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Serbia - Russia Relations

Serbia is a traditional ally of Russia's but has been granted European Union candidate status and is actively seeking EU membership. Serbia also joinedr NATO's Partnership for Peace program in 2006.

Serbia's spiritual connection with Russia goes back to a shared alphabet -- Cyrillic, a shared faith -- Orthodoxy, and a shared epic struggle against infidel occupiers, be they Tatar or Turk. The entrenchment resulting from guarding the faith has resulted in deep-rooted xenophobia and disdain for alliances. Serbian theologians speak admiringly of Russian Orthodoxy as being the sole orthodoxy to fight back the Ottoman Empire, and even compete with the Ottomans for influence in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Russia supported Serbian independence at the 1878 Congress of Berlin, though the Kosovo vilayet (province) and the Sandjak of Novi Pazar remained with the Ottoman Empire, and the 900,000 Serbs living in Bosnia-Herzegovina found themselves under Austro-Hungarian rule. The threat of the "Islamic Jihad / Fourth Reich / Vatican axis," an echo of the array of forces working against Serbia in 1878, was a rallying cry for Serbia during the 1990's aggression in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Russia's support of a Balkan League aimed at liberating the rest of the Balkans from the Ottoman Empire led to the First and Second Balkan Wars of 1912-13. Serbia's stature as a major power in the Balkans, and as a Russian satellite, were important precursors to World War I. Serbian sacrifices in WWI are still subjects played out in Serbian media to this day.

Creation of a "Greater Serbia" became the goal of the 19th and early 20th Century Serbian Radical Party, under the leadership of Nikola Pasic, whom Serbs reverently refer to as their greatest politician. The "Greater Serbia" ideology's intrinsic factors included the idea the Serbs were only safe when all lived under a united Serbian state, adherence to Serbian Orthodoxy, xenophobia, distrust of alliances -- and love of Russia. Though the Radicals were banned following the establishment of Tito's Yugoslavia after WWII, its re-emergence in the 1990's demonstrates the power of these values and, in fact, most Serbs, belief that these are the values that define them as a people. Much of even current Democratic Party official's rhetoric contain echoes of this ideology.

Serbia's Russia-love took a hit during WWII when the royalist Cetniks eventually sided with Nazi Germany and Tito's Partizans won the support of the Allies. WWII is still in the process of distillation given the combined anti-historic influences of Tito's Communism and former Serbian President Milosevic's revisionism in the 1990's. When Tito broke with the Cominform/Stalin in 1948, he sent Cominform sympathizers, mostly Serbs, to the notorious Goli Otok prison colony in the Adriatic Sea. Tito's first purge of his Partizan inner circle was Serb Minister of Interior Aleksandar Rankovic - indicted for Stalinism in 1966. Serbs perceive Tito's next act of anti-Serbianism in the draft of the 1974 constitution which gave Vojvodina and Kosovo autonomous province status. As recently as January 4, 2009, former Yugoslav Foreign Minister Jovanovic remarked in an interview that Serbia suffered because Milosevic had not come to power 15 years earlier because, "he certainly would have prevented Serbia's dismemberment in the 1974 Constitution."

But Serbs still admire Tito. In the first place, urban legend has it that the Slovene/Croat welder Josip Broz who disappeared into the Soviet Union during WWI was not the same suave brilliant polyglot Tito who returned to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in the 1920's. Some linguistic studies of Tito's notoriously bad Serbo-Croatian correlate his funny accent and grammatical mistakes to those of a native Russian-speaker. This ambiguity allows Serbs to admire Tito's "Russian" strengths while reviling him for repressing Serbs. Milosevic frequently evoked Tito as his, Milosevic's inspiration, claiming he was the only leader in post-1991 Yugoslavia actually interested in holding together the Federation. Critics of President Tadic claimed he was following the Tito/Milosevic leadership model in his attempts to consolidate all power in his person.

In addition to his consolidation of power, Tadic's most Titoist element was his evocation of Tito's belief that neutrality was Yugoslavia's destiny. Tito famously turned his rejection of the Cominform to the creation in 1955 of the Non-Aligned Movement. First defeated former Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica actively pursued neutrality as a foreign policy objective; Tadic flirted with it as well. Tadic cited Titoist jargon of Serbia serving as "a bridge between East and West," to justify holding the West at arm's length while cozying up to Russia. With Russia's backing, Tadic and Jeremic successfully manipulated lingering NAM sympathy for Serbia into support for not recognizing Kosovo's independence. Jeremic even justified Serbia's vote against the motion condemning Iran's human rights at the UNGA Third Committee, saying it was appropriate payback for Iran's support for Serbia's position on Kosovo. Basking in their new-found NAM relevance, Serbian leaders were in their comfort zone -- created by Tito, and supported by Russia -- of not belonging to any alliance.

