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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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Croatia Between Victory And Defeat

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The first half of May in Croatia is marked by the anniversaries of two events from the end of the Second World War. With one democratic Croatia, which, if we believe its Constitution, is built on the foundations of anti-fascism (and opposite the so called Independent State of Croatia, established by the Ustasha movement, under the wings of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy) should be proud of, the other would be politically opportune not to mention at all, or keep  within the limits of individual commemorations. We are speaking, of course, of Victory Day and the date of the surrender of the remnants of the Ustasha and Home Guard forces, united in the Croatian Defense Forces, on the Bleiburg field, ie the liquidation of still uncertain number od those made prisoners there.

The opposite is happening, however. Instead of being proud of the V Day, the official Croatian tries to push it into oblivion, and because it does (still) cannot, makes only certain protocol gestures. And the fact that during WW2 a Croatia existed which was on the side of Nazi-fascism existed and kept fighting to the last day, and even after that, that there was a Croatia which systematically committed war crimes against Serbs, Jews, Roma and Croats – political opponents, thus tarnishing the Croatian name, is persistently being pushed in the foreground. With a barely concealed positive context.

This is obvious not only from this year, but exactly in this, 2021. it becomes, perhaps, most clear than ever. And this presents the Republic of Croatia as a state that is dangerously turning into the waters of neo-fascism, that is, Ustashaism. Of high representatives of state, Victory Day was personally marked only  by the head of State, who laid flowers at the tomb of national heroes, ie. Partisan fighters (representatives of high positioned politicians are not worth mentioning, they were really there just to satisfy form). And yes, one, the only (!) Academy was organized to mark that day by the Alliance of Anti-Fascist fighters and Anti-Fascists (and not the State!). It commemorated the Victory Day, the (almost forgotten) Day of the Liberation of Zagreb, and Europe Day, which is marked on May 9th in order to convey in this way the message that post-wEurope, and that should mean today’s Europe too, is built on the foundations of the anti-fascist struggle and on the values of anti-fascism. The current President was not present at that academy. There were two former presidents of the Republic and again – several representatives. The information about this celebration somehow found its way into the media, but that was all.

Public television marked this significant day by broadcasting one American and one Russian-Ukrainian film with a theme from the time of the Second World War. And with an unspoken message: that war in Croatia did not rage, and if by some chance it did – there are no films about it (what about some of world famous movies showing the antifascist struggle in Yugoslavia, such as Neretva or Walter defends Sarajevo?)

The other event, the surrender at Bleiburg and everything that happened after that, has been talked about for days. The state (Parliament) and the Church are maximally engaged in the organization of the commemoration of something that is as cynically as hypocritically called the memorial day for “Croatian victims in the fight for freedom and independence”. Mass celebrations and gatherings will be held in three (!) places in Croatia, and buses (even from Germany) are being organized to bring “pilgrims” to them. And what about pandemic? Everything will be, they say, in line with epidemiological measures and restrictions. They say so and they knowingly and recklessly lie, believing that the public is so stupid, or resigned, that something like this can be served to them with impunity, even on the eve of important local elections.

Since 1990, when the surrender at Bleiburg was publicly marked for the first time in Croatia (and when on that occasion the re-named Croatian Radio “shone” with a report, featuring Dinko Šakić, former commander of Jasenovac, one of about 60 concentration camps in the Ustasha state, who categorically stated that – if he lived again – he would do everything the way he did, this commemoration turned not into commemoration of those executed without trials after the surrender, but into regret over the defeat of the Ustasha para-state which, in accordance with Tudjman’s statement at the First HDZ congress, held in Yugoslav times, was “the realization of the centuries-old aspirations of the Croatian people too ”.

