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Great Powers Competition in Moldova

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Moldova is the forgotten epicenter of tensions between the West and Russia, located between Romania and Ukraine, with no direct access to the sea since the territorial changes of the Soviet era. This country of 3.3 million inhabitants for 33,846 square km is plagued by ethnic divisions with Gagauzia and Transnistria, two territories diplomatically close to Moscow. Both the Kremlin and Brussels are reluctant to integrate Moldova into their respective zones of influence due to several elements detailed in this article, which has led to a political situation that has alternated pro-European and pro-Russian governments since the end of the Cold War.

Confirming this unstable political context, Maia Sandu, a pro-European Moldovan stateswoman, was elected president of the country on November 15, 2020, succeeding pro-Russian Igor Dodon. However, this election should not lead to a rapprochement between the West and Moldova, as the major powers are accustomed to considering the country as a political no man’s land, in contrast to the other members of the Eastern Partnership.

The Kremlin’s Reluctance to Take a Proactive Approach in Moldova

For Moscow, the lack of access to the Black Sea makes Moldova less strategically important than other countries in the region. As such, the Kremlin was more active in Crimea and Georgia with the diplomatic recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in contrast to Moldova, where no noticeable change has taken place in Transnistria since 1992.

This situation is paradoxical because a rapprochement between Moscow and Chisinau could confer many strategic advantages on the Kremlin. In this respect, better Russian-Moldovan relations would thus hinder any possible advance of the European Union and NATO in Molodva, and could also force Ukraine to reconsider its diplomatic approach vis-à-vis the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). Moreover, the strengthening of military cooperation between Moscow and Chisinau would increase pressure on Romania, which is favourable to Moldova’s integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions.

Moscow’s cautious approach is all the more paradoxical given that Russia has sympathisers in Moldova with the two territories of Transdniestria and Gagauzia, Tiraspol and Comrat, wishing for rapprochement and even integration within Russia.

For Transnistria, which has been de facto independent of Moldova since the end of the Cold War and whose desire for integration into the Russian Federation was demonstrated by the 2006 referendum with 97.5% of the votes in favour, a diplomatic rapprochement between Moldova and Russia could improve relations between Tiraspol and Chisinau.

On an economic level, if Moldova joins the EEU, Transdniestria could be taken into account, with Chisinau considering it as part of its territory and Tiraspol having an economic interest in aligning its standards with those of Russia.

On the military level, an increased influence of the Kremlin in Moldova would make it possible to negotiate the integration of Chisinau into the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). If this were to happen, the Kremlin could reduce the presence of Russian peacekeeping troops in Transdniestria. In effect, if Moldova joins the CSTO, Moscow would become the protector of Moldova and de jure of Transdniestria, as this territory is a part of Moldova in accordance with Russian, Moldovan and international law.

The withdrawal of Russian soldiers from Transnistria, who are monitoring the contents of Soviet military equipment warehouses, is a source of tension between the West and Russia. In November 2008, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly adopted a resolution calling on Russia to withdraw its forces in accordance with the commitments made at the 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul. The UN General Assembly adopted a similar resolution (document A/72/L.58) calling on the Russian Federation to pull out of Moldovan territory in June 2018.

With Moldova close to Russia, Russian peacekeeping troops would be given the opportunity to withdraw or reduce their numbers, thus easing tensions between the international community and Russia. For the Kremlin, this would also allow it to optimise operating costs and allocate this budget to other peacekeeping operations, including the Nagorno-Karabakh troops, which have been operating since November 10, 2020.

The second pro-Russian territory of Moldova is Gagauzia, which extends over 1,830 square kilometres divided into four non-contiguous zones, grouping around fifteen communes into three districts. Unlike Transnistria, which is de facto independent of Chisinau, Gagauzia is incorporated into Moldova. The inhabitants are initially Turkish-speaking, largely Russified during the 19th and 20th centuries, and now culturally distinct from the Turks.

The Russian-speaking Gagauzs wish to move closer to Russia because they have little advantage in learning Moldavian (Romanian language). Historically, Russia appears to be a country that protects Gagauz interests, a fact that still permeates relations between Moscow and Comrat (the capital of Gagauzia) and bears witness to Moscow’s soft power in this territory.

Comrat is in favour of strengthening the influence of the Kremlin in Moldova in order to promote the Russian language against Romanian, but also to restrict the influence of Bucharest, the fear of the Gagauz being integrated into a “Greater Romania” which would not defend their interests.

