Blood in Putin’s eyes on Belgrade mural: How Vucic and Russian president parted ways
The image of Russian President Vladimir Putin painted on a building on a street corner in Belgrade is mottled, his eyes and mouth covered in red, a surprising sight in a pro-Moscow country. Bloomberg writes in a new analysis that the friendship between Russia and Serbia is ” “increasingly awkward”.
The slogan “brother” was changed to “war.” The mural was created as a sign of support for the Russian president and is now becoming a symbol of resistance and protest against the war at a time when Putin continued to escalate the conflict in Ukraine.
Serbia was able to balance its geopolitical and economic interests between East and West, but the war revealed the paradoxes of this juggling act and raised questions in Belgrade about where the country’s interests lie in the new world order, the analysis points out.
It adds that Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic has opposed the introduction of sanctions against Russia, but that the Serbian economy depends on the European bloc for 60 percent of its trade and the Serbian government’s goal, no matter how far they are from that now, is to finally join the European Union.
“Serbia, meanwhile, has been courting China, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, whose president was in Belgrade on Oct. 10 to meet with Vucic before meeting Putin in St. Petersburg,” Bloomberg said.
Putin is the most popular world leader for Serbs
A poll conducted a few months after Vucic was overwhelmingly re-elected in April showed Putin to be the most popular world leader for Serbs, even as China’s Xi Jinping received additional support after providing a vaccine against Covid-19. Serbia has since become a haven for thousands of Russians fleeing the Russian regime.
However, the country’s stance has become unpalatable to some in the president’s inner circle. Zorana Mihajlovic, Serbia’s deputy prime minister, accused Putin of bringing the world “to the brink of tragedy.”
“The world is changing, the geopolitical situation is different and we have to look to the future to find our place,” Mihajlovic said in an interview on October 12 after Russia began bombing cities in Ukraine again. In short, she said it was time for Serbia to finally pick a side and define its position.
Although Serbia joined in condemning Putin’s invasion by voting at the United Nations, it is still in the “Russian orbit,” according to Bloomberg.
The friendship between the two Eastern Orthodox nations goes back centuries before it cooled during the Soviet era. However, it was revived during the break-up of Yugoslavia, and then intensified after NATO’s intervention in 1999 that ended the war in Kosovo.
Serbia relies on Moscow to support it in not recognising Kosovo’s statehood, and Putin uses Kosovo as evidence of the West’s “duplicity” in relation to its war in Ukraine.
Russia sells natural gas to Serbia below the market price under the extended contract, but Russia accounts for only 6 percent of Serbia’s foreign trade. The EU is the largest partner with trade of $30 billion.
It is followed by investments from China and the UAE. Serbia’s top three exporters are Chinese-owned mining companies and a steel producer, the Finance Ministry said.
Relations with Russia “emptied”
One of the most attractive projects in Belgrade is backed by the UAE: The Waterfront, Vucic’s flagship luxury apartment project on Sava. The UAE and Serbia also signed a “strategic alliance” in September, covering everything from an extradition treaty to a pact with the Abu Dhabi Development Fund. The Emirates also agreed to lend Serbia $1 billion to help service debt and energy investments, the analysis added.
“Relations with Russia are empty. It will remain friendly, but all important issues will disappear. Politically and socially, the friendship is still there, but the war accelerated the economic collapse,” said Maxim Samorukov, a Carnegie Endowment analyst for the region who left Moscow in February.
Indeed, as conflict again tears the world apart between East and West, Belgrade is playing a familiar role. Under Communist leader Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia broke with the Soviets and established ties among other non-aligned countries.
There are signs that it is. The International Monetary Fund, with which the government in Belgrade is trying to reach an agreement, forecasts that the Serbian economy will grow by 3.5 percent this year. Although inflation will remain above 11 percent in 2022, it is still below the European average.
Some aspects of Serbian geopolitics could be of great help, Bank of America pointed out on October 11, citing as examples the gas treaty with Russia on the one hand and EU membership aspirations on the other.
China is the key
For retired Serbian diplomat Zoran Milivojevic, the only thing off the table in terms of what Serbia will consider is the recognition of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008. Everything else is open for discussion, including sanctions, he said.
Milivojevic, who stayed in Brussels and Paris and was Serbia’s ambassador to the Council of Europe, says China is crucial because Serbia’s relations with that country have no political ties.
The UEA leader’s visit was a confirmation of Serbia’s geopolitical balancing act, he says. “For us it is a special endorsement, an indirect endorsement of our views. It’s symbolic, something very important politically for us.”
A challenge for Vucic
Serbia, however, has little political influence in the West, Samorukov said, and relations with China and the UAE are based solely on financial interests. The challenge for Vucic is how long he can resist European pressure to take a tougher stance towards Russia, he added.
Compromise could come in the form of agreeing to some sanctions or revising the open-door policy for Russians – 30 days of visa-free travel – although this will not appeal to voters.
Conversations with Russians in Belgrade show that those fleeing are anti-Putin. Piotr Nikitin, a Belgrade lawyer and activist who helped found a group of Russians, Belarusians and Ukrainians against the war, thinks the destruction of the Putin mural in Belgrade is therefore not surprising.
He is worried that Vučić could eventually tighten the Serbian visa regime and present it as sanctions against Russia in order to align himself with the EU, writes Bloomberg, as reported by the Financial Post./Nova S