Austria has for years tolerated gathering on Bleiburg field, speeches that were often politically colored, highlighting of the Ustasha symbols and flags (the first white field in the Croatian coat of arms), but then – largely under pressure from Europe – denied its hospitality to the, as it was called by a reputable European medium, the largest gathering of radical right-wingers and neo-fascists on the Old Continent. Official Croatia, but also the “Church of the Croats” could not come to terms with that, so last year the “Bleiburg Mass” was held in Sarajevo (probably to remind how Sarajevo was part of the Ustasha state), while this year gatherings organized are being organized, it is worth repeating, on three locations in Croatia, the largest one in Udbina.

What message does such treatment of Victory Day and the date of capitulation of Ustasha and Home guard forces (along with other collaboraters from Yugoslavia) sends to Europe and to the whole world?

Just one thing: as far as Victory Day is concerned, we’re not sure whether it should be and how celebrated, because in the meantime we succeeded in transforming the winners into criminals and murderers, and their Supreme Commander as “one of the 10 mega murderer of the 20th century” , and are open to considering the Day of Liberation of the Croatian Metropolis as the day of the beginning of its occupation (this, under the mask of the freedom of public speech can be calmly stated today – as an explanation why the street of May 8th 1945. was abolished . On the other hand, we are very engaged in commemorating those forces and their members who, ignoring the unconditional capitulation of the Third Reich signed on May 8th in Reims and on May 9th in Berlin, continued fighting until mid-May, trying to escape Tito’s partisans, knowing that among the partisans there is hardly anyone who has not directly or indirectly felt the Ustasha terror. Official Croatia and the Chatolic church are commemorating and mourning their defeat, because they were – as it is written in a stone memorial at Bleiburg field “the Croatian army.” Were they really? And what were the Croatian partisans?

There is not a single country in the world that would organize commemorations for war criminals executed without trial or sentenced to death (and that there were such people in the Bleiburg field is an indisputable fact). Croatia is an exception – for now. And we have listed these two categories of post-war victims (if that is an appropriate term) because retaliation was not a specific feature of Yugoslavia. It took place, on a larger or smaller scale, for several weeks or several months in all the European countries occupied until then. In France, unofficial estimates list about 100,000 liquidated collaborators, while the leader of the Free Frence, who would later become the president of the Fifth Republic, General Charles de Gaulle, officially admitted 10,000, with the laconic remark : “Given what they were doing at the time of the occupation, France can live with this”.

Croatia may soon find itself in the company of several other countries, former Soviet satellites, which are well immersed in historical-revisionist waters, which allow marches of former members of SS units and which – like Ukraine – proclaims notorious collaborators (Stepan Bandera) as national heroes. But, will it mean that Croatia is on the right way by (almost) ignoring V-day and by glorifying and mourning the members of the collaborationist forces? Not at all! This will be just be another worrying indicator of the divisions within the European Union and of the abandoning, by some of its “young” members the ideas and ideals that guided those who conceived the project of a united Europe. That accepting the idea of the possibility of a new war (and the EU should have prevented it for all time) is not just a theoretical possibility, is best seen from the wholehearted adherence of part of the EU to the American policy of confrontation with the Russian Federation (even armed, military drills lasting for several months in Europe just now, demonstrate this). 

And, finally, let’s go back to the name of the memorial day in mid-May, mentioned earlier. It is the memorial day for the Croatian victims in the fight for freedom and independence. What does that mean? That only Ustashas (Croatian fascists) and Home guards were fighters for Croatian freedom and independence? Given the date, such a conclusion seems only possible. But, if that is the case, then all those Croats (not to mention Serbs from Croatia) who fought in the ranks of the People’s Liberation Army were the enemies of Croatian freedom and independence. But, if somehow we “remembered” what is written in the Constitution, if today’s Croatia, democratic and independent Croatia, “generously” added Partisans to Ustashe and Home Guard, this would mean the completion and realization of morbid ideas of the first Croatian president Franjo Tudjman who wanted to bury the remains of the victims of fascism and anti-fascist fighters together with those who killed them in the area of the former Ustasha concentration camp Jasenovac.  Tudjman then, under pressure from abroad (even from the USA), had to give up copying something that was realized in Spain during his long-term dictatorship by the openly pro-fascist genelisimus Francisco Franco (who in the meantime was “removed” from that memorial complex by democratic Spanish authorities). .