Given these elements, and despite the strategic advantages that a rapprochement between Moscow and Chisinau could bring, Moldova remains a political no man’s land for Russia. Moscow’s reluctance to become more involved stems from several factors, the main one being the economic health of the country, the poorest on the European continent with a nominal GDP of $4,498, which means that integration into the EEU would not strengthen the latter’s economic power, making Moldova dependent on other members.

Enlargement of the CSTO into Moldova would lead to a deterioration in Moscow’s relations with the western world, particularly with Romania, and would have repercussions for all the countries of the Black Sea, which could encourage certain states such as Georgia to speed up their rapprochement with NATO and the EU.

An Expensive Investment That Diminishes Interest in the Western World

Moldova is of little economic interest to the EU, with the only competitive sector being agricultural products due to the abundance of rare earth. In addition, the corruption of elites and the departure of young graduates hampers the emergence of new services and active civil society.

Chisinau invests a mere 0.4% of its GDP in its armed forces, with fewer than 6,000 soldiers relying on Soviet equipment, and therefore of little interest to NATO. Apart from the lack of military means, Moldova is a neutral state that does not wish to join an alliance (NATO or CSTO). A poll carried out in 2018 shows that 22% of Moldovans are in favour of a project to join NATO and 43% against it.

While Moldova’s integration into the EU would be a strong symbol and testify to the resilience of Brussels’ soft power in a post-BREXIT context, it would be expensive and the EU would have to invest considerable sums within the framework of the Eastern Partnership to enable Chisinau to meet the accession criteria.

Integration into the Schengen area would trigger a demographic crisis, with young Moldovan citizens having few opportunities at home. Consequently, the European Union prefers to adopt an attitude similar to that of Russia and consider Moldova as a political no man’s land.

In this regard, the result of the elections of November 15, 2020, with Maia Sandu attests to the influence of western influence in the country, but also highlights the lack of confidence in Dodon’s leadership, who has not managed to achieve a rapprochement with Russia during his term as President.

The EU-Moldova cooperation sought by Maia Sandu will struggle to emerge due to the lack of human resources in the country and the absence of infrastructure to export and import goods. Moldova has not had the financial means to modernise its road and rail networks since the fall of communism.

Romanian Ambitions in Moldova

Because of its cultural and linguistic proximity to Moldova, Bucharest would like Chisinau to move closer to the Euro-Atlantic structures of which Romania is a member, even considering going as far as full integration with the rebirth of a “Greater Romania,” which brought the two states together from 1918 to 1940. This prospect is not acceptable to the Gagauz and Transnistrians, but also to many citizens and Moldovan elites, as the country would become an impoverished region of Romania with no control over its future.

Romania’s proactive approach is a source of apprehension for Russian speakers and an argument in favour of Transnistrian and Gagauz separatism. Bucharest is especially influential because the administration has adopted a policy of “passportisation” in Moldova. Romanian citizenship is granted to Moldovans who apply for it and can prove that they have a Romanian ancestor, thus granting European citizenship with its benefits. In total, more than 726,100 Moldovan citizens have thus become Romanians since the end of the Soviet Union.

A facetious remark circulating in Moldova mentions that the country is going to join the European Union, with or without the agreement of Brussels, since there will soon be no Moldovans and only Romanian citizens.

Beijing’s Soft Power in the Black Sea

As in the rest of the Black Sea, the Chinese influence in Moldova has increased in recent years. Beijing is interested in this territory because of the lack of infrastructure and the prevailing corruption, which allows Chinese companies to offer all types of partnerships in exchange for various counterparts.

In 2015, the Chinese company SOE China Shipping Container Lines launched container transport services in the Moldovan port of Giurgiulesti — the country’s only harbour accessible to Black Sea vessels — via the Danube, after signing a terminal services agreement with the national operator. This investment enabled Chisinau to export its products abroad, especially as its economy was suffering from the Russian embargo on Moldovan wine imports. According to local companies, the international free port of Giurgiulesti should continue its development and become a logistics platform with a business park enabling Chinese companies to access the European and Eurasian markets.

Moldova has started negotiations on a free trade agreement (FTA) with Beijing in 2017, removing barriers to the import of certain products and strengthening business exchanges. According to forecasts published by the Moldovan authorities, Moldova’s exports to China could increase by 39.85% and its GDP by 0.42% as a result of the FTA.

