Interview of the Director of the International Security Institute, Prof. Dr Orhan Dragaš for Al Jazeera Balkans (May 29, 2022)


Dragaš: Serbia should flee as far as possible from the perverted concept of the ‘Russian world’

‘Serbia is not facing any choice; if there was any, then the aggression against Ukraine resolved it – Russia is not an option for Serbia ‘, claims Orhan Dragaš, an expert on security and international relations.

Serbia has already made a choice between the European Union and Russia, but that still needs to be put into practice – through sanctions, which will not provoke almost any retaliation from Russia, while the recent use of the term “Kosovo’s independence” by Vladimir Putin is proof that Russia’s support for Serbia around Kosovo has never been of a principled nature, but has always been exclusively related to pragmatic Russian interests.

This was said in an interview with Al Jazeera by Prof. PhD Orhan Dragaš, Serbian expert on security and international relations, founder and director of the non-governmental International Security Institute. He received his university education in Belgrade, his doctorate in Brussels, and his postdoctoral training in London, at Yale, Oxford, Harvard and other prestigious institutions.

Among other things, he is European Commission’s expert for migrations and internal affairs, a member of Chatham House from London, and he founded the Faculty of Diplomacy and Security in Belgrade, the first of its kind in Eastern Europe.

Dragaš, the author of numerous expert articles and books, is of the opinion that Russia has an interest in creating an area of ​​frozen conflict in the Western Balkans, but that it does not have the resources to expand the front with the West to our region. He adds that Russia lost the war in Ukraine, no matter how it ended.

Speaking about Serbia’s choice between the EU and Russia, which has been talked about for a long time, Dragaš is of the opinion that “Serbia has already determined the direction in which it is moving”.

“For Serbia, what Russia is doing in Ukraine is an invasion which Russia should stop and return its army home, reads a part of the UN General Assembly resolution, that Serbia voted for. Serbia repeated the same position by supporting other UN and EU decisions, and recently within the regional Adriatic Ionian Initiative. Therefore, the political position of the state of Serbia is clear; it is also expressed through international decisions. Practical consequences of such an attitude are still not there in full, and that primarily concerns sanctions against Russia. I just follow the logic – if there is already a political position, and Serbia has it, then the specific consequences of that position will inevitably come. Including sanctions”, claims Dragaš.

  • There has been a lot of talk about the “difficulty” of choice between the European Union and Russia. Is the choice really difficult?

Things are simpler than they seem. Serbia is not facing any choice, even if it was before February 24, then Russia dismissed it with its aggression against Ukraine. Since then, Russia has not been an option for Serbia, as an international partner and support. It was not an option even before the invasion of Ukraine, and I often proved it in analyses in domestic and European media and professional magazines, but since February 24, there is definitely no false dilemma. Everything that exists in Serbia is closely related to Europe and the West – its economy, its exports and imports, its involvement in European and global supply chains, technological infrastructure, personal connections, studying, cultural exchange, sports…Everything.

On the other side, the Russian one, there is nothing for Serbia, except a vague myth about some kind of brotherly connection through history and difficult times, which is a romantic invention of a more recent date. With the invasion of Ukraine, and especially with the aggressive rhetoric about the so-called “Russian world” and Pan-Slavism under the command of the Kremlin, Serbia has been given the last alarm that it should flee as far as possible from that perverted concept.

  • One can often hear assumption that Serbia could have a problem if it imposes sanctions on Russia. What can Moscow do?

Maybe it will receive a harsh statement from the Kremlin, maybe Russia will put it on the famous list of “enemy countries”, and the most difficult consequence is that you, as an enemy, are asked to pay for gas in rubles, not dollars. There are no consequences, there is only unmasking of the huge arrogance of Russia and its leader, with which they have been trying to intimidate everyone around them for years. Just look at the determination of some “small” countries, members of the EU and NATO, to resist Moscow, which uses energy products and now food as a weapon. Bulgaria, for example, has refused to pay for gas in rubles, and Bulgaria is the poorest member of the EU and under the greatest pressure from Russia. Not to mention the Baltic States, which are putting an end to Moscow’s energy blackmail from day to day. Finland and Sweden, the most developed European democracies, renounce their traditional neutrality, which is their global diplomatic brand, and join NATO, because they have a dangerous bully in the neighbourhood.

I have been explaining for a long time that the only pressure to which Serbia is exposed comes from Russia, and not from the West. Serbia itself, voluntarily, decided to go to the EU, and there is no pressure when the West reminds it that it has obligations arising from its wish. But that is why pure pressure comes from Russia, for example the passive-aggressive “reminder” that we are friends and brothers. When Maria Zakharova (spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation) says that Serbia and Russia have different views on friendship, and that Russia always supports its friends in difficult moments, first of all she does not tell the truth, and secondly she blackmails and puts pressure. Russia did impose sanctions on Serbia, many times during the 1990s, so it is a common lie when some fraternal and friendly reciprocity in not imposing sanctions on Russia is sought.

  • Vučić’s choice is also very important for BiH, especially because of his relationship with Milorad Dodik. If Serbia’s choice is the EU, do you see changes in that area?

