“Putin, you Serb, Serbia is with you,” chanted fans in March 2011 as the then Russian prime minister entered Little Marakana stadium to watch Red Star Belgrade play Zenith, an outfit from his hometown of St Petersburg.
Three and a half years later, in October 2014, Putin attended as a guest of honour a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of Belgrade’s liberation from Nazi occupation with the help of Soviet troops.
Now he is back in Serbia once again, and he is as popular as he was over four years ago.
On January 17, a crowd of 100,000 from across Serbia cheered for the arrival of a dear friend and ally in downtown Belgrade. “Brother Putin, save the Serbian people and the land of the Serbs,” read one placard. The crowds grew ecstatic as the two heads of state entered the neo-Byzantine Saint Sava cathedral, restored with a Russian grant. With 7,000 police on patrol and the Belgrade traffic blocked, it was a day to remember.
The welcome Putin received in Belgrade signals that Russia still wields influence in the Balkans even though it experienced a series of setbacks in the region in the past two years.
Montenegro, an old-time friend of Moscow, joined NATO in June 2017. Russia’s objections and disruptive tactics, including an alleged foiled plot backed by the Russian military intelligence to overthrow the Montenegrin government, could not stop the alliance’s expansion into the Balkans.
And today, the newly renamed Republic of North Macedonia has a realistic chance of joining NATO too. The pro-Western coalition in Skopje succeeded in changing the country’s constitution to ratify the compromise deal signed with Greece, which allowed the long-standing Macedonian name issue to be resolved. Having survived a no-confidence vote, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has the parliamentary support to ratify the Prespa Agreement and win approval for North Macedonia’s accession to NATO.
To be sure, Russia’s security is not under threat. Montenegro and North Macedonia lie far away from Russia’s borders. But in this era of zero-sum politics, any gain for the West is a loss for Moscow, albeit symbolic.
That’s why it matters that Serbia continues to nurture its ties to Russia. It is possibly the closest thing the Kremlin has to an ally in Europe beyond the post-Soviet space. Formally committed to a policy of neutrality, Belgrade benefits from a defence cooperation agreement with Moscow and receives military hardware from Russia. It refuses to join the Western sanctions, despite the ongoing membership talks with the European Union.
Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic and Putin are discussing the routing of TurkStream 2, a gas pipeline linking Russia and the EU, through Serbia. Gazprom is ready to invest $1.4bn in the venture, Putin declared at a press conference. A trade agreement between Belgrade and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is reportedly in the works, too. Most importantly, Putin is throwing his weight behind Serbia in the dispute over Kosovo. In Belgrade, he fired criticism at Kosovar Albanians for establishing an army, a violation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 passed following the 1999 war. The West is destabilising the Balkans, Putin insists.
Moreover, Serbia is Russia’s gateway to former Yugoslavia. In Belgrade, Putin met Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the tripartite Bosnian presidency who is backed by Moscow in his effort to carve out a quasi-independent status for Republika Srpska, one of the two entities within Bosnia and Herzegovina. He had lunch with the leaders of Montenegro’s opposition Democratic Front, die-hard critics of NATO membership who are now prosecuted for links to the coup plot. Prior to the visit, Putin lashed out at the West for imposing a new name on Macedonia, echoing nationalist arguments in the country against compromise with Greece. By contrast, as Putin asserted, Russia would honour any solution to the Kosovo issue negotiated by Belgrade and Prishtina without outside interference.
But what is Putin’s endgame in the Balkans?
For all its emotional appeal in Serbia, Republika Srpska, Montenegro and further afield, Russia is neither willing nor able to establish its hegemony in this region. The EU is by far the most important economic player, accounting for two-thirds of the trade and the bulk of FDI flowing into the region. Outside energy, Moscow‘s footprint is limited. Even the success of the TurkStream project hinges on the approval of the European Commission, which has the authority to rule on whether the venture conforms to the EU’s competition rules. Locals are fully aware of that reality. “Russia might be in our hearts, but our car navigation systems have Munich as a destination,” Serbs quip. Turning to security, not only is NATO enlarging to ex-Yugoslavia but it also has troops on the ground, unlike Russia. The Kremlin’s best hope is to act as a spoiler and leverage its Balkan assets to obtain an advantage in the broader contest with the West.
The clear winner in all this appears to be President Vucic. Being awarded by Putin the Alexander Nevsky order, reserved for the likes of Belarus‘s Lukashenko and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, boosts his domestic popularity.
The Serbian president has recently seen weeks of street demonstrations uniting citizens across the political spectrum, from liberals to the nationalist far right. What they are protesting is Serbia’s turning into a fiefdom where the president controls all branches of the state, the public sector and, of course, the media. Now, piggybacking on Putin, Vucic has rallied a crowd of his own. Thousands of his supporters were bussed from far-off corners across the country.
Russia also seems to be backing his plans to cut a deal with the Kosovar president Hashim Thaci, potentially based on a swap of territories. For Serbia, recognising Kosovo as a sovereign state would be painful. But it would also clear the most formidable hurdle to EU membership.
Anointed by Putin, Vucic comes across as a statesman and patriot, not a national traitor in the making. He made headlines when he presented the Russian leader with a shepherd dog. But the real gift was from Putin to Vucic.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.