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On Wednesday, 21 September, the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence hosted a panel on Russian-Serbian relations – determining whether Serbia is on the Russian “radar”, as well as debunking some of the myths surrounding the mutual relationship of both the countries. Our esteemed panelists were Prof. Vladislav Inozemtsev, Professor of Economics, directing the Moscow-based Centre for Post-Industrial Studies, and Prof. Slobodan Markovic from the Belgrade Faculty of Political Science.

Are sanctions affecting Russia’s economy?

Prof. Inozemtsev expects stagnation of Russia’s economy in the coming years. The income will decrease around 2-5 percent every year – likewise the foreign trade and the GDP. However, the impact of the EU sanctions is not as tremendous as it is portrayed sometimes. He explained there are three ways to assess the sanctions from a realist’s (economical) perspective: (1) on the one hand, EU subsidiaries of blacklisted Russian banks operating in at least seven Member States (including France, Germany, Austria and Cyprus) are exempt – as well as (2) gas, because numerous EU Member States depend heavily on Russian supplies; (3) on the other hand, several important state-owned corporations in Russia, after the sanctions have been imposed, cannot loan money from foreign countries (where loans used to be 5-6 percent cheaper than in Russia). In this sense, Prof. Inozemtsev stated that “Russia can survive”, as the sanctions have a limited impact on Russia’s financial situation.

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Is Serbia politically and economically important for Russia?  

Firstly, “Russians are obsessed with geopolitics”, as Prof. Inozemtsev put it. They focus on tensions with the EU and anti-Americanism and Serbia seems to be favorable ally to a certain extent. Gazprom’s presence is one important example for Russian economic ties with Serbia and their geopolitical relationship. Furthermore, Montenegro’s NATO accession was perceived negatively on both sides, and EU press debates on that topic were considered as “propagandistic”. However, Russia is not looking for new markets, because they don’t have a high number of requested goods they could export, so the most important economic partner remains the EU (and increasingly China), and Serbia plays an insignificant role here – even if there were stronger economic relations between Russia and Serbia, it would not cause “dramatic changes” on the whole. Russian leadership becomes more pragmatic, and although certain interest in Serbian partnership is expressed, it does not mean this attitude will last a long time. Russia’s foreign policy changes quickly. In addition, Serbia would never become a privileged partner of Russia such as Belarus.

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Is there a new quality to bilateral relations that needs to be found, or has already been created?

Prof. Markovic emphasized there has been only 8-10 years of “good intergovernmental relations” between Serbia and Russia in the past (1912-1917 and 1944-1948). Moreover, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia did not recognize the USSR until 1940. Only when Russia advocated Serbia’s territorial integrity in the case of Kosovo rejecting its UN membership, Russian influence in Serbia began to increase again. But still, the outcome is minor: (1) economic relations mainly focus on the energy sector; (2) in the military realms they are rhetorically close but diverging; (3) and from a cultural perspective, relevant links are more important to Serbia than to Russia. Regarding Serbia’s military actions, there have been 197 NATO activities and 370 operations together with NATO members, while only 36 activities were in cooperation with Russia. Moreover, only two of 21 multinational training exercises showed a joint participation of Serbia and Russia. Therefore, Serbia’s military cooperation with the NATO is intensifying – resulting from the fact that Serbia is completely surrounded by NATO members. However, only 10 percent of Serbian population currently supports NATO membership.

Regarding Serbian opinion polls that measure the popularity of foreign countries, the results show that Russia is by far the most popular country (41,3 percent in 2016). Vice versa, only 6 percent of the Russian population considers Serbia as their favorite country (the most popular is Belarus: 50 percent). Therefore, the data shows a significant discrepancy between the Russian-Serbian relations in reality and the public’s attitude. It seems there is an irrational attraction – an emotional connection – from Serbs towards Russia, reflecting most probably the alliance of both the countries with regard to the Kosovo issue. Prof. Marković added, that the influence of the Orthodox Church in Serbia is one main element according to Russia’s popularity, and moreover, there would be a notion among Serbs, that things were mostly difficult with Russia, but even more difficult without Russia.

(Photos by Jelena Volić; report Carsten Spandau)