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Serbian elections have long been dominated by pro-Russian politicians. There are few who would dare criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is popular among Serbs. Still, the outcome of the June 21 parliamentary election broke all the records: Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, Moscow’s closest ally in the Balkans, gained control of nearly all the seats.
His faction, together with its junior coalition partners, now has more than 230 of the 250 seats. The only opposition party to clear the electoral threshold of 3 percent got just 4.1 percent of the vote, and even it is prepared to discuss joining the ruling coalition. The others either failed to clear the 3 percent threshold, or boycotted the elections in protest at Vucic’s autocratic rule.
A parliament in which all the deputies vote unanimously is perfect for resolving the main problem in Serbian foreign policy: Kosovo. Whatever that resolution may be, it will mean an end to the previous “special relationship” between Russia and Serbia.
As though seeking to soften the blow of the impending parting, the Serbian government ramped up the Russophilia in the latest campaign to an unprecedented level. On June 18, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited Belgrade, and published a joint article with his Serbian counterpart Ivica Dacic about Kosovo, slamming “irresponsible politicians who regularly fan the flames of the conflict by employing the rhetoric of a Greater Albania,” as well as the West for condoning them.
Lavrov also met with the Serbian Patriarch Irinej, with whom he discussed the protection of the Orthodox population of Kosovo, as well as with President Vucic, to emphasize yet again that Serbia and Russia are in complete agreement on the Kosovo issue.
On June 24, Vucic returned the visit when he attended the postponed Victory Parade in Moscow marking the Soviet victory in World War II. But now that the parade is over, Russia and Serbia’s cozy relationship is set for an irreversible decline. On June 27, Vucic will be in Washington to take part in renewed talks on Kosovo, following a lengthy hiatus. Now the conditions for resuming the negotiations are almost perfect.
It looks highly likely that Vucic will sign an agreement with Kosovo in the next few months. Such amenable circumstances for reaching an agreement are unlikely to arise again any time soon. Kosovo’s team in the talks is led by President Hashim Thaci, a discredited veteran politician enjoying the final months of his tenure. He has already promised to leave politics altogether next spring. The only thing Thaci is interested in now is ensuring his own safety, meaning that via U.S. mediation, he is prepared to sign almost anything with Serbia, including an agreement on ceding Serb-majority regions in northern Kosovo to Belgrade.
The Trump administration, which is mediating the talks, is gunning for a diplomatic victory ahead of the presidential election in November, and is prepared to ignore European objections and consider the most controversial solutions to the conflict, including a Kosovo-Serbia land swap. This stance is unlikely to hold if the Democrats win the election.
Vucic clearly believes his legacy should be as the person who finally managed to pull Serbia out of the Kosovo quagmire, and right now he can force every single parliamentary deputy to vote for an agreement with Kosovo. He is up for reelection in spring 2022, so it’s in his interests to sign an agreement sooner rather than later. In addition, it will be incomparably more difficult for Belgrade to extract concessions from the left-wing nationalists of the Vetëvendosje party who look set to succeed Thaci.
The imminent agreement between Serbia and Kosovo—or rather, between Vucic and Thaci—will put Russia in a very difficult position in the Balkans. Essentially, Russia will no longer be needed. Its main partner in the region is Serbia, and its trump card in that relationship is Russia’s right to veto Kosovo’s accession to the UN. When the agreement between Kosovo and Serbia is signed, that will all disappear overnight, and Russia has nothing to offer as a substitute.
Vucic understands that Moscow will not be pleased if Serbia signs an agreement with Kosovo, so he is doing everything he can to help Russia save face. He has been effusive in his gratitude for Russian support, and keeps the Russian side informed in detail as to how the talks are going, dutifully calling the Kremlin at every key stage.
Judging by how Russia’s position on Kosovo is evolving, this effusive flattery is working. Moscow’s official statements make clear its annoyance that even Belgrade has not invited it to take part in the talks, but at the same time, Moscow is not prepared to wage its own campaign against all the other parties. In a recent interview, the Russian ambassador to Serbia, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, practically said outright that what is most important for Moscow is that procedure should be followed and any future agreement should be put before the UN Security Council, meaning that formally, at least, the sides will consult with Russia.
After that, Russian influence in the Balkans will gradually wane. Vucic’s current exuberance over Russian support stems mainly from his fear that the Kremlin could ruin any agreement with Kosovo. As soon as that threat recedes, the Serbian leader’s stance on Russia will become less adoring.
Russia’s popularity among Serbs won’t disappear overnight, of course, and Vucic is unlikely in future to pass up the opportunity to boost his ratings before elections by posing with Putin, Lavrov or Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. But it will all depend on the inclinations of the Serbian president, rather than the Kremlin. If Vucic wants to, he will use his control of Serbian politics and media to lavish praise on cooperation with Russia. If he changes his mind, he can play on the West’s fears of the Russian threat, as he has done in the past. There are hardly any pro-Russian organizations left in Serbia that have not come under Vucic’s control, and that means that Russian influence in the country will only be as widespread as the Serbian leader allows it to be.
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