President Vladimir Putin visited Serbia on January 17, making his first official trip to Serbia since 2014 and fourth since coming to power. Several-hour program was marked by the signing of more than twenty agreements. Also, contracts were signed to such areas as nuclear energy, space exploration, as well as digital technology, innovation and investments in high-tech and strategic areas. In particular, parties signed a Joint Statement on Strategic Partnership between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Serbia on the construction of the Center for Nuclear Science. However, the key issue of the Russian-Serbian summit talks was energy issues. Instead of the South Stream gas pipeline project, which was actually blocked by the West, Russia successfully builds the Turkish Stream pipeline, one of which is designed to supply Russian gas further to Europe. Serbia is objectively interested in becoming a key regional player in the system of transit of Russian gas further towards Central Europe. Moscow is ready to invest 1.4 billion dollars in expanding the infrastructure necessary for laying the Turkish Stream gas pipeline in Serbia. As part of the Russian-Serbian negotiations, an agreement was reached on additional investments in the amount of 230 million euros for the reconstruction of the local railway with a length of 210 kilometers by RZD, as well as in the construction of centralized operation centre, which will control all rail traffic in Serbia.
Mutual trade is growing, and in 2017 it amounted around 2 billion dollars and continued to increase last year. Russian investments in the Serbian economy exceeded $ 4billion. Cooperation with the concern Gazprom Neft allowed the Oil Industry of Serbia company to become a leader in the energy market of the Balkan region. Export of Russian natural gas to Serbia have increased and Gazprom company is planning to increase them even more with plans to expand the capacities of the Banatski Dvor storage facility as well as the gas pipeline network in Serbia. Total Russian investments in Serbia in the next two years could reach $ 500 million, Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, said. Also, Russian president said they discussed military cooperation between two countries.
President Putin had separate meetings with Serb politicians from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro. He met with Republika Srpska president Zeljka Cvijanovic and Bosnia-Herzegovina Presidency President Milorad Dodik and with the leaders of the strongest opposition party in Montenegro – Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic.
Vladimir Putin awarded Aleksandar Vucic with the Order of Alexander Nevsky, and they jointly visited both the graveyard of the Russian soldiers who participated in the liberation of Belgrade during the Second World War, and the city’s largest Temple dedicated to Saint Sava, where they put the final pieces in a new mosaic. The city was ornamented with Russian and Serbian flags. During the joint press conference, Russian president reflected on the normalization process between Serbia and Kosovo, emphasizing that Russia supports a mutually acceptable solution of Belgrade and Pristina, but based on the UN Resolution 1244. President Putin stated, that Kosovo’s authorities have recently undertaken provocative actions that have further undermined the regional stability, such as establishing the Armed Forces. ”The Resolution 1244 does not allow the existence of any armed formations in Kosovo except for the United Nations contingency. We share the concerns of Serbia, because we know that these steps lead to instability in the Balkans. Our support will continue.”, stated Putin. Russia’s President pointed out that trade of goods between Serbia and Russia has reached the value of two billion Euros, while the procurement of natural gas is also on the rise.
Situation on the ground
The main reasons for the visit of Vladimir Putin to Belgrade were to agree on Serbia’s entry into the free trade area with the Eurasian Economic Union, arrange further military-technical cooperation, and ensure Serbia’s determination to participate in the Turkish Stream project. It is clear that under the rule of Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia will not enter into free trade with Eurasian Economic Union, while Russian energy projects are supported. One of the main reasons why Aleksandar Vucic received the Order of Alexander Nevsky is the military – security cooperation, which during the rule of Alexander Vucic significantly improved. Serbia received six fighter jets “MIG 29” from Russia, and in accordance with the military-technical cooperation with Belarus, this year four fighter jets “MIG 29” will be delivered. And together with the four Serbian fighter jets “MIG 29” will be sent for modernization to Russia, so Serbia will have a squadron of fighter jets equipped with modern weapons and radars. The upgrade process will cost around 185 million euros. Also, according to announcements, Serbia has already signed contracts with Russia worth around 280 million euros for the purchase of four MI-35M combat helicopters, three Mi-17 B5 transport helicopters and also for Pantsir-S1 self-propelled, medium range surface-to-air missile system.
