During the last visit of Russian president Vladimir Putin to Belgrade in 2014, there were no classes in 29 secondary and 26 primary schools, while classes were cut short in another 49 schools. The Russian president was guarded by strong security forces, thousands of police officers. Traffic was redirected. Some streets were closed, as was the highway. Traffic was closed for ordinary citizens 12 kilometers from Vladimir Putin’s car brigade. Not exactly a regular day in Belgrade, but safety was secured, there were no incidents.
Four years later, the national assembly is discussing a cooperation agreement between the ministry of internal affairs of Serbia (MUP) and the federal security service of the Russian federation (FSO). Although lawmakers were expected to explain the benefits of the agreement for the citizens – for example, that there would be fewer traffic jams in the city when senior foreign officials visit, as our police officers would be better trained in Russia; that the cost of the visits would be lower, as we would not need to engage several thousand police officers; that children would go to school normally during the risky visits of foreigner officials; that our diplomats in Moscow would be safer – there were no such statements.
On the contrary, without going into details, the politicians explained in the assembly that we want to cooperate with everyone; that this is a typical agreement with an institution similar to our security unit; that everything is in accordance with the law; that it is not about cooperation between secret services. Although all of this is true, cooperation between MUP and FSO already exists. The minister of interior said that “our guys went to Russia to learn to drive armored vehicles on ice”. Also, Russian instructors were in the “Navak” training center when Serbian police officers publicly demonstrated the skills they acquired in Russia. It is logical to ask: how was all this cooperation realized without an agreement ratified by the assembly?
All in all, there are three colors to the current Serbian-Russian partnership: green, yellow, and red, just like on a traffic light.
The signing of the agreement is in accordance with our law. State administration may sign special international agreements on cooperation with foreign state administrations under the law on the conclusion and execution of international agreements from 2013 (article 19). They are required to notify the government about this.
MUP and FSO are state bodies responsible for security of protected persons and facilities – the president, the director of the police, the heads of security services, foreign statesmen during their visits, the highest judicial officials, as well as the ministries’ buildings and similar facilities. In that sense, it is not surprising that the two bodies would cooperate and sign partnership agreement, as they have pretty much the same function.
According to the Decree on the management of security affairs of certain persons and facilities, the ministry of interior is one of the state authorities in Serbia that carries out these tasks. In MUP, a special unit for the security of certain persons and facilities is responsible for this. FSO is in charge of protecting facilities, protected areas, persons, information, including classified information, as well as information systems of Russian state authorities. In this sense, the jurisdiction of the Russian service is wider than its counterpart in Serbia.
The Russian service deals with the prevention, detection, and suppression of criminal offenses in protected areas, places of permanent and temporary residence of persons under security protection, as well as monitoring their travels. In addition, the Russian service deals with protection of the state information and communication system. In Serbia, the prosecutor’s office carries out investigations, while the police are required to act on their requests. The ministry of trade, tourism and telecommunications is responsible for information security. In that area, MUP is part of the information security coordination body that was established in 2016. In conclusion, the protection of state information and communication systems is not the exclusive jurisdiction of MUP, which is important, because the agreement covers this area as well.
There are two major dilemmas regarding the agreement between MUP and FSO. Firstly, it is not common in Serbia for MUP, as a state body, to sign a binding international contract.
Based on publicly available information, Serbia has signed over 40 agreements on cooperation in the field of internal affairs with other states or international organizations. The government signed 32 agreements, while MUP signed four, with, among others, the Austrian federal ministry of the interior and the Chinese ministry of public security. For some agreements there is no information about who signed them. Still, most of the time, MUP usually signes memoranda of understanding and cooperation, or protocols, of which there are over 50. Moreover, the previous arrangement between the ministry of interior and the federal service of the Russian Federation concluded in 2015 was in the form of a memorandum of cooperation, and not a binding international contract, like now.
The question of what has changed in the meantime is unavoidable; why was it decided to sign a binding international treaty for an area as specific as the security of protected persons and facilities, which is mainly regulated by technical documents and where some forms of cooperation are already being successfully implemented? Moreover, the secretary of the security council of the Russian Federation announced during his visit to Serbia in 2016 that Serbia and Russia would sign a non-binding memorandum of cooperation, not a binding international contract.
Secondly, according to some parts of the agreement, it seems that cooperation includes a much wider framework, and not only the security of protected persons, as pointed out in the opening part of the agreement.
If we look at the agreement more closely, the security of facilities is not explicitly mentioned as the subject of cooperation in the introductory part of the agreement, only the security of persons. These are two separate things. But that’s not the only thing. Two out of six areas of cooperation are not elaborated in detail in the agreement, specifically “ensuring internal security” and “neutralizing computer attacks against state information resources of vital importance”.
Cooperation in the area of internal security is too broadly defined as “the state of effective protection of the party from external and internal threats ensured by the ability to confront various factors that jeopardize it”, and can practically imply all areas of cooperation envisaged by the agreement and more, which could lead to practical problems in cooperation. The only other explanation is that the purpose of the agreement is something completely different, and that that is why this part was deliberately defined so broadly.
Protection against computer attacks really does fall under the domain of preventive-technical protection measures, primarily in terms of functioning of the information system. However, not only protected objects are in focus here, but all state information resources of vital importance, which is a much wider concept. This implies that the implementation of this agreement from the Serbian side does not only involve the ministry of interior, but also other institutions responsible for information security – from the ministry of trade, tourism, and telecommunications, to security services and the secretariat of the office of national security and protection, to the national center for prevention of security risks in information and communication systems. These authorities are not mentioned in the agreement.
Russia and Serbia must secure exchange of secret data in order for this agreement to be applicable. This topic is sensitive for both states because of national security interests.
It is unclear which data the Russian side will have access to and what will be exchanged, especially since some areas of cooperation are too widely defined, as already explained. Moreover, the agreement allows MUP and FSO to exchange information on issues of common interest, which is, again, truly infinite. In addition, the agreement prohibits forwarding of information to a third country, while Serbia and the Russian Federation signed an agreement on the mutual protection of classified information in 2014. But nothing is known about the implementation of this agreement. Concrete cooperation is likely to be far from the public eye, since it will be regulated by special protocols.
These unclear forms of cooperation can be interpreted in many ways and may potentially harm Serbia’s EU accession process.
There are various interpretations of Russian influence on Serbia, and the Balkans in general. Some argue that Russia is actively working to destabilize the region, while others say that it is not. No matter who is right, the following is known. In the context of European integration, Serbia will have to coordinate its foreign policy with the European Union at some point if it wants to become a full member of this international community. This agreement will surely be of interest to European bureaucrats, bearing in mind that EU has prolonged the sanctions against Russia which have been in effect for three years already. Serbia has not yet imposed sanctions on Russia. On the contrary, it explicitly said it will never do so and continued to deepen the cooperation. Three different agreements with Russia are currently in parliamentary procedure.
It would be much better and more useful for the agreement to be unambiguously related to cooperation in the implementation of security activities regarding protected persons and facilities. In addition, the writers of the law should explain in detail its benefits and costs for the citizens.
The author is a researcher of the Belgrade center for security policy (BCSP).
Translated by Marijana Simic