His successors went a step further. While Tudjman never attacked the People’s Liberation Struggle (he participated in it), nor did he utter an ugly word about Marshal Tito, they “bravely” abolished Marshal Tito Square in Zagreb (and none of the candidates for Zagreb mayor dares to say that he would return the square with that name), they tolerate and even encourage the harshest revision of history (as if learning from Serbian right-wingers, but also the current authorities who marked Victory Day with an academy with pictures of Chetnik leader Draža Mihailović and partisan leader Josip Broz Tito, claiming the resistance to fascism only for the Serbian people), they are (almost) ignoring Victory Day and glorifying the sacrifice of those who had been on the side of Nazi-Fascism throughout World War II.

Does today’s Croatia (not only the official) really has a dilemma: either to celebrate the V-day, or to mourn the surrender of quisling forces near Bleiberg, their defeat? Judging by what we are witnessing – no! And his is devastating not only for Croatia, but also for the European Union of which Croatia is a member .

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Serbia’s EU accession: Pipe Dream or Possible Reality?

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Until recently, Serbia was considered as one of the main candidates for European Union (EU) accession and as a role model for the other Balkan states in the region who aspire to EU membership. It regularly received praise from Western leaders, including Angela Merkel (DW 2015) with whom Aleksander Vucic, Serbia’s President, has a particularly strong relationship (Mitrovic 2018). However, over the last 2 years, Serbia’s commitments to EU accession have been stagnating, and recently, political backsliding has been noted in the country with increasingly more power being in the hands of the executive. Serbia’s hopes of becoming an EU member state by 2025 are slowly slipping away. Thus, the following questions arise: Is Serbia still set upon its European path? And, if not the EU, where does modern Serbia’s interests lie in terms of international cooperation and assistance?

The current political situation

State capture in Serbia is a term that has recently entered the current discourse, and there is much evidence to suggest that the level of democracy in Serbia is decreasing. Since ascending to the presidency, Aleksandr Vucic has managed to establish a regime which resembles that of an autocracy, establishing a small network of close allies who control key institutions (Richter, S. Wunsch, N. 2020). Despite the fact that executive power in Serbia is vested in the government and not in the president, his position as leader of The Serbian Progressive Party, the majority party in the Serbian government, gives him control of the parliamentary majority and thus the government (Russell 2019). The democratic accountability of the executive is also very weak with laws often passed in urgent procedure and without debate. In the period from March 2018 to March 2019, urgent parliamentary procedures were used for 44% of legislative procedures, often under the excuse of EU membership (European Commission 2020). Furthermore, as the opposition continue to boycott the legislative procedures, the government has been given free rein of the executive. Media freedom is another area where Serbia seems to be backtracking. According to the V-Dem institute (2020), it is among the top ten countries that have become more autocratic over the last ten years, while a majority of media outlets promote government policy with few media outlets offering alternative views (European Commission 2020). The President of the European Federation of Journalists stated himself that “Serbia is [the] country with the worst violations of media freedoms in the Western Balkan region” (Fabijančić 2019). A case in point which should be raised is the assassination of the prominent Kosovo-Serb politician Oliver Ivanovic, a prominent Kosovo-Serb politician for, what many believe, not taking a stronger pro Serb stance in relation to the ongoing dispute with Kosovo. Despite the fact that the country has recently adopted a new media strategy which seeks to improve media freedoms, the strategy has so not been implemented so far and nothing has been done to improve the overall environment of freedom of expression (European Commission 2020).

As in many other autocratic regimes, corruption is another problem with which Serbia struggles. Although the country should be given some credit as it has actively implemented a few laws that aim to curtail corruption (European Commission 2020), the legal framework for the fight against corruption in Serbia is weak. The position of The Serbian Anti-Corruption Agency is weakened by an unclear division of mandates for implementing the anticorruption strategy as well as by the executive, which regularly comments on arrests and detentions in the media possibly bringing about a drastic effect on the final outcome (Transparency International 2016).

