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Sergey Markedonov

4 June 2012

The newly elected President of Serbia, Tomislav Nikolic during his visit in Moscow stated that his country may soon recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. According to his opinion the situation in the two Post-Soviet partly recognized entities can't be compared with the situation in Kosovo. Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in contrast to the former autonomous province of Serbia, Nikolic argues, have the right to independent statehood. Moreover, the new Serbian leader believes that Belgrade should not yield to the European Union at the cost of territory which is officially considered by the national government an integral part of Serbia.

The issue of the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is one of the most disputed issues between Russia and the West. Moscow fully supports their independence and self-determination without respect to Georgian territorial integrity but the USA and its allies insist on the withdrawal of the Russian troops from the contested areas and the internationalization of the peacekeeping process. According to a special release by the White House special release concerning the US-Russia Reset policy, "The Obama Administration continues to have serious disagreements with the Russian government over Georgia. We continue to call for Russia to end its occupation of the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and in parallel have worked with the Russian government to prevent further military escalations in the region". At the same time Washington and most EU and NATO members have recognized Kosovo's independence. How serious and far-reaching are Tomislav Nikolic's promises? Should we expect in the near future the enlargement of the list of countries that recognize the independence of Abkhazia andSouth Ossetia? If Serbia recognizes these separatist regions, this would be a more important development than when exotic islands of Oceania, Nauru, Tuvalu and Vanuatu, recognize them. The implication of this step is much more important as well as challengeable for the country which tries to obtain the EU-member status.

Until May 2012 the position of Serbia on the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia was unequivocal. The government in Belgrade has consistently expressed gratitude to Moscow for its position on the non-recognition of Kosovo. However at the same time, Serbian politicians emphasized that they protected the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country also as a principle of international law. And for this reason they refused to recognize the independence of the so-called "new states", referring to the two former autonomous entities of the Georgian SSR. This approach is the most concentrated form was reflected in the statement known as "the European path of Serbia" by the former Serbian President Boris Tadic. The Serbian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has followed this approach in recent years.

However, on May 20, 2012 in the second round of presidential elections, the main supporter of the European choice, Boris Tadic, was defeated by Tomislav Nikolic, the "Eurosceptic" leader of the Progressive Party. In the West, many observers consider him as Nikolic is an ethnic nationalist who had a history of supporting Slobodan Milosevic and Vojislav Seselj. However this looks like a largely unfounded exaggeration. Nikolic faces critical pathos not so much against European integration as whole (this vector is a consensus among today's Serbian political elites), but against the price his country would have to pay for greater cooperation between Serbia and the EU. The truth is that Serbia has no alternative for the European option, Nikolic hastily stated immediately after the presidential elections' second round had finished. But being a pragmatist, Nikolic can't ignore the will of the Serbian population and the contradictory public opinion caused by post-conflict traumas. However, Tadic's defeat was due to a popular discontent because of a too rapid advance by Serbia into the EU without adequate concern for the protection of national interests. Since September 9, 2010 the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on Kosovo on the basis of a compromise between the EU and the Serbian government. The document reflected a consensus between Serbia and the countries which recognized and had not recognized the independence of the former Serbian Autonomous Region on the prospects of peaceful resolution of all status and ethno-political problems. In Belgrade, the decision was seen by many as a soft recognition of Kosovo's independence. The issuing of the Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to the Hague Tribunal was also perceived ambiguously. Hence there is a peculiar Nikolic populism and rhetoric which is not addressed to Brussels but to "brotherly Russia." In this regard it is no coincidence that his first foreign visit was to Moscow, where Nikolic took part in the Party Congress of United Russia, the ruling political force of the country. Today, the news agencies are full of reports that Serbia will soon receive a loan from Russia worth $ 800 million. However, the first impressions of the foreign policy initiatives of the newly elected president should not create unrealistic expectations. There is every reason to believe that Nikolic did not completely reverse the foreign policy the course of his predecessor.