We must now put the situation in BiH in the context of the changes caused by the Russian aggression on Ukraine. Those changes are no longer a matter of foreign policy; Ukraine is an internal issue of each of our countries, including BiH and Serbia. In this regard, the decisions made by Serbia and President Vučić regarding the crisis in Ukraine have a direct connection with our regional relations. Along with Kosovo, BiH is at the top of Western priorities when it comes to the Balkans, we could see that in the policy paper from the G7 ministerial meeting in Germany. Therefore, decisions are expected within one comprehensive package, where the goal is to stabilize the situation in the Balkans, primarily in relation to Kosovo and BiH, and that further means that there will be no room for politicians and leaders who refuse it. In order not to cause confusion, I mean Milorad Dodik. In this case, as well as in the case of a false dilemma between the West and Russia, Serbia does not have a real dilemma. Nobody is preventing it from cooperating with Republika Srpska, but if that excludes cooperation with Dodik and maintaining his policy of confrontation with the West, then the choice is very easy.

  • Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, emphasis has been placed on the Western Balkans, as a scene of possible new escalation influenced by Russia. Do you see a scenario in which something dangerous could happen, especially in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Even before the Russian aggression on Ukraine, I warned that Russia would try to expand the front of its conflict with the West in the Western Balkans. But not that it will succeed in that. Russia simply does not have those resources, neither economic, nor diplomatic, intelligence, and propaganda. Russia thought that it had them because they believed in their own delusions about imperial greatness and some historical mission. They focused everything they have on Ukraine, and it turns out that what they have cannot make their dream come true. However, Russia will not give up trying to cause problems in the Balkans. Keeping the region in a state of constant instability, as far away from Europe and the West as possible, and for as long as possible, permanently, for the best – that is Russia’s essential interest in the Balkans.

  • So, you think that Bosnia and Herzegovina, despite the diplomatic offensive and indirect threats from Russia, should not be afraid of Russia, at least not in terms of security threats?

If we look back on what Russia was ready to do in order to preserve its destructive influence in the Balkans, then there is always reason to worry, especially now when it is in open war, against a state which is an absolute priority in its aggressive, conquest policy. In Macedonia, Russia tried to keep its political favourites in power; in Montenegro it did everything to bring them to power, even with an armed coup. In Serbia, its intelligence operations directed against the state, and even against the family of President Vučić, have been exposed.

It manages many nationalist and even neo-Nazi groups that incite ethnic conflicts, knowing that this is the weakest point in the Balkans, where it is easiest to make deep cracks. Not to mention years of aggressive propaganda and corruption. I have no doubt that Russia wants to destabilize the region, including BiH, now even more than before, because that destabilization would reduce the pressure on its operations in Ukraine. But I also have no doubt that it simply does not have the strength or resources to produce a major conflict.

  • The West is slightly more engaged around Serbia and BiH, but is that enough? What should the West have to do to secure this area from potential conflicts and eliminate Russian influence?

Above all, a drastic acceleration in the integration of the entire Western Balkans into the European Union. I am glad that many European officials have recognized and advocated this since the first day of Russian aggression. Five years ago, my Institute created the project Western Balkans IN for the rapid integration of the Western Balkans into the EU, as a way to eliminate the negative Russian influence in the region and presented it to the highest EU institutions. Now people from the EU are coming to the positions we proposed in 2017, for example the “conditional membership” of the Western Balkan countries in the EU, which some Brussels think tanks and officials now call “partial membership”. EU enlargement is a matter of political decision, of course, with the fulfilment of certain criteria, but this is about politics, and not about the grades at the entrance exam. I am sure that this is possible in the short term, and there is no doubt that this is the most effective protection of the region from any destabilization that Russia is ready for.

  • Let’s take a look at Serbia’s problem with Kosovo, especially if we have in mind the change in Russia’s attitude towards the regions in Donbas. Will Serbia eventually have to accept its independence in the new security climate in the event of a possible lack of Russian support for the Kosovo issue at the international level?

There was a great awakening in Serbia when Vladimir Putin recently used the independence of Kosovo as an argument for aggression against Ukraine and the declaration of independence of Donetsk and Luhansk in a conversation with UN Secretary General Guterres. People who support Russia and Putin, and considered him the protector of Kosovo within Serbia, and there are many of them, suddenly sobered up, realized that neither Putin nor Russia are really interested in Kosovo or Serbia, but only plans and interests related to Russia and its expansion.

The fact is that Russia’s support for Serbia around Kosovo has always been exclusively related to pragmatic Russian interests – there has never been principled support. And now everyone in Serbia could hear that, directly from Putin. Serbia can no longer expect Russian support around Kosovo for the simple reason that Russia has nowhere to express that support. It is marginalized in the Security Council, decisions are made by the General Assembly, it is not in the UN Human Rights Council, it is not in the Council of Europe, and it has been excluded from all important international forums, so the argument that Russia defends Serbia’s interests is no longer valid. It was not valid before, but now it is being proven.

  • What kind of end of the war in Ukraine you predict, if it even ends in a conventional way, in the sense that we have an obvious winner and loser?

I hope for a ceasefire and the end of destruction as soon as possible, which is a precondition for everything. The end of the suffering of the Ukrainian people is something that the whole free world hopes for. As for the outcome, for me it is already clear – Ukraine is the absolute winner, and Russia the loser, whatever the future peace agreement looks like. Resistance to the cruel, illegal aggression by the Ukrainian people will remain in history as a heroic act. Russia has not achieved any of its original war goals, if it had any at all, given that it has changed them several times so far. I think that Russia’s aggression will focus on consolidating its presence in the breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine, and that it will be satisfied if those areas remain in the limbo of the frozen conflict. It is a Russian specialty, they do not have a strategy for what they want from a region, but only what they do not want from it – they do not want it to be stable and prosperous and they do not want to allow people who live there freedom of choice.

Wherever there was freedom of choice, people rejected Russia – it was like that in the whole of Eastern Europe, and now in Ukraine. Russia wants the same in the Balkans: a region of frozen conflict where people have no freedom of choice.