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Russia's Opportunity in Serbia

8 MINS READMay 6, 2011 | 13:22 GMT
ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images
Consultations are under way regarding Serbian admission to the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), Russian news agency Interfax reported May 5, citing an unnamed high-ranking diplomatic source in Moscow. In addition to Russia, the members of the CSTO, a Moscow-dominated security organization in existence since 2002, include Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The group represents Moscow's military-security sphere of influence; all of its member states aside from frequently independent-minded Uzbekistan are dependent on Moscow for security. Over the past three years, Russia has begun transforming the organization into a critical tool of its military-political control over its post-Soviet sphere of influence. Neither the Serbian nor Russian governments or media (aside from the Interfax report and an article in Voice of Russia) have confirmed the May 5 statement, which for a number of reasons is likely to prove groundless. Even so, the statement should be taken seriously as a move by Russia to counter rhetorically U.S. moves in the Balkans, particularly Washington's efforts to establish ballistic missile defense (BMD) installations in Romania.

The CSTO Offer in Geopolitical Context

Significantly, the report comes two days after the Romanian Foreign Ministry said negotiations between Bucharest and Washington on a bilateral accord regarding a BMD system were at an "advanced stage." Bucharest said the deployment would be completed on schedule in 2015, and for the first time gave the system's location, which it said would be in Deveselu in southwestern Romania. The timing of the CTSO report also stands out given that Washington and Moscow are involved in technical negotiations over how the European BMD system would operate. Russia wants a single system under a joint NATO-Russian command, while the United States and NATO have proposed two separate systems with a high degree of coordination. Meanwhile, the United States is going ahead with its own plans in Central Europe to position yet-to-be-developed ground-based SM-3 interceptors in Romania and Poland by 2015 and 2018 respectively. The plans for Central Europe are nominally part of the overall NATO BMD architecture, but there is an understanding among the Central European countries involved that the BMD is a bilateral affair between them and the United States. (click here to enlarge image) Ultimately, this bilateral ploy is what irritates Russia. From Moscow's perspective, the U.S. BMD installations in Poland and Romania embody the eastward expansion of U.S. military power. Not only are Central European post-Communist states now members of NATO, Washington is now making bilateral deals with them to install U.S. military personnel on the ground in military bases. Ostensibly, these bases would protect Europe from rogue nuclear ballistic missile strikes from the Middle East and North Korea. However, Russia does not accept this rationale. Moscow knows Warsaw and Bucharest have nothing to fear from Tehran and Pyongyang, and Warsaw and Bucharest are not hiding the fact that they consider the U.S. military presence on their soil to be a security guarantee against Russia. The BMD issue will be the main focus for the Kremlin this quarter vis-a-vis its relationship with the United States. Moscow wants to delineate where the Russian and U.S. spheres of influence in Europe meet. It understands that Central European NATO member states are not going to be part of the Russian sphere of influence as they were during the Cold War, but essentially Moscow wants them to be effectively neutral, a sort of 21st-century version of Finland and Austria. (click here to enlarge image) The statement that Serbia may become part of the CSTO therefore represents a Russian counter to the Romanian-American BMD plans. With Serbia to its west and Russian-dominated Ukraine to its east, Romania would find itself encircled by Russian allies. Russia previously has flirted with Serbia, putting in motion plans to create a joint emergency and humanitarian center in the southwestern city of Nis by 2012. In the distant future, the center could become a military base.

