Don’t Overestimate The Russian-Serbian Strategic Partnership

Russia’s relations with Serbia are excellent, but overestimating their potential might unwittingly generate very high but false hopes about their future, especially as it relates to the ultra-controversial topic of “recognizing” Kosovo.  

The Russian-Serbian Strategic Partnership is stronger than at any time in history, with the range of their relations running the full gamut from high-level military-to-military ties all the way down to people-to-people civil society engagement, but it’s almost paradoxically because of how excellent they are that people have a tendency to overestimate their potential. The many civilizational bonds that tie these two Slavic Orthodox countries together have truly made them brothers, but like in any family, one’s kin can’t always be counted on for everything. The same principle holds true when it comes to Serbia’s ongoing talks with Kosovo over resolving the status of its NATO-occupied renegade province, as some domestic voices think that Russia should do its utmost to prevent their Prime Minister from, as they see it, selling out their historic territory.

It’s true that any deal resulting in the de-facto “recognition” of Kosovo’s “independence” by Belgrade would be unconstitutional, but the inconvenient reality is that Russia can’t do anything to stop this from happening. In fact, it can provocatively be argued that Russia might not actually be all that opposed to seeing this happen if it leads to Serbia entering the EU because that would then “grandfather” its Serbian-based companies into the larger economic bloc and lead to more benefits for its investors. Officially speaking, however, Kosovo’s 2008 unilateral “declaration of independence” is illegal in terms of international law and created a very dangerous precedent that Russia has spent much of the past decade raising awareness about, but there’s really nothing that Moscow can do to change the state of affairs short of engaging in nuclear brinksmanship over it, which it certainly won’t do.

The ideal solution would be if Kosovo peacefully reintegrated into Serbia proper, but that’s not going to happen, nor for that matter are the Serbian Armed Forces likely to liberate the region by force, especially not when the US’ largest European base, Camp Bondsteel, is located there. Patriotic voices have a good point in saying that Serbia doesn’t have to “normalize” the situation at all, let alone for a chance (key word) to enter the EU at an unconfirmed time afterwards, because they could just let the situation remain frozen indefinitely until a more advantageous possibility for resolving it in their favor comes along. In that case, Russia would support Serbia; it would also support it if the government reaches a deal over this issue too. As the oft-quoted saying goes, “Russia can’t be more Serbian than the Serbs themselves”.

It’s the position of the Russian government that it will respect whatever decision its counterpart makes, which may or may not be in line with the popular sentiment of its people. Moscow seems to be alright with either scenario because it stands to benefit regardless. The continuation of the frozen conflict would keep Belgrade predisposed towards Russia by default, while resolving it would “grandfather” Russia’s hefty investments into the larger EU and create a launching pad for further indirect partnered engagement with the companies of the bloc that might thus enable Moscow to cleverly avoid the ongoing sanctions regime. Russia, like any country in the world, looks after its own interests first and foremost, and its leaders have an obligation to their own people over their partners’. That’s not to “morally justify” anything, but just to reflect the way things objectively are.

The false expectations that some might have about the Russian-Serbian Strategic Partnership might even be counterproductive in the long run because they seem poised to set up the Serbian public for a major disappointment if their government reaches a deal over Kosovo that’s ultimately endorsed by Moscow per its policy of approving whatever it is that Belgrade decides to do concerning this matter. Russia will not intervene to stop the Serbian government from “recognizing” Kosovo if this is what ends up happening, and in that case it would simply go along with its partner by following suit so as to remain in its good graces. Politics is politics, and Russia doesn’t seem to have any interest in influencing its partner one way or another, let alone in taking unilateral action that might go against Belgrade’s wishes. For better or for worse, this time the “big brother” will do whatever the “little brother” wants.

DISCLAIMER: The author writes for this publication in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.

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