By Igor Jovanovic
Serbia President Tomislav Nikolic met with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, twice in just a month. Belgrade is asking Russia for a railway loan, assistance in overcoming the severe economic crisis, has high hopes concerning the construction of the South Stream gas pipeline and expects to find an investor for the Smederevo Zelezara steelworks.
During his stay in Russia, Nikolic told the media that he was “a great Russophile,” adding, “the only country I love more than Russia is Serbia.” His comments fuelled talk in Belgrade of whether the new government was abandoning the road to the EU and turning to Russia.
Former Serbian Ambassador to France Predrag Simic said it was not certain if Belgrade was making a strategic turn toward Moscow, or if this was just a tactic due to the economic crisis and pressure from the EU over Kosovo.
“The EU itself is in crisis and further integration is losing popularity in Serbia. On the other hand, pressure regarding Kosovo primarily from Germany has increased since the election of the new government. That is why it is somewhat understandable that it is addressing Moscow, which can help in solving economic problems,” Simic said.
Aleksandra Joksimovic, head of the Belgrade Centre for Foreign Policy, said it was normal for Belgrade to turn to Russia for economic aid because some EU member states, such as Cyprus, were doing the same.
“But the EU will not tolerate any sort of preferential access given to Russian companies in Serbia. That is why it is important that Russia, because of its support for [Serbia’s] Kosovo policy, is not given privileged access to the sale of Serbian companies, as that is something that definitely would not be approved of in the EU, which is still Serbia’s chief trade partner,” Joksimovic told SETimes.
Aleksandar Mitic of the Centre for Strategic Alternatives, said now is a good time for Russia to fortify its position with Belgrade and the Serbian people in general.
“That requires Russia to lead a much more proactive policy in Serbia and the Balkans,” Mitic told SETimes.
Russian officials do not hide their satisfaction with developments.
“The prospect of our co-operation is immense. But everything will depend on the readiness of the parties involved to realize that prospect fully, which I hope everyone involved in the work will do,” said Alexander Konuzin, outgoing Russian ambassador to Belgrade.
Erhard Busek, former co-ordinator of the Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, said Serbia’s relationship with Russia is cause for concern.
“I have a feeling that Serbia, and particularly its politicians, are constantly waiting for Europe to adjust to Serbia, instead of the other way around,” he said. “One can see the new government turning to Russia, which I think is not good, because Serbia belongs in the EU.”