One only needs to look at the results of the recent ‘Nations in transit’ report released by Freedom House, a US non-governmental organisation which conducts research on democracy and political freedom, to grasp Serbia’s current dilemma. Over the last 5 years, democratic institutions in Serbia have been gradually eroding, and where it was considered as “Free” in 2017 with a score of 76 out of 100, it is now considered as “Partly Free” with a score of 66 out of 100 (Freedom House 2020).

The country continues to declare that accession into the EU is its long-term goal; However, this backsliding is making the goal harder to accomplish. Furthermore, integration into Western structures seems to have lost much of its zeal in the country. 80% of the citizens do not support NATO membership (European Western Balkans 2020) and in a recent poll conducted in 2020 only 50% of the population would be in favour of joining the EU (Center for insights in Survey Research 2020).

Relations with Russia

The Russo-Serbian relationship is strong, characterised by a deep cultural and historical connection. In the near future, it does not seem like this relationship will change both in terms of politics and in society at large something which is also bolstered by the fact that President Vladimir Putin and President Aleksandr Vucic have a good personal relationship, with Vucic recently being presented with The Order of Alexander Nevsky (Walker 2019). Recent opinion polls also show that President Putin is the most popular foreign leader in the country. In terms of economics, the Russo-Serbian connection is also very strong. In 2019, Serbia signed a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (EEAU), contrary to EU recommendations (Vuc 2019), and a new Russian gas pipeline running through Serbia was recently opened, which increases the country’s dependence on Russian gas. Besides, Serbia also imports a significant number of weaponries from Russia, including MiG-29 fighter jets, helicopters and tanks (Phillips 2020).

However, the Russo-Serbian relationship is also maintained by another geopolitical marker, namely the independence and recognition of Kosovo. Aleksandr Vucic’s government has made it clear that it would outright reject EU membership if it required Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo and its inclusion into international institutions without Belgrade receiving anything in return (EURACTIV 2020). Serbia’s accession into the EU is subject to Chapter 35 of EU accession, which relates to the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo (European Union 2015), and despite the fact that Serbia has shown engagement in the dialogue, it still has restraints in many areas, such as customs tariffs (EU report). In addition, it is still unknown if Serbia will ever be ready to officially recognize Kosovo. Its disputes with other countries that have recently changed their recognition of the country, such as Israel (The Times of Israel 2021), seem to point to the fact that Serbia is taking a tougher stance in this regard. Serbia relies on Russia’s veto as a permanent member of the UN Security Council in order to receive a more satisfactory resolution to the Kosovo dispute and to avoid being side-lined by the international community. Furthermore, President Vucic has publicly stated that no resolution of Serbia’s future with its former province would be possible without Moscow’s consent. Thus, via Kosovo, Russia has an ace up its sleeve which it can use to bargain with the EU, and while this remains the case, Serbia’s accession into the block is littered with question marks.

The influence of China

Russia is not the only foreign actor which has influence in Serbia. China has recently taken a large interest, something very much to chagrin of the EU and Russia. It is rapidly increasing its Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Serbia, rising from €2.5 million in 2010 to €318 million in 2019. The thaw in Sino-Serbian relations is certainly nothing new, as they have been gradually improving since the creation of a strategic partnership in 2009, becoming further cemented in 2013 (Dimitrijević 2019). Serbia’s increasing relations with China have prompted to push the EU and Russia out of the limelight, and although the EU by far remains Serbia’s largest trading partner and provider of aid, the people of Serbia think otherwise. According to the Institute for European Affairs, 40% of the country thinks that China is the largest donor of aid and investor while only 17.6% was registered for the EU. The handling of the pandemic is a case in point. As China managed to act quickly and swiftly, they were easily able to win over the hearts and minds of the Serbs, while the Serbian media portrayed the EU and the US as bigoted and unable to control the pandemic. President Vucic even went as far as saying that European solidarity was a “fairy tale” while praising the President of China Xi Jingping and kissing the Chinese flag (Milić 2020). Furthermore, the country became the first in Europe to start using a Chinese Covd-19 vaccine, being left out of the EU’s December rollout and still not receiving a dose under the EU’s COVAX scheme.

