The 2,000-year-old city of Belgrade boasts a central fortress the Byzantines conquered from the Romans, a $3.5 billion glassy and garish waterfront development bought and paid for by the United Arab Emirates, Vienna Secession-style estates from the era of Austrian-Hungarian rule, Bauhaus and brutalist buildings built after the Iron Curtain fell, and, now, advertisements for Huawei everywhere. But if the Serbian capital’s physical space encapsulates the country’s past history of war and submission, no feature better epitomizes its schizophrenic present than the ruins of the old Radio Television of Serbia headquarters.
Bombed by NATO during the Yugoslav Wars, the state-run TV building remains in pieces long after the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic and his murderous dictatorship. The Serbian government is perpetually torn between the past and the future, just as it is torn between West and East.
Milosevic’s former chief propagandist, Aleksandar Vucic, became Serbia’s pro-EU president. The Trump administration ditched the neglect that characterized American policy here. The West and Serbia both seemed ready to leave the past behind.
But Russia may not let them.
As Vladimir Putin keeps up his war on Ukraine, Serbia is stuck in a delicate balancing act between its desire to build closer relations with the West and its dependence on Russian energy.
This is a key distinction: Western media get far too wrapped up in the role that emotion plays in this. “But perhaps most important is Mr. Putin’s role as a lodestar for nations that, no matter what their past crimes, see themselves as sufferers, not aggressors, and whose politics and psyche revolve around cults of victimhood nurtured by resentment and grievance against the West,” wrote the New York Times of Serbia’s refusal to sanction Russia.
In fact, the truth is far simpler and less romantic: Serbia can’t afford a full break with Moscow.
Exactly 10 days before Putin invaded Ukraine, and a little more than a month before Serbia’s parliamentary and presidential elections, I met State Secretary Nemanja Starovic at Serbia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, right across the street from another building bombed by NATO in the '90s.
“Sometimes, we have been criticized and pushed by our European partners to increase the level of alignment to follow the Common Foreign and Security Policy [the European Union's joint security policy], and we're aiming to increase it,” Starovic said. “Since the beginning of the last year, we started with below 50% and ended the year with more than 65% alignment. It was for the first time that we joined restrictive measures against Belarus, against the Islamic Republic of Iran, against Myanmar. So, it's not just the quantity, but the quality of our alignment has increased.”
“But there are some red lines that we are not going to cross. And we are really not willing to join the sanctions against the Russian Federation. And it is not just stemming from our historical cultural ties, friendship. There is also a political and economic logic behind that,” he said.
Starovic can testify firsthand to that.
“In 2009, when the first gas crisis emerged and the Russians stopped the gas flow through Ukraine for two weeks, I was living in a gas-heated apartment in the city of Novi Sad, and we didn't have heating for five or six days,” Starovic said. Serbia has since worked on constructing more gas pipes, though still sourced from Russia’s Gazprom.
As he’s crafted his party into a self-described big tent, Vucic has undeniably become more pro-Western and liberal in his ambitions. But the wars of the ’90s aren’t exactly ancient history. The Trump administration’s diplomacy seemed aimed at preventing a repeat of that history.
“When Trump announced his candidacy, it was the first time in many decades that a different kind of messaging was coming from Washington,” Starovic said of Donald Trump’s Balkan gambit. “It was an indication of a total shift in foreign policy.”
At the time, Trump’s plan to send Ric Grenell to Serbia and Kosovo as his special envoy went over with the Beltway about as well as sending Jared Kushner to furnish a Middle East peace deal. Just as the foreign policy establishment ridiculed Kushner’s chutzpah, Grenell’s unilateral approach to the Balkans, in which he set his own course apart from faltering EU-led negotiations, was met with mockery.
That mockery wasn’t particularly humorous to those who bore the scars of the Yugoslav Wars and welcomed Grenell’s attempt to build a wider coalition in the Balkans instead of a coalition in Brussels.
“Not to see the historic moment to re-approach the Serbia-U.S. relationship was mind-f***ing boggling,” said Jelena Milic, a pro-NATO and pro-EU stalwart who was a part of the peaceful movement to overthrow Milosevic in the ’90s.
