It is thought that due to historical relations between Serbia and Russia, the position of Russia as the main strategic partner of Serbia in the defense of Serbian vital interests is untouchable. However, the situation on the ground directs us to check that.
Russia has several reasons to be jealous of Serbia’s relations with China. For example, the Serbian president was vaccinated with the Chinese vaccine, and the Serbian army reoriented itself to the Chinese military-industrial complex. At the same time, polls show that Serbs value Chinese aid more than any other. Are the fears that Beijing is ousting Moscow from the Balkans and the opinions that Serbs are ready to change their “best friend” justified?
Rumors that China is trying to push Russia out of the Balkans and take its place have been going on for several years, but in recent days they have become particularly emotional. There are two characteristic reasons for that and they are actively reported by the media.
The first is that the President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic, was vaccinated against COVID-19 with the Chinese vaccine Sinopharm. Serbia is actively buying the Russian “Sputnik V”, and Vucic personally received the first (and long-awaited) shipment at the airport. However, he decided to promote the Chinese manufacturer.
The second is that when Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe visited Serbia he was greeted by the entire Serbian leadership. Further military cooperation between Serbia and China was agreed and it was also stated that today there is a strategic partnership between Serbia and China. As a sign of respect, the Serbian 72nd Special Operations Brigade, which is the most elite Serbian special unit, has shown special capabilities to the Chinese Defense Minister.
And, the Chinese Defense Minister gave a speech in which he spoke about the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 and stated that it was an unforgivable crime and added – “China will never forget that.” Moreover, from the tone of the speech, it could be concluded that Beijing is ready to defend Belgrade if something happens – it was literally heard: “we will never allow something like that again.”
In that context, it is worth mentioning that now the former Minister of Defense Aleksandar Vulin, has moved to the chair of the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which was previously occupied by Nebojsa Stefanovic, the current head of the Ministry of Defense. Vulin is a socialist and one of the most pro-Russian ministers in the Serbian government.
However, even under Vulin, who was in charge of rearming the Serbian army, Belgrade began to actively buy Chinese weapons. Specifically, he became the first buyer of Chinese FK-3 anti-aircraft missile system – an analogue of the Russian S-300. The FK-3 is an export version of the HQ-22 long-range air defense missile system. The FK-3 system implements effective multi-target tracking and interception against a saturation attack. One fire unit, equipped with the guidance radar, provides interception against 6 targets with 12 rounds of missile. Multiple fire units, under the control of command and coordination vehicle, expand the multi-target interception to 36 targets with 72 rounds of missile.
Also, Serbia’s air force received six CH-92A combat drones armed with laser-guided missiles, the first such deployment of Chinese unmanned aerial vehicles in Europe. In addition, China has agreed to transfer technology, enabling Serbia to complete its Pegasus combat drone.
In recent years, China has been forcibly intensifying its foreign policy activity. Expanding its influence around the world, Beijing is trying to take all the space that others have not yet occupied, while pushing aside competitors – some (like Russia) gently, others (like India and the United States) much rougher. At the same time, Serbia has a special position for the Chinese Communist Party, because it is located in Europe, where investors from China are treated with caution. And in Serbia, which is a neutral state, there is no such thing.
However, the importance of the Chinese defense minister’s passionate speech against NATO should not be overestimated. The strong message that he sent is caused by the fact that during the bombing of Belgrade, the Americans accidentally dropped five bombs on the territory of the Chinese embassy. Four of them exploded, killing three Chinese journalists. There is now a special memorial next to the Beijing embassy, near which the Chinese general strongly condemned the NATO pact. The Serbs were glad to hear all that, but the point is not that the Chinese are ready to defend them from the Americans, but that the Chinese intend to protect their own citizens, no matter where the Chinese citizens were.
All Chinese investments in Serbia are contrary to Russian interests. At the same time, they fit perfectly into the foreign policy method of Aleksandar Vucic, which his sympathizers call “balanced” and “multi-vector policy” — which means trying to sit on several chairs like European, Russian, American, Chinese.
The main goal of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is to strengthen the Serbian economy. Only by strengthening the Serbian economy can the migration of young Serbs can be stopped. It must be noted that today, Serbia is one of the countries with the oldest population in Europe.
It should be added that in addition to economic investments, China is also working on soft power in Serbia. Take medicine as an example. Feeling the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to affect the external image, which is so precious to China, in an extremely negative way, Beijing began to send humanitarian aid to all those who are willing to accept it. In Serbia, they accepted that help with open arms, because they really needed it. As a result, a poll on “who helps Serbia most”, commissioned by the Institute for European Studies last summer, suddenly showed clear Chinese leadership – 40% versus 17% of the vote for the European Union (which is still a major trading partner of Serbia) and 14,65% for Russia.
The story is similar with weapons. Serbs would be very happy to arm themselves with Russian weapons – many negotiations and consultations were held on that issue, and several extremely important agreements were concluded. But Russian weapons is more expensive than the Chinese, and the main topic during most of the consultations was the issue of discounts – the Serbian government is forced to save on everything.
China, which is conquering new markets and for that purpose is wasting money in the form of discounts and loans, is very accommodating; moreover, it is ready to hand over production technology along with weapons to the buyer. This does not mean that Russia works little for the Serbs – Russia also give discounts and loans to Serbia, which the Serbs extremely appreciate and for which they are sincerely grateful. But Russian capabilities are incomparably less than Chinese, and the Soviet strategy of feeding the poor around the world to the detriment of its own population standards has proved ineffective for Moscow.
Simply put, Serbia has not turned its back on Russia – and does not intend to do so. But the favorite saying of Serbs “150 million of us and Russians” cannot be poured into a tractor instead of oil. Belgrade’s “multi-vector” policy (meaning: the more “vectors”- the better, and the Chinese vector turned out to be the most profitable) is not caused by ideology, but by necessity. If Russians also would be ready to spend billions to “secure” its positions in the Balkans the Serbs would gladly accept them – in any form. But Russians don’t seem ready for that. In any case, one thing is for sure, the Chinese influence in Serbia will be more stronger in the coming years.
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