Can Europe Make It?

The Great Game over Belgrade

Both the West and Russia are playing "the Great Game" for one of the latter's last bulwarks of influence in Europe: Serbia.

Paula Sánchez Díaz
11 November 2013

An American cartoon from 1914 depicting the tangled alliances of early 20th century Europe. Public domain work. 

‘The Game is so large that one sees but a little at a time’, explains Mahbub Ali in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Many would have agreed to that statement on April 19 this year in view of the swift move on the European political board that represented the Serbian decision to ink an agreement with Kosovo. This was all the more so, seeing as its on-off relationship with the EU seemed to be tilting towards the off side in late 2012 by way of a number of diversionary manoeuvers with Moscow. Spelling out the Serbian penchant for political ambiguity, the Great Game that Moscow and the west seem to have been playing for one of Moscow’s last bulwarks of influence in Europe, and the consequences of both, requires canny hustlers, hence the clues that will be given here below.

That the tables of Serbian policy-making and its conduct in foreign affairs are publicly and unmistakably steered towards the EU constitutes quite an about-turn by Serbian standards. Relations with Brussels have traditionally had an oscillating character, suffice it to mention Serbia's flickering cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) which led to kicking off talks for a Stabilization and Association Agreement in 2005 not however signed until 2008. The interruption of such talks between 2006 and 2007 due to the discrete cooperation of Prime Minister Vojislav Koštunica’s government should be born in mind. Likewise, the bumpy path of EU-Serbia legal cooperation from then on prevented the SAA from entering into force until this year, substituting for the 2010 interim agreement that had been transparently botched.

The April 19 landmark deal whereby Serbia would cede on unprecedented grounds such as acknowledging Kosovar participation in regional and international forums sets a historical precedent, given that Kosovo had not even enjoyed representation at a domestic level since 1989. However top-down the decision might have been, and despite the ever-strained political rhetoric between the two sides, a between-the-lines reading of other forms of social behaviour allows for a more positive set of expectations. The media have stopped using the term ‘Kosmet’ (an abridged version of Kosovo and Metohija, which underscores the Serbian administrative terminology of the enclave) and employ Kosovo instead. Post-agreement polls reveal general acceptance of the upcoming statu quo.

PM Ivica Dačić does not welcome but urges Serbia’s EU accession, as may also be deduced from Catherine Ashton’s remarks following the October 21 EU-Serbia Stabilization and Association Council: ‘I was pleased to reassure him that the European Union wants Serbia to succeed and to have a first accession conference by January 2014 at the very latest’. What is even more astounding is that Serbia is making such moves to overcome a centuries-long certainty of self that had moulded its relationship with its neighbours, given that Serbia was the first to develop a sense of nationhood. Looking squarely at this, the Serbian move towards supranationalism goes beyond the mere EU enlargement. Serbia, one of the enclaves that had more staunchly served the inherently European idea of a state system, is currently solving Richard Falk’s post-Westphalian enigma. This is History in the making.

Funnily enough, the significant strides made between Serbia and the EU have an apparently dormant state of their relations as a backdrop. A rapprochement with Russia based on the following statements made on April 10 had swept over the hopes of those eager to see a Serbia-inclusive EU in a foreseeable future:

"I am confident that this will greatly contribute to making them [leaders of EU countries and the US] see that we have someone behind us, because it seemed that Serbia is alone on the international scene, surrounded with countries that are either members of NATO or are heading towards NATO or the EU," had stated Dačić for Radio Television of Serbia (RTS), as reports B92. Barely 9 days later, the Ashton-brokered Serbo-Kosovar deal would be announced. The EU’s press release confirmed that talks had kicked off six months earlier, in November 2012. This confirms the wariness of the Serbian saying that goes Bog visoko, a Rusija daleko (God is high above, and Russia is far away).

This is the second point that should be looked into: the interweaving of bilateral ties. Serbia’s natural penchant for sophistry (a.k.a. non-alignment stemming from Tito's tenure, though nothing is further from the truth) has drawn to a halt. This is the second phenomenal aspect about the current stage of the Game.