Concluding remarks

Serbia is at a crossroads, and finds itself trying to juggle its interests between three geopolitical powers. The country will continue to push for EU accession as this, as President Vucic stated himself, is Serbia’s long-term strategic goal. However, the extent to which the country wants to join the bloc is under increasing consideration. Six years since membership talks began, Serbia has only managed to complete 2 chapters for EU accession and many of the commission’s recommendations stated in the EU’s annual report on the country are not implemented. It could be said that enthusiasm to join the Union is waning, but, if this is the case, Serbia is not entirely to blame. As Aleks Eror notes in Foreign Policy (2020), the EU has over the last decade had to face many internal problems and, as a result, increasingly less attention has been given to the Western Balkans. In addition, a key part of the EU’s transformative power in accession countries is the so-called ‘carrot and stick’ model where in order to reach the ‘carrot’ of EU membership, an accession country must fulfil the requirements set down by the EU. However, in the case of Serbia, the carrot seems to be losing its lure as it is increasingly looking towards its Eastern neighbours. The fact that China is willing to act as a rival economic power to the EU in Serbia and invest in the country without the strings of EU regulation attached, makes the prospects of EU accession look rather dim. In addition, at the moment, Serbia is able to live the best of both worlds. As Serbia still plays with the idea that it is committed to EU accession, it will continue to receive subsidies from Brussels, but, at the same time, the country can play to the tune of Russia and China and extract the much-needed investment from them as well as their support when Serbia does not get its way regarding the resolution of the situation in Kosovo. As long as the Kosovo issue remains open and can be exploited by outside powers, Serbia’s hopes to join the EU in 2025 look doubtful.

From our partner RIAC

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The Idea of Global Britain: A Neo-Victorian Attempt to Define the Place of the English in the World

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As the UK is yet again able to take its future into its own hands, the ‘Global Britain’ narrative appears to be emerging as the leading framework set to define the country’s future engagement with the rest of the world.

Although the phrase has recently become more pervasively used in the public domain, it still remains stubbornly ambiguous to many observers on the both sides of the Atlantic.

In order to fully grasp the post-Brexit narrative of Britain—which is crucial to make conscious strategic decisions in an increasingly complex and interconnected world—we should turn to its inception by the British government and its subsequent conceptualization by a number of high government officials as well as through the government’s policies concerning the ‘Global Britain’ narrative, alongside the historical and intellectual origins of Britain’s ‘Global’ thinking.

Setting the governmental agenda for ‘Global Britain’

The phrase ‘Global Britain’ was coined shortly after the historic Brexit referendum, when Prime Minister Theresa May first outlined her vision for the country in her speech to the Conservative Party Conference on 2 October 2016 and called for “truly global Britain.”

May concluded that “Brexit should not just prompt us to think about our new relationship with the European Union,” but also “make us think of Global Britain, a country with the self-confidence and the freedom to look beyond the continent of Europe and to the economic and diplomatic opportunities of the wider world.” She believed that Brexit “was a vote for Britain to stand tall, to believe in ourselves, to forge an ambitious and optimistic new role in the world.”

Interestingly, in the same year on 2 December, PM Boris Johnson, then Foreign Secretary, gave his first major speech at Chatham House tellingly titled Global Britain: UK Foreign Policy in the Era of Brexit, in which he affirmed the government’s intention to pursue a “truly global foreign policy.”

Ever since that time Theresa May has been referring to ‘Global Britain’ in a similar manner in her major speeches, including the January 2017 Lancaster House speech and her speech to the US Republican Party Conference in Philadelphia the same month. May also referred to ‘Global Britain’ in her addresses to the World Economic Forum in Davos and at the UN General Assembly 2017 in New York.

