Last Thursday, President Putin went to Belgrade to meet Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. During the meeting, as well as in the days following and preceding it, a variety of issues were discussed ranging from energy and trade to military issues. Most importantly, the visit has raised high expectations among the Serbian leadership and the public that Moscow would help Belgrade win its territorial dispute with Kosovo.
On the 17th of January, an event took place in Belgrade which was described by Serbian Secretary General Nikola Selakovic as «the most important since the start of the new year and, most probably, for the upcoming period». The event in question is President Putin’s visit to the country and his meeting with President Aleksandar Vučić. Indeed, Selakovic was right, as the issues discussed are not only crucial for the future of Serbia, but for the whole Western Balkans and Eastern Europe.
A special relationship
For a number of reasons, both Serbia and Russia had high expectations for the meeting. Over the last few years, the two countries have developed a sort of special relationship which relies on the one hand on cultural similarities such as the belonging to the Orthodox-Slavic world, and on the other on a mutual exchange of favours. On the Russian side, the most glaring example of support to Serbia was vetoing the independence of Kosovo within the UN Security Council. During his speech, president Vucic thanked Putin for the support, remarking that Serbians “would never forget” what he did for the country in 2015. On its side, Serbia has been showing its gratitude to Russia through its decision not to sign up to western sanctions against the annexation of Crimea, and more recently through siding with Moscow in the current Orthodox schism over Ukraine. Still, there are more areas in which Russia and Serbia can boast significant degrees of cooperation, the energy field being of primary importance in this context. Serbia imports two-thirds of its natural gas and crude oil from Russia, while Russian giant Gazprom owns the Serbian oil company NIS. It should not come as a surprise then that the energy issues came up very often as a topic of discussion. One of the most important remarks regarded the possibility to extend the TurkStream gas pipeline to Serbia, consistently with Gazprom’s plans to increase its gas deliveries to the country by 2020. Yet, the outcomes of Putin’s visit are not only related to the meeting itself, but to the great number of promises and declarations made by the leaders during its whole preparation. A day before the encounter, Putin declared to Serbia’s newspaper Vecernje Novostia that free trade zone agreement between the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and Serbia is expected to be signed this year. Meanwhile, Serbia has pledged to maintain its policy of neutrality, which will probably make of it the only Balkan country outside of NATO, with Macedonia preparing to join the alliance soon.
While the issues discussed at the meeting were numerous and various in nature, the attention of international observers was mostly pointed on the crucial discussions on Kosovo. We mentioned in a previous article how positive feelings towards the EU reach their lowest levels in Serbia (26%), where a significant 30% of the population regards EU membership as a bad thing. Yet, the country is undeniably moving westwards, and Belgrade’s refusal to recognise Kosovo’s independence has become an obstacle to Serbia’s accession negotiations with the European Union. On its part, Russia is not by principle contrary to EU enlargement, and the possibility of Serbia’s accession is rather seen as an opportunity to influence the Union from within. Given these lukewarm attitude, EU membership is not something Serbians are willing to make big concessions for, and the recognition of Kosovar independence under EU’s terms is unlikely to be accepted. In this scenario, the only possibility Belgrade sees to achieve both goals is the potential partition of Kosovo that would allow Serbia to annex its northern municipalities and thus justify granting some kind of acknowledgement to Kosovo. But is it any feasible? A unilateral partition is clearly not an acceptable solution to Pristina, yet president Hashim Thaçi seems open for a compromise. Thaçi ’s plan would consist in a correction of borders involving a land swap between Kosovo and Serbia: exchanging Serb-populated territories in northern Kosovo for the Albanian-majority Preševo Valley in Serbia. Such a solution was welcomed by most international observers as long as it would comply with international law and void attempts to create ethnically homogeneous states.
The role of Russia
As Serbia’s main ally in the Kosovar issue, Russia holds a key mediation role. Accordingly, Selakovic described President Putin’s position as one of the most important supports for the Serbian foreign policy, especially with regard to Kosovo and Metohija. Not long before the meeting took place, Russian Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov told reporters that Russia “will certainly back a satisfactory mutually acceptable decision, which will be reached by Belgrade and Pristina” as long at it complies with international law and it is backed by the UN Security Council. While showing its support to any legal-based mutually agreed solution, Putin did not miss the occasion to criticise Western involvement in the region. In particular, he manifested his concern for Europe’s “blind eye” policy towards Kosovo’s newly established army, warning that this could undermine its credibility as a mediator vis-a-vis Belgrade. Earlier, a day before the meeting, the president criticised NATO for actively destabilising the Balkans. Ultimately, Putin seems to be aiming at transferring the talks and the endorsement of their results from the European Union to the UN Security Council. Consistently, Ushakov declared that any decision “should at least be approved by the United Nations Security Council, and be enforceable”. This policy seems to be in line with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s expectations. According to the President, a transfer of the talks to the UN would provide “a mutually acceptable solution that would be guaranteed, along with our strong allies Russia and China, by the US”. Later in the afternoon, Vučić declared he “received everything we were looking for” from the meeting.
While most observers have been supporting the idea of a land swap solution, its implications are raising the concerns of many European politicians and Balkan leaders. In particular, it is feared that the partition would set a precedent to be used elsewhere (in the Balkans as well as in Eastern Europe), and trigger demands for secession, annexation, or border changes. As a matter of fact, the deal is still far from being reached, and as Vučić had to acknowledge we are still very far from any solution to the question of Kosovo and Metohija. Yet, the meeting can be considered a success for both parties on all other fronts, as the special relationship between Russia and Serbia has proven stronger than ever and their reciprocal support has been reconfirmed.