Rethinking Serbia’s Struggle for Survival
Americans and Europeans could do well to acknowledge the interests of those who live in the Balkans. Like it or not, that means the Serbs as well.
A Cultural Curse (or Blessing)
Culture can determine a country’s posturing towards the outside world, and Serbia has historically appeared amicable to actors belonging to its own cultural family. Combined with tangible security factors, this has been a source of both favor and disdain. As Orthodox Slavs, many Serbs have long viewed Russia as the mighty patron of their civilization. While indeed significant, this role is frequently exaggerated among Serbs, both in terms of historical merit and Moscow’s actual capacity. Be that as it may, Russia has channeled its own interests in the Balkans through diplomatic and economic support for Serbia. As a demographically declining Orthodox Slavic country that’s becoming completely encircled by NATO, Serbia’s lurking geopolitical fate serves as a blueprint for the ultimate Russian nightmare. Yet Russian support puts Serbia in a precarious position given its environment—even more so after the widely condemned Russian invasion of Ukraine. While calling the invasion “very wrong,” Serbia couldn’t risk losing the support for its territorial integrity by imposing sanctions on Moscow. Belgrade’s position on Kosovo rests on international law and is incidentally the precedent that Russia uses in its recognition of breakaway territories in Ukraine.
Observed from a Western perspective, such cultural ties with a long-term adversary like Russia means that Serbia is not to be trusted, which has resulted in overt support for Serbia’s competitors in the military, political, and economic theaters. Disguised as moral undertakings against Belgrade’s wrongdoings, these essentially geopolitical motivations have long driven American and European actions in the Balkans. To this day, this line of thinking remains unchanged. Few NATO members abstain from the recognition of Kosovo, while many remain sympathetic to the unitarist approach in Bosnia, detrimental to the interests of the region’s ethnic Serbs. Through this, the West has effectively cornered Serbia, forcing it to trade its possible prosperity away for the sake of security. Facing the prospect of joining the affluent West only when resigned to its fate as a maimed geopolitical actor, Serbia holds on to everything it’s got to avoid disaster—even at the expense of its own development. And the more they’re backed into a corner, the more desperately will the Serbs seek protection from any willing source.
No longer deemed the problem child in the sense that it once was, Belgrade nonetheless faces many challenges in the age of renewed global competition. Nonetheless, if Western nations seek new, positive outcomes in the Balkans, they ought to avoid resorting to old methods. Strategizing on the best way not to undermine their own standing in the region, Americans and Europeans could do well to acknowledge the interests of those who live in the Balkans. Like it or not, that means the Serbs as well.
Stefan Antić is a Serbian political scientist.