Russia, Belarus and Serbia: Slavic Brothers or Pariah States?

Russia, Serbia and Belarus recently stopped joint military tactical exercises in Novorossiysk on the Russian Black Sea coast called “Slavic Brotherhood 2021”. 100 members of the special unit of the Serbian army, 350 soldiers of the airborne unit of the Vitebsk Guard of the Belarusian special forces and more than 500 members of the armed forces took part in the exercises Novorossiysk Guards Mountain Air Assault Division. This comes barely a month after Serbia and Russia launched joint military exercises near the Serbian capital in response to massive NATO exercises in neighboring Balkans, in the apparent determination of Moscow to maintain its influence in the war-torn European region of the 1990s.

The Slav Brotherhood exercise is an important place to improve collaboration and interoperability between their respective special forces. For several years they have been held alternately in Russia, Belarus and Serbia. Aside from the obvious military aspect, the war games also have geopolitical value. This was succinctly formulated by Serbia’s then Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin, who stated in 2019 that such war games showed how Serbia’s allies in the case of “any future war in the Balkans“And that” we are no longer alone “.

So what brings together an allegedly emerging EU Balkan nation with a pariah state like Belarus and an increasingly self-confident and aggressive Russia that is insistent on restoring the once expansive Tsarist empire?

Pan-Slavic Ties and the Orthodox Church

All three initially combine Pan-Slavic ties, Christian-Orthodox ties and a strategic constellation of interests. Take Serbia and Russia, for example. In the 1990s, then-President of Truncated Yugoslavia (essentially a union of Serbia and Montenegro) Slobodan Milošević was viewed by the west as an outlaw. Since his paramilitary forces are marauding and genocide against Bosnian Muslims and Kosovar Albanians in neighboring countries, he has been resolutely ostracized by the international community. Since he hardly has any friends and is under western sanctions, turned to Russia and Belarus. Despite rhetorical support from Moscow and Minsk, Serbia remained impoverished, isolated, and deeply rooted in its bloody nationalism for years to come.

Until Aleksandar Vučić came to power 2014.

As a former ultra-nationalist, Vuči described himself as a figurehead for EU integration and the leader of a “new Serbia”. He ran a country that had close ties with Russia and China and was in dire need of EU investment, playing a delicate balancing act between the various, often conflicting political blocs, while trying to maintain his country’s geopolitical and military primacy in the Balkans.

As for Serbia, Russia and China are useful for one important reason – theirs Security Council veto whereby Kosovo is not recognized by the UN. From Moscow and Beijing’s point of view, this is their trump card in relations with Serbia. Unbeknownst to many, a likely deal between Serbia and Kosovo would have little to offer both Russia and China to its Balkan ally. Then there is trade. In 2019, Serbia signed a free trade agreement with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which replaces the bilateral free trade agreements previously signed with Russia and Belarus.

MiGs and tanks

On the other hand, Russia continues to vie for influence to keep Orthodox Christian Serbia out of NATO and the EU and to stay within its geopolitical sphere of influence. Moscow is pushing to develop military ties with Belgrade to hinder NATO expansion in the region. In addition to Serbia, Moscow also uses Bosnian Serbs and the semi-autonomous Republic of Srpska to prevent Bosnia and Herzegovina from joining the Western military alliance. Moscow even announced the opening of its Ministry of Defense Office in the Serbian capital Belgrade and donated huge amounts of weapons. In 2017, Russia donated six used MiG-29 fighter jets to Serbia; In 2018 it donated 11 T-72 tanks and 10 armored personnel carriers; It is 2021 donated 30 T-72MS tanks and 30 BRDM-2MS armored reconnaissance vehicles to the Serbian Army.

Serbian politics has long been dominated by pro-Russian politicians. There are few who would dare to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin Popular among Serbs.

Although it is widely believed that the Belgrade-Moscow partnership is impervious to bilateral disputes, several recent disagreements have shown how weak their ties can be. This was done after signing a approval Kosovo and Serbia in the White House last year, prompting Maria Sakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, insults the Serbian President Vučić. He in turn called them “vulgar” and “primitive”. Nevertheless, common interests prevailed.

