Serbia stands at a crossroads these days, pulled in one direction by Russia, a longtime ally, and tugged in another by Western Europe, which holds the promise of economic opportunities despite its current financial troubles.
Given the friction between Russia and the West these days, it’s increasingly difficult for a small country like Serbia to have it both ways.
At a park in the center of Belgrade, Serbia, Russia has paid for huge renovations and a brand new statue showing the last Russian czar, Nicholas II, standing proudly at attention in a military uniform holding a sword and a crown, staring out across the plaza.
“He was a really good guy for Serbia,” says Dragan Marcovic, an 18-year-old student.
He explains that Czar Nicholas helped the Serbs during World War 1 and says that if Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to help the Serbs now, he’ll take it.
“But if the European Union wants to give us a park, we’ll say, ‘Thank you,'” he adds.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia finds itself with fewer allies in Eastern Europe. It’s seen former Soviet republics and satellite states join NATO and the European Union. Russia has seen Ukraine slip farther from its orbit after Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and stirred up a rebellion among ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.
Even Serbia, a small nation long defended by its big Slavic brother Russia, is eyeing membership in the European Union.
Some Serbs, like Dragica Nedelkovic, a retired economics teacher sitting in the park, are still partial to Russia.
“I bought a juicer in Russia. It can squeeze juice out of a stone,” Nedelkovic says. “I bought one in Germany, and it freezes up the minute it hits a bit of orange pulp.”
In a battle of home consumer products, Russia probably wouldn’t win a lot of head-to-head contests. However, Russia is also waging an active campaign to win hearts and minds in Serbia, with TV networks and radio stations.
But hearts and minds are one thing — the pocketbook is another.
Serbia trades far more with Western Europe than with Russia. Serbian
Prime Minister Aleksander Vucic spoke in Washington a few weeks ago at Johns Hopkins University and said he made Serbia’s position clear to Vladimir Putin.
“In front of him, I was very proudly, very openly speaking about Serbia’s EU path, and I said Serbia won’t give (up) that path,” Vucic says.
A Testing Ground
Serbia’s commitment to that EU path is a striking change of direction compared to the 1990s, when the U.S. and its NATO allies fought two wars in the former Yugoslavia. There’s lingering Serbian resentment from those wars, and Russia is trying to strengthen its influence here as part of its standoff with the West.
So Serbia is a good place to weigh the appeal of the Russian and the Western European models.
It sometimes seems like the Serbian government wants to have it both ways.
While the Serbian prime minister talks about joining the European Union, Serbia’s President Tomislav Nikolic talks about getting closer to Russia.
In October, Belgrade welcomed Putin with its first military parade in decades. Jets flew in formation, tanks rolled through the streets, soldiers marched, and thousands of Serbs turned out to cheer the Russian leader.
“Actually, I was so embarassed,” says Alena Bukilic, a politician in her late 20s. Sitting in a rooftop wine bar in Belgrade, she says she actually does love Russia.
“Moscow is like one of my top favorite cities in the world. I would live there this instant if I could. But Putin is an oppressor, that’s how I see him,” she says.
Put that attitude in a mirror and you get Milos Kovic, a history teacher at the University of Belgrade.
“I was educated partly in the West, so I love Western culture. I was brought up with rock ‘n’ roll music. And not with balalaikas,” he says. “But again, I’m just trying to make a rational choice. Foreign policy is not the same as cultural affinity.”
He sees the United States as a bigger threat than Russia. And there are those people who don’t want to choose sides. Plenty of people in Belgrade told me – “Serbia is a small country. We can’t afford to alienate Russia, or the West.”