Serbia’s Leader Rejects ‘Little Putin’ Label Amid Fears of Russian Meddling

BELGRADE, Serbia – Serbia’s powerful leader, Aleksandar Vucic, is fed up with being seen as “little Putin” intent on antagonizing the country’s fragile neighbors in the Balkans.

First, Mr. Vucic wittily noted in an interview in the presidential palace library this month, “I’m almost two meters tall.” That makes him about 6 foot-5. (Vladimir V. Putin’s tallest estimate is 5 feet 7, although the exact height of the Russian President, a sensitive subject for the Kremlin, is a secret.)

However, behind Mr. Vucic’s lightness about his physical stature lurks a serious question that preoccupies the Balkans and Western diplomats.

Will Russia, mired in a devastating war in Ukraine, use Serbia to stir divisions in Europe and incite new conflict in the former Yugoslavia to distract NATO from the war raging in the east? ?

Fears flared up last week when an esoteric dispute over license plates between Serbia, a country bound to Russia by history, religion and deep hostility to NATO, and the former Serbian province of Kosovo led to protests unruly, barricades and gunfire – sounding alarm bells in the Atlantic alliance.

Unstable situation in Kosovo, and strains in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina caused by Milorad Dodik, the belligerent, Moscow-backed leader of the Serb ethnic region there, and by hard-line Croat nationalists, led to warnings that Russia was trying to sow tension straight, still never really resolved, from the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

“Russia calculates that the more the West sweats in the Balkans, the less time they sweat in Russia’s backyard,” said Vuk Vuksanovic, a researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy.

“But there are limits to what Russia can do,” Vuksanovic added. “It needs local elites and these people don’t want to be sacrificed for Russia’s sake.”

The US ambassador to Serbia, Christopher R. Hill, a veteran diplomatic problem-solving expert whose recent appointment signaled Washington’s growing anxiety over the Balkans, said that Russia, only brought out “economic blackmail” and “chaos throughout the region”, found few followers.

“Despite Russia’s influence over Serbia’s energy sector and despite the misinformation efforts that are widespread here, the Serbs have decided that their future is with Europe and The West.

Russian news agencies and social media accounts have for months been churning out inciting reports about ethnic Serbs in Kosovo and Bosnia who are suffering into unbearable oppression. The reports, which largely restated Russian propaganda on the suffering of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, encouraged hardline, pro-Moscow Serb nationalists.

The anger of about 65,000 ethnic Serbs still living in Kosovo, which is inhabited mainly by Albanians and break through Serbian control by a NATO bombing campaign in 1999, smoldering for years. But tensions spiked dangerously on July 31 due to a plan, then postponed by Kosovan authorities to ban Serbian license plates and identification documents starting August 1.

Slavisa Ristic, the former mayor of Zubin Potok, a town in northern Kosovo inhabited almost entirely by Serbs, says he would never voluntarily put a Kosovan sign on his car because it means is to recognize Kosovo’s independence, something that nearly all Serbs, including President Vucic, do. , say is out of the question.

Borko Stefanovic, an opponent of Vucic, chairman of the Serbian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said the issue of license plates was “too small to be completely ridiculous.”

“But,” he added, “here in the Balkans, such iconic things are of great importance.”

Last week, Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of NATO, tweeted that he spoke to Mr. Vucic about the outbreak in Kosovo, stated that the coalition, which leads a peacekeeping mission in the former Serbian territory, is “ready to intervene if stability is threatened.”

Mr. Hill, the US ambassador, also called for calm. In an interview in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, Mr Hill said that while he considered armed conflict uncertain, he told Mr Vucic: “Wars have been started for land, for money. , even a beautiful woman. But this will be the first fight I’ve heard of it started over license plates. “

Brimming with potential flashpoints, both symbolic and substantive, the lands of former Yugoslavia reproduce on a smaller scale than the forces at play in Ukraine: a regional hegemon, in this case is Serbia, seething over lost territory and scattered peoples; and a geopolitical tug-of-war between Russia and the West.

