A pointless race for Moscow’s affection

As an experienced politician, Aleksandar Vučić knows very well how to choose the field on which he will compete with his political opponents, and he should thank that talent for a good part of his success. That is why Vučić’s constant effort to prove himself in a discipline in which he is not threatened by the competition, but also because winning that competition does not bring any benefit, is surprising. For him and his career, and for the country of which he is president.

The fight to prove who enjoys the greatest sympathies of Russia and Vladimir Putin on the Serbian political scene would be completely irrelevant and boring, if the Serbian president did not participate in it. On the one hand, there is the entire front of pro-Russian parties, their leaders, formal and informal associations, groups of public figures who emphasize their commitment to Russia, and especially to Vladimir Putin, as the highest quality of their political activity – in Serbia! They go so far as to prove their oppositional consistency by reporting Aleksandar Vučić to Russia, and sometimes to Putin directly. They believe that they, and not Vučić, are sincere friends of Russia and its only allies in Serbia, which is why they should get more affection from Moscow. The short history of democracy in Serbia does not remember such a twisted submissiveness, by which their own, internal political opponent is sold out to a foreign leader, to leave aside for a moment that he is also the head of state. They are “telling on” him to Putin not only to try to discredit him, but to earn at least a little more affection and sympathy from Moscow.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples. An open letter from Boško Obradović to Putin, ahead of his visit to Belgrade in early 2019, in which the leader of Dveri carefully and condescendingly warns the Russian leader that Vučić wants to abuse that visit for daily political purposes, in support of his government and his party. There is also a series of appearances by Mlađan Đorđević in the Russian media, in which he warns Moscow that Vučić is a “Russophobe”, which is why Moscow should distance itself from him, otherwise it will be expelled from the Balkans. However, recently launched petition, is unsurpassed by bizarreness, in the text in which, after a long celebration of the historical ties between Serbs and Russians, the Russian president is asked to deprive Vučić of the Order of Alexander Nevsky, because he “abuses centuries-old Serbian-Russian relations and uses them for daily political purposes”.

This competition of Vučić’s opponents for Russia’s affection would certainly be insignificant, if Vučić himself did not participate in the fight to prove his strong ties with Moscow. Beginning in June, when he first announced Putin’s visit to Belgrade, Vučić spoke on several occasions about that visit as an extremely important political event, and given that the Russian leader was supposed to attend the commemoration of the end of works on the St. Sava Temple, the visit was presented as an important festive event, important for strengthening the ties between the two nations.

Vučić certainly did not announce Putin’s arrival without a reason, it was clear that the visit was being prepared. “We are waiting for him. He promised that he would come, and every time he said he would come, he came”, Vučić said in August, and in early September he had a working meeting with Russian Ambassador Botsan-Kharchenko on the topic of Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit to Serbia.

The fact that Putin will not come to Belgrade, although he promised, is not a tragedy. Especially if we keep in mind that it was supposed to be the 19th meeting between the Russian and Serbian leaders in just eight years, and, apart from the ceremony in the St. Sava Temple, there were no announced and expected important political and economic topics. Considering that Vučić and Putin met only a few months ago in Moscow, and that they talked on the phone several times in the meantime, the question rightly arises – is there any reason why anyone would regret the absence of only one in a series of ceremonies of Serbian-Russian brotherly love? That is why Vučić’s effort to amortize Putin’s cancellation, by announcing the arrival of Sergei Lavrov at the end of October, is also unreasonable. Especially because Belgrade, originally, was not the point of his mini-Balkan tour, and rightly so, because he was already here in June. However, as compensation for Putin’s absence, Belgrade is “pushed” into the schedule of the head of Russian diplomacy, where Athens, Zagreb and Sarajevo were from the beginning.

The President of Serbia has no reason to “burn out” in proving his good positions in relation to Moscow. His voters, although committed to good relations with Russia, certainly do not follow Vučić primarily because of his policy towards Moscow, they are loyal to him for other reasons, primarily domestic politics and economy. Vučić still has no reason to compete with his opponents, because their cries for Moscow come from pure despair due to their own failure on the domestic scene. Although it should not be overlooked that in their pro-Russian orientation, they often forget that Russia is not their state and that they should still win votes in Serbia.

It is incomprehensible why the Serbian president emphasizes his frequent talks with the Russian leader, and that these meetings always last longer than planned, and at another moment there is a reprimand for waiting an hour and a half for the agreed meeting with Putin. It is also incomprehensible that Vučić is meeting with the Russian ambassador before or immediately after any important meeting with Western leaders, as if he is justifying himself or “softening” the reasons for his diplomatic cooperation with the “other side”.

It is clear that Putin postponed his visit to Serbia solely because of the difficult situation with the Corona epidemic in Russia, and that is completely understandable. Considering that the October meeting would not bring anything significantly new in Serbian-Russian political and economic relations, then there is really nothing more than a statement that the visit has been postponed and will be organized as soon as the circumstances allow. And turn to other, more important issues, and there are many more for both Serbia and Vučić. Russia simply does not have the potential to make a significant breakthrough in cooperation with Serbia, it has been in great economic troubles for years, and as far as military “cooperation” is concerned, it has always been guided by the principle that Serbia pays for every piece of weapon, often in advance, and if something is presented as a gift, like the MIG-29 aircrafts, then it should be said that the “gift” includes the reparation of those aircrafts, which is more expensive than the purchase of the new ones. Unlike the Russian president, who has not traveled outside the former Soviet Union for a long time, Vučić has a real, very lively international activity. It is directed towards Western capitals and leaders there, but it is completely natural and pragmatic, because Kosovo is discussed almost exclusively, and a positive result for Serbia in this most important issue can be achieved only in the West, which has been managing this process for a decade. Russian or Chinese participation in solving this problem is extremely marginal. At the same time, the Serbian economy, as predominantly oriented towards the West, can only in that place look for efficient ways for its further growth, and especially for repairing the consequences caused by the pandemic. And in that sense, the diplomatic participation of the Serbian president is irreplaceable. On the other hand, the absence of only one in a series of meetings with the Russian leader does not cause any damage to the most important interests of Serbia at this moment. It may be too early to tell, but it is possible that it will only bring benefits.