Belgrade, Serbia. 27 March. As I arrived in Belgrade this week to speak at an excellent event organised by the George C. Marshall Center Serb Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić recalled the 1999 Kosovo War and the NATO bombing: “We remember, and everybody else should have in mind, we Serbs have a long memory and will never forget. Each of the 78 days, each of the victims will be remembered”. Radical nationalists then ritually burnt EU, NATO, US and Kosovar flags in a show of defiance and to underline the Prime Minister’s point. Europe is losing Serbia in a new and very dangerous Game of Thrones because of Russia, unresolved history and strategic indifference. Indeed, unless Europe and the wider West re-engage properly and quickly with Serbia the Western Balkans could again descend into chaos.
Serbia sits at a pivot of the emerging Game of Thrones between Russia and the West. As I left Belgrade’s Nikola Tesla Airport on my way to the hotel I drove past a very prominent Gazprom-sponsored sign showing the Serb and Russian flags entwined in mutual and historic embrace. During my visit I spoke to two Serb friends, one so senior that he must remain nameless, and the other Dejan Miletić, President for the Center for Globalization Studies, a redoubtable, patriotic but pragmatic Serb. In both conversations the deep, enduring ties between the Russian and Serb peoples were immediately apparent as was the desire of Serbs to forge closer ties with the EU. Finding a balance between the two sets of relationships is as vital as it is difficult.
Russian money is everywhere apparent in Belgrade. And, with Serbia this year facing a €2bn/$2.16bn black-hole in its national finances Belgrade is clearly vulnerable to expanding Russian influence. It is equally self-evident here that Moscow seeks to extend such influence for geopolitical reasons and it would be naïve in the extreme if Europeans did not realise this. President Putin and his Game of Thrones concept of power – succeed or die – envisions extending Russian influence in the Balkans to keep both EU and NATO leaders politically and strategically off-balance.
Nor can there be regional peace without an accommodated Serbia and yet such an accommodation will also be hard to realise. Indeed, today’s Game of Thrones is about far more than Serbia’s place at today’s grand strategic seams. As I glanced through various glossy tourist brochures each and every one showed a map of Serbia that determinedly included Kosovo, which remains a vital part of Serb history, identity and the Orthodox faith.
Furthermore, Belgrade also sits at the nexus of a series of regional-strategic fissures forged during the wars of the 1990s which whilst papered over remain deep and dangerous. As the Serb-centred former Yugoslavia imploded then President Milosëvić tried to reinvent Tito’s realm in the form of a Greater Serbia. The subsequent wars with Croatia, in Bosnia-Herzegovina and over Albanian-leaning Kosovo, whilst brought to an end by NATO firepower, have never been resolved politically and Serbia retains a powerful influence network across the region.
My respect for Serbs and Serbia is deep and abiding but I am also utterly conscious how easy it is for Serbs to cast themselves (and their politics) as the victims of others However, with Montenegro now independent, Croatia and Slovenia in the EU and Albania, Croatia and Slovenia members of NATO Serbia must be brought into the Western fold or lost to it, with all the possible consequences such a loss could entail. In mid-January this year NATO and Serbia agreed the new Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP). Whilst Belgrade observes a strict policy of military neutrality it is vital that this plan is acted on and every opportunity used to make Serbia feel a partner of NATO rather than a victim of it.
However, it is EU membership that remains the Holy Grail for Serbia. EU accession negotiations finally began on 21 January, 2014 but it is going to be a long road before Belgrade takes its rightful place at the European Council. This is not least because of the status of Kosovo will need to be resolved before membership is possible. Therefore, in the interim it is vital that the EU and its member-states continue to support Serbia and be seen to do so. ‘Support’ means helping Serbia overcome the endemic corruption that still pot-marks Serb politics and life in general. It will also mean countering the large Russian investments in Serb civil society, particularly in the political and social sciences as Moscow buys influence and sways intellectual opinion in Belgrade as part of its Game of Thrones.
With the right commitment from fellow Europeans in particular I am still confident that this most important of Balkan powers can find its proper place in the region, Europe and the wider world. Prime Minister Vučić said that Serbia sought to be: “A decent and well-ordered country”. “Every factory we build”, he said, “…is our victory. Every Serb who can work peacefully in Kosmet is our victory. Serbia in Europe is our victory”.
Shortly after the 1999 Kosovo war I went to Belgrade to attend a high-level meeting to discuss the future. The meeting place was well-chosen for the team of which I was a part was invited to sit at a table over-looking the old defence ministry which had a large hole punched in its façade by an American cruise missile. Serbia has come a long way since I sat looking at the burnt-out shell of the old defence ministry. However, Serbia still has a long way to go if the new Game of Thrones is not to see the return of Serbia’s history of tragedies and deny the Serb people their rightful place in an ordered European order.