Serbia's Geopolitical Position and Challenges, According to Its Elites
Serbia is a state in the Balkans whose foreign policy should be well balanced to be effective, given the heavy historical legacy of the region and its susceptibility to distortions of global politics. That is why Serbia’s elites should know the position of their country in international relations well, and act in accordance with this knowledge. The main problem with this is that most of these elites are predominantly driven by their group and personal interests, rather than the national one.
The cornerstones of this interest are the country’s territorial integrity, Kosovo and Metohija included, as well as freedom and wellbeing of Serbs in the region, most importantly the preservation of their political autonomy in the neighbouring Republic of Srpska.
The national interest of Serbia is relatively easy to define, knowing the country’s geopolitical position, its historic tradition and contemporary international challenges. Most of the elites agree that the cornerstones of this interest are the country’s territorial integrity, Kosovo and Metohija included, as well as freedom and wellbeing of Serbs in the region, most importantly the preservation of their political autonomy in the neighbouring Republic of Srpska. Given Serbia’s peculiar geopolitical position inside the sphere of influence of the powers that are not sympathetic to this interest – the United States and its European allies, who recognized Kosovo’s independence after they bombed Serbia to enable its separation, and who insist on false accusations of Republika Srpska as a “genocidal creation” in order to dismantle it – and, on the other hand, the distance of friendly Russia, military neutrality becomes the only logical foreign policy orientation.
However, in order to assure the Western powers of its neutrality, so that they would tolerate at least some degree of sovereignty in defining and defending its own national interest, Serbia sticks to the “European path”, which means proclaiming membership in the European Union as the country’s overarching foreign policy goal. Most of Serbia’s elites are in favour of the EU accession, interpreting this as their choice, but in the essence this is not a choice. It is rather an obligation for the state which lies so deeply in the Western sphere of influence.
The remaining political elites are divided between those extremely pro-Western and anti-Western (pro-Russian), both options being bad for Serbia’s national interest.
This is especially true for the current ruling elite in Serbia. By overwhelmingly winning the presidential elections, Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić secured almost absolute political power in the state, towards which he has been progressing step by step since his first ascent to power five years ago. The clue for understanding his own and his Serbian Progressive Party’s foreign policy views lies in their history. For most of his political career, Vučić used to be anti-EU and anti-Western, splitting from his former Serbian Radical party with his political comrade Tomislav Nikolić only in 2008, when they both realized the West would not ever allow them to come to power as long as they stuck to this orientation. So, Vučić’s political transformation in favour of the EU was his pragmatic move, aimed at acquiring the West's assent for coming to power in Serbia. On the other hand, he was also aware of the fact that most of his voters and Serbia’s population overall remained anti-Western, pro-Russian and faithful to another vision of the country’s national interest, so he had to balance his approach to the West and Russia in order not to alienate either of them. This is how he managed to achieve over 50 percent voter support and subsequently almost absolute power: with pro-EU enlargement rhetoric and behaviour he attracted at least some part of the minority pro-Western population, and more importantly support from the West; but presenting himself as a staunch defender of the national interest and a Russophile, he attracted the majority of the voters with similar feelings, and, of course, Russia’s support. This resulted in a more or less balanced foreign policy which Serbia needs at the moment, but the problem is that national interest here is a secondary motive, next to Vučić and his elite’s personal and group political interest to come to power and strengthen it once they accomplished this.
Unfortunately, an alternative which would put national interest on top is almost non-existent. The once leading, and now second largest party – Socialist Party of Serbia – instead of striving to present itself as such an alternative, decided to give up on its core identity almost completely, by supporting Vučić in the first round of presidential elections. Vuk Jeremić, who presented himself as such an alternative, did not do well in the elections – he won just above 5 percent of the votes. The remaining political elites are divided between those extremely pro-Western and anti-Western (pro-Russian), both options being bad for Serbia’s national interest. These elites’ views could be explained partly by their ignorance and lack of nuance regarding Serbia’s international position, but also by the economic interests of some of them, for example the NGOs financed by the West. Knowing all this, it is not strange that an anti-political comedian, Ljubiša Preletačević Beli, won almost 10 percent of the votes in the presidential elections.
Serbia's position is usually misunderstood by the outer world, including its own neighbours, because they fail to understand its national interest explained above, and how the West works against this interest. For example, Romania, for understandable historical reasons, sees its national interest best protected by aligning with the Western liberators against Russia as the former occupying force, and does not realize why Serbia sees things differently. If the West demanded from Romania to accept secession of Transylvania as a precondition for integration with it, would Bucharest behave any different than Belgrade? Also, it is necessary for the outsiders to understand that the seemingly fanatical pro-EU orientation of the current Serbia's ruling elite, as well as the majority support of its population for the EU accession, is nothing but pragmatic instrumentalism, an adaptation to the reality of living deep inside the Western sphere of influence. When this reality changes one day, Serbia's proclaimed foreign policy priorities will change too, to better match the actual preferences of the population.