In March 2020, a state of emergency was introduced in Serbia to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. During this time, the billboards across Belgrade appeared with the words: “Thank you, brother Xi”. This was to express the country’s gratitude to China and its president Xi Jinping for the medical aid sent to Serbia during the crisis.
This was remarkable, especially because Russia did not receive the same level of gratitude, despite also sending medical aid at Serbia’s time of need. Vladimir Putin is usually treated like “a rock star” by the Serbian government and its citizens.
The contrast was striking, but it was no accident. What we are witnessing is Belgrade’s calculated bid to replace Russia and Putin with China and Xi as Serbia’s primary partner outside the Western world. China is now outpacing Russia in Serbia on every metric of influence.
In the first place, Russia could never match the EU as Serbia’s leading economic partner. The only area where Russia still holds decisive sway over the Serb economy is in energy, given that the Balkans remain wholly dependent on Russia for oil and gas.
But now Russia is not only economically outgunned by the EU, but also by China. Thanks to the fact that Serbia with its strategic geography is an important piece of the Chinese macro-infrastructural project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it has been the recipient of $4 billion in investments (roughly equal to US investments), and another $5 billion in loans and infrastructural projects. These numbers are far more tangible than anything Serbia has with Russia.
In the military and national security domain, China also surpasses Russia’s firepower. According to the 2019 paper published by the Serbian Ministry of Defence, between 2008 and 2018 the US was the largest provider of military donations to Serbia, followed by China, Norway, Denmark and the UK. Russia was in ninth place.
Closer military ties with Beijing are starting to pay more dividends for Belgrade than older relations with Moscow. This reality will most likely continue, because in December 2019 Serbia decided to stop buying weaponry from Moscow to avoid the prospect of US financial sanctions.
When it comes to political influence, too, China appears to be in the lead. In March 2020 the aeroplane carrying Chinese medical aid and experts was greeted at the Belgrade airport by Serbia’s most powerful man, President Aleksandar Vučić, who even kissed the Chinese flag.
It is possible to see how much Russian political influence has changed from the the ongoing anti-government protests in Serbia, which entailed violent clashes between the police and the protesters and have intensified over the last 18 months. This anger has come to a head with violent demonstrations taking place over the last two days in response to the government’s reimposition of lockdown measures following a spike in Covid infections, culminating dramatically with a break-in at the Serbian parliament.
On its front page the pro-government tabloid accused pro-Russian, anti-EU rightwingers of organising the protests. The Belgrade government is scapegoating Russia and using it to shore up Western support as opposed to the traditional practice of accusing Western intelligence of fomenting protests. The same tabloids are now praising French President Emmanuel Macron, who is greeting Vučić in Paris while the protests are still taking place.
All the while, Russian soft power has taken a hit. Serbian sympathies towards Moscow are mistakenly described through Slavic and Orthodox ties. More accurately, they are the product of memories of the 1990s and the independence of Kosovo, and not of any sincere Russophilia.
These sentiments still produce a situation in which Russia is highly popular, yet popularity does not always translate into power. The game in the Balkans has changed. Over the past few years, the Serbian leadership has been working hard to promote itself domestically, facilitating Serbian partnership with China and an influx of Chinese money while suppressing any information in Serbia that is publically critical of China.
This became even more pronounced as Belgrade enthusiastically embraced Beijing’s “mask diplomacy” during the pandemic. Consequently, in contrast with the past, the majority of Serbs now wrongly believe that China is the biggest donor to Serbia, followed by the EU and Russia.
How did this change come about? Ever since the global financial crisis of 2008 there has been a power vacuum in the Balkans caused by the EU’s inability to integrate the region, and the fact that the US is preoccupied with other regions.
To compensate for the fact that it has been left on the periphery of the Western world, Serbia has been making overtures to non-Western powers like Russia and China. These overtures are a form of hedging bets through diversifying partnerships, but also a way for Serbia to gain leverage and increase its bargaining power with the West.
Serbia recognises that Russian influence in the Balkans is limited and that it has receded in the past couple of years, particularly since Serbia’s neighbour, Montenegro, joined NATO in 2017, followed by North Macedonia in 2020.
Unlike China, the world’s second-largest economy, Russia has an economy only slightly bigger than the US state of Texas. For Serbia’s leaders, seeking to balance and play the Western and non-Western powers against one another, a rising China, as the only potential peer competitor to the US, is a much more powerful card to play.
Russian strategic vision in the Balkans mostly consists of the Kremlin acting as a spoiler, in an effort to derail the expansion of the EU and NATO. China, on the other hand, offers a more positive vision of the Balkans as a vital bridgehead between Europe and Eurasia with the BRI project. For Serbia, being the cornerstone of China’s “open door” towards Europe and European markets is undoubtedly more appealing than being a playing field used by Moscow in its rivalry with the West.
There is also strategic mistrust between Moscow and Belgrade. The two sides have different interests in the longstanding dispute over the status of Kosovo, and Moscow does not trust Aleksandar Vučić, who is perceived in Kremlin circles as being close to the West. Now that Vučić has shown willingness to follow Donald Trump’s lead in an attempt to resolve the Kosovo issue, Moscow fears the prospect of losing one of the primary sources of its influence in the Balkans.
Yet Belgrade will not entirely give up on Moscow. There is still the issue of energy dependence, and Vučić will still try to use relations with Moscow to score domestic points with pro-Russian voters. On that front, Vučić will try to secure Russian support for any deal on Kosovo that he negotiates. His constituency cannot see him as being softer on Kosovo than Putin.
However, the moment the Kosovo dispute gets resolved, Serbia’s relations with Russia will be much less special. China will remain in play in Serbia as its leadership views Beijing as a future world power that needs to be respected.
Serbia’s EU path was already an uncertain enterprise. Now that the EU has declined to open the negotiations on new accession chapters with Serbia due to the decline of the rule of law in the country, the European pathway looks even more uncertain. This will also motivate Serbia and Vučić to keep close relations with China.
In the past the central dilemma of Serbian foreign policy was that of how to strike a balance between the EU and Russia. With the passage of time the central challenge for Serbia will be how to manoeuvre in a world in which Sino-American rivalry is the dominant geopolitical trend of our time.
Vuk Vuksanovic is a PhD researcher in International Relations at the London School of Economics and an Associate of LSE IDEAS, LSE’s foreign policy think tank.