First, Serbia is largely dependent on Europe. About one million Serbs work in European countries, providing a level of quality of life and their relatives in their historic homeland. Only in 2011 the European Investment Bank (EIB) granted to the Serbian project loans totaling 859 million euros. We should not forget that in the last decade, Serbia has become one of the largest borrowers of the bank. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is equally active in this Balkan republic, especially in energy and transport. The EBRD has invested three billion euros in 180 infrastructure projects. The position of Europe in the recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is clear: the state of the two former autonomies of the Georgian SSR speech can't go. At the time, even less dependent on the EU, Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko, refrained from recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as he did not want to issue an open challenge to the united Europe.

Second, the president of Serbia is not the same as the head of state in Russia or Belarus. The Parliament in this Balkan republic is much more powerful as it takes part in the formation of the executive branch of the national government. Meanwhile, Nikolic has no "controlling interest" in the country's highest representative body. In the parliamentary elections held on May 6th, 2012 neither his supporters nor the supporters of Boris Tadic won a majority. Many things will depend on the position of the Socialist Party and its leader, Ivica Dacic who could potentially support Boris Tadic as the Prime-Minister of the Serbian government. Thus Nikolic simply will not have power prerogatives to recognize the Abkhaz and South Ossetia's independence by his decree without the parliamentary procedures.

Third, within Serbia itself, for obvious reasons, there are strong fears of separatist threats as well as precedents of secession. Naturally, in foreign policy the concept of "standards" and "principles" is very relative. Since Russia does not recognize Kosovo's independence, it supports two breakaway republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In contrast, the United States, one of the main supporters and promoters of Kosovo's independence, criticized Russia for its unilateral action in the South Caucasus. Turkey, which is one of the first countries to recognize the statehood of the former Serbian Autonomous Region and the only UN member that has recognized the independence of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, at the same time protects the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan and is involved in a land blockade of Armenia, which in turn ensures the safety of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. But today's Serbia does not have the resources that were even remotely commensurate with the capabilities of Russia and Turkey, not to mention the United States. Hence there are practically no opportunities to use the "double standards" in its foreign policy. Especially since, in addition to the de facto breakaway of Kosovo (today its independence recognized by 90 states, that is, 46.8% of the total number of members of the UN) in Serbia, there are other problematic areas. This is, first of all, the situation in the autonomous province of Vojvodina. Ethnic Hungarians compose 14% of its population. However the issue of Vojvodina (the most economically developed part of Serbia) - is not only ethnic separatism and the danger of support directly from Budapest (where nationalist tendencies intensified rapidly in recent years), but also the aspirations of local Serbs and other ethnic communities in the province to a maximum autonomy from interference from Belgrade. The second "problem site" is the situation in Sanjak (Sandzhak), an area located in the southwest near the border between Serbia and Montenegro and populated by Slavs - the Muslims constitute 65% of the total population of the territory. In 2011 the first representation of Sanjak was opened abroad. According to chairman of the Executive Committee of the National Chamber of Sanjak Sead Shachirovich, it is necessary to put the issue of granting autonomy to the region on the international agenda. And, of course after the de facto separation of Kosovo "the Albanian question" is still here. In Southern Serbia (Presevo, Bujanovac, Medveja), near the border with Macedonia the ethnic Albanians compose the majority of population (over 57,000 of the total number of 90,000). From time to time the situation in Southern Serbia becomes a subject of intense debate, both domestically and in neighboring states. The ghost of the \"second Kosovo" is more than noticeable. In this context, the idea of supporting separatism in Eurasia could be blocked in Serbia because of domestic policy considerations.

Thus, the chances that Belgrade will recognize Abkhaz and South Ossetia's independence soon are very minimal. Even if Nikolic managed to advance this issue, the Serbian political class would not give him unequivocal support.


Sergey Markedonov is a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Russia and Eurasia Program, in Washington, DC

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