Visitors to Belgrade are impressed by the almost militant reluctance of the Serbian government to repair the damage to Belgrade caused by the 1999 NATO bombing. Belgrade still looks like a war-zone. The main drag consists of bombed-out Ministries of Defense and Interior, as well as the concertina wired US, Turkish, German and Croatian Embassies; all of which were attacked by Serbian mobs during the February 21, 2008 government-orchestrated demonstrations against Kosovo recognition. Through government-sponsored historical revision and unwillingness to deal with the Milosevic legacy, the bombing is now referred to as the "NATO Aggression," and almost every discussion of US-Serbian relations starts from 1999, "when you bombed us."

The most tangible result of the bombing is the identification of NATO as the enemy. Throughout the events of the 1990's, Russian foreign policy consistently defended Serbian actions in international fora, and tied the hands of the international community to do anything serious against Serbian aggression; first in Croatia, then in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and then in Kosovo. Even though at least a plurality of Serbs recognize the Milosevic era as disastrous for Serbia, they can simultaneously believe that NATO is their enemy and that only Russia defends Serbia against the world. One popular perspective is that "if we had had more solid ties with Russia in 1999, NATO would not have bombed us, therefore our best guarantee against future bombings is a better relationship with Russia."

Serbs and Russians are profoundly ignorant of each other, the former from a lack of any real interaction throughout history, and the latter out of utter lack of interest; other than Serbia's periodic usefulness as a naive and willing Russian pawn in the Balkans. Serbian gloating over signing the multi-tiered and ultimately useless Gazprom deal on December 24, 2008 was deflated two weeks later when Russia gave Europe another Orthodox Christmas present by cutting off gas supplies on January 5. Serbs seemed equally chagrined when Russian invaded Georgia in August, 2008 and used Kosovo as justification for declaring the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia independent. Serbian Foreign Ministry officials successfully deflected Russian demands that they recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They also seemed childishly peeved at being asked to pay this price for Russian support for the UNGA vote referring Kosovo's right to independence to the International Court of Justice.

Undeterred, the Tadic government, in holiday interviews by both President Tadic and Foreign Minister Jeremic, underscored Serbia's commitment to their "geostrategic role" between the EU and Russia. "Russia will be our most important bilateral partner for the next two decades," Jeremic announced. In addition to clearly misunderstanding Russia, this unfortunate attempt at relevance also demonstrated the Serbian Government's profound ignorance of the EU. The only "winner" in this calculation is Russia, who will continue to play on Serbia's naivete and stubbornness, to keep itself a player in Balkan politics and to keep Serbia out of NATO.

Serbs also erroneously over-estimate Russia's interest, and ability to invest, in Serbia. With the exception of the Gazprom deal, Russian investment has been practically insignificant. Aeroflot showed interest in purchasing Yugoslav Airlines (JAT) in 2007-8, but eventually dropped out. Likewise Russian interest in Serbia's copper mine BOR waned in 2008. Serbian ability to penetrate the Russian market also is minimal. With the exception of Serbian tycoon and Democratic Party of Serbia Vice President Nenad Popovic, who deals in energy trading, there is not significant Serbian investment in/export to Russia. Soviet lust for Yugoslav products - shoes, clothes, appliances, etc., dried up when the Europeans entered the Russian market and Yugoslav products were recognized for what they were - slightly better and more expensive upgrades from Soviet products. For all of Tadic's travel to Moscow, Serbia obtained little other than symbolic Russian support for Serbia's quixotic foreign policy objectives, including overturning Kosovo independence.

In contrast to Serbs, romanticized and mystical affection for Russian, they are not standing in visa lines to visit Russia and actual contact between the two peoples is minimal. Although, the United States enjoys just a 7% approval rating, most Serbs have less than seven degrees of separation with a relative in the United States, Serbia has the highest percentage of English speakers in Eastern Europe, and American pop culture has invaded almost every cultural realm -- from music, to film, to Fox television fare. Aside from the February 21, 2008 Embassy torching, US diplomats have enjoyed seemingly sincere and lavish Serbian hospitality throughout the country. USG assistance programs never missed a beat during the 2008 period of Kosovo declaration of independence and its aftermath. In short, there is an enormous disconnect between elite Serbs, views of the United States in response to public opinion polls and actual interaction on the ground.

Russian paratroopers landed in a Serbian field as part of an unprecedented military exercise in the Balkan nation, which is seeking to join the European Union. Russian state media provided lavish and dramatic coverage in the days before the exercise. Helicopters and drone aircraft were also used in the one-hour drill on 14 November 2014, a show of Russian might in Europe amid severely strained ties between Moscow and the West over the conflict in Ukraine. It followed a military parade attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Belgrade last month and coincided with a visit by the pro-Putin head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill.

Though some Serbs bask in their bad boy Russia-loving image -- to their own detriment -- Europe remains better off with a constructive, productive Serbia, rather than with a Russian pawn, in its backyard. As noxious as Serbian behavior was throughout the Tadic administration, Serbs need to be treated with tough love. In spite of their misplaced and misunderstood sentimentality for Russia, Serbs crave American respect. The 2008 U.S. President elections were galvanizing to Serbs across the political spectrum and provided a potent example of how old behaviors do not necessarily need to be repeated.

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