Serbia is struggling to maintain a balancing act between East and West
Earlier this month, 141 states voted in favour of the resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Among those voting for the resolution were Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia – the states comprising the Western Balkans. Given the unstable relations between these states, this was a highly unusual display of unity.
But beneath the surface, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has the potential to exacerbate longstanding tensions in the region. Within many of these states, both politicians and citizens expressed dissatisfaction with the adoption of the UN resolution, and even the very act of condemnation has caused serious internal disputes, for two primary reasons.
First, some of the countries, Serbia most notably, finds it costly to break ties with Russia. For nearly two decades, Moscow and Belgrade have maintained deep diplomatic and economic ties, with total exports to Russia worth over $1billion in 2019. While Serbia adopted the resolution and offered humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, it nevertheless decided against imposing sanctions on Russia.
Secondly, many ethnic Serbs feel closer to Russia than the West. In Serbia, around two-thirds of Serbs have a positive view of Putin and believe that Russia should be Serbia’s key ally when it comes to national security. This pro-Russia sentiment also exists in countries with a substantial Serbian minority (like Bosnia and Montenegro). Thus, cutting ties with Russia could damage the popularity of governing parties.
This goes some way to explaining why Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb leader and a member of Bosnia’s Federal Presidency, actively opposed the resolution and attempted to obstruct its adoption by the Bosnian government in cooperation with Russian diplomats. Mr Dodik sent a letter to the Russian representative in the UN, where he argued that the decision to adopt the resolution was a ‘personal’ not political decision, as it was not unanimously approved by the Bosnian Presidency.
Similarly in Kosovo, which lacks a UN vote, Serbian representatives walked out of the parliamentary session during which the MPs debated condemning the Russian invasion.
But even in ostensibly pro-West nations, internal differences have been bubbling to the surface. For example, Montenegro, a NATO member state which quickly moved to oust a Russian diplomat from the country, was divided over the resolution, with the recently elected Right-wing populist party, The Democratic Front, trying to push the country towards Russia. While this government recently lost the vote of confidence, 37 (of 81) members of the Montenegrin parliament voted against condemning Russia.
These internal disputes over condemning Russia highlight the difficult position that the Western Balkans finds itself in. Given that all of these countries have multiple ethnicities with competing loyalties, the invasion is likely to deepen the gulf between pro-western and pro-Russia states. As fighting progresses, it will become increasingly difficult to maintain a balancing act between the two.