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Medvedev in Belgrade: From Russia, with love

Miodrag Soric
October 19, 2019

While Brussels is reluctant to draw western Balkan countries closer to the EU, the Kremlin is taking action to foster relations in the region, particularly with its longtime ally Serbia.

A man holding a Serbian flag during Putin's visit to Belgrade in January 2019
Image: Reuters/K. Coombs

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is visiting Serbian capital Belgrade this weekend, taking part in commemorations of 75th anniversary of the city's liberation from Nazi German occupation. Thousands of soldiers from the Red Army died during this World War II offensive. This, along with the common Orthodox Christian faith, is one of the reasons Serbs still feel emotionally connected with Russians and Ukrainians.

Serbia: Protesting against the president

Serbia's opposition has already announced it will boycott Medvedev's planned speech in parliament. That has, however, little to do with the guest. Rather, it is once again a protest against the authoritarian president, Aleksandar Vucic.

Moscow-based publicist and Balkan expert Ivan Preobrashenskiy, told DW that Medvedev is going to address economic issues during his visit to Belgrade. In May 2014, Moscow and Belgrade entered into a strategic partnership.

The prime minister is particularly interested in the construction progress of the 402-kilometer (250-mile) "TurkStream" pipeline to Serbia from Turkey via Bulgaria which, according to Moscow, is going to supply the western Balkan countries. It has a capacity of 12.87 billion cubic meters of gas per year. Preobrashenskiy believes that the Kremlin expects the Serbian section to be completed according to plan by the end of this year, but there are problems with progress in Bulgaria. Russian fossil fuel giant Gazprom also wants to use the pipeline, but is not allowed to own it according to EU law.

Preferential treatment for Serbia

According to Oleg Bondarenko of the Russian Progressive Politics Foundation, the signing of a free trade agreement between Serbia and the Eurasian Economic Union is particularly important for Prime Minister Medvedev. This will facilitate the trade in Serbian products to countries such as Belarus and the Central Asian republics.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev
Russian PM Medvedev is expected to focus on economic topics in his talks with SerbiaImage: Getty Images/AFP/Sputnik/A. Astafyev

Serbia already benefits from the fact that the EU is no longer allowed to sell its agricultural and food products to Russia. This is a consequence of reciprocal sanctions between Brussels and Moscow during the last five years. No cheese from Holland is sold on supermarket shelves in St. Petersburg or Vladivostok, but cheese from Serbia is. Serbia's Prime Minister, Ana Brnabic, will travel to Moscow five days after her Russian counterpart's visit to seal the free trade agreement, says Bondarenko.

According to Preobrashenskij, Russia continues to treat Serbia preferentially. This is a signal to the EU. In this way the Kremlin is showing that it has not only military, but also economic means at its disposal to maintain its influence abroad.

According to experts, one of the topics the Russian prime minister will discuss in Belgrade is the status of Kosovo. "Medvedev's visit will serve to ensure that Russia once again gives Serbia a promise to use its veto in the UN Security Council to prevent the breakaway province of Kosovo from ever becoming a state recognized by the UN," says Dusan Reljic of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Brussels. This support is very important for Serbia in negotiations with Kosovo and the West.

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci (center right) meeting US Ambassador Richard Grenell (center left)
The White House has drafted Richard Grenell (3rd from left), its man in Berlin, to attend to Kosovo talksImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/V. Kryeziu

Kosovo Albanians and Serbs at the negotiating table?

That support is all the more vital now, because since the beginning of October, the US government has made a new attempt to get Kosovar Albanians and Serbs to the negotiating table. The mediator will be Richard Grenell, currently US ambassador in Berlin. Insiders claim that he was appointed White House special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo at his own request. An embassy spokesperson, however, told DW that was not the case. According to media reports, the 52-year-old had previously tried in vain to secure the vacant White House position of national security adviser.

Read more: Trump ally Grenell's Kosovo-Serbia post a mixed bag for rapprochement

"President Trump wants to be re-elected next year and for that purpose needs to show foreign policy successes," Bondarenko says. Russia could accept a division of Kosovo, he adds, under the prerequisite that Belgrade and Pristina first come to an agreement and the UN Security Council also agrees.

So far, the Kremlin has viewed the new US initiative in the Balkans with suspicion. In the past, Grenell has spoken out sharply against the expansion of the "Nord Stream 2" pipeline between Russia and Germany in the Baltic Sea, Moscow's prestige project. The German government did not yield to the pressure. It continues to support the construction. The first details that emerged from the meeting between Grenell and Serbian President Vucic a few days ago indicated that the disagreements remain. Vucic later praised Serbian-Russian relations as being excellent. According to Serbian media, he is looking forward to the meeting with Medvedev.