Surveys show that most Serbs are pro-Russian and regard NATO unfavorably. They remember well that Western powers heavily bombed their country in 1999 during the war with Kosovo. In a visit last year to Belgrade, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s deputy prime minister, asserted that “Serbia will never join the EU.”
The EU and US are aware that Serbia is still the “black sheep” in the Western Balkans, having Russia watching its back. The EU simply rejects what Russia’s President Putin is doing in Serbia and does not expect Erdogan to change his dictatorial style as long as he and his AK Party are in power, as neither are consistent with the socio-political culture of the West.
In a conversation we had with Veran Matic, founder and director of Belgrade’s Radio and Television station B92, he said that Vucic is certainly interested in establishing good relations between Serbia and Russia. He added that Serbia wants to be connected to the Turkish Stream pipeline (as Serbia depends on Russian gas, but there is no possibility of having it delivered directly to Serbia).
“For Serbia,” Matic said, “investments are greatly significant, but on the other hand, we are concerned about having too good relations with the system that is recognized as a global media freedom impostor, and with a state which imprisoned the largest number of journalists worldwide.”
In discussion with Xhemal Ahmeti, historian and philosopher, he said that the frequent meetings between Iran-Turkey-Russia, followed by activities in the regions where they operate, clearly reveal the contours of their cooperation both in the Middle East and in the Balkans. “These two powers,” he said, “have agreed on their sphere of influence working on their agenda against their common enemy, the United States.”
“The so-called Shiite Semitic doctrine, Putin’s pan-Slavism, and Erdogan’s neo-Ottomans have devised an alliance against the EU’s strategic agenda now operating in the Balkans”, said Ahmeti. Meanwhile, Serbia has managed to have it both ways, looking simultaneously at the East and West.
While recognition of Kosovo’s independence remains the EU’s key condition for Serbia’s membership, Elena Guskova, from the Institute for Balkan Studies in the Russian Academy in Moscow, argues that cooperating with the Russian military is “a guarantee of safety” for many Serbs.
Vucic has sought Moscow’s continued support over Kosovo and has restated his opposition to NATO membership, as he became the first foreign leader to meet Putin since the latter began his latest term as Russia’s president. “Serbia will preserve its independence, Serbia will preserve its military neutrality and Serbia is not planning to become a member of NATO or any other military alliance,” said Vucic during his visit to the Kremlin.
Blerim Latifi, philosophy professor in Pristina University, told us that this ‘alliance’ between Turkey, Russia, and Serbia is a blow to the unity and functionality of NATO, and “any blow to NATO has negative effects on the national security of the Balkans.”
Whereas Putin does not hide his animosity toward the Western alliance and tries to undercut Western interests anywhere he can, Erdogan wants to have it both ways. He wants to maintain Turkey’s membership in NATO and presumably still desires to join the EU, but he is working hard to undermine the EU’s and NATO’s strategic interests in the Balkans by entrenching Turkey in Serbia in particular to serve his insidious scheme.
The European Union should warn Serbia that it must weigh its options carefully and undertake the necessary socio-political and economic reforms if it wants to become a member of the EU. Serbia will certainly have no chance of joining the EU if it maintains open-ended association with either Erdogan or Putin.
To be sure, Serbia must by now realize that the prospect of sustainable democracy, freedom, and economic growth rests on close association with the EU. It should distance itself from ruthless dictators who pretend to be the savior of the Balkans when in fact they are exploiting the region’s vulnerability for their long-term strategic end.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for
Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and
Middle Eastern studies.