Serbia, Russia, and Pax Americana in South Eastern Europe

"Russia is emerging in this part of south eastern Europe as precisely the kind of actor that the U.S. has tried to prevent: an indispensable protecting power for Serbian interests – in the same way that the U.S. has long acted as a patron of the Albanians."

Dušan Reljić

Yet, even after the overwhelmingly Albanian majority in this Serbian province declared independence on February 17, 2008—a unilateral move sponsored and micro-managed for the most part by the United States—there is no evidence that the political endgame in the region has started.

Indeed, there are unambiguous signs that starting positions have been occupied for a new “great game” in the Balkans. Yet, the rules for the next rounds are being changed at the moment: equipped with new possibilities to influence the region through its energy policy, Russia is re-entering the stage with more clout than ever since the Soviet Union collapse.

Since the very beginning of the turmoil in Yugoslavia in the late 1980s, the United States, the European Union (EU), Russia (at that moment still the Soviet Union), and some Muslim countries (i.e. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Malaysia, etc.) became progressively involved in the events on the ground. At the outset, the external interest was declared to be of humanitarian nature, yet, unavoidably, external involvement soon shifted to bickering for influence in the successor countries of former Yugoslavia and thus, in southeast Europe as well.

Without doubt, the United States was most successful in the wheeling and dealing in southeast Europe in the last two decades. Washington applied both soft power (economic aid for reconstruction and development, financial assistance to institution building, civil society, the mass media, etc.), and hard power by leading NATO military interventions in the region. On balance, since 1991, the United States determined all outcomes in the series of post-Yugoslav conflicts. Thus, there is solid evidence to justify calling the present situation in the area of former Yugoslavia a Pax Americana. Yet, there is also reason to assume that U.S. influence in southeast Europe has passed its peak.

The apogee was reached with the United States decision to unleash the NATO attack on Serbia in the spring of 1999 without approval by the UN Security Council. The downturn commenced in the past winter after Washington signaled to the Kosovo Albanians that the United States would stand behind a declaration of independence. This meant bypassing, the UN Security Council and its resolutions again; ignoring the reservations by a number of EU and other countries, including China; and acting in defiance of Serb and Russian vehement protests. It is unlikely that the United States will be in the position to intervene in the same imperial manner in south eastern Europe any time soon.

The United States: No role-model for Serbia

The last two decades in south eastern Europe were not only years of ethnic conflicts but also a time of political, economic, and social transition. In a parallel transformation, the countries opted for Euro-Atlantic integration to replace the previous membership in the Eastern block, or, in the case of former Yugoslavia, its non-aligned position. By now, most states of the region regularly hold elections that are considered free and fair by the observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

They have achieved some of the highest growth rates in Europe (although serious economic problems persist). Membership in the EU is supported by the vast majority of the voters throughout the region. In various forms, NATO is present in all countries of the regions and has invited Albania and Croatia to join the alliance. The United States has new military bases in the region: in Tuzla (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Krivolak (Republic of Macedonia) and “Camp Bondsteel” (Kosovo). Apparently, the Pax Americana is working.

Yet, in Serbia, the biggest and arguably the politically most important country in the region, the United States enjoys little popularity among “normal citizens,” as confirmed by recent opinion polls. Serbia is formally part of the NATO Partnership for Peace program, but there is little reason to expect that this country will one day want to join NATO—the wounds from the 1999 war are too deep. Now, after the United States enforced the Kosovo Albanian independence declaration, the relationship between Washington and Belgrade is worse than ever, since the time Serbia toppled the populist leader Slobodan Milošević eight years ago.

But how do the “normal people” view the future of their country? After all, they have the opportunity to determine Serbia’s orientation in free elections. Should the United States be the role model for Serbia? Merely three percent of the respondents in a representative poll carried out in this April by the respected Centre for Free Elections and Democracy (CeSID) in Belgrade thought this to be a good idea. Only China and eastern Europe scored equally low in this survey. Western European (17 percent), Scandinavian, and neutral countries (each 16 percent) are still the Serbs’ favorites. However, Russia (17 percent) has become the rising star in the eyes of many Serbs. The obvious reason for this surge in sympathy is the support that Moscow is providing Serbia, while the United States is the staunch protector of Albanians.

Indeed, for most of the time since the disintegration of Yugoslavia began almost two decades ago, the United States ignored Serbia’s concerns, even after the democratic change in Belgrade in the year 2000. On the other hand, Russia’s involvement with Serbia is century-long and usually portrayed in the prevailing political discourse in both countries as based on common Slavic roots and a long history of mutual solidarity. Although this interpretation does not reflect historical facts, because both states were always primarily pursuing their particular interests, the “special relationship” is often romanticized and serves as an efficient tool to mobilize emotions. In any case, it is evident that a politically assertive and financially open-handed Russia is eager to win Belgrade over to its side.

