Serbia can get rid of a lot of Russian burdens in a short time

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In making plans for aggression against Ukraine, Russia probably made calculations, but it is unclear what calculations Belgrade made, so it continues to act vis-à-vis Russia as an ally, Orhan Dragaš writes.

Orhan Dragaš is the founder and director of the International Security Institute based in Belgrade.

Serbia hasn’t decided to join the EU sanctions against Russia for ten months now, probably thinking such a decision would bring more harm than good. While such calculations are made (if at all), a whole field opens up in which Serbia should reconsider its existing arrangements with Russia and, as in the case of sanctions, ask itself the question: does it really need those deals with Russia? Does keeping them alive benefit Serbia, or are they, in fact, a burden when Russia is isolated from Europe and the Western world?

Even without the introduction of sanctions against Russia, Serbia can get rid of a lot of such burdens in a short time, looking exclusively at its own interest, economic first of all, but also political. Neither has anything to do with Russia today if they even exist.

Ten years since it was established, and the Serbian-Russian Humanitarian Centre in Niš has not started to work correctly. Its purpose has never been completely clear. Finding any specific action that led to its establishment is difficult, and there were plenty of opportunities. Perhaps this building in the very “courtyard” of the international airport in Niš should have been something more than a hub for responding to natural disasters and large-scale accidents for Russia, but that did not happen, primarily because of Serbia’s persistent refusal to accept to recognise diplomatic status and immunity of the Russian personnel.

On the other hand, for a decade, the Niš Centre has been the source of constant suspicion that Serbia, in the heart of its territory, at a major intersection of international roads and railways, and right next to the second largest airport in the country, maintains a Russian semi-military intelligence post, which in a case of need could to turn into a real military base.

The senselessness of the Serbian-Russian centre has been confirmed several times, for example, in November 2019, when a giant firefighting aircraft was called to extinguish a large-scale fire on Stara planina directly from Russia, not from Niš.

The final proof of the uselessness of this centre and the final reason for its closure is the ammonia leak on the railway near Pirot, in the immediate vicinity of Niš, which occurred on the night of Saturday (25 December). Also, in this case, there was no reaction from the Serbian-Russian centre.

Considering that there has never been any benefit from it, but only damage to Serbia’s international image, constantly exposed to the suspicion of cooperating with the Russian military intelligence installations, the closure of the Serbian-Russian centre in Niš remains the only option and a job that can be done immediately without any emotions or costs.

The biggest burden that Serbia can remove from its back and without sanctions against Russia is the reduction of Russian ownership in NIS below 50%. There is a constant “danger” that the company will be affected by some new cycle of European sanctions and its operations blocked because it is still majority owned by Russian state giants. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić spoke to The Financial Times in November about the possibility of nationalising part of the ownership in NIS if the company was in danger of being blocked by European sanctions.

Some large European oil companies that would take over risky Russian ownership, plus Azerbaijan’s state-owned SOCAR, were also mentioned. It is the least risky for Serbia to do this work immediately, preventively, without waiting for a new European package of sanctions against Russia to come to its door and for production to stop.

Also, without any sanctions against Russia, it is possible to advance in reorientating the Serbian Armed Forces equipment from predominantly Russian/Soviet to Western manufacturers.

This is the field in which Russia traditionally has the greatest influence on Serbia, followed by its political support for the Serbian position regarding Kosovo. In the circumstances when Russia invaded its first sovereign neighbour and is under severe sanctions from the West, Serbian reliance on Russian weapons becomes a great burden and risk – not only for its political but also for its security position.

In this sense, it would be particularly effective for Belgrade to negotiate as quickly as possible the acquisition of fighter planes from Western manufacturers.

The MiG-29 planes, with which Serbia has modernised in the last decade through arrangements with Russia and Belarus, provide security only until 2025-2026. Vučić’s announcements from April that Serbia wants to buy 12 new Rafale aircraft from France and 12 more used fighters from some other country (he also mentioned Britain and the Typhoon) no longer have much reason to be postponed. Earlier announcements that negotiations with the French Dassault regarding the purchase of the Rafale could start at the beginning of 2023 should be confirmed and accelerated as much as possible.

Serbia’s transition from Russian to Western weapons could mean the removal of an essential and unproductive burden from Serbia’s back and, of course, proof that it protects its political and security interests.

There remains one more connection between Serbia and Russia, which essentially simulates the developed economic relations between the two countries since neither in terms of trade nor investments are those relations even close to the top of Serbia’s balance sheet, let alone Russian. It is about the Russian loan and, based on it, the involvement of Russian companies in the construction and modernisation of railways in Serbia.

Never wholly transparent, with a constant question mark as to its profitability, this arrangement started back in 2013 with 800 million dollars, and six years later, it was increased by 172 million dollars. Considering the complete blockade of the Russian financial system and its expulsion from the global financial market, Serbia must examine ways to get rid of this loan. Even if it suffered a financial loss in the short term, Serbia would be freed from the significant burden of doing business with an extremely risky partner, who will certainly not have access to the international financial system for many years. Serbia does not need such a partner.

None of these moves is related to Serbia imposing sanctions on Russia. It can perform all these moves by itself and is obliged to do so because it is in its best interest, Euractiv writes.

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