The most significant development took place in 2019, when Moldova concluded an infrastructure agreement with two Chinese contractors for the construction of nearly 300 kilometres of roads, at an estimated cost of $400 million. One road will surround the capital Chisinau and the other will link Ukraine to the north. Two Chinese companies — the China Highway Group and the China Railway Group Limited — will participate in this project, marking the first Chinese-led infrastructure project in Moldova. According to Chisinau, the projects will significantly improve traffic and contribute to overall economic growth. A total of 12 major Chinese companies also participated in the Chisinau Business Forum in April 2019, underlining their commitment to increase investment in the country. In the context of the Covid-19 crisis, the Chinese authorities announced that the debt of 77 countries, including Moldova, had been temporarily suspended.

Beijing’s choice to focus its attention on Moldova is explained by the country’s non-alignment, but also by the reluctance of Moscow and the European Union to become more involved. China is, therefore, meeting no resistance from the Russians or westerners.

For the Kremlin, Chinese investments in the region could harm the ambitions of Brussels and Washington in Moldova, China being an ally of Russia. While for westerners, China was providing considerable aid to the EU by modernising infrastructure, which could bring Chisinau closer to Romania and the EU because of the weakness of Chinese soft power, cooperation between Beijing and Chisinau is confined to the economic sector.

No Man’s Land or Chinese Gateway to the Black Sea?

In conclusion, Moldova is one of the epicentres of the tensions between the West and Russia, but the latter are reluctant to increase their involvement because of the unfavourable economic context, as well as the lack of direct access to the Black Sea.

For the EU and NATO, the results of the recent elections should, in theory, lead to a rapprochement, but in practice Transnistria and Gagauzia will hinder the most ambitious projects. Romania is called upon to play a leading role in this rapprochement, but the divisions between Bucharest and Chisinau are a reality to be taken into account and the rebirth of a Greater Romania seems unlikely.

Russia has a strategic interest in increasing its influence in Moldova by integrating Chisinau into the EEU and the CSTO, but this would encourage other Black Sea countries such as Georgia to draw even closer to the western world. Moreover, the presence of Russian troops in Transdniestria and the pro-Russian position of Comrat allow the Kremlin to remain present in the region, independently of Chisinau’s diplomacy, which does not encourage Moscow to develop a pro-active policy.

Beijing’s economic diplomacy seems to be producing results and bringing the two states closer together. In this respect, China has succeeded in modernising the Moldovan infrastructure despite obstacles rooted in corruption. This makes Moldova a potential laboratory for Chinese soft power and indirectly benefits both westerners and Russians.

In view of the results of the November 2020 elections, it seems appropriate to pay attention to the rapprochement between Russia and Transnistria, a process that could be accentuated if Maia Sandu confirms her pro-western policy. Gaguzia could gain in importance, as a move towards the EU and NATO could lead to the resurgence of separatism in this region.

Resources

CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY (CIA), «The European Borders of the USSR», Office of research and Reports, 1955

CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY (CIA), «The Challenge of Ethnic Conflict to National and International Order in the 1990s: Geographic Perspectives», Rapport de conférence, 1995

LAMBERT Michael, Stratégies de mise en place des Soft Power européen et russe en Moldavie après la guerre froide, Études de l’IRSEM n° 40, 2015, 94 pages (www.defense.gouv.fr/content/download/393969/5890290/file/Etude_IRSEM_n40.pdf)

LAMBERT Michael, Comprendre la présence militaire russe en Transnistrie, Revue Défense Nationale 2019/3 (N° 818), pages 107 à 112.

KLEIN Margarete, Russlands Militärpolitik im postsowjetischen Raum. SWP-Studie, 2018

BABAN Inessa, «The Transnistrian Conflict in the Context of the Ukrainian Crisis», Collège de défense de l’Otan 2015, Research Paper n° 122, 12 pages (www.ndc.nato.int/download/downloads.php?icode=468).

KLIMENKO Ekaterina, «Protected Armed Conflicts in the Post-Soviet Space and their Impact on Black Sea Security», SIPRI Insights on Peace and Security n° 2018/8, décembre 2018, 28 pages (www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2018-12/sipriinsight1808_0.pdf)

From our partner RIAC

Ph.D. in History of Europe & International Relations, Sorbonne University - INSEAD Business School, (Geo)political scientist working on Sino-European/Russian relations and soft power in the 21st century

Europe

Ммm is a new trend in the interaction between the EU and Turkey:”Silence is golden” or Musical chair?

