The only truly traditional aspect of Russian-Serbian relations is misconception. Serbia has historically viewed Russia as an ‘elder brother’ who would unconditionally and stubbornly promote its interests. Russia, for its part, used the Balkans as the area in which, competing with others, it liked to play the role of a Great Power. It exploited the small quarreling Balkan states with a view of gaining, through them, access to an otherwise inaccessible ‘warm sea’, and also to bar the ‘drive to the East’ of those states which it perceived to be its enemies. During the past two centuries Serbian foreign policy makers have failed only too often to understand the nature of the Russian interest in the Balkans. The events of the past year show that they have still not learnt this lesson.
The ‘gas crisis’ has highlighted yet again the essence of the relationship between Russia and its ‘addicts’ in the Balkans. The Russian side used its bilateral conflict with Ukraine for a display of power, and to blackmail Europe. As a result Serbia became a victim of this Russian policy, not long after great Serbian expectations of Russia – from Kosovo to [Serbian oil company] NIS – had proved unwarranted. And then, as in a story, while I was just drafting a text on the latest Serbian-Russian misunderstanding, gas started to arrive from Hungary, Germany and Austria. This strongly symbolic occurrence touched off a historical association in my historian’s mind.
I thought back to the Great Eastern Crisis of 1878, one of Serbia’s worst ever. Following joint military operations against Turkey, Russia betrayed its Serbian ally by creating, at San Stefano, a Great Bulgaria that included territories which Serbia believed to be of existential importance for itself. Serbia was then ‘saved’ by precisely Austria-Hungary and Germany – which were, of course, defending their own interests. In the mythical recounting of Serbian history, this key episode tends to be omitted.
Serous policy ought to bear in mind historical experience. And, above all, to avoid committing the beginner’s error of gambling all on a single card when it comes to foreign policy.
Translated from Blic, 15.01.2009.
Translated by Bosnian Institute, 09.02.2009.