Likewise, the unpredictable nature of the relationship between Belarus and Russia amazes observers. Last year there was a heated argument when authorities in Belarus arrested 33 suspected Russian “mercenaries” Wagner private building contractor group, accused them of planning terrorist activities ahead of the country’s controversial presidential election. Given that Russia almost single-handedly saved President Lukashenko after the massive protests against the government last year, Lukashenko now has little room for maneuver. Moscow has even more reasons to push for a union with Belarus, or at least for stronger military integration. deepening military integration Belarus is advantageous for two reasons: it restricts Minsk’s ability to conduct foreign and security policy independently, and above all it gives Russia additional security in a strategic western direction, including for its second most populous city, St. Petersburg. For Belarus, a complete merger with Moscow would mean a loss of sovereignty. However, it is heavily dependent on Moscow, from subsidized fuel to regime protection.

In this triangle of relationships, Belarus maintains solid cooperation and trade relations with Serbia. In 2015, Serbia and Belarus signed a memorandum on military cooperation. Serbia received eight MiG-29 Fighter jets (which had to be converted) from Belarus between 2018 and 2019. Despite the isolation by the international community, Lukashenko only visited the Serbian capital in 2019. During the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 to stop the massacre of Kosovar Albanians by Serbian troops, the Belarusian President Lukashenko visited Belgrade. During Lukashenko’s official visit to Belgrade in 2019, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić exclaimed “We will never forget your visit in 1999. You were the only world leader who came to Serbia at a difficult time and wanted to show how much you love the Serbian people and our Serbia ”.

Their economic relations are not dynamic: at the end of 2019 Belarus was the one 34th largest partner of Serbia in relation to exports and 37th in relation to imports. Although the EU remains the largest trading partner and investor in Serbia, outperforming Russia and Belarus, the Serbian leadership sees little incentive to give up its ties to Lukashenko and Putin.

Then there are the oligarchs. Belarus gave something away $ 1 billion worth of land to construction companies owned by the well-connected Serbian Karić family. Since the Kari brothers are close to the government coalition of Serbia and play a key role in shaping Belgrade’s policy towards Minsk, the close ties between the two states are likely to remain.

Russia’s long arm

There is no doubt that Moscow is the driving force behind ongoing efforts to strengthen ties with Minsk and Belgrade. Over the past decade, Russia has cultivated numerous ties with the aim of creating various leverage and friendly constituencies that would enable it to prevent further integration into the EU and NATO. In doing so, she played on common historical, religious, and cultural ties as the basis for promoting her military, political, and economic relationships.

To underpin these efforts, Moscow has actively exacerbated existing political divisions and social rifts not only in Serbia but also in Montenegro, North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, thereby giving itself the power to influence local politics by building up the political consensus far breaks how strategic decisions are affected. Your media has raved about Russian military power and Vladimir Putin as its leader, while demonizing NATO and portraying the EU as cripplingly inefficient and over-bureaucratic. Moscow has also exploited corruption and a lack of transparency in both Serbia and Belarus to ingratiate itself with local political, media, and business elites, thereby opening up commercial opportunities for Kremlin-friendly companies. Such efforts have fueled democratic relapse and political polarization in the Balkans, while at the same time strengthening the power of the ruling regime in Belarus.

The foreign policy success in Serbia and the wider Balkan region is the result of the unsolved Kosovo dispute, which makes Serbia dependent on the veto rights of Moscow and Beijing in order to prevent the recognition of its former province by the UN. A second reason is the power vacuum created by the United States’ premature withdrawal from the Balkans and the subsequent inability of the EU to complete its Balkan enlargement. Minsk has consistently endeavored to normalize its own relations with Brussels and Washington. Nonetheless, the EU and US refusal to speak to “the last dictator in Europe” essentially served Belarus on a silver plate back to Moscow.

In contrast to Belarus, Serbia retains a high degree of independence in its foreign policy decisions. Both sides play a role: the reform talks and the pro-Western talks in Brussels and Washington and the Pan-Slavic talks in Minsk and Moscow. Moscow’s activities in the Balkans help draw Western attention from its de facto Privatization of the Sea of ​​Azov and the Kerch Strait and the ongoing hybrid war in eastern Ukraine.

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