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On April 6, a protocol collapse occurred during a meeting between President of Turkey R. Erdogan, President of the European Council S. Michel and head of the European Commission, Ur. von der Leyen. Let us remind you that during their meeting in the conference room she did not have enough chair, and she was forced to sit on the sofa opposite the Turkish Foreign Minister M. Çavuşoğlu, who, according to the diplomatic protocol, occupies a lower rank. This incident (a video showing the confusion of Ur. von der Leyen and her mmm sound, which was cleverly picked up by the media) quickly spread across the media and social networks. This incident provoked not only a number of high-profile comments, but also political and economic consequences for a number of countries.

This story is a double bottom box. On the one hand, there is a protocol error in the organization of the meeting between the EU and Turkey. On the other hand, there is a sharp statement by the Italian head of state about the Turkish president.

We propose to consider this case from two points of view: violation of the protocol and bilateral interaction between Italy and Turkey.

Let’s start with the protocol. Based on the general rules of the protocol, let’s honestly answer the following questions.

1) is it right for the head of state to give up a seat opposite the national flag (respect for the symbols of the state);

2) what is more important – position, diplomatic rank or gender;

3) Who should take the “EU chair” based on the political hierarchy of the Union – the head of the European Council or the European Commission?

Note that both sides – the EU and Turkey – blame each other’s protocol service. EU protocol chief Dominique Marro responded in a statement on Thursday that diplomats were not given access to the conference room in advance because, as they were told, “it was too close to Erdogan’s office.” Turkish officials have agreed to a separate request to add seating for von der Leyen during the reception, he said.

Turkey was accused of “protocol machism.” However, the officials of the protocol services of Turkey and the EU “met before the official visit of the heads, and their wishes were taken into account,” says Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu.

But the shifting of responsibility continues. Brussels insisted that staff were denied a final check of the press conference room. It was soon revealed that another sensational accident was threatened during the official dinner: the table was laid for 5 people on each side, and in front there were two honorary chairs, one for Michel and the other for Erdogan, while a smaller one was reserved for von der Leyen, to the right of Michel. Two diplomatic advisers accompanied Michel to the table, and von der Leyen was left alone.

Michel  was also criticized for not standing up for her. He first wrote an explanation on his Facebook page, in which he did not apologize, but presented his vision of the situation. But as things continued to escalate on Thursday, he went on to say on Belgian TV LN24: “I deeply regret the image created and the impression of a kind of disdain for the President of the European Commission and women in general.” “At that moment I was convinced that any reaction could seem paternalistic. Perhaps it was my mistake, ”he said. “In addition, there was substantial work to be done at the meeting, and I was convinced that the response would lead to a much more serious incident that would affect relations with Turkey.” An interesting commentary by J.K. Juncker, who wrote that he also often found himself on the couch (thereby making it clear that the situation was not critical). This situation could be resolved through diplomatic channels. But, unfortunately, it has received an unusual development.

Now let’s move on to a political analysis.

According to the head of the group of socialists in the European Parliament Garcia Perez Irace, the incident is related to discrimination against women in Turkey. A few weeks ago, on March 20, the president passed a decree authorizing Turkey’s withdrawal from the 2011 Istanbul Convention against Violence against Women, which obliges the governments that have joined it to pass legislation aimed at combating domestic violence. That is, the protocol error received a political color and took on a new light from the perspective of gender politics. However, one should not forget about the cultural and religious differences between the parties to the conflict. It is curious that if Michel gave up the chair to Ursula, he could be criticized from the point of view of gender equality and even, if hypertrophied, accused of sexism. It is also worth paying attention to the absence of harsh statements from the EU, which is interested in Turkey, which restrains the flow of migrants. . Yet the crisis in terms of maritime borders with Greece and Cyprus and the agreement between Israel, Greece, Egypt and Cyprus for the construction of the EastMed gas pipeline have become such important concerns for Turkish interests that in February 2020 Ankara has re-proposed the usual blackmail and once again opening the borders with Greece for Syrian migrants, provoking an immediate European reaction. Since last December, the European Commission has tried relentlessly to mend the tear, unlocking the last tranche of aid to Ankara, equal to 780 million euros of the 6 billion promised, and opening the dialogue for future billion-dollar agreements with Erdoğan in migration theme.

