Serbia framed Wagner?

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on Monday harshly attacked the Wagner group, an organization accused of trying to recruit Serbs to fight in Ukraine. A rare anti-Russian outing in a country described as one of Vladimir Putin’s favorites in Europe. Explanation.

Enough already. “Why are you members of the Wagner group calling the Serbs [pour combattre en Ukraine, NDLR] when you know it’s illegal?” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic didn’t mince words on Monday, January 16, about efforts to recruit mercenaries from Yevgeny Prigojine, Wagner’s influential boss.

Blood strokes are rare. “Serbia is one of Russia’s best friends outside of the former Soviet sphere, and Aleksandar Vucic has good relations with Moscow,” said Dimitar Bechev, an expert on Balkan geopolitics at the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies.

Wagner and the “People’s Patrol”

This time, however, the wildly populist Aleksandar Vucic didn’t digest the broadcast sequence just before on the pro-Russian RT Balkan channel. A video there shows soldiers presented as Serbs fighting alongside the Russians in Ukraine. “How clever they were. They disguised the recruitment advert – which is illegal in Serbia – as a report providing all the information necessary to join Wagner in Ukraine”, details Vuk Vuksanovic, specialist in relations between Russia and Serbia at the Belgrade Security Policy Center. Indeed, the law prohibited Serbs from taking part in conflicts abroad.

The barely hidden publicity that has added to another index of the presence of Russian mercenaries in Serbia of late. The opening of Wagner’s office in Belgrade first sparked rumors in December. “There was talk of forming a shell company which, in fact, would help the group to establish itself more firmly in Serbia. But nothing has been proven,” explained Vuk Vuksanovic.

In early January, a skull and crossbones representing the Wagner group appeared on a mural in central Belgrade. This image was claimed by the far-right “People’s Patrol” movement, which suggests that this small group represents Russian mercenaries in Serbia.

Not suprisingly. The “People’s Patrol” had participated in organizing demonstrations in support of Russia shortly after the start of the war in Ukraine in March 2022. “Some of its members were also invited to Saint Petersburg in the building occupied by Wagner”, said Vuk Vuksanovic.

The efforts of the Prigojines and their relay in Serbia, for now, do not seem to have evoked hundreds of warrior calls. “The number of Serb mercenaries fighting in Ukraine for Russia appears to be very low,” said Othon Anastasakis, director of the Center for Southeastern European Studies at the University of Oxford.

Serbia still pro-Russia?

But for Aleksandar Vucic, the problem lies elsewhere. At a time when relations between Europe and Russia are at their lowest point and as Belgrade seeks to appear more favorable to the European Union – questions about its membership in the European bloc have been stalled since 2013 – Serbia has no intention of showing up. as a haven of peace for Wagner and a reservoir of recruits for Moscow.

“Aleksandar Vucic is disappointed with this Russian recruiting attempt because Wagner made him and his country a target for Washington and Brussels,” Vuk Vuksanovic noted. In an attempt to convince the West, he thus confirmed that “Crimea and Donbass are Ukrainians” in an interview given on Wednesday, January 18 to the American network Bloomberg.

However, Moscow did not choose Serbia by chance to find recruits. Belgrade has always managed to maintain good relations with Russia. Thus, the country has repeatedly refused to support international sanctions against Russia. “It is also the only country on the continent that still has flights from Moscow,” notes Othon Anastasakis.

Aleksandar Vucic also negotiated a highly lucrative agreement for the delivery of Russian gas to Serbia by the end of May 2022… even as the rest of Europe seeks to reduce its dependence on Russian hydrocarbons as quickly as possible.

Above all, Russia enjoyed great popularity in public opinion and the war changed little. “Russia has a huge advantage in the eyes of Serbia: this is not the United States”, summarizes Vuk Vuksanovic. Public opinion harbors “very bitter memories of NATO bombing of Serbia during the Yugoslav war in the 1990s, and Russian soldiers also fighting alongside Serbia,” lists Othon Anastasakis.

Nor have some Serbs forgiven Washington and Europe for recognizing, in 2008, Kosovo’s independence, which was contested by Serbia. Kosovo’s status was also one of the main levers of influence Moscow used in Belgrade. Russia is Serbia’s strongest ally on the UN Security Council during discussions on Kosovo.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did little to move the lines in Serbia. This war is seen primarily “as an attempt by Russia to destabilize the international order dominated by one country: the United States”, explained Vuk Vuksanovic.

Aleksandar Vucic was caught in his own trap

The Serbian president is no stranger to this vision of a very pro-Russian conflict in Ukraine. He allowed the media landscape to evolve to provide ample ground for Russian propaganda. By occasionally adopting a pro-European position on the international scene, he can play the role of the only bulwark in Brussels against too-favorable feelings for Russia to gain a place in his country, Vuk Vuksanovic analyzes.

Thus, he contributed “to making Putin a superstar in the eyes of part of the population”, estimates the expert of the Belgrade Security Policy Center. A strategy that only seems to work as long as Aleksandar Vucic can play the European and Russian tables.

But with the war in Ukraine, this position has become even more untenable. “Washington and Brussels hope to use this conflict to draw Serbia more towards the West,” said Othon Anastasakis. This makes sense economically as the EU is Serbia’s biggest trading partner.

Except that Aleksandar Vucic can hardly be overly critical of Vladimir Putin, painfully rejected by the public opinion he has helped to create more “Putinophiles”. “He built his own political trap,” concludes Vuk Vuksanovic.

And that may be another reason why the Serbian president is angry at Wagner’s mercenaries. “He didn’t want this group to establish a bigger presence in Serbia”, Vuk Vuksanovic explained. For this expert, he has seen the political weight the group can have in certain African countries where it is accused of influencing. He has no desire to have that same sword of Damocles over his head, which would sign the death warrant of his policy to balance Brussels and Moscow.

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