A month later, in a speech at the Conservative Party Conference in 2017, Boris Johnson restated his belief in the ‘Global Britain’ brand by expressing the following words:

“We are big enough to do amazing things. We have the ability to project force 7,000 miles, to use our permanent membership of the UN security council to mobilise a collective response to the crisis in North Korea. We contribute 25 % of European aid spending and yet no one seriously complains that we have a sinister national agenda and that is why the phrase global Britain makes sense because if you said Global China or Global Russia or even alas Global America it would not have quite the same flavour.”

Crucially, it is important to mention that at the centre of the ‘Global Britain’ narrative, free trade is its core element—something clearly visible both in Theresa May’s October 2016 speech to the Conservative Party Conference and at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Davos, where she expressed the hope that the UK “will step up to a new leadership role as the strongest and most forceful advocate for business, free markets and free trade anywhere in the world.”

Furthermore, Boris Johnson described the UK’s role of an advocate for global free trade as the country’s “historic post-Brexit function” in his Chatham House speech in 2016. Yet, by that time many, like Professor Richard G. Whitman from the University of Kent, have argued that “we know little more than Global Britain means Global Britain.”

PM Boris Johnson’s announcement in 2020 to increase defence spending by £16.5 billion ($23 billion) over the next four years—dubbed as “the biggest spending boost since the Cold War” and said to be aiming at catching President Joe Biden’s attention—was a strong message in the direction the ‘Global Britain’ policy narrative has been turning towards.

Simultaneously, in 2020 the UK’s foreign aid budget was announced to be cut by £2.9 billion ($3.7 billion), so that in 2021 the UK will not meet the UN-recommended target of spending 0.7 % (decreased to 0.5 %) of its Gross National Income (GNI) on Official Development Assistance (ODA) for the first time since 2013—steps said to be taken in line with the government’s attempt to grapple with the economic fallout of the pandemic.

With the commitment to retain the target enshrined in law by the Coalition Government in 2015 and the Conservative Party’s manifesto of 2019, the cut—which was met with strong condemnation both by David Cameron and Tony Blair, who warned the decision would jeopardise Britain’s ‘soft power’ status—resulted in Foreign Office minister James Cleverly’s pledge at the March 2021 UN virtual conference to donate £87 million ($120 million) to Yemen relief efforts in the coming year, which is less than half of the £196.6 million donated in 2020 and around 40 % of the £214 million total donations made in 2020-2021.

Mark Lowcock, head of the UN’s Office for Humanitarian Affairs, described the UK government’s decision as an attempt to “balance the books on the backs of the starving people of Yemen” and warned of a long-term damage to the country’s reputation—bearing in mind that British MPs were prevented from having a vote on PM Johnson’s controversial move, which is why he is said to be running the risk of setting an illegal budget.

At the same time the UK government continues to be deeply involved in the Yemen conflict by remaining the leading arms supplier to Saudi Arabia. Once the ban on weapons sales to the Gulf country was lifted London authorised the export of £1.4 billion-worth ($1.9 billion) weaponry to the Saudis between July and September last year, refusing to follow the U.S. moral lead in this regard.

Taking this into consideration it is difficult to imagine how to quote Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, “Global Britain is leading the world as a force for good”—the very slogan repeated by Raab in January last year as part of his three pillars defining the “truly global Britain.”

In March 2020, before the long-anticipated Integrated Review was published, Oxfam took an opportunity to voice its view on the UK’s approach to foreign policy in its research paper.

The organisation argued that in order to be “taken seriously as a future partner, the UK must tread carefully and intentionally remedy the historic power imbalances institutionalised in the UN and Bretton Woods institutions” in its contacts with the Commonwealth and the Global South, warning that “‘Global Britain’ could too easily be (mis)interpreted as ‘Empire 2.0’” if it fails to carry out deliberate action.

