Cheered by tens of thousands of citizens, columns of Serbian tanks, armored cars, and thousands of infantry men paraded down Nikola Tesla Boulevard, Thursday, in New Belgrade. The parade’s destination was the Palace of Serbia, where international leaders, dignitaries and high ranking generals of foreign militaries stood in bleachers to look on. Among them, most importantly, was Russian President Vladimir Putin. In a ceremonial event surrounding this occasion, he was awarded the Order of the Republic of Serbia, the nation’s highest honor.
Last Thursday marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade from occupying Nazi forces. A few of the remaining WWII veterans also stood in the dignitaries section, to remember fallen comrades in the great anti-fascist war of liberation.
The event was not just one commemorative, it was in its own right quite historic. For one, it was the first Serbian military parade since 1918, and the first military parade in Serbia since 1985, when it was the core republic of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, or SFRY. A “Strizhi” air show of Russian MiG fighters over the Belgrade skies captivated the audience below, while Serbian armoured personnel carriers crawled in formation to the WWII partisan march, Po Šumama i Gorama (“In the Forests and Mountains”).
But the event’s significance was greater—much greater than a historical reflection and national celebration of a great victory of its people over the most powerful, aggressive, war machine in Europe at the time. This event’s significance went beyond being just a display of national resolve and remembrance. It was symbolic of a turn that Serbia was taking in the direction of its historic ally, Russia. With Putin as honored guest, Serbia seemed to be announcing a new course forward, while overtly and unashamedly celebrating the past.
In fact, to the certain dismay of NATO, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic announced in a joint press conference with Putin, after the ceremony, that Serbia would never join the EU sanctions against Russia. With this we can see that Serbia is making an ‘Eastward’ turn to the Eurasian sphere.
As polls indicate, the vast majority of Serbs oppose EU policy and dictates, and entry. They would like increased trade with European nations, as long as it respects the fundamental democratic principle of national sovereignty, and self-determination of the Serbian people. Brussels dictates are, in the view of many analysts, at odds with the concept of sovereignty. EU policy, combined with the economic crisis and increased austerity measures, has led to an ever increasing rise of Euro-skepticism within EU and Eurozone countries.
One can only imagine the frustration of the US, NATO and EU Atlanticists who had hoped to coerce Serbia into eventual EU integration. It is not lost on them that, as it stands, Serbia has observer status in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), considered by NATO to be something like the reincarnation of the Warsaw Pact. It also has a free trade agreement with Russia, similar to one that Ukraine has. The US backed coup in Ukraine, justified to its European partners as a necessary step to get Ukraine into an EU association agreement, has shown the world already where an increased effort upon Serbia will lead. Unlike Ukraine, however, Serbian nationalism is firmly pan-Slavic and anti-Hitlerian in its orientation.
That Thursday’s events were not merely an exercise in formalized remembrance, but were vigorous, optimistic, and militarized, which sent a stronger message in imagery than should ever responsibly be said in words. It is additionally troubling for NATO that Serbia is to hold the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE ) chairmanship next year. What will that mean for the OSCE mission in the south Serbian region of Kosovo, presently under US occupation?
Indeed, Thursday’s momentous occasion were as close to a signed Russia-Serbia alliance as one could have without signing one. Responding in a condescending and paternalistic tone, European Parliament Rapporteur on Serbia, David McAllister, expressed concerns over Thursday’s events, reiterating that the EU and NATO did not look favorably upon 4,500 Serbian soldiers saluting Vladimir Putin. He also stated that he expected Serbia to stay on its path to EU accession.
The Serbian state headed by Tomislav Nikolic of the Progressive Party had previously formally positioned its policy on eventual EU integration. Before his election, support for integration was at a high of 70%. Apart from Serberia’s concern for a declining euro-dollar, numerous setbacks and frustrations on critical negotiating points have caused Brussels to push back further talks. In the meanwhile, Serbian support has dropped to perhaps below 40%. This has left EU analysts to wonder if Serbia’s stated intention to join the EU is genuine. Serbia continues to affirm its intention to join the EU, but it simultaneously holds firm to a growing number of deal-breaking policies.
