Serbia’s foreign policy has not moved away from the refrain “both Kosovo and the EU” and “four pillars of foreign policy” – both well-known catchwords of the previous government – yet is far removed from the politics of Milošević.
Over half of a year has now passed since the formation of a new Serbian Government. At first, the leading governing parties caused serious concerns among domestic and international factors, primarily due to an overlap between them and the members of the so-called ‘red-black’ coalition that was in power at the end of the twentieth century. There was anxiety that their successors may repeat something that could bring additional instability to already fragile Balkans. Also, during the election campaign, Tomislav Nikolić announced that he might cancel all the agreements the previous government reached during technical negotiations with Priština. Despite declarations that EU membership remained top of their agenda, scepticism among western and regional officials existed, whilst the image of an unpredictable and aggressive Serbia once again reappeared. The very fact that Serbia’s leaders chose Moscow as one of the first official visits – compounded by clumsy statements of the newly-elected president Nikolić – prompted stories about a possible “resurrection” of Milošević’s policies.
Profound questions have since remained – did the foreign policy pendulum of the new Serbian government make the dramatic swing many expected (desired) and feared?
Hardly has it moved. This can be seen from the statements and actions of key foreign policy decision-makers. In the exposé of Serbia’s prime minister, Ivica Dačić, and statements of its foreign minister, Ivan Mrkić, one couldn’t find drastic changes in the foreign policy course. Dačić stated that Serbia needs to carry out its own foreign policy based on pragmatic and realistic assumptions, emphasising that cooperation with all relevant factors is needed. Mrkić even stated that there will be no changes in foreign policy, with the preservation of Kosovo within the boundaries of Serbia along with EU membership remaining priorities, together with further improvements of relations with Moscow, Washington and Beijing. The first deputy Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vučić, has many times emphasized that EU membership is the top priority of the new government and that Serbia will remain militarily neutral. Also, if we take a look at the program – White book “changes through the program”– of the leading governing party, the Serbian Progressive Party (the party that also took “political jurisdiction” over the ministry of Foreign Affairs), we can see the following aims:
- EU membership,
- Intensified cooperation with Russia, China and Japan,
- Best possible relations with the USA,
- Strengthening cooperation with developing countries,
- Compliance with, and implementation of, the Dayton and other international agreements and resolutions that are the key elements of regional development,
- Support in promotion of Serbian people living in the region.
Including Japan into the circle of important states – previously known as the ‘pillars of Serbian foreign policy’ – and mentioning the USA in a slightly different aspect was mainly done to show that this hasn’t been copy-pasted from their rivals, the Democratic Party (DS). Mentioning the Dayton Peace Agreement, meanwhile, is a clear message to everybody that the SNS cleared-up the Greater Serbia heritage of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS).
On the other hand, Serbian officials have demonstrated a readiness to make necessary concessions in order to attain a date for negotiations with the EU. Not only have they accepted all previously secured agreements, but Dačić even met and was photographed with the Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaci, in Brussels, thus giving a strong and positive signal that Serbia is ready to continue the EU-sponsored dialogue with Priština. It was exactly due to this readiness that the EU gave a conditional green light that negotiations date might begin in the first half of 2013. The West couldn’t allow interruption of a process that begun in September 2010
Frequent and mainly cordial meetings with western and Russian officials demonstrate that the government has managed to convince its international partners that there will not be return to Milošević’s foreign policy. Military neutrality was not endangered with Serbia’s decision to start military industry cooperation with Russia, nor the likely decision that the national assembly will ask for permanent observer status at the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Meanwhile, Serbia has intensified cooperation with the US military, particularly through their International Military Education and Training (IMET) programme.
In sum, Serbia’s foreign policy has not moved away from the refrain “both Kosovo and the EU” and “four pillars of foreign policy” – both well-known catchwords of the previous government – yet is far removed from the politics of Milošević. The biggest divergence from the previous government concerns relations with some of Serbia’s neighbors, which seem to be stagnating at the highest political level. Since this is also an important precondition for EU accession, further exacerbation is not expected. Key decision-makers are aware that regional relations are of much lower importance for their foreign policy goals and that their success is in the hands of Brussels, Moscow, Berlin, Washington, London, Paris, Rome and Beijing. Given the narrow room for maneuver in the international arena, this should come as little surprise at all.
Milan Milenković, MA
In Transonflict, on line, January 2013, available here