There is only one Russia

It would be really good for the assessments of the Ambassador of Russia to Serbia, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, that the strategic relations between the two countries have a “cosmic perspective”, to come true. Inspired by the great jubilee, 60 years since the historic flight of Yuri Gagarin into space, the experienced Russian diplomat put the future of Serbian-Russian relations in a cosmic perspective, and supported that with better cooperation in the field of science, innovation and research. We have reason to believe in this assessment, because it comes from diplomat with vast experience, especially in the Balkans, no doubt well-intentioned towards the relations between the two countries, even when they come on festive occasions, such as the 60th anniversary of man’s first space flight.

However, in order to one day really reach the “cosmic level” in the relations between Serbia and Russia, it would be useful to deal with today’s earthly aspects of that cooperation, because the path to cosmic heights still starts from the ground. And here, lately, clouds are appearing again, hindering the take-off.

The Kremlin has once again drawn a parallel between Srebrenica and the Donbas region these days, warning that the massacre in the small Bosnian town in 1995, which was declared a genocide against Muslims by the International Court of Justice, could be repeated in the eastern Ukraine. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, was unambiguous in comparing the two situations: “The tragedy in Srebrenica can happen again in Donbas. In that case, no country in the world will be left out, as well as Russia and will take all measures in order for the human catastrophe not to be repeated”. Dmitry Kozak, the deputy head of the Russian presidential administration, spoke in the same tone these days, warning that Russia would stand up for Donbas “if there is a new Srebrenica, referring to President Putin’s words”.

These statements had a rather shocking effect on the part of the Serbian public that sees Russia as the closest and unreserved partner of their country, on those who expect Russia to behave towards Serbia driven only by fraternal emotions, not practical interests. Of course, even if he doesn’t mention Srebrenica as something terrible, it’s best not to mention it at all.

Where did the surprise come from?

Judging by many researches over the years, there are many people in Serbia who expect just that from Russia, because they themselves look at that country through the lens of feelings, not common sense. That is why they are unpleasantly surprised, when they hear warnings from Moscow that the most serious crime is possible in Donbas, and that is – Srebrenica. They can be summarized in the title on one portal – “Disappointment from Russia”. Is there, after all, room for surprise, let alone disappointment?

There is no rational reason for this. The top of the Russian state, including President Putin, have spoken the name of Srebrenica several times in the past few years when they wanted to describe the dramatics of the events in Donbas. The same position that we hear today from Peskov and Kozak, Vladimir Putin said for the first time in 2017, at a debate club in Sochi. He said at the time that “the decision to close the border between Russia and the unrecognized republics could lead to a situation similar to the one in Srebrenica”. Two years later, in December 2019, the Russian president, as Russia Today reported, said that “there could be a massacre similar to the one in Srebrenica, if Ukrainian troops take control of the border”. A day later, he had his first meeting with the then newly elected President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, in Paris, so this statement was well thought out and should probably have served as “heavy diplomatic artillery” before the important meeting.

In the Kremlin’s rhetoric, Srebrenica is not only used when it comes to Donbass. Russia has reached out for it in other crisis situations in which it was an actor. Back in 2008, just a year after the International Court of Justice qualified the Srebrenica tragedy as genocide, Sergey Lavrov used Srebrenica as a parallel for Russia’s military intervention against Georgia: “In this case, Russia used force in full respect of international law, its right to self-defense and its obligations under the agreements on this particular conflict. Russia could not allow its peacekeepers to see acts of genocide before their eyes, as was the case in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in 1995”, Lavrov told the Wall Street Journal in August 2008. And yes, the Russian chief of diplomacy, even then used the word – genocide, talking about Srebrenica.

Two or one Russia

Let’s try to explain the confusion on this occasion in the pro-Russian part of the Serbian public. Is this the “real” Russia, for which Srebrenica is not an “open question” and uses it when it needs a horrible comparison for operations in its backyard. Or the “real” Russia is the one that vetoed the Security Council on the British proposal of resolution in Srebrenica in 2015.

The answer is very simple. Both are “real” Russia. When it is interested in explaining positions regarding the crisis in Donbas, then it will talk about Srebrenica as an unprecedented crime committed by Serbs in Bosnia, regardless of whether it will hurt the feelings of supporters in the Balkans. Then Russia defends its interest in Ukraine, which is its unparalleled foreign policy priority. The Balkans, Serbia and Bosnian Serbs are out of sight at that time. On the other hand, when it estimates that it should strengthen its acquisitions in the Balkans, then it has no problem in blocking the resolution on Srebrenica in the Security Council. There are no two Russian policies regarding the Balkans, Serbia, Bosnia and Srebrenica. There is only one, and at its center is the Russian interest, regardless of what that policy will look like to supporters in Serbia who are in love with Russia. If it were different, if it did not always and everywhere protect only its own and nobody else’s interests, Russia would not be a great and powerful state.

Pro-Russian commentators in Serbia tried to explain to their followers that the latest mention of Srebrenica in the Kremlin does not mean that “Russia has turned its back on us”, but that it is only rhetoric addressed to the West, because it understands that language and those parallels. This is quite true, with the addition that the message was partly sent to the public in Russia, as an effort to mobilize the public on the crisis in Donbas and to stand behind its state leadership, determined not to allow the massacre of compatriots. And what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of confused and disappointed people in Serbia, who did not expect Putin and Moscow to “betray” them on Srebrenica, that remains only their problem. Relations between Serbia and Russia may indeed one day have a “cosmic perspective,” as Ambassador Botsan-Kharchenko predicts. But only on one condition that in time, and the time is now, they descend from the mythical heights of eternal brotherhood and dedicate themselves to earthly affairs. For a start, not to be surprised and disappointed in Serbia when the Kremlin talks about Srebrenica with the same vocabulary as in the Netherlands and the American Congress, for example.