Russia And The West Play Tug Of War; Serbia Feels Caught In The Middle

Russia And The West Play Tug Of War; Serbia Feels Caught In The Middle

2:17pm Jun 25, 2015
A statue of the last Russian czar, Nicholas II, was erected this year in downtown Belgrade, Serbia. It was a gift from Russia, which is seeking to strengthen its traditionally close ties with Serbia, a fellow Slavic nation. But some Serbs also want closer
A statue of the last Russian czar, Nicholas II, was erected this year in downtown Belgrade, Serbia. It was a gift from Russia, which is seeking to strengthen its traditionally close ties with Serbia, a fellow Slavic nation. But some Serbs also want closer
Monika Evstatieva / NPR

Serbia stands at a crossroads these days, pulled in one direction by Russia, a longtime ally, and tugged in another by Western Europe, which holds the promise of economic opportunities despite its current financial troubles.

Given the friction between Russia and the West these days, it's increasingly difficult for a small country like Serbia to have it both ways.

At a park in the center of Belgrade, Serbia, Russia has paid for huge renovations and a brand new statue showing the last Russian czar, Nicholas II, standing proudly at attention in a military uniform holding a sword and a crown, staring out across the plaza.

"He was a really good guy for Serbia," says Dragan Marcovic, an 18-year-old student.

He explains that Czar Nicholas helped the Serbs during World War I and says that if Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to help the Serbs now, he'll take it.

"But if the European Union wants to give us a park, we'll say, 'Thank you,' " he adds.

Changing Ties

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia finds itself with fewer allies in Eastern Europe. It's seen former Soviet republics and satellite states join NATO and the European Union. Russia has seen Ukraine slip farther from its orbit after Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and stirred up a rebellion among ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.

Even Serbia, a small nation long defended by its big Slavic brother Russia, is eyeing membership in the European Union.

Some Serbs, like Dragica Nedelkovic, a retired economics teacher sitting in the park, are still partial to Russia.

A statue of the last Russian czar, Nicholas II, was erected this year in downtown Belgrade, Serbia. It was a gift from Russia, which is seeking to strengthen its traditionally close ties with Serbia, a fellow Slavic nation. But some Serbs also want closer links with Western Europe, which offers greater economic opportunities.

A statue of the last Russian czar, Nicholas II, was erected this year in downtown Belgrade, Serbia. It was a gift from Russia, which is seeking to strengthen its traditionally close ties with Serbia, a fellow Slavic nation. But some Serbs also want closer links with Western Europe, which offers greater economic opportunities.

Monika Evstatieva/NPR

"I bought a juicer in Russia. It can squeeze juice out of a stone," Nedelkovic says. "I bought one in Germany, and it freezes up the minute it hits a bit of orange pulp."

In a battle of home consumer products, Russia probably wouldn't win a lot of head-to-head contests. However, Russia is also waging an active campaign to win hearts and minds in Serbia, with TV networks and radio stations.

But hearts and minds are one thing — the pocketbook is another.

Serbia trades far more with Western Europe than with Russia. Serbian
Prime Minister Aleksander Vucic spoke in Washington a few weeks ago at Johns Hopkins University and said he made Serbia's position clear to Putin.

"In front of him, I was very proudly, very openly speaking about Serbia's EU path, and I said Serbia won't give (up) that path," Vucic says.

A Testing Ground

Serbia's commitment to that EU path is a striking change of direction compared to the 1990s, when the U.S. and its NATO allies fought two wars in the former Yugoslavia. There's lingering Serbian resentment from those wars, and Russia is trying to strengthen its influence here as part of its standoff with the West.

So Serbia is a good place to weigh the appeal of the Russian and the Western European models.

It sometimes seems like the Serbian government wants to have it both ways.
While the Serbian prime minister talks about joining the European Union, Serbia's President Tomislav Nikolic talks about getting closer to Russia.

In October, Belgrade welcomed Putin with its first military parade in decades. Jets flew in formation, tanks rolled through the streets, soldiers marched and thousands of Serbs turned out to cheer the Russian leader.

"Actually, I was so embarrassed," says Alena Bukilic, a politician in her late 20s. Sitting in a rooftop wine bar in Belgrade, she says she actually does love Russia.