At this point, the public opinion in Serbia still prefers EU membership as confirmed in a recent opinion poll by the Belgrade pollster Politikum, yet the pro-Russian mood is also strong. An overwhelming number of respondents also refuse a trade-off involving Serbia’s faster accession to the EU in exchange for accepting the secession of Kosovo.

Clearly, Serbia is struggling to define its new political identity after the series of defeats in the wars for Yugoslavia’s succession since 1991. At present, its “soul” is caught in the middle of the nets of political, economic, and military influences that the EU, Russia, NATO, and the Untied States are spreading over south eastern Europe. The outcome of this struggle will not only define Serbia’s own perspectives but also Russia’s ambition to establish a foothold in south eastern Europe and the United States determination to treat this region as its exclusive sphere of influence. Equally, it will decide whether the EU will succeed with its enlargement policy—the scheme to offer membership to all states in the continent—and thus create eternal peace in Europe.

Russia’s frustration in the Western Balkans

In the course of the Yugoslav wars, Russia has been habitually frustrated by its lack of political and military potential to project its power into south eastern Europe. Moscow’s anguish reached its climax in the spring of 1999, when the United States ignored Russia’s protests and led a NATO bombing of Serbia for almost three months. Because Russia had failed so miserably in 1999, the future status of Kosovo became an overriding issue for Moscow.

Alexander Alexeev, the former Russian envoy in Belgrade and now a high-ranking officer of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, recently described the Russian determination with the following: “In the defense of Kosovo, we will stand as firm as in the battle for Stalingrad”. Abkhazia and other frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space remain of secondary importance for Moscow in this context, while South-Ossetia, recently achieving international headlines, had remained insignificant up to this point. Russia is mainly interested in gaining equal standing with the United States on the global political scene so as to emerge as a stronger global power once more.

Strangely enough, Western diplomats ignored Moscow’s potential reactions with regard to the issue of Kosovo. From the very beginning of their mandate in 2006, the UN Kosovo negotiators Martti Ahtisaari from Finland and his Austrian deputy Albert Rohan waved questions as to whether they really believed that Moscow would agree to their plan for Kosovo. This, in spite of the fact that already a year before this, former President Vladimir Putin had plainly said that Moscow would vehemently oppose a solution imposed by the West on Serbia. Yet, again and again western diplomats would insist in private discussions that Russian policy on Kosovo was just diplomatic posturing and that Moscow would eventually give in.

The United States did not budge an inch in its support for the Albanian cause any more than it did in any other disputes with Moscow. Why the United States unwaveringly backs the Albanians, the authors of this policy in Washington have never publicly elucidated. In Europe, several hypotheses concerning the United States strategic motives are raised:

First among them is that the Albanians, as their leaders enthusiastically point out, are the most pro-American nation in Europe. They are happy to support U.S. interests not only in their region, but also to participate in far-away military interventions, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Second, the Albanians have the highest natural birth rate in Europe and one of the highest in the world (Kosovo 12 per thousand inhabitants, Albania 5.5, Serbia minus 4.3). Within years, the Albanians will grow to be, after the Romanians, the second biggest nation in the Balkans, whereas the population of the other ethnic groups, and especially the Slav nations, will continue to shrink rapidly. Consequently, the United States will have the most dynamic nation in south eastern Europe on its side.

Third, some observers see in Kosovo “a symbol of United States-Muslim partnership” and, therefore, interpret Washington’s policy vis-a-vis this issue to be a component of a much more important concern, namely the so-called war on terror. Indeed, in the course of several hearings in the U.S. Congress, the opinion was voiced that Washington’s support of ethnic Albanians proves to the Muslim world that the United States can have close allies among Muslim nation, much as it did in Bosnia. This belief rests more on projections than on facts, as religion does not play a central role in Albanian nationalism. Yet, as some U.S. diplomats have put it, if the impression spreads on the international scene that Washington can forge alliances with Muslim nations, then this is a nice side-effect of its Kosovo policy.

Finally, the United States apparently sees Serbia as a proxy for Russia. Therefore, it is in the interest of United States, once it has decided upon its course, to prove that it will be moved by neither Russia nor its alleged or real proxies.

Only after the Albanians in Kosovo had declared their independence on February 17, 2008, did the chief negotiator Frank Wisner offer a circumstantial interpretation of the United States position in a number of interviews. He stipulated that the Kosovo issue was of importance to Washington because the United States was also responsible for security in Europe. Russia, on the other hand, had no such interests, according to him, and is not even contiguous to Serbia, but was on the contrary far away from Serbia.

Russia and the United States should not try to interfere in each other’s areas of interest, according to Wisner. However, in his opinion, Moscow was trying to secure access to Kosovo, and the United States would not accept such meddling. For Russian observers, such statements were nothing but the proof that the United States has always had Russia as the real object of intervention in south east Europe and elsewhere with the purpose to diminish as much as possible any kind of Moscow’s role in international relations.

