In recent years Russia and its president have gained a worldwide reputation of deniers of what is indecently and with objection labelled as “Western unilateralism”. Especially in the countries, which have long traditions of relations with Moscow and question the West. Firstly, in Serbia, where Putin’s popularity has put him in a very special position within a part of socio-political discourse.
Even though Serbia is far from Russia in terms of geography, they are very close in terms of cultural and historic bonds. In terms of history, the rulers and political representatives of Russia, starting with Peter I the Great and ending with Vladimir Putin had a very special place among the population and political elites in Serbia. They were, as Branko Radun (2012) suggests, as some mythological idols that would come and help to get rid of the chains, imposed by the Ottoman oppressors.
With regards to this, history would have some examples. For instance, when in 1804 Serbs revolted against the Turkish rule, the Russian empire provided financial and diplomatic support. Another example from the WWII, when one of Tito’s comrades stated that entire region of Montenegro (in the operating partisan group’s majority was Serbian) will rise against Germans if a brigade of Russians will arrive (ibid.) looks more like a conspiracy, however in Serbian socio-political discourse it depicts how Moscow has been perceived.
Russia is commonly considered and referred to as the Third Rome — the headquarters of the world orthodoxy. Mainly in the context of Serbian struggle for national identity, independence and pride. For example, during the war in Yugoslavia, Serbia’s catholic neighbours were supported by the united West (particularly Germany). Serbs, in their part, sought support from Russia. The same did the last Tsar Nicholas II. Serbs, however, have not forgotten this act and in 2014 unveiled his statue in the centre of Belgrade (Mihailova 2014 ).
Furthermore, the same story was seen in 2008, when Russia, alongside China, rejected to recognize the separation of Kosovo. Serbs, that were deeply insulted again, this time even worse than in 1999, looked to the East again and immediately received needed oral support for the country and its people. Moreover, some alternate situation could be observed during floods in 2014. The EU has provided money for the reconstruction after disastrous cataclysm, admittedly, but Russia was the first country to send a brigade of rescuers from the Ministry of Emergency Situations (MCHS undated). Apparently, this act from Moscow was appreciated more than money from the West.
These gestures are rather symbolic. On the one hand, there are sublime talks about brotherhood and proximity, but on the other hand — pragmatic interests of both countries. However, for now, in terms of the political sign language Putin gets his political points in Serbia and makes it clear — Russia is with Serbia.
Except history, the political popularity of Putin in Serbia might be explained due to his personality, however, it is complicated to provide a direct answer to that issue. As mentioned, Russia, represented by Putin, is seen as a friend of Serbia. Symbolically, Putin is awarded an honorable title of “honorary freeman” of 11 Serbian cities, which is a bit less than marshal Tito (Blic 2008), has a church named in his honor (Olivier 2019), bestows Russian state orders to Vucic (TASS 2019) — the list of such merits goes on and probably will grow as well as the popularity of the Russian president.
According to the study by Gallup International (2018) Vladimir Putin enjoys the support of 83% of the Serbian population, which makes him more popular than Aleksandr Vucic, the acting president of Serbia without hitting the 50% mark (Smith 2019). Some sources have gone even further and claim that “Serbs greet Putin like a God” (Blic 2019). This could be explained by the unresolved status of Kosovo, unpopular legislative initiatives, corruption, reduction of democracy and suspicious tacking between Brussels and Moscow. It might seem apparent that Vucic would like to see Serbia as the part of European family, but it is impossible without resolving the issue of Kosovo — one of the main conditions of the EU.
Joining the EU would mean to impose sanctions on Russia — the last thing Serbia will do. According to a survey by the Center for Insights in Survey Research (2015) 94% of surveyed Serbs agree that their interests would be best served by maintaining a strong relationship with Russia. The same survey claims, that if Serbs were about to choose between EU and Russia to maintain good relations with, 53% would prefer Russia, and only 17% chooses the EU. Although the same survey claims that the majority of Serbs favor Russia as it is “the only country that can confront the West” (ibid.). Vucic, aware of social mood, highlights that sanctions against Russia are off the table pretty much on every occasion and meetings with Putin only add him political points at home as a world leader that meets with the president of the biggest orthodox and thus the most just country.
Source: Center for Insights in Survey Research 2015: Survey of Serbian Public Opinion, November 24 — December 3, 2015.
Even though these statistics are four years old, they remain accurate. This is, however, a major problem for Vucic. Receiving support from Moscow in home affairs, he becomes more dependent on its “approval” in terms of political manoeuvrability. Repeatedly, towards Kosovo issue — the main obstacle on the way to EU. Russian support of Serbia’s integrity is welcomed among Serbs and thus limits Vucic´s inability to reach a consensus on this sensitive issue. Any unpopular decision would immediately lead to the loss of Russian support and approval from the Serbian population. The Kremlin will confirm its status of a true protector of the Serbs, and Vucic will leave politics as and unpatriotic political outcast (Samorukov 2019).
To support this argument, we need to look at the debates within the society “on the ground”. Some supporters of Russia, and thus Putin are convinced that “he is a great world leader…loves his people, loves all Orthodox and especially Serbs… he acts honestly — not like cynics from the West” (Boldijerev 2019). Some people from pro-Russian political movements go further desiring Russia to help Serbia fight for its integrity with arms (ibid.).
Apparently, by the population Putin is seen as “personification of some of our abilities” (Joksimovic 2019), “veliki brat”, big brother. Relations with the Russian leader and Russia itself are moving beyond the prism of economic or political spheres and transform into a moral, spiritual connection between the two nations. Putin’s worldwide image of denier of the Western unilateral imperialism has had a huge impact within the Serbian society and resonates with two Serbian collective memory of war, bombardments and secession of Kosovo. Putin will probably remain as popular as marshal Tito in Serbia and is unlikely that it will change anytime soon. But for Vucic this might not mean any good news— the cult of Putin limits his diplomatic maneuverability, particularly regarding Kosovo. Any unpopular decision on its status for significant part of patriotic population will lead to his political suicide. Serbian president simply cannot afford to be less patriot of his own country than Putin.
Written by: Igor Suvorov
Supervisor: Halina Chraščová
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