The behavior of M. Draghi seems even more inexplicable. The statement by the head of the Italian government M. Draghi, where he allowed himself to call Erdogan a dictator, cost the country 70 million euros of suspended contracts (the purchase of 10 helicopters from an Italian company Leonardo). In turn, Erdogan is waiting for an official apology from M. Draghi. Whatever the situation, from the point of view of etiquette and protocol, such statements by officials are perceived as inappropriate. There are now 48 large Italian private equity companies in Turkey, such as Unicredit, Generali, Mps, Fiat, Ansaldo Energia and others.On the other hand, according to representatives of Mediobanca Securities, it is unlikely that this diplomatic incident will lead to the cancellation of the contract with Turkey. Moreover, the investment bank added: “This is a relatively small contract for Leonardo: it represents 0.5% of the group’s planned ordering for 2021”, which amounts to approximately 14 billion euros.

This is not the first crisis in Italian-Turkish relations. In ’98 the Ocalan crisis, during the D’Alema government produced violent reactions and a boycott of Italian products in Turkey, however quickly overcome by the subsequent Amato government and even more so by the Berlusconi government starting from 2001. Those were the years of the great contracts for Salini Impregilo’s new bridges over the Bosphorus, for supplies by the Finmeccanica group and the purchase of local banks by Unicredit. But, between ups and downs, the history of economic relations between Rome and Ankara came from afar, from the 1960s when large Italian groups such as Fiat, Pirelli, Cementir had focused heavily on Turkey as the ideal platform to conquer new markets in the eastern Mediterranean.

In fact, the dispute between Turkey and Italy stems from tensions in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean over gas fields. And the European Union could play a key role in supporting Rome, but at the moment none of the EU representatives supported M. Draghi’s words, only Italian populist parties supported the head of state (which had also previously expressed the idea of leaving the EU).

Against the background of all the facts sounded, the behavior of the head of Italy remains the most interesting case. Non-fatal, in its essence, the protocol incident provoked a verbal dive by Draghi and Erdogan, which could cost Rome tens of millions of euros in direct economic losses. But it is not this separate fact that is interesting, but the fact that Italian politicians have recently taken a number of drastic steps and statements that have no reliable explanation. It is appropriate here to recall the spy scandal with Russian diplomats, which could be interpreted as a decrease in the level of interaction between Italy and its longtime trusted partner. Then many assumed that this was a manifestation of the “Atlanticist course” and the rapprochement with the United States of the new cabinet of ministers. But in the situation with the chair, we are talking about a conflict with one of the active members of NATO and a key ally of Washington in the region. And here Draghi’s position evokes the very remark of W. von der Leyen – “ummm” – bewilderment that runs like a red thread through the entire incident and its consequences. What is it? An attempt to show Draghi’s political subjectivity and consistency? A demonstrative rupture of the achievements and economic ties of predecessors in order to prove their independence? Agreements with Washington pending new contracts and cooperation programs and acting in line with these hopes? Or maybe just a misunderstanding of what the Italian people expect from the next prime minister and this is an attempt to find something that will cause an increase in the level of confidence on the part of the Italian political forces? In any case, there is concern that if Draghi continues in this vein, his reign may prove even more inglorious than that of many of his predecessors.

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The Man Who Warned Us First About Climate Change

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A billboard at Piccadilly Circus pays tribute to the late Prince Philip. Garry Knight/Flickr

Among the first to warn us of global warming, he used the term greenhouse gas to describe the increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.  That was in the 1960s and it was dismissed as a cranky notion.  Where he lived, he had a large study lined with books which he actually read; perhaps one reason for the mushrooming of ideas.  

The story begins in Corfu, Greece where he was born.  His very prominent family was turfed out of the country and settled in France.  After early schooling, he was sent to a private boarding school in the UK.  

Founded by German-Jewish educator Kurt Hahn in 1934, Gordonstoun School was new  with new ideas when he attended.  An equal emphasis on mind and body, it challenged students mentally and physically, the latter far more than at other such private schools.  A strapping boy who was also extremely intelligent, he loved the place — later his son was to hate it.  Hahn wrote of him that he would do very well any task assigned to him.

He went on to the naval academy and finished at the top of his class, doing the same at later naval exams and becoming the youngest Lieutenant in the navy.  Given command of a ship, he ran it like clockwork but a certain lack of sensitivity to others also came through:  the crew were driven ragged and hated serving under him.  He loved the navy and always loved the sea; indeed it was a sacrifice to give up his naval career when he married but it was incompatible in his new role for his wife was a very important personage.          

Studying in England, I could not fail to notice his frequent presence on newspaper front pages, even though my own interests then did not focus on the news of the day.  He seemed to set up awards for all kinds of excellence. He wanted British industry to shine, young people to deliver their best and so on.  And of course, he was invariably presenting awards to the winners.

