The purpose of this analysis is not to follow the chronicle of events, the media coverage and the reflections on President Putin’s visit to Belgrade, but to deliberate on its ‘net present value’ — what is its net impact and net worth as a trend.
For all the hype and grand talk, the practical value is negligible, well below what both presidents Putin and Vučić ascribe to it. There is plenty of symbolism and posturing, but Russia’s real geostrategic agenda is not identical to what Vučić presents as national interests to the Serbian audience.
Belgrade faces a dramatic dilemma – on one side, a possible date of entry into the EU of 2025, which seems increasingly chimeric, yet the only sensible option, as all neighbors are either already members or on their way to membership. Without a final bilateral arrangement on Kosovo that would include recognition, membership in the EU is impossible. Vučić’s game plan to take the middle ground of neutrality, an upgrade of Tito’s Cold War equidistance doctrine, will not fly. NATO membership is not on the table. Neutrality, as preached in Belgrade, calls for some attested level of independence from Moscow, including the freedom of Serbia to recognize Kosovo on its own terms. Yet President Putin does not seem to buy the independence statute Belgrade seeks, when it implies not falling in line with Russia. Moscow’s demand leads to a classic deadlock. Lavrov says he will support ‘every’ stance Belgrade takes on Kosovo’s recognition, while softly adding a blocking condition – “which is in line with the UN Security Council Resolution 1244”. The resolution has long ceased to reflect the status quo and reference to it equals an outright roadblock.
Territorial swap suggestions between Kosovo and Serbia have not ended anywhere. For all their worth, they scare EU politicians, as redrawing borders in Europe is a historic bane. Kosovo authorities are trying to act out of strength – shattering fragile reconciliation efforts after the government in Pristina on December 14, 2018, announced plans to turn the Security Forces into a full-fledged army. Furthermore, it denied consent to give up any part of Kosovo’s present territory. A compromise seems more evasive than ever.
The huge crowds at the welcome Putin rally in Belgrade, instead of giving fresh hopes for resolving the foremost foreign policy quagmire of the Serbian leadership, granted the Kremlin an extremely powerful tool to directly influence the nationalist circles and control the pace of EU accession. Anytime the Russian leader feels Serbian authorities are not complying with his wishes he can directly address his admirers and stir trouble.
Of the 20+ different bilateral agreements signed during Putin’s visit, few if any have lasting long-term material effect. The two main propaganda lines of success – the railroad system cooperation and the extension of Turk Stream on Serbian territory, when inspected closely, could hardly rise to material prominence.
The MIG-29 aircrafts deal, which was marketed as a ‘gift’, ended with almost $250 million in hidden costs – maintenance and repair contracts given to Russian companies. The current Putin visit nominally adds to the ‘gift’ list 30 T-72S tanks and 30 BRDM-2 armored reconnaissance vehicles. Again, nothing new – they were promised by Putin during Vučić’s visit to Moscow in March 2017. None of the military hardware could be considered an example of major aid, capable of tilting regional military balances or guaranteeing Belgrade a free hand in case of conflict over Kosovo.
The nuclear cooperation agreement that was signed during the visit bears no mention of 10-year-old grand plans for a Russian nuclear power plant in Serbia — just for the use of radioactive material for medical research.
In the domain of Russia’s forte, energy, the promises for cheaper gas or a bonanza in gas transit revenues has been intentionally subdued by Vladimir Putin following past negative experience of South Stream. Despite the Russian leader’s persistent narrative that Brussels killed the project, he knows well enough that the promised $1.4 billion Gazprom investment in new transit infrastructure faces a dual challenge – enough consumer demand and EC clearance – i.e. things beyond Serbia’s control.
The net effect of Vladimir Putin’s ‘triumph’ in Belgrade is modest and limited at best.
As the Russian president has noted, Serbia is not the deal breaker in the Turk Stream extension project. Bulgaria is, and megaphone propaganda originating in Belgrade does not score extra sympathies for the project in the EU. Russia’s geostrategic bet on the lighter version of the South Stream project, with the preponderant role of Russia, is naturally perceived in the Eurasian, rather than the European context. This directly and adversely undermines the tacit, below-the-radar strategy of Bulgarian PM Borissov to see the project through, in the shadow of its German kin – Nord Stream. The selling point borrowed from Chancellor Merkel is identical – business only, no geopolitics.
