China plans to replace Russia as Serbia’s best friend
Chinese investments in Serbia recently exceeded three billion euros and Chinese infrastructure loans exceeded eight billion.
Last weekend, six Chinese Air Force Y-20 transport planes landed at Serbia’s Nikola Tesla International Airport in Belgrade, carrying FK-3 surface-to-air missile systems for the military. Serbian. Serbia will be China’s top missile operator in Europe, and the FK-3, widely compared to the US Patriot and Russia’s S-300, marks another milestone in Beijing’s bid to expand its influence in the West.
But it was not the first time Belgrade had received help from China. Almost to the day two years earlier, Serbian President Aleksander Vucic showed up at the same airport to greet an Airbus from China carrying the largest shipment of aid Serbia has received in its efforts to fight the pandemic. of coronavirus. Standing beside Chinese doctors and delivering medical devices, Vucic thanked Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people: “We have to thank them with all our hearts.” Almost overnight, China has become Serbia’s greatest friend in the country’s media. A video of Vucic kissing the Chinese flag has gone viral.
With a population of just under 8 million, Serbia is the largest country in the Western Balkans, a region that has become a Chinese strategic hub that could finally connect to the port of Piraeus in Greece, acquired by China in 2016 , with the countries of Central Europe. In the past, Serbia was a key member of the former Yugoslavia, which Joseph Stalin originally wanted to become a member of the USSR-led bloc of communist countries. Yugoslav President Tito rejected Stalin’s approach and instead, together with Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1961 became a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement. Serbia’s historical ties with Russia, however, have remained strong, growing stronger even after the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. A poll last year found that 54% of Serbian citizens see Russia as an ally and 95% see it as a necessary ally or partner. Only 11% see the EU as an ally.
Although Serbia is officially a candidate for EU membership, the country’s president’s strongman has shown half-hearted commitment to the bloc and its values. Instead, his relationship with Brussels has been purely transactional, and as part of this approach he has forged close ties with Moscow and Beijing so that he can derive greater political and economic benefits from the EU by appearing to pass from west to east and vice versa. again, whenever it suits him. This strategy seems to be working well, as shown by its landslide victory in the Serbian general elections two weeks ago. Vucic, former information minister in the Yugoslav government of Slobodan Milosevic, won 60% of the vote, a figure disputed by the opposition and independent observers. Since his party came to power in 2012, Vucic, a former ultranationalist who previously served as defense minister and prime minister, has steadily cracked down on mainstream media and institutions that assumed full control of the country.
The question now for Vucic is how long he can maintain his geopolitical triangulation, especially in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Currently, the EU is Serbia’s main source of financial aid, foreign investment and trade, and even before the current crisis in Ukraine, Russia could never have replaced Europe as main economic partner of Serbia. Nevertheless, Serbia depends almost entirely on Russian gas for its energy, and its military maintains close ties with the Russian military. For years, Serbia has participated in Russian-Belarusian-Serbian war games called “Slavic Brotherhood”, cementing Slavic ties that date back to the Stalin era.
But as the war in Ukraine rages on, Belgrade is starting to feel the heat due to its close ties to Russia. Although Serbia voted in favor of the UN resolution condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Belgrade avoided imposing economic sanctions against Moscow. But with Russia facing a long period of political isolation and economic turmoil, Belgrade’s triangulation strategy looks less and less viable and it seems only a matter of time before Serbia is forced to choose a side. But President Putin remains popular among Serbia’s Slavic population, so domestic backlash against any anti-Russian policies would be extremely high, Serbian analysts say. Despite this, the economic reality is that Vucic has no choice but to side with Brussels or, increasingly likely, Beijing.
According to publicly available data, Chinese investments in Serbia recently exceeded three billion euros and Chinese infrastructure loans exceeded eight billion. Last month, the “Chamber of Chinese Enterprises” was inaugurated in Belgrade. At the opening ceremony held at the new Chinese Cultural Center (built on the site of the former Chinese Embassy destroyed by NATO in 1999), Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic told the leadership Belgrade’s favorite travel destination: “For me, this is an extremely important day for all of Serbia, because we live in difficult and complicated times, where many partnerships and ties are broken, and we are under enormous pressure. The most difficult thing is to preserve partnerships and friendships, but also to strengthen them further and open new corridors of partnership”. For this, read “China is becoming an increasingly attractive partner”.
In recent years, many major infrastructure projects in Serbia have been financed with Chinese loans, and all contracts have notably been awarded without public tenders. After a visit by President Xi Jinping to Serbia in 2016, Chinese company Hesteel took over a struggling steel mill, previously owned by US Steel. Two years later, the Chinese Zijin Mining acquires the country’s only debt-ridden copper mining complex. It turns out that the main sponsor of Serbia’s top football league, Linlong, is building a billion-dollar tire factory, and last year the Chinese Power Construction Company, together with the French companies Alstom and Egis, signed a memorandum with the Serbian government on the construction of the first two lines of the Belgrade metro.
China is also strengthening its military cooperation with Serbia. In addition to the new FK-3s, two years ago the Serbian Air Force received six combat drones armed with laser-guided missiles, the first deployment of Chinese unmanned aerial vehicles in Europe. In the field of security, more than a thousand cameras from the Chinese giant Huawei, equipped with facial recognition software, have been installed in Belgrade, causing serious concern in the European Parliament, which considers such systems a threat for human rights.
The new partnership between China and Serbia also includes close political ties. Belgrade has refused to support recent EU resolutions condemning China for crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and its human rights abuses in Hong Kong. Also, in exchange for China’s refusal to recognize the independence of Serbia’s annoying neighbor, Kosovo (which it claims to be part of its territory), Belgrade supports Chinese policy vis-à-vis Taiwan.
Since Vucic took office in 2017, ties with China have grown enormously, increasing Beijing’s influence in the region. During the same period, trade with Russia hit a new low. Add to that the gruesome scenes in Ukraine and the tales of rape and looting by the Russian military, and it’s not hard to see why Moscow’s influence in Belgrade is waning.
Russia’s influence is also undermined by its growing inability to invest in Serbia, resulting from the enormous damage to the economy caused by its invasion of Ukraine. During a recent videoconference with President Putin, the President of Russia’s Central Bank, Elvira Nabiullina, reportedly told the embattled president that the invasion had “thrown” Russia’s economy “down the drain”. Ratings agency Moody’s said on Friday that Russia may be in default because it tried to repay its dollar obligations in roubles. Such an event would mark Russia’s first major default on foreign bonds since the years following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.
Worse still, many economists believe that Russia’s GDP will suffer a catastrophic drop in the next few years, with permanent damage in the medium and long term. European countries are looking for alternative sources of oil and gas and plan to advance their net zero carbon emissions plans, reducing Moscow’s need for energy. With weaker demand and reduced sales, there will be less money in Moscow’s coffers to maintain its influence in Serbia, or elsewhere in the world.
In the meantime, China’s projected GDP growth of 5% in 2022, although low by recent standards, will allow it to continue investing in Serbia and maintain its influence. “I believe in my friend and my brother, Xi Jinping,” President Vucic said in a letter to his counterpart last year. “The only country that can help us is China.” Xi followed up with a response citing the “ironclad” friendship between the two countries. With EU hesitation and Russia’s declining capabilities, the way is open for China to be Serbia’s key partner and realize its ambitions in the Western Balkans.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in the office of British Prime Minister John Major between 1995 and 1998. He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Plymouth.