A sportsman, he was also out there playing polo with his team, or at equestrian meets or playing cricket at charity events, or sailing which he clearly loved.  His uncle saw India through a hurried independence and a bloody partition.  Uncle Dickie, as he was called by the royal children, was a valued presence until killed by the IRA (Irish Republican Army) in a senseless bomb attack that lost them public sympathy.  

The country’s leaders kept him busy and he was sent to numerous countries representing the queen, most often to former colonies in an era with a rash of newly independent countries.  Yes, his name was Philip, titled Prince of Greece and Denmark, and his wife was Queen Elizabeth II.  

Prince Philip’s royal bloodline (like the Queen’s) was German — Battenberg the family last name having been changed to Mountbatten during the First World War.  His sisters married Germans and remained in Germany during the Second World War.  They were not invited to his wedding to a very much in love Princess Elizabeth.  He had been the longest serving consort of any British monarch when he died a few days ago.   

Prince Philip’s travels were also notorious for gaffes and his eye for attractive females — middle class morality be damned.  A definite lacuna in sensitivity was more than evident.  Meeting a group of Nigerians resplendent in their long colorful national dress, he remarked, “Ready for bed, are we?”  to their embarrassment.

Yet, all in all, a very full life.

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Sino-Serbian relations under the “microscope”: China’s footprint In Serbia

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Over the years, the Sino-Serbian foreign relations have straightened to a very high level, with China establishing itself as a valuable ally to Serbia. Since the recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 by Yugoslavia and the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between the two states in 1955, both countries have been on warm relations that soon transformed into a strategic alliance. However, this relationship has given an uneasy feeling to the political elite in the West that sees this relationship as China’s efforts to expand its influence into the Balkan region and undermine the efforts of the EU for stabilization. On the other hand, some may argue that this uneasy feeling that the West is experiencing is due to its own failures of constant neglect and poor leadership towards Serbia, which has taken action in its own hands. Can we really say that the situation in Serbia is about Chinese imperialism, or is it a case that the West failed Serbia over and over again and now sees its diplomatic failures backfiring back to them?

Sino-Serbian relations in retrospective

The relationship between both countries has always been on a warm status, but the potential for an even stronger relationship came during the 1990s in the so-called Yugoslavian Wars. The People’s Republic of China was critical against the U.S and NATO forces bombing campaign in Serbia while it supported the decisions of President Milošević, describing them as vital decisions for preserving the territorial integrity of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia, against the Albanian separatists and the UCK (Kosovo Liberation Army) terrorists. The opposition against NATO intensified after NATO warplanes bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists. Although the West saw it as a mistake, this gave a clear signal to Serbia and China that the Western aggression against them could provide them with the potential of rebuilding their relations in the 21st century, in something more than just strong diplomatic ties.

Under the presidency of Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia has seen closer cooperation with China, especially at an economic level. For years now, both countries have cooperated in various industries. Since 2012, Serbia has received at least $10bn of Chinese investment in the country, changing rapidly its economic profile. Serbia is also part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which allowed Serbia to provide an investment-friendly environment towards China without any EU regulations, making the country the largest economy in the Western Balkans. Also, China has changed the tourism industry in Serbia. Since 2017, Chinese citizens can visit Serbia visa-free. This initiative allowed the country to improve its industry with a rise of at least 36% from Chinese visitors. Also, Serbia as a hub of investments does not only concentrate on tourism. China has invested a tremendous amount of money in its infrastructure and energy sectors and projects such as the Budapest-Belgrade Railway while Chinese firms have acquired various steel plants and coal mines, such as the Smederevo steel plant and a copper mine is in Bor, east of Serbia. These actions by China have kept afloat the Serbian economy while saving more than 10.000 job positions, highlighting the reconstruction of the country and making China the most important trading partner for Serbia in the 21st century.

Politics, the pandemic, and the success of Serbia in the game of geopolitical chess

Apart from close economic ties, both countries share a common interest in the political arena. Since the 1990’s China has been a close political ally of Serbia, supporting its territorial integrity while not recognizing the pseudostate of Kosovo. On the other hand, Serbia has been supportive of China’s decisions to safeguard its interests in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang, agreeing with the One-China policy that the People’s Republic of China has been advocating for years. The relationship between the two countries has been seen negatively by the West, with the EU being skeptical about China’s intentions in the region. A resolution from the EU parliament on the 2019-2020 Commission report on Serbia expressed the concern over the increased economic ties between the two states, and China’s questionable investments that are lacking transparency, while also pointing out that the investors in Serbia have failed to carry out important environmental assessments. “With this behavior, Serbia, a candidate country for EU accession is jeopardizing its progress”, were the statements from the EU side, that sees the growing influence of China in the region, as a threat to its own interests. However, Serbia is not bowing to the threats of the EU, as it sees the European bloc constantly neglecting Serbia’s needs and undermining its national interests.

