The Myth of Ancient Friendship: The Instrumentalization of Russia-Serbia Relations

The argument that a simple cultural fondness animates Russia-Serbia relations today is not dissimilar from the discarded ‘ancient hatreds’ argument used to explain the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. 

When Serbia announced that it would be participating in the World War II Victory Day parade in Moscow, many in Western Europe noted the worrying trend of Serbia working with Russia.  Commentators and EU officials have said for months that Serbia should participate in sanctions against Russia, and that their refusal to take sides in Ukraine does not look good. Many see this as evidence of deepening Russian and Serbian ties and a worrying tendency for Serbia in the future. A recent trend in the analysis of Russian and Serbian relations has been to claim Russia is ‘Putinizing’ Serbia or exerting undue influence over Serbia. Problematically, much of this analysis implicitly argues that the common Orthodox-Slavic culture of Russia and Serbia has made them traditional allies over time, and that this cultural bond continues to bind them together politically. Examining the history of Russian and Serbian relations in the 20th century, however, does not back up this claim that Russia is a historical defender of Serbia. Instead, their interactions and cooperation have tended to occur at the instrumental political level.  Continuing to view Russian and Serbian relations through the lens of historic partnership, rather than an instrumental view of what Serbia and Russia can gain from each other, creates a misguided view on Serbian preferences and Russia’s ability to influence the region.

In the wake of Putin’s annexation of Crimea and Russian actions in eastern Ukraine, discussions of the dangerous revival of Russian nationalism and the Russian Orthodox Church have become vogue. The revival of Russian nationalism is portrayed as a return to their natural place in Europe, while Serbian ultra-nationalists have responded to this nationalist revival in Russia and view it as the rightful return to mutually cooperative Russian and Serbian relations.  However, does this Russian nationalist revival really include a natural affinity for Serbia? Or are Russia’s geopolitical ambitions leading them to use and influence Serbia, much as it has in prior centuries? The answer is clearly that Serbia and Russia have both conflicted and cooperated over time, and that instrumentality is driving current relations. In some sense, it would be easier if it were the case that Russian and Serbian cultural similarities created a bond that spanned centuries, because then it would be clear where each side stood in various political contexts. The Balkans, however, have been home to an overabundance of simplistic cultural analysis since the beginning of the 20th century, and each time the region pops up on the international stage, scholars have to continue to strive to defeat the myth of primordialist ethnic politics. Examining the history of Russian and Serbian relations in the 20th century demonstrates the instrumental nature of their relations rather than any primordial cultural affinity.

Where and when did this idea of Serbia and Russia as natural and cultural allies emerge? In the lead up to World War One, Russia served as the nominal protector of Serbian independence and autonomy. When Austria-Hungary threatened this independence, Russia stepped in and helped escalate the July crisis towards World War One. But while the rhetoric of pan-Slavism may have been used, Russia was instead interested in ensuring that its borders with the empire remain secure and that the balance between the empires was not upset with Serbia’s reduced position in the region. Support for Serbia in the July crisis did not stem from cultural affinity, but from the instrumental role Serbia could provide in halting the influence of Germany and the Habsburgs. Fast-forward to the interwar years and the Cold War, and Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union largely stood apart, cooperating on some issues but with Belgrade remaining nonaligned. The situation was obviously different during the Second World War, when Russia wanted to prevent German expansion into the Balkans and helped to liberate Yugoslavia.  But both sides quickly reverted back to the chilly state of relations following the end of the war. This cooperation in the World Wars, however, has been overemphasized in an effort to provide evidence of the historic nature of ties between Russia and Serbia. While Russia and Serbia cooperated in times of international crisis, nationalists today have written into the history books this notion of cultural cooperation over the 19th and 20th century to simplify contemporary preferences. Leaving the narrative to ultra-nationalists and using the cultural affinity argument they prefer does not allow for a coherent understanding of the complexities of the Russian and Serbian relationship.

In the 1990s, with the re-emergence of Serbian nationalism following the breakup of Yugoslavia, the idea of Russian and Serbian natural ties resurfaced as Russia sought to ‘protect’ Serbia from UN and NATO action in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Today, this is deployed as part of a nationalist narrative as Russia saving and protecting their Slavic orthodox cousin, and provided as justification for why Serbia should not turn its back on the Kremlin in the current crises. Problematically, Russian support for Serbia yet again did not stem from any cultural affinity, but rather a check to growing Western influence in Eastern Europe and Russia’s reduced great power status. The idea that NATO and the UN could exceed their mandate past Russia’s wishes in Bosnia and that NATO could take action in Kosovo without Russia’s blessing appeared to anger the Kremlin, as it signaled that it was unable to exert as much influence over the region as it was in the past. Later, when Kosovo issued its unilateral declaration of independence, Russian backed Serbia’s position, but once again in an effort to prevent Western powers from exerting what the Kremlin saw as undue influence. The quest for Russia to retain its great power status explains its support for Serbia in the 1990s rather than any affinity for Serbia-Russian cultural similarities.

To Serbia’s credit, the current government seems to understand the Russian position and their orientation towards Moscow appears to be another exercise in instrumental relations. To be clear, Serbia is not without its flaws, and has demonstrated increasingly authoritarian or Putin-esque tendencies, especially with regard to media freedom.  But recent trends in Serbia’s working relationship with both Russia and the EU indicates that it views their relations in instrumental terms as well. With this weekend’s victory parade, the south stream pipeline debacle, Putin’s visit to Belgrade, and increasing calls for Serbia to support a side in Ukraine, it appears that Serbia is continuing it’s own tradition of attempting to stand between the east and the west, and between great powers. Russia is a major economic partner and can potentially provide major resources to Serbia, but so can the EU and the West. Serbia seeks to capitalize on all of these opportunities without ceding their own independence in foreign affairs, leading to an appearance of working with Russia when in reality they are simply not working against either Russia or the EU.

In a sense, the implicit argument of cultural fondness driving Russia-Serbia relations is an inverse of the terrible ancient hatreds arguments of the 1990s.  Instead of historical cultural differences animating hatred between different ethnic groups, the implicit argument today holds that Russia and Serbia have ancient fondness for each other, and that cultural similarities drive each state towards friendly relations.  Much like the ancient hatreds arguments, however, ancient friendship arguments overlook the history of cooperating and conflicting when national interests demand it, rather than looking past disagreements solely for cultural reasons. The typical media short hand of examining Russia-Serbia relations exclusively through supposedly similar cultural backgrounds is misguided and continues to reduce Balkan politics to ethnicity and ‘culture’ rather than the tangible instrumental nature of political and international relationships. Examining Russia-Serbia relations in this instrumental light will lead to a more complete analysis and fewer misguided attempts to write about a region so many analysts completely botch. Russia-Serbia relations could be problematic for the EU-oriented future of Serbia. But Serbia’s own political agency will determine its choice, rather than any predestined cultural teleology pushing them towards Russian culture.


Cover photo credit: Marko Mrkonjić/PIXSELL

Liked it? Take a second to support Balkanist on Patreon!
Ben Denison

Ben is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at the University of Notre Dame, specifically focusing on International Relations. His research interests consist of the causes and consequences of foreign regime change and military occupations. Ben is also interested in the international politics of Serbia and Bosnia and the domestic political consequences of EU policy towards the region.