Culture as an Instrument of “Instrumental” Political Strategy in Russia-Serbia Relations

A response to Ben Denison’s “The Myth of Ancient Friendship: The Instrumentalization of Russia-Serbia Relations”.

By: B. Kal Munis and Arif Memovic

About one week ago, on May 9, 2015, Balkanist published a commentary piece by Ben Denison on the relations between Russia and Serbia, entitled, “The Myth of Ancient Friendship.” The piece focuses primarily on what Denison sees as a “problematic” trend in recent media analyses of the region, namely, the frequently espoused Slavic and Eastern Orthodox cultural commonality between the two countries. Moreover, Denison observes that this trending media narrative is one that was first constructed and propagated by Russian and Serbian political elites. Like the ‘ancient hatreds’ arguments circulating during the collapse of Yugoslavia in the late 80s and early 90s, constructed and propagated by Western intellectuals, politicians and media, Denison sees the ancient friendship arguments as being overly simplistic and inaccurate. Instead, Denison argues that we should abandon cultural arguments and see Russian-Serbian relations for what they really are: an instrumental give-and-take relationship driven by power interests. While Denison does make a number of good points throughout his article, I feel that it is, like the narrowly framed cultural analyses, lacking in nuance.

First, the answer that Denison provides to his own rhetorical question, “Where and when did (the) idea of Serbia and Russia as natural and cultural allies emerge” is clearly and importantly wrong. While he is correct in arguing that Russian support for Serbia during the July crisis stemmed mainly from Serbia being the lone Russian foothold in the region following the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, the idea in question (or its roots at the very least) predates these events by at least a century. Without getting too far into the weeds regarding the history of the region, suffice it to say that Russian backing of the Serbian uprisings and greater independence movement of the 19th century was integral to Serbia’s eventual independence from the Ottoman Empire. Further, pan-Slavic rhetoric, both in Russia and the Balkans, was prominent during this period—just as it was during the Balkan Wars (of the early 20th century) and, as Denison too notes, in the run-up to the Great War. Now, again, Denison and most ‘realist’ international relations scholars would likely counter that Russian support for Serbia during each of events listed above was, in fact, instrumentally motivated, rather than culturally so. In the abstract, we agree, but are not willing to discard culture just yet.

The reason for our unwillingness is that, while a consideration of instrumental motives is useful for understanding the behavior of states and political elites, we feel it is important not to overlook the domestic (including cultural) politics within states, and especially the interplay between domestic politics and international relations. As an example, and one that is directly relevant to Russian-Serbian relations, mutually perceived cultural links between nations—that is, ‘links’ acknowledged by a sizeable contingent of at least one public—can, and often do, serve as an instrumental conduit through which to pursue political goals. Further, in the context of Serbia, as noted in a commentary published by Balkanist in July, 2014, a sizeable and surprisingly diverse contingent of Serbs view increasing cooperation between Serbia and Russia as a positive development, many of whom explicitly cite cultural commonalities as being one of the elements comprising the reasoning for this belief. In addition to being relevant to our argument here, we also feel that this is worth mentioning since, from our perspective buttressed by recent personal experiences in the region, Denison’s attempt to frame support for Russian-Serbian relations as being a position occupied solely by “Serbian ultra-nationalists” is simply inaccurate (emphasis added).

Applying the lens of ‘culture as an instrumental conduit’ to the 20th century events that Denison touches upon yields a more nuanced and complete understanding of Russian-Serbian relations during this time period. First, beginning with Russian support for Serbia in the events leading up to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, taking the presence of perceived cultural commonalities into consideration is essential for understanding how Russia found itself in the position of needing to support Serbia in the first place. Essentially, as noted above, Russia supported the Serbian (as well as the Bulgarian) independence movement during the 19th century. This support, while clearly in Russia’s own best interests, was couched in language of pan-Slavism and pan-Orthodoxy. The power of these ideas was most probably a galvanizing force in awakening the national consciences the Orthodox Christian Slavs under Ottoman rule. It is reasonable to assume that this support, and its pan-Slavic rhetorical appeals, was likely of value to Serbs participating in the independence movement at the time, and subsequently adapted into the ethno-cultural narrative. Next, during the Balkan Wars of the early 20th century, Russia again, under the guise of pan-Slavism, supported Serbia and Bulgaria (and, this time, Montenegro as well) in an attempt to drive the Ottomans out of Macedonia and Thrace. And, again, the Kremlin likely did this chiefly because it was in her own best interest to do so, rather than as a kind gesture toward Slavic and Eastern Orthodox brotherhood. In the aftermath of the Balkan Wars, however, circumstances led to the relationship between Russia and Bulgaria souring, which in turn caused the Bulgarian government to court Austro-Hungary and Germany, thus leaving Serbia as Russia’s sole ally in the region against Germany and the Habsburgs. So, yes, while Denison is correct in noting that Russian support for Serbia throughout this period (as well as Serbia’s eagerness to receive it) was mostly instrumental in nature, it was the strategic appeals to perceived cultural commonalities that allowed this relationship to be fostered in the first place.