As with the Abraham Accords, the economic normalization deal Grenell helped broker between the two didn’t resolve centuries of warfare, but at minimum, the Washington Agreement achieved a detente between two countries that had been at war less than a quarter-century ago. On a practical level, it introduced trade for two lagging economies and instituted meaningful diplomatic stepping stones, including a moratorium on Serbia’s efforts to urge other states to revoke their recognition or refuse to recognize Kosovo. Despite the moratorium’s official expiration, Serbia continues to uphold it.
But more important, Grenell opened the door to Serbian realignment with the West down the road by not automatically siding with Kosovo, as predecessors had done.
“During the peak of the Grenell reign, it was and still is kind of a unicorn situation: 79% of the Serbian population was in favor of strengthening U.S.-Serbia cooperation in defense and security,” Milic said. “[Grenell and Trump] just said that Serbia has a little bit of a case that things are not working right, and the way they were telling us that was in a civilized manner.”
It was still February when I met Milic over a glass of wine at the Hotel Moscow, before her appointment as Serbia’s ambassador to Croatia had been publicly announced — and before the Ukrainian war prompted the Belgrade hotel to declare on its website that despite the name, it is 100% Serbian-owned. If anyone exemplified just how big a tent Vucic has assembled, it’s Milic.
“Vucic from the ’90s? He was my worst enemy,” Milic said. “Seven years ago, I was the first person [Vucic] ever invited to a TV duel. He told me on a live TV show that everything I do is against the interest of Serbia. So, I stood up and left.” Now, old wounds are finally starting to heal.
None of which means there is no unabashed pro-Putin sentiment in Serbian politics. Bosko Obradovic, the charismatic boss of the far-right Dveri movement, has publicly rallied in support of Putin since the invasion and won six seats in the National Assembly earlier this month.
Dveri is a populist who spends more time and energy fuming than building coalitions. Vucic is “dependent on Soros,” a Dveri official told me when I asked what differentiates his party from the SPS shortly before the election; Vucic would go on to win his second presidential term with 60% of the vote.
Since 2007, Serbia has declared that it is militarily neutral, and Starovic characterizes Vucic’s government as politically independent in its pursuit of peace and stability.
“We have twice voted in the U.N. General Assembly to deplore the Russian invasion,” Starovic affirmed in April in response to Western criticism that the government is insufficiently anti-Putin. “On top of that, we have supported a U.N. General Assembly resolution asking for the suspension of the Russian Federation from the United Nations Human Rights Council. So, our voting pattern in the most important multilateral institutions, such as United Nations, is very clear.”
Yet Starovic has also equivocated when asked to respond to reporting that the Chinese Communist Party is subjecting Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang to concentration camps. And he claims it would be hypocritical of Serbia to lament its loss of Kosovo without displaying some sympathy for Russia’s fixation on Ukraine.
“Our voting pattern in the most important multilateral institutions such as the United Nations is very clear and connected to our political struggle to preserve our own territorial integrity, because we are faced with the problem of a breakaway province of Kosovo here,” the state secretary said. “And it wouldn't be fair if we were supporting some rebel provinces in the east of Ukraine. When our people in Kosovo, Albanian people, declared unilaterally their independence in 2008, we advised our friends from the international community not to support such a unilateral move, and we have seen in a very short time that we got problems in Georgia and the annexation of Crimea.”
Putin liked the Kosovo comparison so much he used it as a post hoc justification for his attempts to seize Donetsk and Luhansk. Serbian tabloids, which tend to echo their government’s sympathies with Russia, promptly turned on Putin, accusing him of stabbing Serbia in the back by playing “the Kosovo card.”
Every single member of the Serbian government I spoke to, including the unequivocally pro-Western Milic, made clear that Serbs would not countenance a full-on embrace of Kosovar independence as the price of Westernization, but the Trump administration’s pragmatism remains a workable model for driving a wedge between Russia and its Balkan clients. That’s because it was based on mutual economic interest, and a more economically independent Serbia is a less Russophile Serbia. And management of the conflict cannot be simply handed back to the EU, which has lost too much of Serbia’s trust.
Serbia is far from an economic or military power, but its status as an economic ally to Russia and China continues to give our most formidable enemies crucial leverage in the tinderbox of Europe. Trump proved that Biden does indeed have the power to keep bleeding Russia and China of that leverage, if he chooses to do so.
Tiana Lowe is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner, as well as an on-air contributor for The First on Pluto TV.