Perhaps to help clarify the confusion, Nikolic said the following at today’s event:
“I share in the glory of the history of Serbia and Russia, a permanent and unbreakable bond of brotherhood, a friendship that has always been, now and forever the pride of our countries and peoples, to the benefit of any well-intentioned man of the world.
Serbia and Russia are tied in origin, language, customs, religion, history, culture, a sublime love for freedom and heroic pride, common mounds and nameless graves, abandoned orphans and women, young lives cut short, a lost generation that remembers our joint struggle.
How many of us would there be if there were no wars that we didn’t start?”
A strong majority of Serbs also support President Putin, many viewing him as being a surrogate president. The successes of Russia and Putin are, in the collective Serbian psyche, also theirs to share in. In part through their affinity with Russia, the Serbs feel themselves as part of a larger world of geopolitical relevance. But this majority view hasn’t until recently found an expression in their own government, even while anti-NATO sentiments are considered part and parcel of the Serbian identity.
This contradiction has been bubbling for quite some time, now finding tangible signs of a real resolution. Serbia has been slowly emerging from a neo-colonial Western occupation following several tragedies. Western powers backed a nearly decade long civil war, claiming the lives of over 100,000 people. This criminal and illegal proxy war of divide and conquer, by the US led NATO on Yugoslavia, was followed by a 76 day NATO bombing campaign in 1999 that culminated in the ouster of the democratically elected Slobodon Milosevic in October of 2000.
On the ground, this was coordinated with “Otpor!”, a US supported astroturf movement funded by George Soros’s NED. Stemming in large part from the work of Gene Sharp, it is widely considered to be one of the first modern uses of what has now been called the combined Arab Spring and Color Revolution tactic.
When the lion kills, the jackal prospers; and the following dozen years saw Serbia mis-ruled by a puppet government, supported by a corrupt pro-EU and NATO-tolerant oligarchy. Some like Kostunica were recruited directly from the same “Otpor!”. But now this regrettable story, filled with betrayal and heartache, is but the prologue of a new book about a renewed Eurasian Serbia.
Putin’s momentous and historic visit, then, are not just about the past but about the present and the future. The joint struggle against Nazism in the past finds no lack of allusion in Putin’s comments today about Ukraine and Novorossyia. During his visit, he gave a revealing interview to Serbia’s Politika newspaper. When asked about US-Russia bilateral relations , he stated
“Washington has actively supported the “Majdan” in Kiev, and as a result of their moves in Kiev a nationalism was unleashed that provoked resentment in a significant part of Ukraine, and threw the country into civil war, (the US) began to blame Russia, that she provoked the crisis. Then President Barack Obama stands in front of the UN General Assembly and included “Russian aggression in Europe” in the list of the three main threats to mankind today, along with the deadly Ebola fever and terrorist group “ISIS”.
Together with the restrictions directed against entire sectors of our economy, such an approach is difficult to name other than hostile.”
The fight against Nazism is not one of mere historical significance, but one which points clearly to the fight in Novorossia today against a US backed junta. While Serbia has recently proposed legislation to ban individuals from volunteering in foreign conflicts, more than 200 Serbs, and growing, are actively involved on the pro-Russian side in the emergent Federation of Novorossia. It is too soon to tell whether Putin’s visit will have any effect on the outcome of this vote, or conversely if passed, its serious enforcement. The civil war in the former Ukraine has relied in part on foreign volunteers involved in an anti-Nazi or anti-Fascist resistance.
Thursday’s agreements signed between Putin and Nikolic were also notable. Among the most important surrounds a Russian governmental organization in Niš, in southern Serbia. An agreement was signed to grant full legal immunity to employees of the organization.
The Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in Niš has been under increased scrutiny from the minority pro-western liberals, and representatives of the US embassy have urged a thorough investigation. The accusations are that the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center, also called the Emergency Situations Center, is operating today as an FSB hub, with the ultimate aim of establishing a Russian military base. This has been denied by Serbian authorities. There is a growing memetic movement calling for Russian military bases in southern Serbia. Niš is 80 miles from US Camp Bondsteel, in the US occupied South Serbian region of Kosovo.
Putin also, during the visit, reiterated his unwavering position on the necessary end to the occupation of Kosovo, and its lawful return to Serbia.
All South-stream proposals have the pipeline traveling through, or next to, Niš.
The Emergency Situations Center has been ostensibly set up as a command center for ‘emergency responses’, such as the flash floods that rocked Serbia last May, claiming scores of lives. It is a popular conspiracy theory in Serbia that these floods were caused by the US’s HAARP program, meant to punish Serbia for ignoring EU calls to cease the South-stream gas pipeline project. The completion of the pipeline is a critical piece for Russian access to European markets, as well as a counter-measure against the US created instability in Ukraine, where presently between 65% and 70% of Russian gas to Europe travels through.
On the issue of South-stream, Putin also underlined the importance of the project during today’s visit. He said:
“The South-stream cannot be realized unilaterally. Like in Love, there is a need for two sides. We cannot build the pipeline worth several billions on our own. Similar discussion was led for Nordstream, so now everybody is satisfied. The problems with South-stream are political, and they are damaging the economy. We do not want to have an energy crisis this winter. It certainly will not be our fault.”
Other areas of talks revolved around the export of Serbian goods to Russia. Serbian exports, mostly agricultural, to Russia have increased over 60% since the NATO/EU imposed sanctions last January. Discussions were also held surrounding dairy.
But this may just be the beginning, and Russian agribusiness consultants may be involved in future projects. A problem with Serbian exports involve their lack of organization, and the agricultural producers are not in a union of producers which export together. For these reasons things are not moving as fast as they could. This reflects some elements of the Serbian culture, which takes a casual approach to business matters and timelines.
Additionally, there was more detailed talks surrounding the export of Serbian made cars, under the Zastava label (formerly Yugo, using the Fiat platform), to Russia. As stated, Serbia enjoys a free trade agreement with Russia.
Germany has indicated that it too may be looking for a loophole to the EU’s sanctions and tariff regime, by having Serbia operate as a middle-man between themselves and their Russian partners. Germany has also felt stifled by EU regulations, having already openly debated leaving the EU. In light of the EU sanctions imposed on Russia over Novorossiya, a serious hindrance to Germany, this may be looking more appealing than ever before. Serbia is a prime candidate due to its proximity to central Europe alongside its non-EU status. Serbia’s holding out as the ‘Lone Star State’ in the Balkans may, in fact, pay serious dividends in the end.
All of this indicates a very real and growing shift, not only for Serbia, but for all of Europe. As the conflict between the CSTO and NATO intensifies, Russia is shoring up its traditional allies and reaffirming its support for the ‘Pink Tide’ Latin American allies in MERCOSUR. Russia does not oppose Serbia’s potential to join the EU, seeing it as another asset within the EU, which can help to maintain its position in bilateral relations.
With all of this in mind, we know at least this: the pouring rain did not deter a single Serb from attending Thursday’s massive events, which caused traffic jams throughout Belgrade that, for the first time in a long time, were ones to be happy about.
Joaquin Flores is an American expat living in Belgrade. He is a full-time analyst at the Center for Syncretic Studies, a public geostrategic think-tank. His expertise encompasses Eastern Europe, Eurasia, and has a strong proficiency in Middle East affairs. Flores is particularly adept at analyzing the psychology of the propaganda wars, and cutting through the noise of ‘information overload’. In the US, he worked for a number of years as a labor union organizer, chief negotiator, and strategist for a major trade union federation.