However, Serbia has much stronger cooperation with the West. Serbia concluded with NATO an Individual Partnership Plan (IPAP) in 2015, according to which NATO received the right to use the Serbian infrastructure. Today, in Serbia personnel of NATO member countries have the opportunity to move freely throughout Serbian territory and have diplomatic immunity. From 2012 to 2017 Serbia held 98 military exercises with NATO and only 12 with Russia. Exercise “Serbia 2018” was the largest NATO civilian exercise in history of the Alliance, which was held from 8 to 11 October in Serbia. Around 2,000 participants from 38 countries practiced wide range of emergency responses. Maintaining such a large exercise in Serbia, was a direct provocation of Russia, because Russian Humanitarian Center in Nis is intended for elementary disasters and emergency situations. Also in January is expected the adoption of the new Individual partnership action plan (IPAP). The draft of the agreement has been submitted to NATO officials and their answers is the only thing left, stated head of delegation to NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly and a member of the Security Services Control Board Dragan Sormaz. During 2018, Serbian army took part in two major NATO-exercises as an observer, and Serbian soldiers were engaged in ten exercises which were organized or participated by NATO member countries. At the same time, employees of the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in the city of Nis did not received diplomatic immunity.
In a visit to Belgrade in April 2017, the late Senator John McCain noted that the United States is Serbia’s most important defense partner with the two countries engaging in ninety joint military activities per year. And most importantly, the NATO Liaison Office in Belgrade is located in the building of the Serbian Defense Ministry, just one floor beneath the office of the defense minister. Another project of the Serbian government, which attracts the attention is the announced construction of a highway between Serbian city of Nis, Kosovo’s Pristina and Albania’s Durres, so that Serbia could get its harbor on the Adriatic. However, why would Serbia need highway to port in Durres, when Serbia has port of Bar in Montenegro. Especially having in mind that a lot of Serbs live in Bar, as well as throughout Montenegro. The answer is simple, the highway Nis – Pristina – Durres is needed by NATO troops, for a better and safer move to Bulgaria, in case of disabling the passage of NATO ships through Bosphorus.
In terms of economic cooperation, things are also clear, the value of Serbian-Russian trade has indeed increased to over 2 billion euros, but the value of Serbian trade with EU is around 11 times larger-almost 25 billion, and 63% of Serbia’s foreign trade is with the EU countries. When Aleksandar Vucic praise how he refused Western pressure to impose sanctions against Russia, that is only because of the Serbian nation and the majority of its voters. When he would officially introduced sanctions to Russia, he would turn the majority of the Serbian people against him. Even though agriculture is the biggest development chance of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic did not allow Serbia to enter seriously on the big Russian market in 2014, at that time, Aleksandar Vucic refused to grant state grants to Serbian farmers.
Bearing in mind the popularity of Vladimir Putin in Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic wanted to use President Putin’s visit for his personal political interests, as a response to the weekly protests against him that have been going since the beginning of December. The ruling party has organized transport of many of its members from across the country to greet Putin and politicaly exploit his arrival. The participiants were carrying the banner titled “One of the 300 million”( there’s a saying among Serbs “Us and Russians 300 million“ although that number is actually much smaller), which was an obvious reference to the title of the protests against Aleksandar Vucic, which is “One of the five million”. Vucic planned that Putin would address the people in front of the Temple of Saint Sava, sending a message that Russia supports Alexander Vucic’s policy. President Putin rejected that. Vladimir Putin addressed the people in front of the Temple of Saint Sava with the words in serbian: “Thank you for your friendship!”
Vladimir Putin in Belgrade was greeted by more than 120 000 people. In addition, he is the most popular politician in Serbia. It’s hard to find an example that more than 120,000 people in a European country are gathered on the streets of the capital to welcome the president of another country. The statement by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin that Russia will support any Belgrade-Pristina agreement within the framework of Resolution 1244, is encouraging. That is exactly what must be the basis of Russian policy towards the current Serbian authorities. Because in the case of the acceptance of Aleksandar Vucic’s plan to divide Serbs and Albanians, the consequences for Serbia would be catastrophic. It is in the interest of Russia that its main ally in the Balkans become economically and demographically strong, but under the rule of Alexander Vucic things are going in the other direction. This primarily refers to demography. Around 60 000 people leave Serbia per year, while around 40 000 die more than it is born. In other words, Serbia decreases annually for nearly 100 000 people. These are the results of the Aleksandar Vucic’s rule.
