Russian boot diplomacy

In May, the Russian ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Igor Kalabuhov, lectured the citizens of a guest country. He was giving them advice on the membership in the European Union, advising them they do not need it because it does not offer them anything good, but only neo-imperial politics. It was a gross violation of the sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the inalienable right of its citizens to decide for themselves, their country and the way they want to live. But, Russia had already been involved in the invasion of Ukraine, for two months at that time, and the invasion was not going according to plan, so its diplomacy had to put on military boots and step on international rules.

At that time, we estimated that it was a matter of days before the Russian ambassador in Belgrade Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, an experienced expert on the Balkans and Serbia, would start addressing the citizens of Serbia and its government in the same way. And indeed, only a few months passed before the “outing” of the Russian ambassador to Serbia. Similar to his colleague in Sarajevo, he took off his diplomatic gloves and directly interfered in the decision-making that is an exclusive right of Serbian citizens and their Government.

The occasion was the initiative of an opposition group to discuss the proposal for the introduction of sanctions against Russia before the Parliamentary Committee for Foreign Affairs. That was the “trigger” for Ambassador Botsan-Kharchenko. Despite the fact that the initiative did not come from the government, but from a minority, opposition group and had almost no chance of being adopted by the parliament, the Russian ambassador was fierce, because that was the first official initiative in a state institution mentioning Serbian sanctions against Russia. Previously, that discussion has been conducted only in the media, among parties and their leaders, but never officially, in a state institution, even at the suggestion of a weak opposition.

Botsan-Kharchenko accused the initiator, MP Borko Stefanović, of “not taking into account the opinion of the majority of Serbian citizens”. He was alluding to several public opinion surveys that showed a high percentage of sanctions opponents. He mocked him for the proposal to introduce sanctions gradually (“A woman can’t be a little pregnant”), but he mostly threatened. Not the MP who submitted the initiative, but directly Serbia, its government and its citizens.

He threatened that the sanctions would return like a boomerang to anyone who introduced them, that problems with Russia would certainly appear in vital economic sectors, that there would be “deplorable socio-economic consequences” for Serbia.

The Russian ambassador, without a doubt, grossly interfered in the sovereign affairs of the citizens and parliament of Serbia and it is not necessary to prove this separately. The reaction of the Russian ambassador is important because, Russia’s true attitude towards Serbia and its true intentions towards the country, which it considers its ally, can be observed through it, because Serbia has not yet imposed sanctions on Russia.

The fierce reaction of Ambassador Botsan-Kharchenko is the result of great nervousness in the Kremlin at the very mention that Serbia could join EU sanctions against Russia. That possibility is real; the highest state officials of Serbia are talking about it, if Serbia suffers damage from its main political and economic partner – the European Union and its members. Now it has been moved from the verbal and media level to the official parliamentary procedure, even as a harmless opposition initiative.

Next, with the harsh statement of its ambassador, Russia demonstrates that it is ready to completely openly, and even more than before, interfere in the internal affairs in Serbia. Ambassador Botsan-Kharchenko’s threats were not meant for the opposition MP, but were directed at the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and the Government led by his coalition. This was, so far, the most open, public threat to Serbia that Russia will harm it if it imposes sanctions.

And finally, precisely because of raising these threats to the public level, Russia announces that it will use all mechanisms of pressure on Serbia much more than before, both as retaliation and as a method to change political relations within Serbia in Moscow’s favour. This means encouraging political instability, open and destructive intelligence work, intensifying disinformation operations, encouraging all points of conflict, which normally burden Serbian society.

The latter especially refers to the difficult situation regarding Kosovo, where Russia has traditionally shown its interest in preserving the status quo of the frozen conflict, in slowing down and stopping the negotiation process led by the EU and the USA, and in encouraging a direct conflict between the Serbs and Albanians. Since the beginning of September, Russia has conducted at least two powerful hybrid operations towards Serbia, at a time of crisis in the north of Kosovo, with the aim of provoking violence, armed conflict between the local population and the Kosovo police, and ultimately a conflict between the Serbian Army and the NATO mission in Kosovo.

The Russian ambassador’s statement opened a completely new page in Moscow’s relationship with Belgrade. That relationship has not been “fraternal”, friendly and the closest possible, as it is usually written in official announcements, but the previously hidden and ambiguous messages of warning and disagreement have turned into public accusations and threats, with the grossest possible interference in the sovereign affairs of the state of Serbia. This “genie” will not return to the bottle, it will remain hovering over Serbia as long as the decision to introduce sanctions is not reached. With this, Moscow showed its sincere intentions towards Serbia and its government, in case they were guided by the interests of their country, and not by the interests of Russia. And those intentions are neither fraternal nor friendly.