Oct 18th 2007
BELGRADE AND MITROVICA
From The Economist print edition
Some Serbs dream of a Russian alternative to the European Union
DOTTED across the Serbian north of the divided city of Mitrovica are pictures of its hero: Vladimir Putin. Russia, Kosovo's Serbs believe, has saved them from the independence demanded by its Albanians (Kosovars), who make up 90% of Kosovo's 2m people. It is too early to be sure they are right. But Western diplomats are worried by Serbia's dalliance with Russia.
Marko Jaksic, a member of Serbia's Kosovo negotiating team, helps to run northern Kosovo. He is a deputy leader of the party of Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia's prime minister. If America and many European Union countries recognise a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo, he expects Serbia to offer Russia military bases “in Serbia, and especially on the border of Kosovo”. He adds that Serbia should abandon its bid to join the EU, and claims that Mr Kostunica thinks similarly but has less freedom to talk openly.
Such talk is meant to send chills down Western spines. If Serbia gave up trying to join the EU, not only would it return to the isolation of the 1990s but it could also drag the whole region down with it. How serious is the risk? Mr Kostunica's party is aligned with Mr Putin's United Russia party, and its official position is that Serbia should be neutral. Mr Kostunica has disparaged a potentially independent Kosovo as nothing but a “NATO state”.
A source close to President Boris Tadic, whose party is in uneasy coalition with Mr Kostunica, concedes that, if Kosovo's independence is recognised, it will be hard to instil “European values” in Serbia. Even Serbs who would secretly like to be shot of their troublesome southern province fear that full independence would be disastrous. They predict that Mr Kostunica would, if not formally end the country's bid for EU membership, at least slow it down, as well as trying to punish countries that recognise Kosovo and companies that trade there and in Serbia.
Yet the Russian alternative does not look appetising. The prospect of Russian bases in Serbia is “very unlikely”, says Ivan Vejvoda, who heads the Balkan Trust for Democracy, a big regional donor to good causes. Serbia is surrounded by the EU and NATO. “The Russian thing is a temporary, opportunistic thing, a balloon which will burst once we are over Kosovo,” he says. There is much excitement in Serbia about Russian companies moving in. On the list for privatisations that may interest them are JAT Serbian airlines, Belgrade airport, a mine in Bor and NIS, Serbia's oil company. Alexei Miller, head of Russia's energy giant, Gazprom, met Serbian leaders to discuss potential pipelines on October 9th. But so far Russian companies (except for Lukoil) have been notable by their absence. Russia is only the 18th-biggest investor in Serbia; the country's largest single exporter is owned by US Steel. The EU has poured lots of money into rebuilding Serbia. If Serbia kept on track, a lot more cash could come—and Russia offers little.
On October 15th Montenegro signed a “stabilisation and association agreement” with the EU, normally a step towards membership. Serbia could soon do the same. But a negative report to the EU from Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor at The Hague war-crimes tribunal, means that it must first be seen to do more to catch the fugitive Ratko Mladic. Ms Del Ponte will visit Serbia soon to check progress (the government has posted a reward for the missing general, 12 years after he was indicted). This suggests that the Russian option is, as one diplomat puts it, “loose talk”—for now. If many EU countries recognise an independent Kosovo next year, it will be their turn to call Serbia's bluff.