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Serbia, everybody’s darling, burning candle at both ends

Serbia is engaging in military exercises with Russia and NATO, closer relations with the EU and trading with the Eurasian Union. Serbia is sitting between two chairs. But is that the smart tactic?

Helicopters, paratroopers, generals with serious faces and countless cameras all around – whenever the Serbian army holds joint exercises with Russian troops, it’s no small event. Planned for this year are an anti-terrorism exercise called “The Slavic Brotherhood” in Serbia and a joint flight training in Russia.

That the Serbian infantry also regularly participates in maneuvers by NATO countries, though, is announced less loudly in the Balkan country. Three such exercises last year on the Hohenfeld military training grounds in Germany received only passing mention from major Serbian media.

Experts are divided on whether the procedure is a sign of wisdom on the part of Serbian leadership – or a lack of any long-term strategy.

In conservative strongman Aleksandar Vučić, an authoritarian premier prevails in Belgrade – and one who can boast of experience in such a double game. The nationalist agitator of the ’90s is now the European Union supporter and reformer held up as an EU model due to his pragmatic relationship with the former southern province of Kosovo.

But after elections, he first flew to Moscow to hear Putin’s opinion. And in April, his Progressive Party defended their absolute majority with the help of some tiny, Kremlin-friendly parties.

Billboard in Belgrade: This is not a NATO country!Billboard in Belgrade: “This is not a NATO country”

Smart or schizophrenic?

“Participation in both sides’ military exercises is actually a kind of guarantee that there’s no definitive opting for either side,” said Belgrade-based EU and business expert Professor Mihailo Crnobrnja. It is a sentiment that leaders, too, never tire of repeating: the country could not and would not compromise cooperation with Russia, nor with the West. Serbia must instead – as President Nikolić has put it – be “a house with two doors”.

But such a house is susceptible to strong gusts of wind, says Jelena Milic, director of the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies, a Belgrade think tank. She sees the fact that Serbian soldiers participate in exercises with both sides as schizophrenic: “At this moment, troops from NATO countries are concentrating in Eastern Europe, in response to Moscow’s aggressive behavior in Ukraine and the threat to the Baltic states. Serbia’s position of sitting between two chairs in such a tense atmosphere shows that the country is in no way sovereign and has not articulated its interests,” Milić told DW.

Nothing against cooperation, but…

“In principle, cooperation with Russia, including in the military field, does not conflict with EU membership” – so goes the official stance. However, as an EU candidate, Serbia has increasingly been obliged to adapt its security policy to that of Brussels. Moreover, Germany’s ruling grand coalition has also retained in the coalition agreement that it will “actively pursue” pre-accession steps of the Western Balkan countries to the EU and NATO.

But in a DW interview, Professor Crnobrnja referred to speculation about a possible NATO accession by Serbia as pure utopia because memories are still fresh of the bombing of Serbia in 1999 following the Kosovo war. At that time, hundreds of civilians died; smashed buildings can still be seen in Belgrade today. Nearly two-thirds of Serbs are still categorically against NATO membership. “I would be very surprised if the mood were to change in the foreseeable future. In bookies’ language, the odds are twenty-to-one against NATO,” says Crnobrnja.

Putin in Belgrade 16.10.2014 Military parade in Belgrade in honor of Russian President Vladimir Putin

European or Eurasian Union?

Last week, Russian state media spread a message that deepened Serbia’s midterm position: Serbia is soon to join the duty-free trade zone of the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). A Serbian Minister confirmed the information and added that Serbia hopes that the move will open up new markets, in particular, for Serbian-produced Fiat cars, chicken and cheese.

The Serbian press approves: “Putin approves negotiations,” announced the pro-government daily Politik, while Večernje novosti heralded: “Serbian goods for 180 million customers!” On its Serbian site, the Russian news portal Sputnik even recommended the EAWU as an alternative to the EU. According to Jelena Milić, however, the two unions are by no means in the same league: “The Eurasian Union regulates trade only, and does not deal with values, human rights and the rule of law.”

Serbia intends to meet all of Brussels’ criteria by no later than 2020 in order to garner a green light for EU accession, but Crnobrnja considers this timetable too ambitious. “The interim is likely to last longer – and Belgrade is trying to exploit that.” In that spirit, Crnobrnja cites an old Serbian proverb that goes: “The supple lamb suckles on two mothers”.

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