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Putin heads to Serbia for brotherhoodly love

Dragoslav Dedovic
January 16, 2019

Ecstatic crowds are expected to greet Vladimir Putin as he enters the Church of St. Sava in Belgrade alongside Aleksandar Vucic. For over a month, thousands have turned out for weekly protests against Serbia's president.

Protests in Serbia
Image: Reuters/D. Kojadinovic

The tabloids report that 70,000 people will turn out in Belgrade on Thursday to warmly welcome Russian President Vladimir Putin. That could be the case: Putin is popular in Serbia.

The greeting has been organized by small political associations founded by politicians from nationalist splinter groups that have close ties to the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).

On the internet, there are offers for day packages that include lunch and bus transportation to the festivities for about €13 ($15). Street vendors are even selling T-shirts bearing Putin's face and Russian flags.

'A picture-perfect visit'

Posing with Putin against the backdrop of a cheering crowd will have benefits for Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic. Since the beginning of December, tens of thousands of people have turned out to demonstrate against Vucic weekly in Belgrade and other cities, calling for an end to political violence and demanding unbiased reporting by public television.

Vucic has rejected all the demands of the protesters and hinted several times that he might call early elections. For Vucic, there could be no better election campaign mascot than Putin.

The positive PR will serve Putin well, too. According to a survey by the Levada-Center, an independent sociological research organization, Russians increasingly blame Putin for the problems that plague their nation.

"That's why Putin needs a picture-perfect visit to a country that doesn't belong to the circle of former Soviet banana republics, one that is a candidate for EU membership and where he is loved, appreciated and supported," the Serbian political scientist Boris Varga told DW. "And that's Serbia."

Conflict Zone - Guest: Ana Brnabic

Symbolic, strategic gestures

Vucic and Putin have met 12 times so far, but this visit is far from routine. In the lead-up to the meeting between the two, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described Serbs and Russians as "like brothers."

Achieving economic and political influence in Serbia has proved relatively cheap for the Kremlin. The Russian oil producer Gazprom Neft has controlled Serbia's oil industry since 2009. A declaration on the strategic partnership between Russia and Serbia was signed in Sochi in 2013. The countries have a free trade agreement.

Vucic was recently awarded the Order of Alexander Nevsky by the Russian Federation. Previous recipients include oligarchs, civil servants close to the Kremlin and authoritarians such as Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. In Serbia, the pro-government media describe Vucic's award as "historic."

In addition to warming to Putin, Vucic has grown politically ambivalent about Serbia's relations with the EU. "There is no fundamental strategic orientation towards Europe," said Simon Ilse, the head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Belgrade. "This lack is made clear by the 'game' with Russia."

Army for Kosovo

Territory and oil

A large protest rally took place in Belgrade on Wednesday — this time in memory of the murder of Oliver Ivanovic. The Serbian politician from the north of Kosovo, a political opponent of Vucic, was killed one year ago.

High-ranking officials allied with Vucic had insulted and harassed Ivanovic, a politician who was popular with Serbs in Kosovo. His murder, however, was a shock. In the aftermath, Vucic offered Ivanovic's widow a government job in Belgrade — as long as she publicly distanced herself from the demonstrators. Milena Ivanovic Popovic had announced that she would not attend Wednesday's protests, saying she did not want to participate in the "politicization" of her husband's death.

Kosovo became independent in 2008, though Serbia still does not formally recognize this. The government uses its alliance with Russia and China, permanent members of the UN Security Council, to thwart Kosovo internationally whenever possible.

Serbia's government appears to be intent on joining the European Union — but without significantly altering its policy toward Kosovo and without sacrificing its brotherhood with Russia. For example, the government did not sign on when the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia following its interference in Ukraine in recent years.

Ilse, of the Böll Foundation, said this would pose a real obstacle to Serbia's accession: "It will only happen if it supports the sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU in the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea."

Though the brotherhood with Russia has great symbolic significance, the reality is very different. EU countries account for about two-thirds of Serbia's foreign trade, and many more Serbs work, study and live in EU nations than in Russia.

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