With the inclusion of China as a major player in the Balkans, some analysts present an interesting argument that China has overthrown the Russian Federation from the position of the most important ally of Serbia. Historically, Russia and Serbia have seen very close ties, and it’s unlikely that the inclusion of China as an ally to Serbia will jeopardize that. However, news organizations and analysts from the West found an opportunity to provide an environment of division within Serbia. Understandably, Serbia seeks to improve its position in the world, and having more than one powerful allies, especially one that has the fastest growing economy in the world, will benefit the rhetoric of Aleksandar Vučić, who has demonstrated to the Serbian public that the country has drastically changed and it has overcome the previous humiliations and mistreatment from the West. It seems that the West is terrified of the potential growth of Serbia, a country that once was brutally bombarded by U.S and NATO forces, and now has the chance to dominate the geopolitical scene in the Balkans without even being part of the EU. The country represents an open door for China in Europe, allowing the country to fully take advantage of the various infrastructure and energy projects that are presented. Serbia is building a new lasting alliance, and as much as the West wants to undermine this relationship by creating political divisions about who is the biggest ally of Serbia, they miss the big point. The country now has more allies and more influence in the Balkans and feels it’s time not to take the West seriously. For years the EU, in particular, has underestimated Serbia while showing full support for the illegitimate state of Kosovo, and portraying the country as this evil entity and abuser of human rights.

Another important parameter in the evaluation of the current situation in the world. When COVID-19 spread all over the world, we witnessed a phenomenal collapse of our daily lives, with many businesses closing and the governments around the world putting an effort to recover from the virus. Serbia, unlike other countries in Europe, had a successful vaccination campaign and managed to win the geopolitical game of chess, simply by not playing the game. For Serbia, vaccination was never a political game and that’s why they managed to deal with it better. As prime minister Ana Brnabic stated: “Whether vaccines come from China, Russia, the EU or the U.S, we don’t care, as long as they’re safe and we get them as soon as possible. For us, vaccination is a healthcare issue, not a geopolitical matter”. Just by this statement, Serbia managed to understand the dangers of politicizing the vaccines and decided to focus on the health of its citizens, effectively overcoming the growing danger of the virus.

The fight is not over yet, but unlike the EU, Serbia set its priorities straight, and in a way, revealed the failed bureaucratic system of the EU, that chooses politics over the health of its citizens. Although Serbia received both the Russian vaccine Sputnik V and the Chinese Sinopharm, analysts have focused on the importance of Chinese help. For the simple reason that the help from Russia was expected, because of the historic, cultural, and religious ties between both states. The help from China was something that shifted the balance in Serbia, and the country managed to be in a better position compared to other countries in the Balkans and the EU. Both China and Serbia made it clear from the beginning that they will support each other in these harsh times. A few months ago, the Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ivica Dačić, was in Beijing, declaring his support in any way possible to China. In his statement, he said: “You didn’t fear NATO bombs, my visit shows we’re not afraid of the virus”; again pointing out the importance of this alliance that dates years back. The EU might be skeptical about China’s intentions, but one thing is for sure; they did not provide help when needed, proving once again that European solidarity is a fairy tale.

The Chinese impact on Serbia: Voices from within the country

Although the government of Aleksandar Vučić has made it very clear to the Serbian public that foreign investments from China are a positive step towards the socio-economic transformation of the country, some people within Serbia have shared their thoughts about whether this can bring a positive or a negative impact for Serbia. Dragan Djilas, the former mayor of Belgrade and president of the Freedom & Justice Party in Serbia, expresses his criticism of the political decisions of Aleksandar Vučić. In his view, democracy in Serbia does not exist anymore, and there is only one man to blame, Aleksandar Vučić. Djilas also points out that the growing relationship with China has been transformed into a dependent, one-way relationship, where China acts as a colonizer. “China operates in Serbia, the same way it does in the continent of Africa. It seems that now we have a new Big Brother”, referring to the new status quo, where Russia is not seen as the only powerful ally that Serbia can rely on. For Mr. Djilas, this dependency on China will only jeopardize any potential ascension in the European Union. His point is shared by many within Serbia that see this dichotomy in society that wants to move more on the West yet again it makes agreements and treaties with a non-democratic and autocratic government, and it seems that Aleksandar Vučić follows the same path. “Our struggle is focused on Europe, which should finally realize that we want to establish a free and democratic society and end the denigrating process in Serbia established by Aleksandar Vučić”, were the words of Dragan Djilas, who sees China slowly overtaking his country.