Russia needs a new strategy towards Serbia. Russian investments, which in addition to the energy sector, should also focus on Serbian agriculture. By investing in Serbian agriculture, Russia would significantly strengthen its position in Serbia and economically strengthen Serbia. Vladimir Putin’s visit has also shown the strengthening of russophobia by NGOs funded by the West. A situation similar to that with Montenegro. In Montenegro, the absolute majority of the population advocated brotherly relations with Russia, and in all polls, the majority of the population was opposed to joining NATO. However, the West has enabled the creation of an authoritarian system in Montenegro, led by Milo Djukanovic, which with undemocratic methods, has brought Montenegro into NATO. Almost the same is now done with Serbia. Aleksandar Vucic, who runs with methods almost identical to Milo Djukanovic, is a person who fulfilled or wanted to fulfill all the strategic requirements of the West. How willing he can go in that direction could be seen when the Serbian Orthodox Church openly opposed his plan of division with the Albanians. Then, direct attacks by the media in Serbia, as well as members of his government, were launched to the Serbian Orthodox Church. In line with the above, it is necessary to enable the opening of the pro-Russian television with national frequency in Serbia, to strengthen pro-Russian NGO movements, to strengthen local patriotic movements. A mistake similar to that with Milo Djukanovic, must not be repeated.
First published in our partner International Affairs
Deciphering EU’s new investment deal with China
The perceived economic gains of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI), which the 27-nation European Union recently struck with the People’s Republic of China, come at the cost of disregarding human rights, which the Western bloc is known for, amid clear and irreconcilable systemic differences.
The closing days of 2020 saw the European Union and China striking a deal known as the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments (CAI), thereby concluding seven long years of negotiations, as per the year-end deadline. China is also the EU’s biggest trading partner after the United States, but a strategic and systemic rival too.
The European Commission, Brussels-based executive arm of the EU, primarily led the negotiations on behalf of the bloc. Germany, being the holder the EU Council Presidency and led by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s continued push, combined with Beijing’s last-minute concessions, proved instrumental in expediting the process of finalising the CAI before the end of 2020.
However, the deal will still have to wait for a formal ratification by both sides and an approval by the Strasbourg-based EU Parliament, a tougher task, before finally setting it on course to be effective in a couple of years’ time, if not by early 2022.
Better rules, level-playing field for European businesses
The EU, by this deal, aims to widen the access for European companies to lucrative Chinese markets, with billion-plus consumers, on a wide range of sectors, particularly in services such as healthcare, finance, cloud-computing and air travel, among others, that has always been restrictive to foreign players in the past.
The deal could bring in a level playing field in the conduct of European businesses in China wherein Chinese state-owned enterprises will no longer be given preferential treatment through subsidies, thereby promoting fair competition and ensuring transparency in technology transfers. Newer possibilities for the expansion European businesses in China will be opened.
The CAI also promise better rules, investment protection, and an investment dispute settlement mechanism within two years of signing, which will replace all the separate bilateral investment treaties currently signed between China and EU member states. The EU maintains that the main purpose of this new deal is to address the economic imbalance in its relations with China.
However, the most striking aspect of the CAI is that, for the first time, China commits to follow accepted standards on climate and labour aspects, even though in a vague form. And for the EU, the timing of this deal with China is significant as a way of signalling its reengagement with the world in the aftermath of a post-Brexit scenario.
At the same time, the CAI reaffirmed reciprocal access for Chinese companies into European markets, which they always had. So, the deal matters to Europe, more than it matters to China. So, the real question is the extent of compromises which European negotiators had to make to strike the deal with the Asian superpower.
The issue of forced labour in China
Many EU member countries and the US had been apprehensive about the human rights situation in the northern Xinjiang province of China where there have been evidences and investigations on the use of forced labour from the media and elsewhere, which has not been duly factored in while concluding the investment deal.
It has been alleged that in the past several years, the Chinese government has forced over a million Uighur minorities in Xinjiang to perform seasonal labour against their will and are often underpaid. But, the Chinese government has repeatedly denied such allegations.
Many European lawmakers believe that China is not interested in fully complying with international agreements after signing it and is not a responsible and trustable partner. The presence of mass detention camps in this province, as verified by satellite imagery and other documents, is also a human rights concern which the EU was not supposed to ignore, considering its historical commitments to human rights.
US concerns and strategic rivalry
The incoming Biden administration has also raised concerns about the CAI, stating that it would “welcome early consultations” with its European partners on shared concerns surrounding China’s unfair economic practices, hinting at the issue of forced labour and the deal’s lacking on the question of enforcement of human rights.
