by Nick Ottens
Newly elected Serbian president Tomislav Nikolić tried to alleviate some of the concern last week that he will divert his country from its path to European Union membership. “I will strive to ensure the continuity of this policy,” he said during a meeting of the Southeast European Cooperation Process in Belgrade, referring to his nation’s membership candidacy, “because it represents one of the strategic goals of my country’s foreign policy.”
He added that Serbia be “promoting, reforming and altering the systems that hinder its development and prosperity.” Although it became a formal candidate for membership in March, the European Commission has warned Serbia that it will have to improve its business climate and legal system, specifically to curb clientalism and corruption, if it is to become a full member.
During his first foreign trip as president after his election in May, Nikolić struck a rather different tone. He told his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow that Serbia is on a “long and uncertain” path to joining the EU and he insisted that it will not give up its claim to the breakaway province of Kosovo for the sake of membership.
In fairness, this insistence is shared by Serbian politicians from across the spectrum even if recognizing Kosovo as an independent state is not a condition for membership. Nikolić’s predecessor, the liberal Boris Tadić, also said that Serbia would not surrender Kosovo. Most Serbs consider the region the cradle of Serb civilization.
They have a natural ally in Russia, a fellow Slav nation that has yet to recognize Kosovo, but whereas Tadić was considered pro-Western, his successor’s rapprochement with Moscow worries some. Members of Nikolić’s populist Serbian Progressive Party were allied to President Slobodan Milošević during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, including the incumbent president himself. He was deputy prime minister of Serbia from 1998 to 1999 and of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which included Montenegro, from 1999 to 2000.
Nikolić did little to smooth concerns about his past associations when, days after his electoral victory last month, he denied the genocide of more than eight thousand Bosnian Muslims by Serb forces at Srebrenica.
The Srebrenica case has taken on a new significance in light of election results elsewhere. Members of the Greek Volunteer Guard were alleged to have participated in the mass murder of Muslim men and boys in 1995. That group had links with the neo-Nazist Golden Dawn party that won almost 7 percent of the vote and eighteen seats in June’s parliamentary election.
Greece now has a pro-European government so expulsion from the eurozone, at least in the short term, seems less likely. If it had been forced to give up the currency, a geopolitical realignment in the Balkans, involving Russia and Serbia, would have been likely.
Setting aside the Golden Dawn party’s sympathies for Serb nationalists, the Greek-Serbian relationship, also called a “brotherhood”, is strong. Both are Orthodox Christian nations. Greece was the only NATO member to side with Serbia during the NATO bombing campaign in the 1990s. It is also one of the few European Union member countries that has refused to recognize independent Kosovo. Both countries maintain lukewarm relations at best with neighboring Macedonia and nearby Turkey.
To understand the modern day Greece-Russia-Serbia triangle, simply replace “Greece” with “Russia” in the above paragraph and you will find that it makes no difference.
At the heart of the relationship is the shared Orthodox culture and religion which foments a sense of belonging and unity. It was Orthodox Russia, which considered itself the protector of coreligionists through Europe and Asia, that helped the Christian peoples of the Balkans liberate themselves from the Ottomans. After it gained independence from the Turks, Greece turned to Russia for help before it ever became a Western ally. Had the United States not intervened in 1948, Greece could well have become a communist country and joined the Soviet bloc.
What is critical today is that these countries have common interests, except to the extent that Greece needs its European Union partners to foot its bills. A full fledged alliance therefore is unlikely but the longer term trends do point in the direction of a Greek-Russian-Serbian accord. It seems that Nikolić has no qualms about trying to speed up the process, nor, one assumes, does Putin.
This comes at a time when Western relations with Turkey — a necessary ally in thwarting the rise of an Orthodox league — are troubled, to say the least. If there there are neo-Byzantine aspirations in Moscow, there is certainly a neo-Ottoman sentiment in Ankara. The Turkish Government is reaching out to fellow Sunni Muslims in Syria and strengthening relations with the semi-independent Kurds in the north of Iraq in a clear attempt to expand Turkish influence in its immediate neighborhood.
Turkish hegemonic ambitions have come at the expense of stable relations with Israel which is why they have temporarily severed relations with the United States as well. Policy makers in Washington DC now appear to realize that a strong and assertive Turkey can actually work in their interests but for cultural reasons, a declinist Europe will likely regard Turkish schemes warily for years to come. There is little chance of the country joining the European Union anymore while its refusal to support the Anglo-French intervention in Libya last year was emblematic of Turkey’s newfound self-confidence within the NATO alliance.
If this is starting to look like the geopolitical reality that defined Europe before the Second World War, that is because the interests of European powers, in spite of the EU, haven’t markedly changed. It’s just that the Cold War provided an artificial (ideological) break in history. The process of European integration coincided with this struggle which rendered Europe little more than a divided battleground for superpowers. The fall of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany have simply returned the continent to a geopolitical landscape that makes sense, i.e., is shaped by national interests.
Nikolić’s rise to the presidency in Belgrade should be seen in the same light. It doesn’t appear likely that Serbia will experience the same half century of collective guilt that prevented Germany from asserting itself until now. Ten years after the end of hostilities in the Balkans, it is ready again to claim the position it believes it deserves.