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BETWEEN BRUSSELS AND MOSCOW: SERBIA BETWEEN EMOTIONAL AND RATIONAL CHOICE

22.06.2017

Participants of the international conference ’’Serbia’s Foreign Policy – between Brussels and Moscow?’’ had the chance to discuss about political and economic relations between Serbia and Russia throughout history and relations existing nowdays, as well as implications of this relations on EU accession process. Conference was held on Tuesday, June 13, 2017, in ’’Aeroklub’’ in Belgrade, and it was organized by The European Movement in Serbia in partnership with Friedrich Ebert Foundation.


In the opening word Jelica Minić, president of Forum for International Relations of the European Movement in Serbia, underlined that there is a political consensus in Serbia when it comes to European integrations, but the same cannot be said about social consensus. Also, according to her words, citizens of Serbia rely on Russia when it comes to security, but are turning towards EU in matters such as rule of law and reaching certain standards in that area, and wondered whether this is a permanent balancing which will mark the future of Serbia. 


The first panel dealt with development of bilateral relations between Serbia and Russia in 21st century. Speaking about history of Serbia-Russia relations, Milivoj Bešlin, scientific associate at the Institute for philosophy and social theory, as an answer to a question are there really special historical links between these two countries, underlined the existence of pragmatism, instead of special links between Serbia and Russia and added that these links are thought to be stronger than they really are because of nationalism and anti-western current in Serbia. ’’ Nationalism represents ideological basis of Russian propaganda, and this nationalism is homogenized and turned to Russia in the past few years. Besides, Russian soft power and propaganda has grown a lot in this few years, and examples can be found in media such as Informer and Sputnjik’’, he added. 


When it comes to EU accession process, Boris Varga, journalist and political scientist, emphasized that relations between Serbia and Russia could represent a direct or indirect obstacle in four negotiating chapters, especially in Chapter 31 - Foreign, security and defence policy, in which it is requested to harmonize foreign policy with foreign policy of the EU. One of the problems is also Serbia’s dependence on Russia when it comes to energy, which leads to absence of participation in European energy networks, and affects negotiations in Chapter 21. 


Igor Novaković, director of research in ISAC Fund, underlined the special relations between Serbian and Russian Ortodox Church, with intentions to publicly promote this traditionally good relations. As an answer to a question on whom should Serbia rely when it comes to security, Novaković said that Serbia should cooperate with neighbours, EU and NATO, adding that in our society exists a myth about Russia’s military power. He also thinks that Russia has a lot of benefites from Serbia’s policy of armed neutrality, but this policy is at the same time problematic for Serbia because of its time constraints on existing military alliances. When it comes to cooperation between Serbia and Russia, it has grown since 2013, with signing of Strategic Partnership Agreement, but this cooperation is small compared to cooperation with countries of the West. However, this cooperation is important for Russia, because in that way authorities can show Russian citizens that some countries are not interested in having unfriendly intentions towards Russia. .


Focusing on economic relations between two countries, Srećko Đukić, diplomat and publicist, emphasized that EU participates around 70% in Serbia’s commodity exchange, while on the other hand Serbia’s export to Russia makes only 7% of the entire export of our country. It is impossible to bring cooperation to the level which existed in the time of USSR and SFRY besides all effords, because now Serbia is on the completely different level of development, and its current policy towards Russia is static, and must be placed on the new foundations in order for things to become better. Creation of National council for cooperation with Russia and China Đukić sees as a political move, and he also mentioned the fact that all of our neighbours paricipate in trade with Russia and that part of the world more than us, with greater engagement through diplomatic and consular missions. 


Mikhail Lobanov, senior researcher in Center for East European studies at Economic institute of Russian Academy of Sciences, said that for Serbia EU has no alternative, neither economically, nor geographically. Russia must accept that fact and have a ’’policy of small steps’’, and Serbia can also be seen as Trojan horse inside EU, collecting valuable and useful information. Lobanov also thinks that the lack of information among citizens presents the biggest obstacle in EU accession process of Serbia (57% of Serbian citizens don’t know anything about EU and accession process or have very little knowledge), which he sees as a failure of EU knowing how much it invests in its promotion. According to his words, Russia spends less resources on its promotion, but has a greater effect. 