Being a security and strategic partner of the US and part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), any such deal which EU and its member countries sign with its strategic rival, China, could effectively undermine American-led efforts to counter the strategic and geopolitical threat posed by Beijing’s aggressive and expansionist policies around the world.
It also flies in the face of an incoming Biden administration which is openly committed to mend relations with allies in Europe that had been worsened under Donald Trump. Many experts in the US have felt the EU should’ve waited for a few more weeks until the Biden administration takes charge to form a co-ordinated approach, as it related to their common systemic and strategic rival, China.
Moreover, the deal comes at a time when individual EU members such as Germany and the Netherlands have recently released their own outlook on the Indo-Pacific strategy, which is perceivably aimed at containing China’s rise and to ensure balance of power in the region. Meanwhile, France’s outlook is in existence for two years now.
Way ahead for implementation
The deal has now been reached at the technical level, paving way for a final ratification. But, getting the deal through the European Parliament, which attaches far more significance to human rights concerns than the Commission and the Council, is going to be a tough task, as many European legislators are increasingly sceptical of Chinese intentions and commitments to any deal.
The coming months are going to be crucial with regard to how the European legislators will debate and take forward the deal to the next level.
Hungry for change: An open letter to European governments
In 2020, the entire world knew what it was to be hungry. Millions of people went without enough to eat, with the most desperate now facing famine. At the same time, isolation took on a new meaning, in which the lonely and most remote were deprived of human contact when they most needed it, while the many victims of Covid-19 were starved of air. For all of us, the human experience fell far short of satisfying even the most basic needs.
The pandemic has provided a taste of a future at the limits of existence, where people are bereft, governments are stymied and economies wither. But it has also fuelled an unprecedented global appetite for change to prevent this from becoming our long-term reality.
For all the obstacles and challenges we face in the weeks and months ahead, I start 2021 with a tremendous sense of optimism and hope that the growling in our stomachs and the yearning in our hearts can become the collective roar of defiance, of determination and of revolution to make this year better than last, and the future brighter than the past.
It starts with food, the most primal form of sustenance. It is food that determines the health and prospects of almost 750 million Europeans and counting. It is food that employs some 10 million in European agriculture alone and offers the promise of economic growth and development. And it is food that we have learned impacts our very ecosystems, down to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the climate we enjoy, come rain or shine.
Even before the pandemic, 2021 was destined to be a “super-year” for food, a year in which food production, consumption and disposal finally received the requisite global attention as the UN convenes the world’s first Food Systems Summit. But with two years’ worth of progress now compressed into the next 12 months, 2021 takes on a renewed significance.
After a year of global paralysis, caused by the shock of Covid-19, we must channel our anxieties, our fear, our hunger,and most of all our energies into action, and wake up to the fact that by transforming food systems to be healthier, more sustainable and inclusive, we can recover from the pandemic and limit the impact of future crises.
The change we need will require all of us to think and act differently because every one of us has a stake and a role in functioning food systems. But now, more than ever, we must look to our national leaders to chart the path forward by uniting farmers, producers, scientists, hauliers, grocers, and consumers, listening to their difficulties and insights, and pledging to improve each aspect of the food system for the betterment of all.
Policymakers must listen to Europe’s 10 million farmers as custodians of the resources that produce our food, and align their needs and challenges with the perspectives of environmentalists and entrepreneurs, chefs and restaurant owners, doctors and nutritionists to develop national commitments.
We enter 2021 with wind in our sails. More than 50 countries have joined the European Union in engaging with the Food Systems Summit and its five priority pillars, or Action Tracks, which cut across nutrition, poverty, climate change, resilience and sustainability. And more than two dozen countries have appointed a national convenor to host a series of country-level dialogues in the months ahead, a process that will underpin the Summit and set the agenda for the Decade of Action to 2030.
But this is just the beginning. With utmost urgency, I call on all UN Member States to join this global movement for a better, more fulfilling future, starting with the transformation of food systems. I urge governments to provide the platform that opens a conversation and guides countries towards tangible, concrete change. And I encourage everyone with fire in their bellies to get involved with the Food Systems Summit process this year and start the journey of transitioning to more inclusive and sustainable food systems.
The Summit is a “People’s Summit” for everyone, and its success relies on everyone everywhere getting involved through participating in Action Track surveys, joining the online Summit Community, and signing up to become Food Systems Heroes who are committed to improving food systems in their own communities and constituencies.
