MS Risk Blog

Russia and Serbia Friendship

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Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many countries have turned their backs on Russia. This allows us to see who Russia’s real friends are. Most notably in Europe is Serbia. Serbia and Russia share strong cultural heritage, both nations being Slavic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, both countries maintain about 70 bilateral treaties, agreements and protocols signed since the cold war, with 43 having been signed and ratified since the formation of the Russian Federation. The ties between the countries are strong but since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, these ties have come under pressure from the international community.

Since the end of the cold war, relations between the two countries have been strong. In 1998 the Kosovo war began with Russia strongly condemning the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, large numbers of Russian volunteers and mercenaries were seen leaving Russia to help Serb forces fight in the war, and the Miloševic brothers developed pro-Russia rhetoric, proposing an agreement to join the Union State, Belarus and Russia.

In 2008, these relations further blossomed, with Gazprom Neft investing in Serbia’s oil and gas company Naftna Industrija Srbija in exchange for EU400 million or EU550 million in investments. Serbia also created the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in Niš, an intergovernmental non-profit organisation. Russia was also heavily involved in backing Serbia’s stance on Kosovo by not recognising Kosovar sovereignty. In return, Serbia did not impose sanctions on Russia during Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

However, these relations took a turn, sort of. In 2019, Serbian security services revealed that Russian intelligence operatives had been passing money to Serbian army officials, something most countries would use as fuel for retaliation, but Serbia did nothing. Serbia also looked to increase its military cooperation with NATO and in 2016 Serbia gave NATO staff free movement in Serbian territory and diplomatic immunity, something that Serbia refused to do for the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center.

Relations, even after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, are maintaining. Serbia is in an awkward place because of the open knowledge that Russia and Serbia are friends. The international community has put pressure on Serbia to denounce this friendship to no avail. Serbia refused to impose sanctions on Russia claiming it was not in Serbia’s best interest but balanced this by saying that they condemned the violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Serbia continues to buy weapons from Russia, competing with neighbour Croatia. Russia has been exporting military equipment to Serbia to counteract the arms build-up in Croatia by the United States. This adds tension to the region given Serbia’s unambiguous stance on Kosovo and the pro-Serb rhetoric from secessionist Bosnian-Serb Milorad Dodik.

It has come to light recently that Serbia has also been acting as a loophole for travel bans against Russian citizens and sanctions against Russian companies. Air Serbia still maintains flights from Russia to Serbia giving Russian citizens a way to circumvent no-fly zones. Air Serbia has even started to increase its flights to 15 a week due to high demand as Russian citizens look to avoid the harshening economic and civil climate in Russia.

Russian companies are now starting to do the same with 288 companies having been opened in Serbia by Russian legal and physical entities. The harsh economic sanctions imposed by the United States, European Union and United Kingdom mean that Russia’s economy is struggling even after the Ruble rebounded.

Pro-Russia sentiment is at an all-time high in Serbia too, with marches and rallies taking place all over the country to show support for Russia and Vladimir Putin. Pro-Russian organisations like the night wolves and right-wing group People’s Patrol organised the rallies and thousands of Serbians took part with banners and flags, including the Z symbol, now synonymous with Russian aggression in Ukraine.

Politicians have also been riding this pro-Russian wave with many candidates using pro-Russian rhetoric to gain support from the Serbian people. Elections on 3 April continued Aleksandr Vučić’s presidency with 58% of votes. Vučić has been one of Russia’s closest friends and this trend will look to continue, however, as Russian aggression continues in Ukraine and Serbia continues to allow Russians to circumvent sanctions imposed by the international community, it will be a tense time for Vučić if the world decides to start tightening their grip on Russian movements and money.