Aleksandar Kovačević, senior researcher from Oxford institute for energy studies, reminded that the biggest part of trade with Russia consists of energy products, and added that Serbia pays unusualy high price in trade with other countries, because of high transaction costs, for example by using truck transport, instead of focusing on using Danube. Besides that, Kovačević thinks that Serbia is not competitive on the Russian market anymore, especially when it comes to services. According to his words, Serbia must standardize port prcedures and improve infrastructure as soon as possible, in order to improve trade with Russia, as well as other countries, and also focus on existing potentials, with slightly changed view on international trade. 


As an answer to the question how would he evaluate trade between Serbia and Russia, Mijat Lakićević, journalist from Novi magazin, said that export to Russia didn’t do much for development of our country. He said that commodity exchange between these two countries has grown since 2000, but at ste same time commodity exchange with Western countries has grown much more. Important thing is, according to Lakićević, that our citizens think commodity exchange with Russia will grow faster than exchange with Germany or Austria as a result of ’’brotherly relations’’, which is not the case. He also mentioned missed opportunity to gain benefites from EU sanctions towards Russia, saying that sanctions did not help improving Serbia’s export to Russia - our products are being pushed from the market by products from other countries because of their high price. Also, he said that current crisis in Russia is a big problem (levels of import and investments are falling), and as a respond to Lobanov’s statement that EU failed in its promotion in Serbia, he said that truly a lot of information about EU is available to our citizens, but the fact is that EU is almost always shown in negative context. 


In the third panel participants discussed about implications of relations between Serbia and Russia on EU Accession process of Serbia. In the beginning, Reinhard Krum, from Vienna Regional office for cooperation and peace in Europe, Friedrich Ebert Foundation, underlined that this situation in Europe, where every country is feeling threatened, is a direct consequence of increased number of stakeholders, compared to 20th century and existance of two opposing sides. ’’Now we have more subjects and more opposing interests, and different countries also have different perspectives on current situation’’, he explained. The main obstacle to the solution according to Krum is the lack of interest from EU, Russia and USA to change anything, because solving this situation would mean changing current security strusture. Krum says that Europe should develop short, medium and long-term policy towards Russia, and short-term policy should include first of all areas of cooperation in which countries can work together (policy of small steps). He emphasized that the division of Europe is still present, with borders moved to the East and South, but he also pointed out that Serbia is not an objest in international relations, but subject as a member of OSCE and other international organizations and sovereign country. Having this in mind, what will happen in Western Balkans depends not only on Russia or EU, but on countries in this region. 


Sonja Biserko, president of Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, was talking about big Russian presence in cultural sphere and constitution of new identity, along with revision of history in which Russia was given the role of protector during 20th century. She mentioned that USA elections and Trump’s vicory, as well as Brexit, changed policies of EU and NATO. Besides that, Biserko thinks that EU will still insist on regional cooperation, because of a big number of unresolved issues. 


Dušan Proroković, executive director of Center for Strategic Alternatives, gave a positive answer to a question ’’Do we respond to global changes in the right way?’’ He said that there are a lot of research centers in Serbia, wich publish different studies about all global issues, but the main problem is the fact that those studies do not have any impact on authorities and decision makers. Speaking about the lack of trust in EU, Proroković said that this matter can be viewed from different levels: internal – support for Kosovo independance, and continental – crisis inside EU. .


Duško Lopandić, diplomat and publicist, mentioned crisis which exists inside EU. He said that Brexit represents a big change in security and economy, because the biggest military power and second economic power decided to leave EU. Also, Lopandić thinks that Eurozone is a disfunctional system, producing inequalities in favor of a few countries, even though prosperity of all countries is the main goal. When it comes to Serbia, Lopandić said that our cuntry is in different structural situation from situation in 20th century, and two biggest problems are big number of neighbours and the fact that it is a landlocked country. Lopandić thinks that EU membership is a natural thing for Serbia, adding that EU as a system essentialy helps small countries, which is main reason for joining, besides economic aspect.


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