The Problem with Russia's Serbia Strategy

The problem with Russia's strategy is that Serbia has rarely been a compliant ally. First, Belgrade hardly ever considers itself subservient to Russia. Distance and its historical claims to regional power mean Belgrade typically considers itself Russia's equal, meaning Russia must woo it with considerable economic and military aid. Serbia, as Yugoslavia before it, therefore often has been too much trouble for Russia despite its desire to exert influence in the Balkans via Serbia. Belgrade's price for joining the CSTO might be too high even for energy cash-rich Russia. In any case, Serbia's economic future lies with the European Union, something the country's elites have recently come to agree on. CSTO membership would scuttle Belgrade's chances of EU membership. Already, Belgrade's EU aspirations are threatened by its stance on military neutrality. Serbian politicians counter that Austria and Finland are EU members but do not belong to NATO. But Austria and Finland have not just emerged from pariah status. Europeans simply do not trust Belgrade's conversion into a modern democratic state and want more guarantees from Serbia than those demanded of other EU applicants. Some in Serbia suggest pursuing a policy of playing the West and Russia against each other. The Serbian leadership is split on this approach. One group includes Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, who sees value in balancing the two against each other in a sort of modern Yugoslav policy of non-alignment. Others like Serbian Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac are more open to NATO membership. For his part, Serbian President Boris Tadic is seeking to walk a tightrope between the two approaches. The issue has strongly divided Serbia, which is set to host a major NATO conference this June. Public opinion on the issue is sharply split throughout the country. Russia continues to press Serbia not to commit itself fully to NATO and the Western security alliance, arguing that Belgrade can achieve both EU membership and security through a neutral policy. Russia's outspoken ambassador to Serbia, Alexander Konuzin, repeatedly has issued warnings to Belgrade that any collaboration with NATO would reverse Moscow's friendly disposition toward Serbia. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin repeated this message in his March 23 visit to Belgrade. Thus far, Russia has offered Serbia a $1 billion loan in April 2010, but $800 million of that amount remains held up in negotiations. During Putin's visit, Russia pledged to support Serbia's military industry with up to $3.5 billion worth of deals. This offer comes on top of Russian energy giant Gazprom's purchase of Serbian state-owned energy company NIS at the end of 2008 for 400 million euros ($560 million at the time). Promises of further investments into NIS up to $1 billion abound. Serbian and Russian media frequently report that Russian business and economic investment and aid to Belgrade ultimately could amount to $10 billion. However, reality is far different. Total actual Russian investments between 2000 and 2010 (aside from the NIS purchase) equal approximately $65 million — on par with Belgium. Even including the NIS purchase, Russia is only ninth in terms of total investments during that period, far behind a host of European countries, including Serbia's EU neighbors Austria, Greece, Italy and Slovenia. Even so, signs are emerging that Belgrade's patience with the drawn-out EU accession process is failing. The nationalist Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) is polling well and support for EU membership is hitting historical lows.The economic situation in Serbia is dire, with considerable public expenditures on social services financed through the sale of public enterprises. The economic reality makes one-off deals like the 2008 NIS sale politically more important for Belgrade than a continuous stream of green-field investments. Russia can exploit this to its advantage, using projects like South Stream and business contracts for various Serbian public enterprises, including in the military sector, to increase its influence. However, questions remain as to whether the money will actually ever come to Serbia, which thus far it has not (other than for the aforementioned NIS sale). Moscow's efforts would receive a boost were the nominally pro-Russian forces (like SNS) in the Serbian opposition to come to power, a possibility in the near future. Therefore, while the CSTO offer largely represents a negotiating tactic by Moscow to aid in its ongoing discussions with the United States, Russian influence in Serbia could grow in the future. U.S. and European distraction from the Balkans would help. The strategic impetus that led the European Union to allow Romania and Bulgaria to enter the bloc in 2007, even though neither was ready, no longer exists. Europe and the United States are no longer fully focused on the Balkans despite signals earlier this year. The European Union is embroiled in internal economic and political problems, and both Brussels and Washington remain distracted by the Arab uprisings, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a possible ground commitment in Libya. The chances that Brussels would roll Belgrade into the European Union purely to block the threat of Russian influence is minimal, opening an opportunity for Moscow to continue slowly building pressure on Belgrade. The question remains whether Russia is willing to put the necessary investment in Serbia that historically it always has come to regret.

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