid-March, Serbian Minister of Interior Vulin paid tribute at the grave of Slobodan Milošević. Many commentators from Kosovo and BiH called this an insult to all the victims and the survivors of his crimes. Vucić has himself declared that Milošević made some mistakes but that he was not a bad man.
The EU appears oblivious to Vučić’s authoritarian turn at home.
It is high time for the EU, as well as the U.S., to address Serbia's decade-long authoritarian turn.
Serbia will be holding parliamentary and presidential elections on April 3 and most polls show overwhelming support for Vučić and the current ruling elites. But there’s reason to be concerned about some of Vučić’s opponents too. The head of one opposition party, Mlađan Đorđević, adopted as part of his campaign visuals the letter Z, the symbol painted on Russian military equipment invading Ukraine, as a sign of his support for Russia. While the EU works to collectively counter Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, it has remained dangerously silent in the face of Serbia’s actions.
Even Victoria Nuland, a top U.S. diplomat, recently thanked Serbia “for its support for Ukraine, ongoing efforts to address the humanitarian crisis, and commitment to regional stability.” During her recent visit to Serbia, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said, “We want Serbia to become a full, equal and free member of the European Union in the future.”
On March 13, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, a political faction in the European Parliament, called on the European Commission to respond to Serbia’s recent actions by halting its EU integration. Yet, in the discourse of EU officials, or those speaking in the name of the EU, it is almost as if there is no awareness whatsoever of Serbia’s actions over the past two weeks in regards to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or in the past two decades in its domestic and regional policies.
It is high time for the EU, as well as the U.S., to address Serbia’s decade-long authoritarian turn, its active support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its abetting of Russia’s attempts to destabilize the Western Balkans. If neither the EU or the U.S. challenges Serbia’s status as the frontrunner for EU membership, the message to the rest of the Western Balkans will be that warmongers, genocide apologists and authoritarians will be rewarded by the EU.
Feature image: K2.0.