Too often, we say it is time to act and make a difference, then continue as before. But it would be unforgivable if the world was allowed to forget the lessons of the pandemic in our desperation to return to normal life. All the writing on the wall suggests that our food systems need reform now. Humanity is hungry for this change. It is time to sate our appetite.
Blank Spot in EU
The historic exit of the Great Britain from the European Union sparked both opportunities and chaos alike. Whether it comes to sectors within and beyond the orders of Britain, the trade policy with Northern Ireland or the isolated position of the bloc as the pandemic continues to perforate the continent with each passing day. It took a span of 4 years and a combination of referendums, disagreements in the House of Commons, displacement of public office and relentless efforts of the diplomats to bargain and negotiate an exit deal. Despite of the celebrated trade deal in action, much of the uncertainty still looms across Europe. The economic bloc now faces an empty spot of a 28th member post UK-exit and with rilling economic desperation and the Coronavirus spiralling alike, EU seeks a promising role to displace some of the pressure buildup.
The United Kingdom, mainly London, serves as the only unarguable financial rival to the metropolis of New York. Although the financial epicentre casted no qualms over trade post Brexit and even the EU financial markets reported no apparent glitches in trade across borders now subject to custom rules and regulations, the sheer volume of the trade denominated in LIBOR projects a sinister possibility of financial turmoil in the near future. Moreover, the trade deal negotiated, hailed by either parties as a victorious bargain, does little to placate uncertainty in the financial markets which further encourages the need of a solid alliance or partnership to fill the gap and subsequent irregularities faced by the European Union.
Turkey stands as one of the aspirants seeking EU membership. Every European state enjoys the privilege to seek EU membership which is subject to yearly review. Turkey has been a lurking party to seek EU approval since 1987. The opportunities opened up in 2016 after decades of tensions over Turkey’s shady democracy and violent role in dealing with their Kurdish minority, residing on the south-eastern borders of Turkey shared with a war-torn Syria. A refugee deal was signed in 2016 between Turkey and EU to facilitate Syrian refugees amidst the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. The deal served as a defining chapter in improving bilateral relations. Despite of Turkey’s conditions in the refugee deal: demanding a $60 billion grant from EU to pivot the refugee crisis, EU subliminally promised an expedited track for Turkey’s ascension to EU membership.
However, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, and arguably the most powerful political figure in the circles of Europe, always stood against and awry to Turkey’s membership in EU. The talks of Turkish membership were even stalled back in 2019 in the EU parliament and the prospects looked murky. However, as Merkel inches closer to departure from Germany’s political benches after decades of systematic control, Turkey cites the opportunity as a blessing in disguise. Coupled with Germany being at the verge of a severe recession synonymous in scale to the financial crisis of 2009, Germany’s position could actually shift in favour of Turkey ever since UK-exit baffled even the most sage minds of the continent.
The opportunities, however, are not the only blocks paving way for Turkey towards EU. Turkey shares a brutal conflict with Greece, another EU member state that has muddled the chances of Turkey in the EU for decades. Turkey has the longest continental coastline in the East Mediterranean which has been long contested with Greece over the gas reserves found profoundly in the waters of the East Mediterranean. Both countries have overlapping areas and have time and time again rejected each others claims over respective maritime borders and continental shelves. The icy relations between the duo have been hazy due to multitude of other reasons as well. Ranging from disputes over Turkish migrants crossing Greek borders to ships anchoring in the disputed regions without prior alert. The recent turmoil incited when Turkey officially declared Hagia Sophia, a museum in Istanbul and a historic remnant of Greek Orthodox Christian Cathedral, as a mosque which infuriated the Greek patriots.
Turkey’s ascension to membership might be a solution to economic disparity in the region; Turkey serving as a corridor between Europe and Asia and opening channels of economic flourish to EU like Silk Road initiative with China. The ascension could even solve the border disputes with Greece and project a solution to the energy reserves in Mediterranean, solving the divide once and for all. Even with Recab Tayyab Erdogan’s boasting position over improving relations with EU, the extent of ease in bilateral relations is still unclear. As top Turkish Diplomat’s schedule visit to Brussels in a week, and Turkey and Greece are to resume exploratory talks over territorial claims in the Mediterranean on January 25th, glimmers of astounding results are on cards in the arching diplomacy of Europe.
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