Photo: ITAR-TASS/Nikolsky Alexei
Photo: ITAR-TASS/Nikolsky Alexei

The sudden cancellation of Prime Minister Aleksander Vučić’s visits to Brussels and Washington illustrates that Serbia’s new government remains susceptible to Kremlin pressure. Vučić postponed the trips after a pro-government Serbian newspaper reported that the EU and US embassies were fueling street protests against the government in order to destabilize the country, Janusz Bugajski wrote for CEPA.

Vučić was scheduled to travel to Brussels for the formal opening of EU membership talks, and to the United States on an inaugural Air Serbia flight to New York, followed by talks with American officials on June 21. But the visits were cut short by Russia’s growing concern that Serbia was finally moving into Western institutions.

Moscow has threatened to revise or renege on a series of economic agreements with Belgrade if the country pursues deeper integration with the EU. Sergei Zheleznyak, vice president of Russia’s State Duma, has also warned Serbia not to follow Montenegro toward NATO membership. Instructively, Kremlin threats against the Montenegrin leadership failed to divert Podgorica from its Western path.

Vučić made an unannounced visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of May. This culminated in Kremlin demands that pro-Russian ministers be included in Serbia’s new government. Putin reportedly insisted that the Socialists, led by Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić, must remain in the administration because of their pro-Russian stance. Underlying Putin’s message was that Belgrade should desist from rushing into the EU or forging closer ties with NATO. During a recent visit to Moscow, Dačić asserted that Serbia would not become part of the EU at the cost of damaging relations with Russia.

Despite a decade of effort, Russia has few genuine allies in the Balkans. Croatia and Slovenia have joined both the EU and NATO. Albania is also a NATO member, soon to be joined by Montenegro. Macedonia and Kosova also aim to enter both Western institutions, while Bosnia & Herzegovina remains paralyzed by its internal divisions. This leaves Serbia on the front line of Kremlin attention.

Serbia is the Kremlin’s most reliable political link, not because of any Slavic-Orthodox fraternity, but as a consequence of dispassionate political calculation. Moscow has spent the past decade impregnating itself into Serbian society, especially by disseminating propaganda through the local media, Internet, and social networks. Kremlin spokesmen and their media colleagues focus on three themes to influence Serb politicians and citizens: historical solidarity, the pernicious West and defense of traditional values.

Moscow consistently appeals to pan-Slavic and pan-Orthodox ties between Russia and Serbia, and amplifies Russia’s assistance in liberating it from Ottoman Turkey in the 19th century. It ignores historical episodes when the two states were in conflict, especially after World War II, when Belgrade broke with Moscow and Soviet propaganda vilified Yugoslavia for betraying the principles of international communism, and threatened to invade it.

After Yugoslavia’s collapse in the 1990s, nationalist politicians in Belgrade called for Russian solidarity, whether over preserving Yugoslavia’s integrity, carving out a Greater Serbia, or retaining control over Kosova—which gained independence in February 2008 and is recognized by the United States and most EU and NATO members.

Moscow exploits and deepens Serbia’s grievances against the United States and NATO to demonstrate how it protects vulnerable states from disintegration and foreign domination. Russian state propaganda has vilified the West for allegedly engineering state collapse, favoring Serbia’s neighbors, and carving up Serbia itself through a NATO attack. It now claims that the West seeks to subdue and dominate Serbia, tearing it away from Mother Russia. The objective is to undermine Western institutions and discredit local politicians who favor the EU, NATO and the United States

Such strident messages repeated by nationalist Serbs are intended to appeal to anti-globalist, Euroskeptic, anti-American, ultra-conservative, and religious Orthodox constituencies in which Russia masquerades as the defender of traditional values and the EU and the United States are depicted as deviant and immoral. Russia’s Orthodox Church also upholds close ties with the Serbian Orthodox Church to coordinate their promulgation of ultra-conservatism, anti-liberalism and anti-Westernism.

Protests by citizens over a rebuilding project in Belgrade, financed by the United Arab Emirates and supported by the prime minister, have been portrayed as an anti-government plot. Russia has injected itself in this domestic standoff as the protector of a legitimate government against a potential “colored revolution” manufactured by Washington and Brussels. Both the European Commission and the U.S. ambassador to Serbia vehemently deny that they have played any role in street demonstrations.

The Vučić government must be careful not to fall into Russia’s trap by repressing public opposition or parroting conspiracy theories that will alienate it from the EU and the United States. Belgrade can no longer play the role of non-aligned Yugoslavia during the Cold War by balancing West and East. If Serbia does not resolutely pursue the path of EU and eventual NATO entry, it will become increasingly embroiled in anti-Western intrigues concocted by the Kremlin.

By Janusz Bugajski, CEPA

Europe’s Edge is an online journal covering crucial topics in the transatlantic policy debate. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the Center for European Policy Analysis.