The phrase “Be realistic, demand the impossible” is well-known. Russia and Serbia now face approximately the same task in order to preserve their partnership in the future, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
Russia and Serbia are closely linked by traditional ties of historical memory. Long-standing religious and cultural connections have largely determined, as a rule, a mutually favourable perception of our countries in terms of popular opinion. Actively implemented cultural projects and initiatives have contributed to the consolidation of this trend and created the potential for the development of mutually complementary “soft power” in the future. The recent centenary of the First World War was also a reminder of the historical alliance between Russia and Serbia, our military brotherhood.
This shared historical memory will stay with us forever. But the question arises, how could it be optimally transformed into real political action? How can it influence the successful cooperation between our countries in the future? There is a whole array of possibilities and alternatives.
Perhaps one of the most radical approaches among perceptions of Serbia in Russian society is to present this country as a kind of outpost of Russia in the Balkans. It is difficult to say, even when looking for historical parallels, to what extent it could be realised even theoretically. Perhaps even the ties between Russia and Serbia during the time of Slobodan Milosevic did not fall under this definition; after all, in our opinion, the specifics were somewhat different. But if we take the example of Milosevic, as the closest thing to this definition of an outpost (in fact, it turned out to be a besieged fortress), then the result of this is well known: war, the NATO bombing of the country, the de facto separation of Kosovo and the removal of Slobodan Milosevic from power and his extradition to The Hague for a tribunal.
The moral and psychological trauma of the Serbian society from these bombings, and from wounded national pride is extremely high, and the consequences of this are felt today. It is clear that it is not the business of the Russian expert to reopen this Serbian wound, but if you ask Serbs today whether they would like to repeat the scenario of Milosevic’s times, the answer is probably obvious — and not in favour of the “outpost”. In addition to this, the remoteness of Serbia and Russia from each other is a geographical fact. Coupled with Serbia’s lack of access to the sea, this makes the logistics of our relations not always simple, and in the case of the “outpost” paradigm, extremely difficult. There is a known case of a ban on the passage of Russian aircraft to Serbia through the countries of Central Europe — one of the controversial episodes of the wars of the 90s. All this makes the chances of implementing the outpost strategy absolutely minimal.
On the other hand, the current dynamics of Serbia’s development poses perhaps the most serious question for European politics: is it possible, in principle, to pursue a course towards EU integration while maintaining close ties with Russia? Until now, no one has succeeded in this (however, there were not so many intentions of this kind, in general). And the answer to this question depends not only on Serbia itself (here the political practice of the last decade shows that this answer is positive), but also on external forces, and not least on the European Union and its leading member states.
The balancing between the EU and Russia is by no means new. We can find a number of examples in the post-Soviet space: in Ukraine during the presidency of Kuchma, and in other countries too. In Armenia, a special term was coined for this in due time: a complementary foreign policy, mutually complementing the pro-European and pro-Russian vectors of development. But these examples, for all their indicativeness, did not affect the states that were official candidates for accession to the EU. Here the situation is already qualitatively different. Nobody cancelled the imperatives of the EU Common Foreign Policy. And if we imagine that negotiations on Serbia’s accession to the EU are successful tomorrow, all chapters of the acquis communautaire will be closed (Croatia will no longer oppose), and Serbia will join the EU the day after tomorrow. What will happen next? Will Serbia, for example, have to join the EU sanctions against Russia despite the leadership’s statements that Serbia will never impose sanctions against Russia? Or does it have enough political will and the resources to modify the EU policy? The previous experience of Greece, Italy and Hungary on the sanctions issue has shown that it is extremely difficult, and in fact, quite impossible. Here, we repeat, a lot will depend on the EU itself, on its readiness to take into account the specifics of Serbia’s national-historical identity in its policy. It is also clear that this appeal to the goodwill of the EU, given the cynical pragmatism of real politics, may well look naive and rhetorical.
Does this mean that with Serbia joining the EU, the window of opportunities for its cooperation with Russia will close? It is clear that the positive attitude towards Russia both on the part of Serbian society and on the part of political elites will not disappear. Moreover, close ties with Russia are undoubtedly Serbia’s strategic competitive advantage, which can be implemented in the context of European integration, when combined with partnership with Russia and the countries of the Eurasian Economic Union. But the limits of the possibilities for doing so represent a serious test for the future of Serbian politics and for the future of Serbian lobbying in the EU. Therefore, it is still difficult to say whether Serbia within the EU would be able to pursue a more constructive line towards Russia than, say, Hungary. Or whether it will be forced to act at Hungary’s level.
However, it is clear to all, even Euro-optimists, that Serbia’s accession to the EU will not happen tomorrow. This is connected both with the long bureaucratic process of adoption of the acquis communautaire, and with the political specifics, in particular, with the well-known criticism in the EU of the elections in Serbia. During this time, our countries are in a position to build up their political, economic and cultural cooperation to such a level that there will be no fear of losing it after Serbia’s accession to the EU. Relations between Russia and the EU during this time, hopefully, will change for the better.
The phrase “Be realistic, demand the impossible” is well-known. Russia and Serbia now face approximately the same task in order to preserve their partnership in the future. Then the answer to the question of whether it is possible to combine European integration with close ties with Russia will be in the affirmative.