On January 17, 2019, Russian president Vladimir Putin was warmly welcomed in Serbia. It was Putin’s fourth visit to Belgrade – he came to Serbia twice as president and once as prime minister. According to Alexander Pivovarenko, Ph.D. in History, Senior Research Associate, RAS Institute of Slavonic Studies, today Russia’s positions are highly dependent on the overall situation and a broad set of ties and interconnections in Southeast Europe.
The Balkans are not mentioned in Russia’s 2016 Foreign Policy Concept (as distinct from the 2013 concept). Today Russia’s positions are highly dependent on the overall situation and a broad set of ties and interconnections in Southeast Europe. As distinct from other countries, Russia’s presence in the region is primarily limited to Serbia. In this way, Russia differs from Turkey, which can gather at the same table Aleksandar Vučić and the leader of the Bosnian Muslims Bakir Izetbegović, and carry out economic projects in Serbia’s southern areas with considerable Muslim presence (Sanjak Region, and the Preševo, Bujanovac and Medvedja). Under the circumstances, it is only possible to talk about tactical goals, such as the launch of the TurkStream or one or two investment or infrastructure projects.
Consequences of Putin’s visit for Serbia’s prospects of joining the EU
Out of all the six Balkan countries (along with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania and the Republic of Kosovo), Serbia is the most likely candidate for the admission to the EU. Today, 2025 is mentioned as the year of Serbia’s potential accession to the EU. Meanwhile, even if Serbia fulfils all of Brussels’ requirements on Kosovo (full diplomatic recognition on the basis of the principle of inviolability of borders) its entry will not be guaranteed if the EU deems it inappropriate to expand again.
During the latest Russia-Serbia summit, the sides signed over 20 intergovernmental agreements, including those on nuclear power and IT. This is good progress because relations are becoming more diversified and less dependent on the oil and gas agenda. Recommendations of the experts who insisted on the diversification of bilateral relations were taken into account. However, their implementation may be complicated because one of the EU requirements is that Belgrade does not use the advantages from its decision not to join the anti-Russian sanctions.
Be that as it may, a broad package of agreements meets Belgrade’s interests by giving it extra room for manoeuver in relations with Brussels and Washington. Belgrade can use this as a trump card by increasing or winding down the intensity of its cooperation with Moscow depending on how its relations with Brussels evolve.
Putin’s visit may facilitate Belgrade’s concessions to Kosovo
Paradoxically, this visit may facilitate Belgrade’s concessions to Kosovo Albanians because official Belgrade is interested in resolving the Kosovo issue as soon as possible, even if this requires further concessions. In the past year and a half, Belgrade was subjected to diplomatic pressure from Brussels and Washington, while Aleksandar Vučić announced the start of a “sincere dialogue” that should eventually lead to the recognition of “the existing reality” and the elaboration of a “pragmatic peace treaty” with the Albanians.
Holding early parliamentary elections in spring, which was announced in late December, may be a possible scenario of developments in Serbia. The aim of the ruling party is to establish an overwhelming parliamentary majority that will result in automatic decisions, including on Kosovo. If this happens, it is possible to expect changes to be made to the Constitution of Serbia, namely in the provision on Kosovo and Metohija being an inalienable part of its territory. Today Vučić is facing considerable opposition that objects both to his style of running the country and his version of the agreement on Kosovo. Rallies take place in the center of Belgrade every day. Furthermore, Vučić does not enjoy the support of a number of high-ranking hierarchs in the Serbian Orthodox Church.
It is possible to say that the election campaign in Serbia has already started. Russia’s support for the Serbian leaders during the January 17 visit, gives them a certain all-clear to make decisions that they deem expedient.
Serbia’s role in TurkStream
The South Stream experience shows that it is too early to talk about a role before the project is launched. However, Serbia’s position has not changed. It is from its territory that gas will be transported to the rest of the EU. Serbia’s location also allows for the construction of branches to neighboring countries from its territory. A decision to expand the Banatski Dvor underground gas storage shows that Serbia can become a major hub for the Russian energy.
Meanwhile, like in the situation with the previous project, Serbia’s position is dependent and this time not only on Bulgaria but also on Turkey, whose role has increased considerably since the launch of the TANAP gas pipeline. Its role will become even bigger after the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) is put into operation. Its readiness is estimated at 82 percent. TAP will pass through the territory of Greece and Albania. Considering the EU’s positive attitude to the Turkish project, branches are likely to be built to the north towards Croatia, thereby creating competition with the Russia-Serbia route. All this will make Belgrade more receptive towards the position of Ankara, Washington and Brussels.
It is important to remember the US plans to build an LNG terminal in Croatia and the development of the shelf on Cyprus, over which Turkey and the EU have now clashed. The future of all these projects should become clear in 2019.