A senior lawmaker from Mr Vucic’s party, Vladimir Djukanovic, seized on the idea of ​​Serbia as an avenger that “will be forced to begin denuclearization of the Balkans”, an ominous echo of the Russia’s stated goals in Ukraine and Belgrade’s pursuit of a “Greater Serbia” in the 1990s.

Mr Vucic, who has publicly denounced Mr Djukanovic’s claims as “stupid” and “irresponsible”, said: “We have our country. We are not interested in expanding our borders and going to war with our neighbors.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry added fuel to Kosovo’s fire last week by accusing ethnic Albanians of “radicalization” of trying to drive Serbs out of the territory and inciting unrest “to launch a scenario”. violence.”

Putin has repeatedly cited NATO’s military intervention to support Kosovo’s separation from Serbia in 1999 as justification for Russia’s aggression towards Ukrainewhich he claimed was to protect the ethnic Russian people in Donetsk and Luhansk.

“Putin is using and learning intelligently from your mistakes, which you would never admit,” Mr. Vucic said, referring to the West.

Most Western countries recognize Kosovo as an independent country, but others, including Serbia, Russia, China and five European countries, do not.

Vuksanovic, a Belgrade-based researcher, said: “Kosovo for Russia is the perfect low-cost investment that keeps on giving. However, he added, Russia’s ability to create mischief in the Balkans has been severely limited by the war in Ukraine.

“Right now, Russia can really do less. Its capabilities are more limited and it is more isolated. Its resources are focused on Ukraine,” he said.

Take, for example, Mr. Dodik. Proud of strong support from Russia, Bosnian Serb leader agitated potential violent crisis late last year with an oath to form its own Serb army and effectively secede from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

However, in April, two months after the war in Ukraine, Mr. Dodik abruptly announced that he was delaying his separatist plan. “He looked at Ukraine and saw how the West reacted to Russia. He realized that he had to reduce everything,” said Mr. Vuksanovic.

While Russia is widely accused of encouraging Mr. Dodik’s separatist ambitions, Mr. Vucic is credited by diplomats in the region for helping to contain them.

Mr Vucic said he had spoken to Mr Dodik about his separatist project but declined to say what he had told him. “Serbia,” added Mr. Vucic, “has always supported the territorial integrity of Bosnia” as defined by Dayton peace treaty 1995.

Mr Vucic says he has nothing to do with recent protests over license plates in northern Kosovo, saying ethnic Serbs there are “100% fed up”, especially with the Kosovar government’s refusal to do so. implementing key parts of the 2013 agreement, promising them an autonomous measure.

Beneath the many layers of intrigue and local political feuds, however, one thing is clear: “We are entangled in a proxy war like Ukraine, just on a much smaller scale,” said Stefanovic, Chairman. Chairman of the Serbian Foreign Affairs Committee said.

That struggle, Mr. Vucic lamented, has put his country in a painful position, squeezed between dependence on Russia for energy and diplomatic support for Kosovo, and demands from major powers. Western nations that they joined the effort to punish Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine.

“I get pressure from them every day to impose sanctions on Russia,” Vucic said. That won’t happen, he added, at least until Serbia’s 13-year-old application to join the European bloc has stalled. (More than 80% of Serbs oppose sanctions against Russia, according to a recent opinion poll.)

To the fury of Moscow, Serbia in March supported a resolution of the United Nations demanded that Russia stop its invasion, a vote that led to an uproar from radical Serb nationalists, who denounced Mr. Vucic as a “traitor”.

But Serbia’s refusal to implement sanctions has provided ammunition for those who see Mr. Vucic as a Russian puppet.

Noting that Serbia “remains the only country in Europe that refuses to sanction Russia,” Kosovo’s Prime Minister, Albin Kurti, in April denounced Vucic as “Serbian’s little Putin.” “Peace and security in the Western Balkans have never been more threatened,” he said.

Mr. Vucic denied Mr. Kurti’s accusations.

“Kurti wants to be a ‘little Zelensky’ fighting the ‘little Putin’,” Vucic said, referring to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. “Here’s his account – that Vucic is a lousy nationalist who wants to go against everyone.”

“That’s completely not true,” he added.

However, in the face of a lot of pressure on Serbia from all sides, Vucic admitted, “We are at an impasse and we know this.”

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