Moving onto the interwar period, Denison notes that Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union “largely stood apart.” While this is true, it is also largely irrelevant to the larger point he is attempting to make about culture, considering that the Soviet regime during this period was busy propagating a communist ideology decidedly against religion (including Eastern Orthodox Christianity) and the preservation of ethno-national consciousness, while (the non-communist, Kingdom of) Yugoslavia was not. Denison also notes that, following crisis spurred cooperation during World War II, Yugoslav-Soviet relations “quickly reverted back to the chilly state of relations.” Again, while true, this fact does not lend credence to his argument, given that at this point both the USSR and (the Socialist Federal Republic of) Yugoslavia were communist states committed to officially denouncing the supposed evils that ethnic and religious divides bring upon the world. Indeed, if anything, that relations were “chillier” during periods in which Russian and Serbian national consciousnesses were less salient could actually be argued as evidence against the argument that culture is politically trivial to international affairs.

Like his take on WWI, Denison similarly dimisses Russia’s attempts to thwart NATO action against Serbia in the 1990’s as being instrumentally motivated. More specifically, Denison tells us that Russia was merely interested in preventing the West from exercising “undue influence” in the region, and “did not stem from any cultural affinity” (emphasis added). While conjectural statements such as these may or may not be true, that Russia’s support for Serbia throughout this period has been immensely important to many Serbs, if only symbolically, is undeniable. Moving into the 21st century and to a relatively recent event, the massive flooding that struck the Balkans nearly one year ago provided yet another opportunity for Russia to reach out to Serbia. While much of the West was slow to take action in any significant form of flood relief, Russia was quick to provide support (including military-emergency personnel). So, again, even if Russian support is wholly instrumental toward her interest of maintaining influence in the region, the cultural narrative is important as the conduit for instrumental action.

Finally, Denison observes that Serbia is “attempting to stand between the east and the west, and between great powers” by working with both Russia and the EU to the extent necessary in order to maximize benefits and maintain the favor of both parties. While perhaps Serbian politicians ought to, as Denison implies, be applauded for exhibiting a degree of political shrewdness on the one hand, this balancing act by the Serbian regime may also speak to the importance of domestic politics in shaping foreign policy, on the other. For instance, as Serbia is a democratic state, this balancing act may also be, at least in part, an instrumental choice on the part of Serbian political elites (i.e., to ensure their party does well in the next election) to appease the sizeable part of the population that is pro-EU (clustered mainly in and around Belgrade and Novi Sad), and the similarly large segment of the population who are skeptical of the EU and see Russia as an attractive alternative.

To conclude, cultural considerations are not necessarily incompatible with the notion of instrumental power politics. Indeed, analyses focusing exclusively on either one while disregarding the other are prone to being overly simplistic in most contexts. Moving forward, journalists, pundits, and academics alike would be best served to observe how cultural and domestic considerations inform and interact with elite decision making. Doing so will better ensure the attainment of a more nuanced and accurate understanding of events in the Balkan region, as well as those of the world writ large.


B. Kal Munis received his BA and MA in political science from the University of Montana. His research interests include public opinion, political behavior and political psychology; with regional focuses in the Balkans and United States. This upcoming fall, he will begin his PhD studies in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics at the University of Virginia.

Arif Memovic, born in Zenica, Bosnia-Herzegovina, is currently a student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Montana. His research interests include ethical consumption, social media, and cultural narratives.

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