The Russian Proxy in the Heart of Europe

How Russia's invasion of Ukraine exposed the myth of Serbian neutrality.

On Sunday, April 3, 2022, Serbian citizens went to the polls and overwhelmingly re-elected pro-Vladimir Putin President Aleksandar Vucic. Under Vucic’s leadership, Serbia has maintained an official state policy of neutrality while straddling a relationship between the West and East, managing to achieve EU Candidate Country Status despite maintaining close ties with Russia.

Serbia’s so-called neutrality is not genuine non-alignment. Instead, it is a political strategy designed to maximize Western investments and maintain democratic credibility while pandering to the radical nationalist and Orthodox members of Serbian society, who were responsible for the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the 1990s. Unfortunately, Serbia — and Vucic in particular — have played this game for far too long. Moreover, the Serbian government’s lack of commitment to Western sanctions on Russia underlines the hollow nature of their self-proclaimed neutrality.

Russia is also providing a 21st-century model of historical revisionism that inspires the Vucic regime to undertake new Serbian right-wing policies at the expense of regional stability. Despite the policy of neutrality, Serbia’s actions are more closely aligned with those of a Russian proxy state like Belarus than those of an EU candidate country. Therefore, the United States and EU should discuss implementing sanctions on Serbia as well.

THE MODERN RUSSO-SERBIAN ALLIANCE

While the Russo-Serbian alliance has always been strong, Russia’s support of Serbia on the Kosovo issue has effectively turned Serbia into a Belarus-like proxy state. In fact, during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, the Russian Duma voted to admit Yugoslavia into a union with Russia and Belarus. While the partnership never happened, the proposal is significant because it is a good example of how Serbia has always been more closely connected to its Slavic-Orthodox, Russian kin than to the rest of Europe.

While Serbia has claimed neutrality, the result of its policy is consistently beneficial to one actor: Russia. The United States and EU must hold Serbia accountable.

When NATO intervened militarily to end Serbia’s campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing, Russia was steadfast in its support of Serbia, with Boris Yeltsin even going as far as to make hollow threats of war. Additionally, Russia violated a UN embargo and supplied Serbia with arms. It was NATO’s bombing of Serbia during the intervention in Kosovo that not only brought Russia and Serbia closer together but, according to Putin, was a turning point in Russia’s relationship with the West. Putin now cites “the Kosovo precedent” when defending the invasion of Ukraine. In 2008, two days before Kosovo declared independence, Russia hinted at recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russia is so adamant in its support of Serbia on Kosovo that it stopped a UN Security Council virtual meeting because Kosovo’s foreign minister had the flag of Kosovo in the background.

Russia has exerted a lot of political capital supporting Serbia, and they have received a good return on investment. To date, Serbia remains the only country in Europe not to approve sanctions on Russia and Belarus for their respective roles in the invasion of Ukraine and subsequent war crimes. Serbia refused to join the rest of Europe in applying sanctions, but Vucic has also called the West’s claims of Russian war crimes “shameful and stupid.” There is no ambiguity or neutrality as to why Serbia is not joining the rest of Europe: Serbia is using Russia’s support in the 1990s as a reason for not applying sanctions today.

From the president to sports teams, Serbian society has clarified where they stand. Serbia continues to act as a Russian proxy state and has repeatedly violated US sanctions (placed on Russia due to the 2014 annexation of Crimea) by purchasing Russian arms. Additionally, in 2021, Serbia joined Russia and China in supplying weapons to Myanmar in violation of a UN resolution. When Russia invaded Ukraine On Feb. 24, 2022, Serbians took to the streets to protest, not in support of Ukraine but support of Putin and Russia.

SERBIA’S FAUX NEUTRALITY

In the face of barbarism and atrocities that Europe had not seen since the break-up of Yugoslavia — when Vucic was the Minister of Information to Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic — neutrality serves to assist Russia. By not contributing to the sanctions, Serbia’s so-called neutrality undermines them. Russians are using Serbia’s state-owned airline to bypass sanctions and initially doubled flights between Belgrade and Moscow before eventually giving in to Western pressure and returning to previous levels. Serbia’s “neutrality” evidently means moving as close to Russia as possible until they are pressured to retreat.

