The irreplaceable role of the First Ladies in relations between Serbia and Ukraine

For a long time, rigid political leaders and bureaucrats have not been the only ones engaging in diplomacy and critical intergovernmental affairs, and it is a good thing that this has been the case. Mrs Olena Zelenska visited Belgrade during the first days of May. I hope that Minister Dmytro Kuleba would not mind being in the background here, even though he was part of a delegation with the First Lady, as the first high-ranking Ukrainian official to visit Serbia since the start of Russian aggression.

However, ladies first, and this is far from merely a courtesy regarding Mrs Zelenska’s visit to Belgrade.

The visit of the wife of a European head of state came as something of a surprise to the Serbian public, which has not had such an opportunity for a long time. Those older remember the protocols of high state visits in the past, which typically included presidents, prime ministers, and kings accompanied by their wives.

Olena Zelenska’s visit received first-class social and even political treatment from the domestic public. Together with Mrs Tamara Vučić, the wife of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, Mrs Zelenska completed an intensive programme in Belgrade.

The two First Ladies visited Belgrade Fortress, a mediaeval landmark in Serbia’s capital. They opened a Ukrainian literature section in the nearby city library, situated on the foundations of the Roman walls and built in the mid-19th century. Additionally, they visited the local youth centre. The two ladies spoke at a major international event on mental health and were present at the signing of an agreement on cooperation between the University of Belgrade and the University of Kyiv, “Taras Shevchenko”.

The photos from these events were a positive shock to a large part of the Serbian public, which, like others in Europe, has become too “dependent” on difficult political news and international meetings of mostly frowning politicians.

However, the two First Ladies have done important work for their countries’ relations. They have been active in an area that often receives less attention despite dealing with issues that people find most interesting, such as healthcare, support for young people, refugees, the sick, and culture.

The meeting between Olena Zelenska and Tamara Vučić in Belgrade is not their debut on the joint Serbian-Ukrainian stage. During the first months of the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the two began working on the delivery of aid supplies for Ukraine, ensuring that ambulances with full equipment from Serbia arrived at the health centres in Kharkiv and Cherkasy before the end of 2022.

The cooperation continued in September last year, when Mrs Vučić, a diplomat by profession, visited Kyiv and participated in the summit of the first ladies and gentlemen, where the principal topic was also the mental health of people affected by the war crisis. As a result, the meeting in Belgrade was a return visit for Mrs Zelenska and a continuation of the joint work with the First Lady of Serbia.

There have been attempts to read the context of so-called “high” politics into the meeting of the spouses of the presidents of Serbia and Ukraine, where some of the world’s biggest media outlets have also been searching for hidden meanings. For example, about the manoeuvring of Serbian President Vučić, who is often described as pro-Russian in the West, or about Belgrade’s tactics following the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping just a few days before Mrs Zelenska.

These comments are not only completely false but, more importantly, deeply unfair to the shared mission of the two First Ladies. They were dirty denunciations of a profoundly humane mission of two women who put their influence exclusively at the service of so-called ordinary people and the solution of their life problems.

Serbia itself had the difficult experience of war not so long ago, with millions of refugees, destroyed homes, and human suffering on a large scale. Today, Serbian society remains deeply rooted in the traumas of the 1990s conflicts. This was the reason for the joint effort to share with Ukraine, a close country with people experiencing a similar historical drama, what friends typically share: solidarity and support.

The friendly meeting of the two First Ladies in Belgrade should not surprise anyone, as it was only a deepening of the generally good relations between the two countries and their peoples. I recently wrote at length in the Kyiv Post about the extent to which these relations differ from the usual clichés in the international media, according to which Serbia is supposedly an ally of Russia.

What could better confirm that relations between Belgrade and Kyiv are much closer than Russia’s reactions to Mrs Zelenska’s visit to Serbia? And they mostly boiled down to the words “shameful,” “disgusting,” and “blow to Russia,” directed at Serbia, its president, and his wife. However, this is not unexpected and warrants no attention.

The presidents of Serbia and Ukraine, Vučić and Zelensky, are in close contact and have met three times since the start of the Russian aggression. Both had only positive perceptions and assessments of the talks.

At the same time, their wives have been working even more intensively, although unfortunately (or fortunately) with less media attention. However, this does not diminish the significance of their joint work; on the contrary, it enhances it. Meetings of First Ladies are also meetings of wives and mothers, and their husbands will never be able to have this power of positive influence on the public. If the goal of the first married couples of Serbia and Ukraine, and at the same time, the policy of the two countries, is to connect the two nations as much as possible and bring them closer together, then Vučić and Zelensky have been doing a good job. The female part of this intergovernmental bridge plays a significant and irreplaceable role, which Mrs Vučić and Mrs Zelenska fulfil to the full benefit of their nations.