Serbia Bolsters Connections With Russia and China

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 73

(Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China)

Executive Summary:

  • Serbia’s new government is bolstering its connections with Russia through the appointment of Kremlin-linked ministers.
  • Belgrade is also expanding its economic and media links with China following the visit of Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping.
  • The Aleksandar Vučić administration continues to generate instability in the Western Balkans, and its policies are eliciting a firmer response from NATO.

The new Serbian government was sworn in on May 2. Its composition demonstrates Belgrade’s commitment to tighter ties with Moscow and Beijing. Although the parliamentary elections were held in December 2023 (Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Serbia, December 25, 2023), massive street protests against election fraud and international condemnation of voting irregularities delayed the formation of the new administration (European Parliament, February 8, 2024). In an evident rebuff to criticisms from the European Parliament regarding the elections and Belgrade’s foreign policy, several new Serbian ministers have pronounced pro-Russian credentials (, April 30, 2024).

Prime Minister Miloš Vučević’s government was accepted in a 15261 parliamentary vote and consists mostly of ministers from the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) (Government of Serbia, May 2, 2024). It includes the staunchly pro-Russian foreign minister from the previous government, Ivica Dačić, as the new minister of internal affairs. Aleksandar Vulin was named deputy prime minister. Vulin is the former director of Serbia’s intelligence service, the Security Intelligence Agency (BIA), who is sanctioned by the United States for his involvement in “transnational organized crime, illegal narcotics operations, and misuse of public office (US Department of the Treasury, July 11, 2023). He also stands accused of furthering his political agenda and personal interests “at the expense of peace and stability in the Western Balkans” and facilitating Russian subversion in the region. Vulin has received a medal of honor from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and an “Order of Friendship” from Russian President Vladimir Putin (Moscow Times, January 31, 2024). Another official sanctioned by Washington, Nenad Popović, was appointed as a minister without portfolio. According to the US Treasury Department, Popović uses his Russia-based businesses to enrich himself through “embezzlement and tax schemes” and maintains close connections with senior Kremlin leaders (US Department of the Treasury, November 16, 2023).

Serbian President Aleksander Vučić has refused to join Western sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. He has developed energy projects and expanded business connections with Moscow and facilitates Russian influence operations in the Balkans through state media outlets, intelligence agencies, the Russian Orthodox Church, and a plethora of Russian-Serbian associations (EDM, January 19, 2024). Moscow’s connections are also intensifying with the Republika Srpska (RS) entity in Bosnia-Herzegovina, amid frequent trips by President Milorad Dodik to Moscow and visits by Russian officials to the RS capital of Banja Luka. The RS has opened a representative office in Moscow to underscore its pursuit of an alternative foreign policy to that of the government in Sarajevo (Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, February 21, 2024). Back in January 2023, Dodik awarded Putin with the highest medal of honor for his “patriotic concern and love” for the RS (Deutsche Welle, January 8, 2023).

Belgrade has also welcomed China’s embrace in a deliberate rebuff to Washington’s opposition to Beijing’s growing influence in Europe (Helsinki Bulletin, October 2023). Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping signed 30 different documents with Vučiċ during his visit to Belgrade on May 8 (Balkan Insight, May 8, 2024). The agreements encompass infrastructure, trade, agriculture, and education, as well as enhancing cooperation between Serbia’s pro-government media and state-owned Chinese media companies. The two presidents also initialed a joint statement “on deepening and raising the comprehensive strategic partnership and building the community of Serbia and China with a common future in the new era. Serbia and China have already established an “Association for Promotion of the Economy, Trade, Culture and Tourism” and signed a free trade deal in October 2023 (Balkan Insight, October 17, 2023). In the military domain, Serbia continues to purchase Chinese weaponsits most recent acquisition being the HQ-22 (FK-3) air defense system. Dodik also met with Xi in Belgrade and boasted that his increasingly separatist entity was developing closer ties with Beijing (Klix, Belgrade, May 8, 2024).

One of Vučic’s main weapons is the threat of regional instability by pursuing the “Serbian world” (Srpski svet) agendaa replication of Moscow’s “Russian world” (Russkiy mir)supposedly to protect Serbs in all neighboring countries (Istraga, Bosnia-Herzegovina, September 28, 2020). By endangering the security of Serbia’s neighbors, Vučić manipulates Western leaders into pacifying him rather than adopting more stringent measures, as these would allegedly push him further toward Putin and Xi. Belgrade periodically escalates regional tensions and subsequently gains concessions from EU and US envoys for avoiding armed conflict. Remaining on the path toward EU membership is also financially beneficial for Serbia, though the government has signaled zero intentions of reversing its creeping authoritarianism or complying with the European Union’s foreign and security policies.

In recurring examples of destabilization, Serbia periodically builds up its troop presence along the borders with Kosovoits former province whose independence Belgrade refuses to accept (Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty, September 30, 2023). The Vučic regime has attempted to foster violence in Kosovo as a pretext for military intervention, including the kidnapping of Kosovo’s police officers, paying mobs to attack North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) peacekeepers, and staging a militia attack in northern Kosovo in September 2023 (Deutsche Welle, September 24, 2023). Serbia has maintained effective control over the Serb population in northern Kosovo, organized the boycott of municipal elections, and pressured Serbs to withdraw from local police and court system (, May 9, 2024). Belgrade’s vigorous objections and threats may delay Kosovo’s admission to the Council of Europe (CoE)a pan-European organization focused on human rights, democracy, and the rule of lawdespite Pristina meeting all the conditions for membership.

NATO officials increasingly recognize that the Western Balkans is strategically important region in the growing conflict with Russia. Precautionary moves by the alliance have included the re-opening of Albania’s Kuçova airbase to transform the facility into a modern hub for NATO’s air operations (NATO, March 4, 2024). It will also support Albania’s air operations and project power to neighboring NATO countries as well as over Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina. According to SecretaryGeneral Jens Stoltenberg, NATO is planning to permanently increase the number of troops in the Western Balkans (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, November 20, 2023). The KFOR mission in Kosovo currently includes over 4,500 troops from 28countries (, May 2024). Additional forces were sent to the country after the attack by Serb militias in September2023, and a battalion of reserve forces was placed on high alert for rapid deployment while the threat level remains high due to Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine. The West will have to remain vigilant, as Moscow has tried to compensate for its heavy losses in that conflict by conducting increasingly destabilizing policies in the Balkans and elsewhere.