In conditions when the international positioning of Serbia is still associated with joining the EU, and de facto rapprochement with both Washington and NATO, it is rather difficult to expect an inflow of systemic Russian investments both in the region and in Serbia itself. This geopolitical uncertainty is reinforced for Russia by the emotional context of our bilateral relations, which, as experts from both sides say, often give rise to overwhelming views and do not allow an objective assessment of each other's interests and capabilities, writes Ekaterina Entina, Deputy Vice Rector, Professor of the School of International Affairs, HSE University; Senior Researcher, Institute of Europe, RAS. The article was prepared specially for the Russian-Serbian Conference of the Valdai Discussion Club and Russia House in Belgrade.
The Valdai Club meeting of Russian and Serbian experts and politicians took place at the Russia House in Belgrade; at the time the mercury in the outside thermometer was had risen above 40 degrees Celsius. Even the bronze statue of Tsar Nicholas II, normally to be found standing modestly opposite the old royal court, was probably dreaming about ducking into the shade. The discussion about Russian-Serbian relations also promised to be heated. However, it quickly became clear that despite the frequent reproaches among Russian Balkanists and Serbian Russophiles for the lack of bilateral cooperation between Moscow and Belgrade, in practice, our diplomatic relations have seen many achievements.
The Russian economic presence in Serbia has long extended beyond the energy sector, although energy exports are undoubtedly the core of our activity in the region. However, a significant role is played by the fact that the Russian shareholders of NIS (Oil Industry of Serbia), unlike their Chinese competitors in the steel industry, seek to use advanced technology in oil production (produced in small quantities in Serbia) and oil refining. For example, the extent of oil refining at the Pancevo Refinery is 99%, while the European average is around 85%. In addition, NIS has started to generate electricity. Russian banks, Russian Railways, and technology operators are quite active in the region - Yandex services have been successfully developing in the country for several years. Serbia became the first state outside Russia to produce the Sputnik V vaccine against the coronavirus infection, accordingly, Belgrade will be its largest producer and exporter.
The economic growth that Serbia has been demonstrating in recent years, which actually exceeds even the expected indicators (about 6% in the first quarter of 2021 against the forecasted 4.7%), contributes to the intensification of foreign direct investment. As a result of lengthy negotiations, the free trade agreement between Serbia and the EAEU was finally ratified. Despite the fact that in reality it is, in one way or another, the quintessence of a series of similar agreements that Belgrade already had with Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus separately, the very fact of its signing as a result of five years of negotiations is a testament to Serbia's desire to conduct a multi-vector foreign policy. Military-technical cooperation occupies an important place in the structure of our relations. It not only reinforces the paradigm of military neutrality in Belgrade, it is gradually turning the region into a sales market that is noticeable for Moscow.
At the same time, it is obvious that for a more comprehensive development of economic cooperation between Russia and Serbia, oddly enough, there is not enough mutual understanding of each other's real interests and intentions, partly – not enough trust, not enough ability to work quickly and efficiently. If the latter affects mainly small and medium-sized businesses, which cannot overcome bureaucratic barriers, then the first two problems encounter the historical and cultural context of our relations and the geoeconomic and geopolitical challenges that Russia has faced in the region both in historical retrospect, and recently. In general, geopolitical risks are becoming the main factor affecting decision-making by big business at the present stage. In the Balkans, they acquire quite clear contours.
Russia has already faced both the forced closure of the South Stream project, the actual zeroing of relations with Montenegro, and significant obstacles that Russian business experienced in all countries of the region.
It is perhaps difficult to imagine a more fertile ground outside the former USSR than Serbia in terms of the potential effectiveness of Russian humanitarian policy. Serbs traditionally know Russian history well, and are interested in Russian cinema, music, and books. They are watching where Moscow is going in terms of civilisation and values. Serbia is undoubtedly one of the few countries where Russophilia is also a significant political factor. Not a single Serbian politician in power over the past three decades has been able or willing to publicly distance himself from Moscow, even when Belgrade was clearly expected to do so in Brussels and Washington. Nevertheless, our humanitarian cooperation is limited to a small range of topics. It is the humanitarian policy that should be more focused on the future, but in practice it turns out to address mainly the themes of the historical past. On the whole, this is understandable: Russia and Serbia are linked by a centuries-old history, allied relations, and evidently parallel historical development. All this serves as the basis of our cooperation and explains the disproportionate cultural impact compared to the resources invested. However, for a long time, and indeed now, Russian efforts in this area were limited to Belgrade. We must admit that a lot has been done here: historically, the appearance of old Belgrade was largely shaped by Russian architects. Over the past fifteen years, Moscow has contributed to its reconstruction and development - a colossal project for the mosaic painting of the largest Orthodox church outside Russia - the Cathedral of St. Sava in Belgrade - has been completed, the Russian Necropolis has been reconstructed, and monuments to Nicholas II and architect Nikolai Krasnov have been erected. A Russian architect designed a monument to Stefan Nemanje for placement in front of the Belgrade train station, which is the tallest statue in the city. There were other smaller projects as well.
However, this important part of our shared history, like the foundation of a house without walls and a roof, often hangs in the air without a sufficient “future agenda,” a youth-oriented agenda. Moscow has practically no local NGOs of its own or associated with the Russian agenda. It focuses on historical, cultural, religious, occasionally legal topics of discussion. Its attempts to solve the problem of the attractiveness of the Russian language pales in comparison with the policies of its main competitors and partners – China, Germany, France, the USA, Turkey. All these are acute, but completely solvable challenges. In today’s technological reality, language is increasingly turning from a means of communication into a tool for transmitting the "cultural code". At the same time, the opportunities for its study are only expanding with the development of information technology. It seems that Moscow should move away from the traditional model of teaching it in schools, which is super-costly and time-consuming, in favour of networked and distributed models of teaching Russian via remote platforms or in hybrid formats. But this must be done: Russian, like the once-popular French, has practically ceased to be a noticeable foreign language used in the educational space of Serbia.
The expansion of economic cooperation, including in the medical field, dictates the expansion of the topics of our humanitarian missions to clinical research, biotechnology, physics, etc. Serbian youth, like any other, primarily assess the world around them in terms of opportunities for self-realisation and ensuring a successful future. Unfortunately, it knows very little about what modern Russia is like. Even those who have been to Russia rarely see anything outside the scope of study trips. In this sense, it is fundamental to focus on the implementation of joint science and business projects for Russian and Serbian students.
At the same time, all these efforts would be less than effective if the official Moscow does not prioritise the issue of information coverage of everything that is being done in the region. This question has been repeatedly raised by experts from both sides and by the Russian House in Belgrade itself. It is the absence of our own proactive media picture of the world that allows the enemies to talk about Russia’s “pernicious” influence, that Moscow and Belgrade are connected only by the past, not the future, and that our bilateral relations consist mainly of all sorts of “demonstrations” that the Balkans are not important for Russia. In the context of a change in the structure of international relations, it is the space of the civilisational “crosshair”, which the Balkans and Serbia undoubtedly are as “the Westernmost of the eastern countries”, that can and should become a space for Russian foreign policy manoeuvre.