On the other hand, Djordje Terek, an analyst at the Center for International Public Policy in Belgrade, does not see the involvement of China in the Western Balkans, especially in Serbia, as a new phenomenon. “China, similarly to Russia, Germany or the U.S., has its own interest in the Western Balkans region and it has been present there for a while”. If we view this statement from a realistic point of view, we can make sense of China’s intentions in Serbia being no different than the intentions of any other country that revolves around the philosophy of realpolitik. Also, there is an interesting mention of Serbia’s new role in the region, especially after the Belgrade Summit. As Terek points out: “Serbia, as a potential EU member state, was given a prominent role within China’s BRI initiative as it was demonstrated at the summit in Belgrade. It is the strategy based on the penetration into the EU market that China centralized around Belgrade. With that being said, Serbia is one of the compelling China’s attributes in the Western Balkans and Europe as well. In 2009, Serbia and China signed a strategic partnership agreement and in 2013, Serbia hosted a 16+1 summit in Belgrade where $900 billion infrastructure projects were promised to the region”.

However, although the government of Aleksandar Vučić is keen to demonstrate how China’s investments have been crucial for Serbia, the European Union is still by far the most crucial contributor in foreign direct investments, comprising at least 70% of FDI in the country. With this remark, some may argue that indeed China is an important ally to Serbia, but the EU is still around, reminding the country that it is still a pending member for EU accession. It seems that the presence of China in Serbia will only be positive if Aleksandar Vučić manages to balance both of his commitments to the EU and China. After all, Serbia still wants to be part of the European Union and not merge with the People’s Republic of China. In some final remarks, Djordje Terek thinks that if the government of Serbia wants any success to come out of this situation it needs to evaluate the situation delicately. “While Serbia has been actively pursuing EU membership, the current state of affairs tells us that Vučić uses the geopolitical window to further deviate from EU integrations, while continuously sitting on two chairs, and only time will show if that will be beneficial for Serbia”.

One other aspect of China’s involvement in Serbia, that has troubled the citizens of the country, are the environmental issues that have emerged since China’s increased investment in the steel factories and the mines in the east of the country. In the area of Bor, where a Chinese company has recently acquired the ownership of a mining facility, there have been reports of increased pollution in the area, with environmental agencies being concerned about the high levels of sulfur dioxide and arsenic in the air. Besides the air pollution issue, concerns have been raised about the water pollution of the area. Near the mining facility, in the village of Metovnica, locals have seen the impact of the mine activities, in shortage of water and water pollution. For analyst Djordje Terek, this increased pollution in the area rapidly plummeted in the last seven years, potentially making Serbia the global leader in air pollution. “The Chinese investments in the steel factory in Smederevo and the copper mine in Bor, have made the people in the area wear face masks even before the beginning of the pandemic. It seems that the ties of the Serbian government with China is on higher priority rather than the environmental damage”. The mayor of Bor, Aleksandar Milikic, quickly dismissed the allegations of environmental damage and characterized any kind of protest in the area regarding this subject as the work of political actors wishing to benefit from it. As for the people in Bor, they can see the damage to the environment, but many of them point out the positive aspect of the Chinese investments, where people can find a good-paying job at the mines. Given the absence of work in the area in recent years, these investments have more positives than negatives for them.

Whether we would look at the Chinese involvement in Serbia as a positive or a negative thing, one thing is for sure. The geopolitical profile of the country is changing, and Serbia can benefit from the increased investments in its country. However, Aleksandar Vučić must be careful how he handles the situation inside Serbia. The increased protests and the uneasy feeling of its citizens regarding the environment, should not be aspects that are overlooked by the government, Nevertheless, with the global pandemic devastating many countries in Europe and around the world, Serbia has demonstrated its will to improve the healthcare situation in the country by not focusing on the vaccine politics and as a result winning, one might say the political chess game that the West found itself playing. Only time will show if Aleksandar Vučić manages to hold on, on both the West and the East, in a rare situation where Serbia seems to have the upper hand as to how the country must advance now, trying to reshape the international image about Serbia.

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