Russia out, Serbia down, and the United States in?

Undoubtedly, if Russia were indeed a neighbor of Serbia, or if both states were at least connected via friendly countries that would have permitted Russia military aid to pass through to Serbia if necessary, neither the NATO campaign against Serbia in 1999 nor the West’s recognition of the Kosovo Albanians’ declaration of independence in 2008 would have occurred. However, in 1999, new NATO member Hungary and candidate countries Romania and Bulgaria denied overflight permission for aircraft carrying reinforcements for Russian troops that had taken over the airport at Priština before the UK and U.S. forces. Moscow’s surprise move, which had been intended to at least amend the outcome of the NATO campaign against Serbia, ended in humiliation. In 2003, Putin withdrew the last forces from Bosnia and Kosovo, stating that Moscow no longer wanted to support flawed Western policies.

Furthermore, at this point, immediately after the Milošević regime was overthrown in Serbia, Russia no longer had any suitable allies in Serbia. Even the national-conservative groups still remembered how emissaries from Moscow were sent on October 5, 2000, when the police and military had finally withdrawn support for Milošević, to the election winner Vojislav Koštunica to try to persuade him to compromise with the old regime.

Yet, in the meanwhile, the United States and western Europe approach to the issue of Kosovo has undermined the position of the pro-European forces in Serbia. The convergence between Serbia and the EU seems to have reached a stalemate in spite of the signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) April 29. Any further contractual interlocking between the EU and Serbia will be contingent on how each of the two sides treats the new entity of Kosovo. No government in Belgrade will ever be able to sign a treaty that implies any acknowledgment of Kosovo’s secession. On the other hand, a majority of EU countries have extended recognition to Kosovo, and will, therefore, not wish to let Serbia into the EU as long as it continues to maintain its claim to Kosovo.

For Moscow, this is not really good news, as Russia is more interested in having Serbia as an ally inside than outside the EU. Russia’s improving relations with Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary illustrate this notion. Russia’s most important markets for energy exports, trade, and technology acquisitions are in the EU.

“Gazprom” ante portas!

As a counterpart to the German-Russian “North Stream” project, there are plans to build a Russian-Bulgarian-Serbian-Hungarian-Slovenian-Italian natural gas pipeline named “South Stream.” In order for Serbia to access this project, the country had little choice in early 2008 but to sell the state-owned petroleum company NIS to Gazprom for far below the market price. In return, Serbia (like the other participating countries) will receive assurances of long-term oil and gas deliveries. Serbia’s interest is evident: there are many outside investors who have enough capital to build pipe-lines and modernize refineries, but there are no sources of reliable long-term supplies of gas and oil such as Russia and Gazprom.

Currently, approximately 60 percent of Serbia’s foreign trade is with EU states – the country’s greatest single exporting company is U.S. Steel (which owns the Smederevo steel works) – while Russia accounts for only 11 percent. Nonetheless, in perspective, Gazprom’s arrival could quickly tilt the balance.

The Danger of New Instability

Under the auspices of the United States, the West has chosen to ignore the Serbian interests in the dispute over the future status of Kosovo. The course pursued by the West has consistently been portrayed as the only conceivable option, which a priori precluded any consideration of Serbian or Russian concerns. This uncompromising stance was presumably based on the assumption that Serbia was unable politically and militarily to do any damage to the West; nor was Russia seen as being capable of enforcing its own point of view in the matter of Kosovo. Both of these assumptions have proven to be correct in the sense that the proclamation of Kosovo’s independence has created a fait accompli and is irreversible.

However, the Serbian resistance, aided by Russia, is now concentrating on a focal point where any possible Western “victory” in Kosovo may yet come at a substantial political and military cost: in the almost exclusively Serbian-populated northernmost point of the province around the town of Mitrovica. While the U.S. State Department has pointed out that it considers the protection of Kosovo’s “territorial integrity” to be a task for NATO, Belgrade’s tactics are apparently aimed at deepening the already existing de facto separation in the north. Any military action on the part of NATO to force the Kosovo Serbs to accept Albanian control over them would most likely lead to an exodus of the Serbian population and create major international fault-lines.

Russia is emerging in this part of south eastern Europe as precisely the kind of actor that the United States has tried to prevent: an indispensable protecting power for Serbian interests – in the same way that the United States has long acted as a patron of the Albanians. It remains to be seen how the EU will fulfill its role in the field of tension between the United States and Russia as a self-declared “driving force” in the process of economic and social transformation and political reconciliation in Kosovo and the region.

Already, the EU’s protracted internal strife about whether to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Serbia, as the first contractual step to future membership, and (because it is not mandated by the UN Security Council) the legally flawed start of its rule of law mission in Kosovo (EULEX) have once more strained its credibility.

Dušan Reljić is a research associate with the research group on EU External Relations at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. This article originally appeared on Harvard International Review

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