Serbian foreign policy has been said to comprise 4 pillars. First, the EU, Russia and the US, as enumerated by former President Boris Tadic in his address to the Serbian ambassadors in January 2009. When in China, President Tadić included this country as a fourth one.

Closeness to Russia was epitomised by gaudy deals such as a double €220m and €511m loan for wage and pension payments in 2013, a nearly €600m loan for Serbian railway works and €1700m for the South Stream pipeline construction. The Great Game that, according to Rudyard Kipling, Moscow would play against the British to have their way in Afghanistan, strategic pivot in Central Asia, could well be reread in similar terms for Serbia, the only country with which Russia has signed a free trade agreement beyond the Commonwealth of Independent States. The Serbian move towards Brussels anticipates the imminent end of this Europe-set Great Game. As former USSR countries are wooed by Brussels, there is a corresponding  loss of Russian influence.

Each vertex in the Brussels-Belgrade-Moscow triangle knows that choices of a stronger axis between Belgrade and either of the two cities are mutually exclusive. The FTA with Russia, as well as the remaining ones with Turkey, Kazakhstan, Belarus and other countries from the European periphery which account for Serbia’s companions throughout its history, whether because of Ottoman rule or the Soviet orbit, should be repealed from the date of Serbia’s effective EU membership. PM Dačić’s choice goes beyond Serbia’s undertaking to “sustain the momentum of reforms”, as the October 16 Serbia Progress report states, which could just be more of the same EU Commission claptrap. Such a choice represents Serbia’s clear-cut siding in economic terms and abandoning of a national penchant for pendulum-like political swinging. 

Several conclusions 

The sudden twist in the Serbo-Kosovar conflict comes as it turns out that Catherine Ashton has been brokering talks during the prior six months, taking by surprise a good many people who had been eyeing Serbia’s Eastward turn warily, given the juicy economic agreements with Russia and a growing role for China in its trade relations.

It is as likely as not that the 2014 opening of negotiations for Serbia’s EU accession will not be halted by the far-from-smooth development of Kosovo’s elections this month. Belgrade and Brussels adopted a blasé attitude about the last-minute disturbances, which came in quite handy, making it look like failure could be blamed on savages, and not on the underlying boycott of the Kosovar elections with 12% turnout in Metohija. Accession has been politically driven and it will continue to be so, unhindered by punctual altercations.

Russia will have to fend in its backgammon with Brussels for regional clout. Serbia will soon cease to belong as the mainstay that had traditionally represented Russia’s former defensive flank, as well as to serve Russia’s strategic interests in Central-Eastern Europe, given its status as a hub for trade with former Yugoslavian countries and its FTA with Russia.

From a political standpoint, Serbia seems to have put an end to its propensity for distracting the Brussels-Moscow axis with fickle siren calls —wait and see for intra-EU alliances with Italy and Greece, along with the surprises regarding its far-from-harmonious relations with former Yugoslavian republics which are bound to arise. The EU commissioner for Enlargement Stephan Füle stated clearly in April 2013 that, however much closer Belgrade had grown to Brussels, the 28 were treading carefully: ‘we don't want major bilateral issues to be imported into the EU and we don't want bilateral 'mines' to explode in the middle of the accession process’. Kosovo might not turn out to be the only mine in the bumpy Yugoslavian path. The mere fact that there are Croatian lawsuits against Serbia before the ICTY pending for resolution is revealing enough of the challenges lying ahead.

Lastly, the centuries-long quest for Pan-Slavism seems to be on the verge of being substituted by a supranationalism of a different ilk. Serbia’s idiosyncratic tendency to safeguard its regional centrality will predictably not be forsaken within the EU. Clever pulling the strings might lead to Serbia’s eventual rivalling Romania as a South-Eastern hub, especially if a certain scope for Serbia’s flirting with Russia is allowed from Brussels. Having the South Stream pipeline building within sight, Russia’s interests in preserving strong ties with Serbia are likely not to wane. The Kremlin’s corridors might be far, but Belgrade has been pounding them for enough time to know that they are no minor to card play. Similarly to Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, Belgrade hopes to play the Great Game just as much as Brussels and Moscow.

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