The time has come to openly regard the Republic of Serbia for what it is: A stalwart Russian and Chinese ally run by a semi-authoritarian government that proactively pursues ideologically irredentist territorial expansion in the Western Balkans.
Today’s Serbia poses a threat to regional and transatlantic security. Under President Aleksandar Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), the Serbian government is rapidly building its military, overtly backing ultranationalist provocateurs in neighboring states, cementing Belgrade’s ties to Moscow, and consolidating partnerships with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Integral to its efforts to actualize the “Greater Serbia” ideology, Serbia’s and Russia’s Orthodox Church leadership cooperate closely and in concert with their political counterparts. Without a significant Westward shift in its orientation, Serbia will continue on an authoritarian trajectory aligned with U.S. adversaries.
Contemporary Serbia presents a quandary for U.S. and European strategists and policymakers. A genuinely democratic and Euro-Atlantic-oriented Serbia has been sought by Brussels and Washington alike. Yet, decades after Yugoslavia’s violent dissolution and related North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) interventions in the 1990s, most Serbians reject NATO cooperation and are lukewarm towards the European Union (EU). Consequently, the U.S. and its democratic allies in Europe are less able to leverage prospective memberships as a means of transatlantic integration. Further complicating relations with Serbia is Aleksandar Vučić’s overt embrace of Beijing and Moscow.
The depth of Serbia’s growing dependence on those powers jeopardizes U.S and European security on multiple fronts. The Vučić government’s enduring endorsement of ultranationalist narratives and their subversive purveyors continues to intensify discord in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, and North Macedonia. Its military build-up is gravely disconcerting; Belgrade responds only with specious explanations. The country’s ever-greater reliance on Russian oil and gas as a client and transit state for Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned energy giant, puts it at odds with Brussels, Washington, and several Central-Eastern European capitals. Belgrade and Beijing’s economic, technological, and increasingly military cooperation accelerates as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) further entrenches itself in southeast Europe. In sum: Serbia’s expanding alignment with authoritarian powers and regional anti-democratic forces reflects its illiberal worldview and disabling narrative of national victimhood.
Western policymakers persistently view Belgrade’s government with the misunderstanding that, given the right incentives, Serbia will moderate, democratize, and gradually integrate into transatlantic institutions. This assumption is misguided. It diminishes, if not excludes, the need for a national reckoning among the Serbian people.
As with post-war Germany’s Willy Brandt, Serbia needs courageous and sincere leadership to acknowledge past sins and move the nation forward. For example: A genuine Kniefall von Warschauevent could spur an honest discussion among Serbian peoples about the atrocities committed during Yugoslavia’s dissolution. Whatever the catalyst, a broad acknowledgment of past crimes against humanity is categorical if Serbia is ever to become a democratic and open society. Without it, Serbs will remain disproportionately susceptible to domestic irredentist forces fed by malign foreign powers set on keeping the Western Balkans removed from the transatlantic community.
Until such a national reckoning, Western decision-makers should adopt a more pragmatic approach to relations with a Belgrade government dismissive of genuine transatlantic partnerships. For as long as Pan-Serb ultranationalism is considered by Serbia’s leaders to be acceptable in political discourse, the kind of genuine democratic values and institutions shared within the transatlantic community will remain unrealized. Accordingly, the U.S. and its European allies should encourage Serbia to focus on itself, not its neighbors. In that vein, Western policymakers would be wise to stop expecting a breakthrough in Kosovo-Serbia status negotiations. It has become an empty dialogue that only keeps Kosovo locked outside of international institutions and other benefits of recognized statehood. A revised approach should also discontinue pushing an ineffective EU integration process as the primary means of democratically transforming Serbia.