The Vucic regime is taking anti-liberal cues from its controlling state, Russia, and as a result, Serbia has slid in the Freedom House Democracy Index. Serbian confrontational rhetoric and interference in the affairs of neighboring states directly mirror Russia insofar as they have even taken a page from the “Russian World” doctrine and used the term “Serbian World.” As Russia is currently creating elaborate stories to deny the massacres in Bucha, Vucic’s government has recently released an entire series of disinformation movies dedicated to genocide denial and rewriting the history of the 1990s.

Just as Putin uses obscure historical interpretations to justify his invasion of Ukraine, the historical revisionism in Serbia today is equally dangerous. Serbia has not taken responsibility for its past crimes and continues to defend the legacies of convicted war criminals such as Dragan Vasiljkovic, former Deputy Prime Minister Vojislav Sesilj, and Ratko Mladic. Moreover, Vucic himself has been hard at work rehabilitating the image of his former boss, Milosevic.

In yet another move that directly mirrors Russia, Serbia has weaponized the Orthodox Church to help gain influence in neighboring Montenegro — a country where Russia attempted a coup to install a pro-Serbian government in 2016. It is no coincidence that when tensions flared on the Serbia-Kosovo border in the fall of 2021, the Russian ambassador was on the scene inspecting Serbian military units. More recently, there are reports that they are purging ethnic minorities from voter rolls. Again, these are not the actions of a neutral state, and they are certainly not actions reflective of liberal values.

While there certainly are liberal, progressive elements in Serbia, Vucic’s regime has copied the Putin playbook by taking control of the media and spreading so much disinformation that dissenting opinions are difficult to come across. Because of this, Serbia is reverting to its old illiberal tendencies that simply are not compatible with 21st century Europe.

HOLDING SERBIA ACCOUNTABLE

In this seminal moment in history where the very foundations and principles of the liberal world order were built are being attacked, the United States and its European allies must clarify that neutrality is no longer an option. Instead, the United States and Europe must come together as they did after the 9/11 attacks and stand united again. Serbia must face sanctions and be stripped of its EU Candidate Status for its consistent failure to uphold Western and European values.

While Serbia has claimed neutrality, the result of its policy is consistently beneficial to one actor: Russia. In a moment where Europe is united against a common threat, when even other neutral states like Finland and Switzerland join the former Eastern Bloc and original NATO members against Russia, Serbia stands alone, cowering away from its responsibilities behind the flimsy shield of neutrality. Instead, they have once again chosen the side of aggression, illiberal values, and disregard for human life. The United States and EU must now choose between applying sanctions to Serbia for enabling Russia’s aggression or allowing Serbia to undermine everything the West has built.

Sanctions should be applied to maximize pressure on the state while minimizing suffering to the general public. Given that a new poll shows a plurality of Serbians are opposed to joining the EU, a good starting point for a sanctions package would be to suspend Serbia’s candidate status and reintroduce visa requirements for Serbian citizens. This would send a strong message to the government without harming a majority of the citizenry who do not wish to be a part of the EU. However, the primary targets of sanctions on Serbia must be individuals and government officials who have evaded justice for their roles in past war crimes. As a result, funding, such as the USAID Rule of Law Project, should be cut due to Serbia’s failure to uphold the rule of law.

When an adversarial state, which Serbia was just 23 years ago, reveals its true intentions and beliefs, it would be wise to heed the warnings and learn from the past. As the images of Moscow’s crimes in Irpin and Bucha come to light, the similarities between Russian and past Serbian war crimes are striking. But, more importantly, Serbia is setting a dangerous precedent. By defying liberal norms, Vucic and Serbia’s actions may lead to other illiberal leaders or Eurosceptic candidates soon.

Until Serbia changes its position and takes action in line with the rest of Europe, the United States and the EU should reciprocate and restructure their relationship to reflect the nature of Serbian policies. As Serbia continues to operate flights to Russia, buy Russian and Chinese arms, engage in genocide denialism, interfere in neighboring states, and suppress human rights domestically, the West should seek to apply appropriate sanctions, freeze its EU membership negotiations, and use meaningful diplomatic pressure where applicable.

Dardan Gjonbalaj is a political consultant with a Master’s Degree from Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy. 

Bergite Musaj is a MS candidate in Foreign Service at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service with a concentration in Global Politics and Security.

For the Albanian translation, see here