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In keeping with Russia’s long-standing “divide and conquer” approach to the Balkans, the Kremlin has deployed a variety of pandemic-related assistance to shore up longtime friends and partners while largely ignoring everyone else. Unexpectedly, this tried-and-true approach has now run into its own share of obstacles—namely, China’s vastly superior resources and clever maneuvers by major players in the region who see the pandemic as an opportunity to extract resources from multiple suitors—i.e., Russia, China, and the European Union.

In early April, Russian cargo planes carrying military equipment, ventilators, and chemical-biological specialists made eleven flights to Belgrade. Soon after arriving in the Serbian capital, the Russian troops fanned out to other major cities. Five days later, a smaller series of flights arrived in Banja Luka, the de facto capital of Republika Srpska, the predominantly ethnic Serb constituent unit of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Republika Srpska has long been the object of special attention by the Kremlin and an array of Russian nationalists and state proxies. The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina—the country’s constituency dominated by Croats and Bosnians—did not receive any of Moscow’s humanitarian aid, and Russia’s outreach to Republika Srpska seems to have occurred with little coordination with Bosnia-Herzegovina’s national government.

To be sure, Russia’s use of humanitarian aid for political purposes was a very calculated move, coming fast on the heels of similar efforts in Italy when it emerged as one of the key epicenters of the pandemic. Moscow gave the cold shoulder to recent NATO entrants Montenegro and North Macedonia. It offered them no assistance and even dragged its feet when it came to helping Montenegro evacuate several dozen citizens who had been stranded in Russia. Meanwhile, Russian planes raced to Montenegro to repatriate hundreds of Russian tourists from their haunts on the Adriatic.

Serbia has long been able to count on Russian assistance in emergencies. In 2009, Moscow and Belgrade signed an agreement deepening bilateral cooperation on humanitarian responses. The subsequent establishment of a Russian-Serbian humanitarian training center in Nis generated controversy in Western policy circles, including accusations by the U.S. State Department that it might be used as a “special center for espionage or other nefarious activities.” During the following decade, both governments were eager to showcase their countries’ friendship by having Russian rescue teams fight floods and forest fires in Serbia.

Maxim Samorukov
Samorukov is a fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center and deputy editor of Carnegie.ru.
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However, this time, things were different. In a significant break with previous contingencies, Russian assistance was spearheaded by the Ministry of Defense rather than the Ministry of Emergency Situations, which is party to the 2009 agreement and the overseer of the center in Nis.

Russian servicemen stayed for six weeks in Serbia, operating throughout the country with little oversight, ostensibly to disinfect various facilities, including military hospitals. Along the way, they cooperated with a range of Serbian military and civilian officials, none of whom appeared to have much say over the mission’s itinerary or timing. According to Russian commanders, the troops intended to remain in the field until their “work is done.” The deployment of Russian military personnel to Republika Srpska was less open-ended and lasted only two weeks. In early May, Bosnian authorities blocked a return mission, citing its military character, even though they had been hapless in preventing the initial deployment.

In the end, Russia’s humanitarian assistance to Serbia was actually quite limited. NIS, the Serbian oil giant controlled by Russia’s Gazprom Neft, provided Serbia’s police, ambulance, and firefighting services with free gasoline. The Serbian subsidiary of Russia’s biggest bank, Sberbank, donated an undisclosed sum for the procurement of medical equipment. YugoRosGaz, which imports Russian gas to Serbia and is partly owned by Gazprom, contributed 2 million dinars (about 17,000 euros) to Serbia’s Health Ministry to help it fight the coronavirus. Taken together, these donations hardly compare with the assistance offered by the European Union: up to 15 million euros for Serbia’s immediate needs, and up to 78.4 million euros, reallocated from pre-accession assistance funds, for the country’s economic recovery.

A picture taken on March 30, 2020, shows a billboard bearing Chinese President Xi Jinping's face looking down over a boulevard next to the words "Thank you brother Xi", a message paid for and by a pro-government tabloid. Source: Getty

In the past, the modest size of Russian assistance to Serbia compared to ongoing EU support has been distorted by Serbian officials’ ostentatious displays of gratitude and exaggerated coverage in local media. However, this time around, things played out differently because Belgrade had a new best friend: China. Serbian officials exploited this situation aggressively. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic criticized the EU for “abandoning his country,” while also making clear that China had replaced Russia as the main object of his government’s affection. China was the first country from which Belgrade officially sought assistance, and Vucic kissed the Chinese flag when he personally greeted the first Chinese plane carrying six doctors and medical equipment. (Vucic was conspicuously absent when eighty-seven Russian servicemen arrived in Belgrade a few days later.)

Vucic’s flamboyant tactics paid off with respect to the EU. As of this writing, Brussels has showered Serbia and other countries in the Western Balkans with assistance programs worth a total of $3.6 billion. At a special summit meeting in early May, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen touted the region’s EU membership prospects and promised a follow-on economic initiative.

Vucic’s use of the China card also strengthened his hand with Washington. Vucic hopes that he can leverage U.S. support in Serbia’s ongoing talks with Kosovo. Even if the Trump administration remains a fickle partner that overpromises and underdelivers, Beijing is likely to make good on potential loans, investment, and even diplomatic support for Vucic’s dealings with Pristina, whose independence China, like Russia, does not recognize. The growing centrality of China in Vucic’s calculations threatens to supplant Russia, which has piously presented itself as Serbia’s most important ally for centuries. But the Balkan modern-day realities have not been kind to Russians pushing symbolic gestures over the cold hard cash offered by Beijing and Brussels.

Still, the fact that there is no love lost between Vucic and Russian President Putin is not exactly new news. The Kremlin has never trusted Vucic, and it is determined to play a prominent role in Balkan security issues. Moscow can still count on the strength of pro-Russian sentiment in many quarters of the Serbian military and extremely positive views of Russia from the general public. China may have moved quickly to expand its regional influence, but the enduring nature of the coronavirus pandemic promises to give the Kremlin a rare chance to convert its established assets in the Western Balkans into an ever-greater military role in a contested region.

This material is part of the Russia-EU: Promoting Informed Dialogue project, supported by the EU Delegation to Russia.