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In November, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic announced that Serbian security services had discovered an attempt by Russia to enter the Serbian army. The Russian operation underscores Moscow's willingness to use its secret services aggressively to pursue foreign policy goals.
Serbia's response is also revealing. Vucic said after the incident that "we will not change our policies towards Russia, which we consider to be a brotherly and friendly country." The declaration shows that despite an obvious provocation, Vucic is striving to keep Serbian-Russian relations close. The incident occurred at a time when Moscow-Belgrade was deepening relations.
Since Vucic's Serbian Progressive Party came to power in 2014, Russia has used economic and military incentives to bring Serbia to justice. Vucic recently signed a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a trading bloc designed to consolidate Russian control in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and ward off EU influence.
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In addition, the second section of Gazprom's TurkStream gas pipeline will begin construction through Serbia in late 2019. Energy policy is a key instrument of Russian influence in Europe, and the Turkstream pipeline will further consolidate Russian energy hegemony in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Serbia is already dependent on natural gas in Moscow and the largest oil company, Naftna Industrija Srbije, is majority-owned by Gazprom.
Serbia and Russia, both Slavic, Orthodox Christian countries, have also increased military cooperation. In a recent military exercise, Slavic Shield 2019, the Russian S-400 missile defense system was first used for training purposes outside of Russia. Serbia has also bought Russian fighter jets, helicopters and MiG-29 tanks in recent years.
The espionage disclosure also comes at a time of cooperation between Serbian and Russian intelligence agencies. Perhaps the strongest bond between the two countries is Moscow's continued opposition to an independent Kosovo. Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo as an independent state, and Russia can use its UN Security Council veto to prevent Kosovo from trying to gain United Nations recognition.
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Despite Russian attempts to covertly and cooperatively gain influence, Serbia is on the way to greater involvement of Western institutions. Serbia does not want to join NATO, but is practicing defense cooperation with the alliance.
Any attempt by Serbia to join NATO has met with considerable disapproval from Russia, which rejects any attempt to perceive an expansion of the alliance – as suggested by the attempted coup in Montenegro that Russia allegedly supported. In addition, the 1999 bombing of Serbia by NATO forces that drove former President Slobodan Milosevic means that NATO remains very unpopular.
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However, Serbia is a candidate for EU membership and is expected to be completed in 2025. The EU remains Serbia's most important trading partner with 63 percent of all bilateral trade – compared to only 10 percent with Russia. According to a survey by the Belgrade Social Research Bureau, 45.5 percent of Serbs support EU membership, compared to 17.6 percent who prefer membership of the EEU.
Divisions within the EU can, however, cause Serbia's accession to the political and economic bloc to fail. In October, French President Emmanuel Macron reaffirmed his commitment to enable the Balkan countries Albania and Northern Macedonia to open accession negotiations. Macron's reluctance to expand further in favor of consolidation should have raised considerable concern in Belgrade that its future in the EU is unclear.
This uncertainty will encourage Russia to continue to influence Serbian politics. The competition between the West and Russia for rule over the Balkan state manifests itself in divisions within the Serbian military and political elites. Some want to maintain a pro-Western course, others prefer closer ties with their Slavic cousin.
Although Serbia's position between the West and Russia seems uncomfortable, it can be fruitful. This allows Belgrade to play the two parties against each other and make concessions from both. Serbia can be open friends with Russia to gain more influence and negotiate with Western powers from a position of strength.
By Global Risk Insights
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