Walking down Knez Mihailova, the main boulevard in Belgrade, it’s hard not to notice the street venders selling pro-Russian merchandise. There are few cities in Europe, with the possible exception of Sofia, where one is likely to find such souvenirs. Entering Kalemegdan, Belgrade’s old fortress, my eyes are immediately drawn to an obnoxious Z t-shirt that reads ‘всё идёт по плану’ (everything is going according to plan). Nearly two years after Russia launched its full-scale invasion, and as the war enters a bloody stalemate, it’s difficult to see what’s going to plan. Perhaps these are old stock.
To a less acquainted visitor, I imagine a trip to Belgrade must be quite puzzling. As for the tens of thousands of Russians who have landed here upon their escape from Russia, such encounters must be stranger still. Driving into the city centre from the airport, you are welcomed by Gazprom posters that say ‘Заједно’ (Together). Inside the city, pro-Putin graffiti litters the streets, though much of it has been rightfully desecrated. Looking for a place to eat on the Danube, you might stumble across a new restaurant called ‘Wagner’, with a stylized wolf logo to do away with any doubts.
Given such scenes, it is hardly surprising that the Western media tends to depict Serbia as a Russian vassal state. A BBC documentary at the beginning of the year, ‘Serbia: The Russia Dilemma’, portrayed Serbia as a hostile and unwelcoming country, brimming with pro-war fervour. Such characterisations lack nuance and fail to adequately explain Serbian attitudes toward the war. According to a poll taken in the summer of 2022, 63% of Serbs hold the West responsible for the war in Ukraine, not Russia. But the eagerness to blame the West has more to do with Serbia’s own recent history, than with adoration for mother Russia.
As Maxim Samorukov has argued for Carnegie Politika, “Russia’s appeal to the Serbian public has less to do with what it stands for, and more with what it does not.” Rather than any cultural or historic affinity, Serbs are drawn to Russia mainly through a shared animosity toward the West and NATO. This comes across in everyday encounters. Anecdotally, it is hard to come by a Belgrade taxi driver who, upon discovering my nationality, doesn’t engage me in a rant about the 1999 NATO bombings or the West’s track-record of illegal interventions.
Anti-westernism in Serbia stems from bitter memories of the 1990s wars when Serbia was ostracised as the main aggressor. But it also has to do with more recent failures of transition and with disappointments about becoming the new left outs of Europe. Two decades after the Thessaloniki summit, when the EU first committed to the integration of the Western Balkans, Serbia is still knocking at the door. The West’s recognition of Kosovo in 2008 is another sticking point. Serbia perceived the recognition as a betrayal and, since then, has looked to Russia for support.
Antipathy toward the West leads many Serbs to blame NATO for this war; but it does not mean blanket support for Russia. Despite refusing to participate in EU sanctions, Serbia has repeatedly condemned Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and has voted in favour of four UN resolutions against its supposed patron. Serbia’s support for Ukraine is largely shaped by the Kosovo issue. As the Secretary of State for Serbia, Nemanja Starović, told me in an interview in September 2022: “How could we fight to preserve our own sovereignty, our own independence, our own territorial integrity if we did not give the same right to Ukraine?”
At a pre-election rally on 2 December, President Aleksandar Vučić reiterated Serbia’s right to an independent foreign policy. He told large crowds that had gathered in Belgrade’s Stark arena that “Serbia is one of the few countries in Europe that leads an independent policy. When they tell us, we are the only country in Europe that does not stand in line to fulfil someone else’s orders...Well, it is not my job to align myself with you, but with my people”. Following the Serbian Progressive Party’s (SNS) definitive victory in last week’s parliamentary and local elections, it’s unlikely that Serbia’s position will change anytime soon.
Edited by Victoria Muzio
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