"Moscow is like one of my top favorite cities in the world. I would live there this instant if I could. But Putin is an oppressor; that's how I see him," she says.

Put that attitude in a mirror and you get Milos Kovic, a history teacher at the University of Belgrade.

"I was educated partly in the West, so I love Western culture. I was brought up with rock 'n' roll music. And not with balalaikas," he says. "But again, I'm just trying to make a rational choice. Foreign policy is not the same as cultural affinity."

He sees the United States as a bigger threat than Russia. And there are those people who don't want to choose sides. Plenty of people in Belgrade told me: "Serbia is a small country. We can't afford to alienate Russia, or the West."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

No matter what happens with Greece, the turmoil there could serve as a warning to other countries that still aspire to join the European Union. We're going to visit one of the now - Serbia. It's part of the former Yugoslavia and now stands at a crossroads pulled between the West and Russia. NPR's Ari Shapiro figured Serbia would be a good place to assess the current appeal of the European brand versus the Russian one. Here's his report from Belgrade.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: At this park in the center of Belgrade, Serbia, Russia has paid for huge renovations and a brand-new statue showing the last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, standing proudly at attention in a military uniform, holding a sword and a crown, staring out across the plaza.

DRAGAN MARCOVIC: He was a really good guy for Serbia.

SHAPIRO: Dragan Marcovic is an 18-year-old student. He explains that Tsar Nicholas helped the Serbs during World War I and says if Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to help the Serbs now, he'll take it.

MARCOVIC: But if the European Union wants to give us support, we'll say thank you.

SHAPIRO: Right now, there's a tug-of-war over Serbia and other countries in this region with Russia on one side and the West on the other. Dragica Nedelkovic is a retired economics teacher sitting in the park, and to her, there's no question who's winning this contest.

DRAGICA NEDELKOVIC: (Through interpreter) I bought a juicer in Russia. It can squeeze juice out of a stone. In bought one in Germany, and it freezes up the minute it hits a bit of orange pulp.

SHAPIRO: It's not just parks and juicers. Russia is waging an active campaign to win hearts and minds here with TV networks and radio stations.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAPIRO: But hearts and minds are one thing. The pocketbook is another. Serbia trades far more with Western Europe than with Russia. Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic spoke in Washington a few weeks ago at Johns Hopkins University. He said he's made Serbia's intentions clear to Vladimir Putin.

ALEKSANDAR VUCIC: And in front of him, I was very proudly and very openly speaking about Serbia's EU path. And I said that Serbia won't give him that path.

SHAPIRO: Here's why Serbia's commitment to that EU path matters to the United States. The U.S. and its NATO allies fought two wars in the former Yugoslavia, and there's lingering Serbian resentment. Now Russia is in a standoff with the West trying to expand its influence. So Serbia is one place to weigh the appeal of these two models. It sometimes seems like the government here wants to have it both ways. While the prime minister talks about joining the European Union, Serbia's president talks about getting closer to Russia.

In October, Belgrade welcomed Putin with its first military parade in decades. Jets flew in formation. Tanks rolled through the streets. Soldiers marched, and thousands of Serbs turned out in the rain to cheer the Russian leader.

ALENA BUKILIC: Actually, I was feeling embarrassed. I was embarrassed.

SHAPIRO: Alena Bukilic is a politician in her late '20s. Sitting in a rooftop wine bar in Belgrade, she says she actually does love Russia.

BUKILIC: Moscow is like my - one of the top favorite cities in the world. I would live there this instant if I could, but Putin is an oppressor. That's how I see him.

SHAPIRO: Put that attitude in a mirror, and you get Milos Kovic, a history teacher at the University of Belgrade.

MILOS KOVIC: I was educated partly in the West, so I love Western culture. I was brought up with rock n' roll music, you know, and not with balalaikas.

(LAUGHTER)

KOVIC: But again, I'm just trying to make a rational choice. Foreign policy is not the same as cultural affinity.

SHAPIRO: He sees the United States as a bigger threat than Russia. And there are those people who don't want to choose sides. Plenty of people in Belgrade told me Serbia is a small country; we can't afford to alienate Russia or the West. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Belgrade, Serbia.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Support your
public radio station