September that year, Tradecraft Exchange published a research paper which argued that in prioritising trade negotiations with richer nations, Britain risks falling short on its commitments to tackle global poverty and climate change. Moreover, with the UK engaging in striking trade deals with poorer nations like in the recent case of Kenya, it is evidently doing this to their detriment.

That same month, the UK government decided to merge the Department for International Development (DFID) with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and establish the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO). The newly published policy paper is said to be the blueprint for the work of this new department.

The document states that “the UK is one of the world’s leading development actors, committed to the global fight against poverty, to achieving the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] by 2030 and to maintaining the highest standards of evidence and transparency for all our investments… where we can have the greatest life-changing impact in the long term.”

It goes on to state that Britain will “maintain our commitment to Africa,” particularly emphasizing importance of its partners in East Africa and Nigeria, “while increasing development efforts in the Indo-Pacific.” Sadly, the very pledge stands in stark contrast to the recent government leaks concerning plans to cut aid to Nigeria by 59 %, South Sudan by 59%, Somalia by 60%, not to mention the DRC (60%), Syria (67%), and Libya (63%).

While the UK’s International Development Committee chair, Sarah Champion MP, commented that “the Integrated Review appears to be more centred towards rubbing shoulders with trading partners than creating a level playing field for the global community to prosper”.

On that note, it is fair to say that the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy puts much less emphasis on development than it does on the other parts constituting its title, while revealing “the government’s vision for the UK’s role in the world over the next decade and the action we will take to 2025.”

Integrated Review: The Unfortunate Triumph of Form over Strategic Substance

The review published in early March this year, dubbed as “the most radical reassessment of our place in the world since the end of the Cold War”, is said to be “an attempt to put meat on the bones of the ‘Global Britain’ concept,” as Raffaello Pantucci, senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), argues.

“This was something the Tories banged on about a lot, this was something that Brexit was supposed to be all about, but no one has any idea what it means,” Pantucci added.

The 100-page document—visibly inspired by the Policy Exchange’s Making Global Britain Work (July 24, 2019) and A Very British Tilt (November 22, 2020)—sets a vision for “Global Britain”, in which the country is “tilting” towards the Indo-Pacific region to become a bigger player there, as the world’s “geopolitical and economic centre of gravity” moves eastwards towards countries such as China, India and Japan.

“The Indo-Pacific is this incredible hub and so is somewhere the UK is looking to have a larger say in […] Where navies go, trade goes, and where trade goes, navies go,” Adm. Tony Radakin, explained.

It is important to note that a similar narrative was seen in the past. The former First Sea Lord, Adm. Sir Philip Jones, argued in his speech delivered at the 2017 DSEI Maritime Conference that “the Asia-Pacific region contains two of the three largest economies in the world and five of the largest 16. If the U.K. does wish to forge new global trading partnerships, this is somewhere we need to be.”

Sir Jones also stated that the new aircraft-carriers, including HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales will enable the country to resume its old role in Asia and the Pacific, which was abandoned in 1971 after the UK’s withdrawal of forces from Singapore.

As Richard Reeve already observed in his article, “Global Britain’s post-Brexit identity is a return to neo-mercantilist maritime control,” which is driven by the need to secure new trade and arms deals by establishing a strong ‘Global Britain’ brand through the Royal Navy and aligning the country’s objectives and alliances with those of the U.S.

Reeve warned that such a strategy risks the UK’s involvement “in a potentially very hot Korea-US conflict” and even more dangerous “creeping cold war” between the U.S. and China. Both are burdened with the high risk of escalation to a nuclear exchange.

Furthermore, he reminded his readers of “the UK’s doomed inter-war Singapore Strategy and of the Imperial Russian Navy in 1905,” notably after the Commons Defence Committee was presented that month with evidence that new carriers are unlikely to be able to operate within range of China.

At the time, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s pledge made at the Lowy Institute’s lecture in July 2017 outlined that one of the first tasks of the new carriers will be to conduct freedom of navigation operations around Chinese-built islands in the South China Sea.

