The Balkan nation of Serbia has always found itself in a brotherhood with ‘big brother’ Russia. But a desire to become part of the European Union has now brought the historically war-thorn nation in a geopolitical power struggle between East and West.


Shirts, mugs and magnets with the flag of Russia or face of President Vladimir Putin are still very popular items in this kiosk in front of the Hotel Moskva in Belgrade. Credit: Alexander Hendriks

When the taxi approaches the Most Gazela bridge in a traffic jam we ride past one of the building plots that is being modernized with help of a 1.5 billion euro fund the European Union has granted Serbia to prepare the country for EU membership. On the plot stands a large billboard staring President Putin and a Russian flag. The taxi drives notices my interest for the billboard and translates in half-English: “Russia is our only friend”.

“What? It’s true. Russia has always had our back. What has Europe ever done for us besides bombing our homes?”, the driver remarks. He points out the Ušće Tower that used to house the headquarters of the Yugoslav Communist Party that was bombed by NATO forces during the Kosovo War. The skyscraper looms over the district of Novi Beograd as a stark reminder of the days when Europe and America were curse words in Serbia.

Slide the slider left and right to see the difference between Novi Beograd and the Ušće Tower during the NATO bombings and today. 

Burying the hatchet or picking it up?
It is just 18 years ago that these bombardments caused hundreds of civilian deaths, billions in material damage and the destruction of Serbian infrastructure. Despite this the European Union, whose members actively took part in the bombing campaign, is now making advances to incorporate Serbia into the Union.

In December of 2009 Serbia officially applied for EU membership, although negotiations started earlier. According to the European Commission, Serbia has made significant improvements in areas varying from financial control to environment. With a dedicated effort Serbia could meet all of the EU requirements and become a member in just a couple of years, although that requires a European Union that is still willing to embrace Serbia.

There is, however, another, much older, friend who would like to stay close with Serbia. With Russia the small Balkan nation shares its Slav ethnicity, Orthodox Christian religion and a common history. When the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire descended on little Serbia at the start of World War One, it was Russia that declared war on the Central Powers in their ally’s defense. This was one of the many instances that Russia, despite several disputes in the Yugoslav era, was a savior to the Serbian nation and people.

A special ‘strategic-partnership’ was continued after a meeting between the two countries foreign ministers, who argued that Serbia and Russia have similar positions on international problems. Russia supports Serbia’s stance against Kosovo, while the European Union is trying to pressure Serbia in recognizing Kosovo’s independence. The latter is an particularly unpopular stance in Serbia, where Kosovo is viewed as their ‘homeland’ stolen by Albanians with support of ‘the West’.

Internally pro-Russian news outlets like RT and Sputnik aren’t afraid to spread Russian propaganda. These outlets prey on fear and anti-western sentiments to spread their massage about the ‘Slavic Brotherhood’ between the nations. This, along with the massive popularity of Vladimir Putin, has caused 67.2 per cent of Serbs in a recent poll to prefer an alliance with Russia, while only 50.9 percent supports joining the European Union, according to a poll conducted by the political Verme magazine a year ago.

A European future
Despite these poll’s Serbia’s electorate has kept pro-EU parties in power. Serbia’s pro-western Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic won a resounding endorsement in last April’s parliamentary elections. Vucic called for election two years before the end of his term, saying he wanted a clear mandate from Serbia’s 6.7 million voters for reforms to keep EU membership on track for completion by 2019. The last round of negotiations started last December.

Although Vucic presided over Serbia during a period of harsh austerity he managed to retain his majority government by winning just short of half the nation’s votes. Johannes Hahn, the EU Commissioner in charge of relations with would-be member states, took to Twitter to say that he hopes Vucic will use citizens’ strong support to strengthen Serbia’s EU prospects.

Similar tendencies can be seen in Montenegro, where the country is divided between its loyalty to Russia and a future in the West. Montenegro, that only split with Serbia in 2006, is on course to become part of the European Union and will likely be joining NATO this year. Opinions are greatly divided on the course of the small country on the Adriatic Sea, opinion polls show that the pro-NATO and anti-NATO camps are on par.

This was also widely condemned by Russia. News outlets like Sputnik have racked up pro-Russian propaganda and Vladimir Putin called Montenegro joining NATO an ‘enemy act’. Just weeks ago the Montenegrins government accused Russia of plotting to kill Montenegro’s prime-minister and overthrow the pro-Western government. The government said that the plot was an attempt to stop Montenegro from joining NATO.

Joining NATO is out of the question for Serbia in the near future because 64% of Serbs sees NATO as a threat according to a poll by Gallup. But recently Serbia is showing that its willing to compromise on the topic of Kosovo, by taking steps to normalizing ties with the breakaway state, and that it will work with western institutions when it handed over several Serbians accused of war crimes, amongst them General Ratko Mladic, to the Yugoslav-tribunal in The Hague.

European Union turning its back on Serbia
The European Commission keeps pushing for Serbia’s accession to the European Union and Serbia itself might be on its way to meeting membership requirements, but whether the EU still wants Serbia is uncertain. The continent has seen a surge in populism that has landed the European Union in a political crisis.

Last April a polarizing referendum in the Netherlands asked the question whether its population was for or against the European Union’s association agreement with Ukraine. Dutch populist, right-wing news outlets and anti-European public figures turned the referendum in one about the European Neighborhood Policy and trust in the Union in general. The 61% that voted against the association agreement gave a clear signal that they were done with Europe’s continuing expansion. It must be noted that with a turnout was only 32% and many Dutch people stayed home out of protest against the polarizing campaign and the referendum in general.

European nations seem increasingly anxious to antagonize Russia. Ukrainian, Georgian and Moldavian flits with European Union membership are met with more criticism and coldness than ever before.

2017 will be the year of elections in Europe. The Netherlands, France, Germany and possibly Italy will go to the polls in a time of rising populism and Euroscepticism. If populist anti-European politicians gain power this year Serbia’s hopes of joining Europe are minimal. On the other hand, if pro-European politicians like Emmanuelle Macron and Martin Schultz gain prominence, Serbia could be looking to a much more open and approachable European Union.

Can’t we all be friends?
Even though the current Serbian government is clearly a supporter of closer ties with the European Union they also flirt with Russia. After Russia ‘gifted’ Serbia six MiG-29 jet fighters last December, Serbian Foreign Minister said: “Serbia will never become an anti-Russian state and we will never join sanctions against Russia,” clearly distancing himself from Montenegro’s involvement in NATO.

Experts told Radio Free Europe that Serbia might try to make its involvement with Russia seem bigger to gain a bargaining chip in the negotiations with the European Union. Nevertheless, it shows a question that many Serbians ask themselves: “Why can’t we retain ties with Russia while also joining the European Union?” Opinion polls clearly show that many Serbians don’t want one to exclude the other, explaining why we will continue to see Putin’s heroic image plastered across Serbian billboards and t-shirts while the pro-European ruling party actively promotes European Union membership.

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