Presidential elections in Serbia are not expected to produce surprises, but closer ties to the Kremlin raise concerns about Belgrade’s nationalistic agenda within the context of the Western Balkans’ integration.
The Kremlin seems to have become a pilgrimage destination for European presidential candidates. After Marine Le Pen, it was Aleksander Vucic’s turn to shake hands with Vladimir Putin at the peak of the Serbian presidential electoral campaign, as the country prepares to elect its next president on April 2nd. Vucic, who has served as prime minister since April 2014 and is also president of Serbian Progressive Party (the ruling party formed nine years ago splitting from the Serbian Radical Party), managed to become his party’s nominee replacing the outgoing nationalist president, Tomislav Nikolic.
A rising star in his own party and in Serbian politics, Vucic has taken the lead in pre-election polls as the favourite candidate to become country’s next head of state. Among the eleven candidates, he is the one who has been made welcome in Moscow and, together with the Russian president, publicly committed to continuity in view of the “special nature of mutual relations” between the two major Slavic countries.
Russia is one of Serbia’s main trading partners, third for imports and fourth as an export destination. It is worth mentioning that Serbia and Macedonia have not followed the European Union in applying economic sanctions against Russia following the Ukraine conflict. In the Serbian case, recent economic data confirms the benefits of this stand, while Russian investments involve the acquisition of a significant share in country’s total FDI stock.
Russia’s presence and influence in the Balkans could be better understood by “following the money”. Russian investments are concentrated in Serbia and this major Slavic country appears to be of significant importance in the Kremlin’s geostrategic map of south-eastern Europe. Initially South Stream and now the Tesla Pipeline, rather than being viable projects, are a symbol of Russia’s approach when it comes to choosing strategic partners in the Western Balkans, and Serbia definitely seems to be considered a reliable partner by the Kremlin.
Importing aircraft and military equipment from Moscow, holding joint military exercises and having troops in the May 9th70th Victory Parade in Red Square are clear evidence of the deep divide between the country’s EU aspirations and its strategic position. Close military ties between Belgrade and the Kremlin have been coherently exhibited over time in line with Serbia’s ambition for political leadership in the region and could be considered early warning signs of a potential future pan-Slavic movement in the Balkans if the European Union does not outline a clear integration path for neighbourhood countries.
The eventual election of Aleksandar Vucic will probably not cause major changes in Russo-Serbian relations as seen during the last decade, but it will raise the issue of who is going to be his successor as prime minister, a role Vucic mastered with his moderate leadership amidst nationalism and pragmatism in the context of the “Berlin Process”, the EU integration initiative for western Balkan countries under the auspices of Germany.