Having previously encouraged assassination attempts against Georgia’s leaders, Russian state television has now lauded the assassination of Serbia’s pro-Western prime minister Zoran Djindjic by a local ultranationalist in 2003, and in the same breath assailed that country’s incumbent pro-Western president Boris Tadic.
On February 21 the Kremlin-controlled Russia Television’s flagship program “Vesti Plus” aired an editorial commentary justifying that day’s nationalist protests in Belgrade against Western recognition of Kosova’s independence. Accompanied by footage of the U.S. Embassy burning, Konstantin Syomin’s commentary declared that Serbs were finally abandoning their formerly held illusions about the West and making up for their errors of having replaced Slobodan Milosevic with Tadic as president:
“It is only tonight that Serbs have realized what is happening to them now … and it is all their own doing. Today the residents of Belgrade must have recalled other rallies, what they themselves had done, how the crowd had raged overthrowing the elderly Milosevic, how the country dazed by liberal promises was bidding farewell in tears to Western puppet Zoran Djindjic, the man who ruined the legendary Serbian army and special services, who sold Serbian resistance heroes to The Hague for abstract economic aid, and who got a well-deserved bullet for that. [And] it was Serbia that voted for the incumbent president, Tadic, who on the day of national mourning [over Kosova’s international recognition] could think of nothing more important than visiting Romania” (Rossiya TV, February 21, as monitored by the BBC; https://ru.youtube.com/watch).
The motif of the righteous bullet targeting a pro-Western leader is hardly a novelty on Russian state television. On the same channel, Kremlin-affiliated political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky had earlier opined that the problems between Russia and Georgia could be resolved with a single bullet fired into Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili (see EDM, May 30, 2006). At that time, Russian state TV channels repeatedly aired inflammatory interviews with Igor Giorgadze, who is wanted in Georgia as the main suspect in a bomb attack that injured then-president Eduard Shevardnadze.
Russia’s president-in-waiting, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, had an easy time in Belgrade on February 25, with Serb officials failing to object to the portrayal of internationally indicted ethnic cleansers as resistance heroes. However, Tadic — who succeeded Djindjic as leader of the Democratic Party — requested explanations from Medvedev about the “unacceptable comment” on the murdered prime minister. The official Russian report on the talks said that a journalist (unnamed) reporting from Belgrade for one of Russia’s channels (unnamed) had made the offending commentary (Tass, February 25); thus Tass obscured the fact that the anchorman in Moscow on Russia’s official state channel had made those comments. Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs Vuk Jeremic (a pro-European colleague of Tadic) requested explanations from the Russia State Television and Radio Company (which administers Rossiya TV, although the channel is believed to be supervised from the Presidential Administration in the Kremlin).
Members of officially backed ultranationalist youth groups have begun trickling into Serbia from Russia. Teams of five activists from Young Russia and from the Eurasian Youth Union branches in Moscow and Kyiv have descended on Belgrade to join protest rallies against international recognition of Kosova’s independence, and they plan to participate in protest actions in Mitrovica, the Serb-inhabited town in northern Kosovo (Ekho Moskvy, February 22, 24).
Some Serbian officials also appeared to encouraged crowd violence: thus, “to aim a stone at the American embassy — well, that happens all over the place,” according to Infrastructure Minister Velimir Ilic (Washington Post, February 25). Ilic had signed a month earlier in Moscow the agreements to turn over Serbia’s oil and gas sectors to Gazprom in exchange for a branch to be built in Serbia from the planned South Stream gas pipeline (see EDM, January 28
Medvedev held talks in Belgrade on February 24-25 in his concurrent role as chairman of the board of Gazprom. Accompanied by Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov, Medvedev witnessed the signing of a Gazprom–Serbia Gas agreement to set up a joint company for drawing up the feasibility study on construction and operation of South Stream’s section in Serbia, with a throughput capacity of “at least” 10 billion cubic meters annually. Furthermore, Gazprom and Serbia Gas are setting up a management committee to create the joint company for the pipeline project (Interfax, February 25).
These steps ensue from the agreement signed in January in Moscow to build the South Stream extension across Serbia and to develop the Banatski Dvor underground storage site. The wording “at least” 10 billion cubic meters is highly ambiguous because the Serbian government expects a capacity of 20 billion cubic meters. In that expectation, the government has sold Serbia’s Petroleum Industry (NIS) to Gazprom without a tender and at a deep discount, under the Moscow agreement in January. While in Belgrade, Medvedev visited the nearby Pancevo refinery of NIS and called for moving quickly on the takeover.
With Lavrov and Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, Medvedev also conferred in Belgrade with the visiting Milorad Dodik, prime minister of the Serb Republic (Respublika Srpska) within Bosnia-Herzegovina. Dodik had rushed to meet with Medvedev for discussion on possible inclusion of Respublika Srpska in Gazprom’s projects in Serbia. The government in Belgrade supports the idea of such a link-up. In an emotional outburst reminiscent of past Serb leaders invoking the Russian Tsar, Kostunica exclaimed in his speech after the proclamation of Kosova’s independence, “Putin is with us!”