After much fanfare and hype from Serbian President Vučić and Gazprom officials that the Serbian segment of the South Stream Lite project will kickstart in March 2019, PM Borissov’s low-profile tactic has been compromised, making successful project closure more difficult, even impossible. All the stakeholders have been alerted of the prime geopolitical value the continuation of Turk Stream has for Moscow.
How would the EC consider Vučić’s vows to shield Gazprom from new competitors entering the region through TAP and TANAP? In his drive to please Putin and secure backing for Belgrade’s policies toward Kosovo, the Serbian president went to extremes, pledging that Russian gas was the cheapest by default, henceforth there is no need for competition. He went further to promise the Russian president that Serbs will not import and use any other than Russian gas. The message has gotten across to the EU energy community and decision makers, who will have to decide on the fate of South Stream Lite. Whilst the EC has less leverage to influence Belgrade’s decisions and rhetoric, Brussels has all the levers to pre-empt gas flows to Serbia via Bulgaria for obstruction of competition.
One can only speculate to the extent of the harm Vucic inflicted on the chances of Borrisov securing a green light for the Turk Stream extension.
While Vladimir Putin has been given reassurances of a full monopoly on the gas market in Serbia, Serbian state companies were reported to have expressed interest booking capacities to import LNG via gas terminals in Greece.
President Putin has committed Gazprom to finance and build the South Stream Lite section in Serbia. Then a logical question arises for Bulgarians – why does Gazprom choose to invest its own money, funding and constructing the South Stream Lite Serbian section, taking on all project risks, while it adopts a different line in Bulgaria, where the national gas grid operator, Bulgartransgaz, and the Bulgarian government are willing to fund and build the country segment of the pipeline? The Russian gas monopoly will thus be spared investment risks and the hassle of clearing the project through the EU’s bureaucracy. A warning shot from Brussels came just in time for Sofia to sober up to the stakes involved with the unprecedented 77 million euro fine for abuse of dominant position by the same energy companies that will engage with the Turk Stream extension.
The media hype during Putin’s visit is closely reminiscent of totalitarian times and the personality cult. Putin’s popularity ratings with the Serbian public soared above 80%, far above that of Vučić and that of his own popularity at home.
For whatever the geopolitical stakes at play during Vladimir Putin’s visit to Serbia, the fact remains that Russia is unable to provide credible alternative to Serbia’s membership in the EU.
Even when Moscow tries to play a joint Russo-Chinese Euro-Asian card by pooling resources, the pragmatic net worth of such a distant promise could hardly match the benefits of an imminent EU membership.
The Kremlin has been recently instructing its agents of influence in Southeast Europe to coordinate action with Sinophiles. By the same token, different NGOs for Russian-Serbian and Russian-Bulgarian friendship are shifting allegiances and focus to fill the gaps in Russia’s web of influence, using China as a substitute.
Vučić is no novice in trying to synergize Moscow and Beijing ties to counterbalance the EU and NATO.
One of the first testing grounds for the Kremlin’s new Sino-Russian coordinated approach in Bulgaria would be the Belene nuclear power plant, where Russia’s and China’s interests intersect. The same pattern of cooperation is tested in Serbia, yet it is hard to perceive that Beijing would agree to play the junior partner’s role.
Belgrade is closely watching China’s inroads into infrastructure projects in the Western Balkans, but is not overenthusiastic in accepting Beijing’s terms. The famed Belgrade-Budapest high-speed railway has failed to materialize so far. Moreover, one of the principal agreements signed during Putin’s visit covers railroad infrastructure cooperation and the regular tranche on a $800 million loan.
The Russian vision of beefing up its influence in the EU on Eurasian roots, with Moscow remaining in the driver’s seat and China playing a backstage role, would hardly work.
China has a different agenda, and Belgrade’s hope to return to the prominence in the past as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, as a country testing the limits of neutrality, balancing between the West and Russia/China, while acceding the EU, might soon prove futile.
That is the case despite the crowds and praise for President Vladimir Putin.