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“Le courage c’est de chercher la vérité et de la dire ; c’est de ne pas subir la loi du mensonge triomphant qui passe, et de ne pas faire écho, de notre âme, de notre bouche et de nos mains aux applaudissements imbéciles et aux huées fanatiques ”.” – Djordje Kuzmanovic

mardi 2 décembre 2014

Blog post: Is Serbia between a Russian rock & an EU hard place?

Is Serbia between a Russian rock & an EU hard place?

The EU & US see Russia’s involvement in the Balkans as encroaching & are visibly threatened by it.  It is evident that countries in the Balkans are coming under an intense spotlight for their relations with Russia.   Angela Merkel, recently stated in a discussion after a speech that: "And that doesn't just apply to Ukraine. It applies to Moldova, it applies to Georgia. If the situation continues ... we'd have to ask about Serbia, we'd have to ask about the western Balkan countries."

Historically, Serbia has had strong links with Russia, although this decreased a lot in the last decade. However, in the last year, President Nikolić has forged further ties with Russia, including on military cooperation & humanitarian assistance. Serbian leaders are walking on a tightrope between the US, EU & Russia political spheres.  

In October, President Putin was guest of honor at a Serbian military parade, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade from Nazism by the Red Army.  At the same time, Putin was also awarded the highest honor in Serbia. This certainly did not go unnoticed by the US administration or its ambassador, Michael Kirby, who voiced his reservation: “It is not yet confirmed that Putin will come, but if he does – why is he coming?”

To add more fuel on the EU/US ‘fear’ fire, 200 Russian & Serbian Special Forces troops recently carried out their first ever joint antiterrorist military exercise called “Srem 2014” in Serbia.  The US State Dept. noted this event, by stating that "This is no time for ‘business as usual’ with Russia." It nevertheless stirred controversy as Russia was seen to showing it military might in an EU candidate country.  The reality is that it can be considered as just more bluster since Serbia is a neutral country that has an interest in both ‘camps’.  The Serbian army also participates in NATO exercises, such as Rapid Trident 2013 in Ukraine, but of course that doesn’t generate a fuss from the US.

"What Jupiter is allowed, the Ox is not,"

Berlin was concerned over a jointly run Russian disaster control center established in the southern Serbian city of Niš, as it could become a spy center.  Of course, no such EU concern was ever expressed over the establishment of Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo.  So what is  Berlin anxious about? It was over the signing of a Cooperation Memorandum, dealing with a rapid and efficient response in emergencies. Nevertheless, it involved cooperation with the Russian government & caused a flap in Berlin.

The media circus has been tackling the subject of the Balkans & Serbia lately. Take for instance the tone of this title of this article: “The Western Balkans Are Becoming Russia’s New Playground”.    This echoes to a certain extent the policy line set by Berlin & Washington and probably serves a gentle reminder that only the EU & US are permitted under their own rules to interfere in the business of other countries.

While the EU & Germany in particular are still dangling the EU membership carrot in front of Serbia, the Serbian leadership is treading water on this issue, as Serbia is not likely to have opened any new accession chapters in 2014.  Michael Roth from the German Foreign Ministry stated, "We have to continually make it clear to the Balkan states that accession to the EU is in their interests," It probably doesn’t look particularly appealing at the moment, given the huge economic crisis experienced in Greece, Spain, Italy & Portugal.

The EU has applied pressure on Serbia to impose sanctions on Russia, with the EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn, telling that “Serbia should progressively align its foreign policy positions to EU ones”. He later added "It is very important and we expect of Belgrade to meet its commitment". This was in response to Nikolić: “Serbia is not an EU member and it can be independent in pursuing its foreign policy; but EU membership would have implied a commitment to pursue a common foreign policy."  Serbia has so far refused to do so, citing its neutrality.  Hardly surprising considering Serbia is experiencing a well needed minor agricultural economic boost from Russia, partly as a result of the sanctions. Serbian agricultural products to Russia have been increased by 60 percent in the last six months.  Perversely, Washington is seen to push this line as well, odd, given that the US is not part of the EU system, but can still dictate EU policy.

A potential boost in Serbian agricultural exports to Russia can be seen a potential silver lining in a dark cloud.  Back in May, the Western Balkans experienced devastating floods that ravaged agriculture, devastated infrastructure, mining & energy industry & exports. Official figures for the damage in Serbia alone stand at 1.55 billion euros (1.98 billion dollars). The events initiated a large international aid campaign, with numerous countries and organizations donating humanitarian and monetary support for the affected areas. Russian specialists from the Niš disaster center were heavily involved in the relief support and Russia was the first to airlift rescue equipment & supplies into Serbia. The EU relief effort lagged considerably behind that of Russia’s contribution. In fact, the initial reaction of the EU was from the EU Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton, who sent her condolences.  If this lack of help by the EU was noticed by Serbian citizens, no doubt it was equally felt by Serbian politicians too.

Much fuss has been made in the EU press circle & in Berlin over a number of ‘petty’ issues, to stress the threat of Putin’s Russia in Serbia.  One example is Russian Railways who are working on 350km length of Serbian rail tracks. Another futile example is the fact that the multinational Lukoil company owns a large share in a Serbian service-station chain. Of course, Gazprom holds majority ownership of Serbia’s natural gas provider.  Yet no mention is made to the huge difference between EU direct investments in Serbia over a 7 year period, with 9.2 billion euros, compared to Russian investment of just €2.5 billion. Even more pointless concerns are expressed at the fact that there a lot of Russians that invest in Montenegro & own properties in Bulgaria.  

Turning to another bone of contention between Serbia, the EU & US is the Gazprom backed South Stream gas pipeline project.  Slavenko Terzic, the Serbian ambassador to Russia stated that "The South Stream project was granted a status of national importance in Serbia," adding "We hope work on the project will begin as quickly as possible."  Of course, the whole project is entirely dependent on the EU’s green light for it.   As it stands, the EU has stalled any work & Russia has just halted it. Maybe Russia once more has partly saved Serbia’s political day by pulling the plug on the South Stream project.

Last word

Serbia's foreign minister, Ivica Dačić, said:
"What is Serbia supposed to do? To say that, because we want to join the EU, sorry Russia, we're not friends with you anymore? Where's our national interest in that?"


In the recent UN Asssembly on   the only other, (Russia being the other), European country to have voted yes was Serbia.

Russian Cuts to Gas Supply Worry Serbia: Amid reports that Russia was reducing gas supplies.

IMF approves 1-bn-euro stand-by loan for #Serbia  Not approved by IMF Executive board + includes Austerity measures

"Although it is our understanding that this Russian-Serbian joint military drill had been planned for some time, we regret that Serbia decided to proceed. In light of Russia's actions in Ukraine and its disregard of international law and norms, this is no time for 'business as usual' with Russia, State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki

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