Most recently, Prime Minister Boris Johnsons planned dispatch of an aircraft carrier group to the Indo-Pacific in order to face-off China, is viewed by some as a defeatist delusion suggesting “that the best thing we can do is ingratiate ourselves with the Americans,” as senior policy fellow Nick Witney (ECFR) suggests.

Mr Witney, like Professor Anatol Lieven, believes that such strategic theatrics could result in the same disastrous outcome as the invasion of Iraq.

Without the ability to bring substantive change to the table as far as the Indo-Pacific is concerned, the UK is said to be “risking of reminding the Chinese of how we treated them in the nineteenth-century Opium Wars,” as argued by Professor Lieven in his recent article.

As far as the British public’s opinion is concerned in their perception of deploying security resources to contain China in the Indo-Pacific, the British Foreign Policy Group’s recent report suggests that only 18% of respondents would be comfortable with this move, while 45 % of them do not want the UK to be drawn into conflicts. Another 35 % believe that the country’s track record of involvement abroad is bad.

Unfortunately, the government’s Integrated Review call to increase the number of nuclear warheads from 180 to 260, which some perceive as violating international law and breaching Article 60 of the NPT, risks the possibility of creating another conflict according to Professor Serhii Plokhy of Harvard University.

“At the NPT Review Conference this August, HMG will have to explain its reversal on nuclear warhead numbers not just to Russia or China but to a sceptical international community,” Sir Adam Thomson, director of the ELN and former diplomat who served as Permanent Representative to NATO between 2014 and 2016, rightly observed, also wondering how this corresponds with the UK’s commitment to the world without nuclear weapons.

Dominic Raab recently announced that he will “rally NATO allies to face down the threat from Russia and ensure it faces real world consequences for hostile activity”–potentially go to the detrimental to U.S. efforts in attempting to “chart a new course” for Moscow, as discussed by David Keene and Dan Negre–despite being more nuanced with respect to China.

As Jo Johnson, the former universities minister and the prime minister’s brother argues, the reason for this ambiguous approach to the Middle Kingdom by the Johnson government is the Conservative Party’s problem with Sinophobia, which is said to be the new Euroscepticism.

“It’s the new political machismo, but it would be economic madness to decouple from China and incredibly destructive of this idea of Global Britain, because there are many countries […] across the Global South who are increasingly interdependent with China. There won’t be a global Britain if we are not engaging with China, and all the other countries enmeshed with it,” Johnson believes.

“The reality is that if we follow a hard Brexit with Chexit [decoupling with China], then Global Britain is going to be an aeroplane that has dropped both engines,” he added.

In fact, it is really difficult to imagine the government succeeding in accomplishing all of these competing goals in a situation where the national debt has already exceeded £2 trillion (and growing), with the pandemic adding an extra burden to the country’s economic condition, which is said to be ‘heading for a new era of austerity.’

Interestingly, ahead of the review last year, security experts giving evidence to the UK lawmakers warned there was often a gap between the ambitions of a wide-ranging policy review and the resources allocated to meet them.

 ‘Global Britain’: Old Wine in a New Bottle

The mentioned analysis of ‘Global Britain,’ however, would not be full without paying attention to historical and intellectual influences related to the term and associated topics.

“Global Britain,” writes Oliver Turner in his 2019 peer-reviewed article stresses that it “is more than a notion, an idea, or a vision for UK international engagement, and more than the foreign policy blueprint it purports to provide. It is an autobiographical narrative about what Britain is and what it envisions the world and its actors to be.”

Turner informs that the significance of this distinction lies in the fact that narratives seldom stand alone and are often “written to construct particular realities and shape policy choice.”

The academic argues that “Global Britain is principally authored as a ‘painkiller’ in anticipation of domestic trauma following the loss of EU membership, just as the British Commonwealth once was to assuage the loss of empire.” In order to be marketable, Turner believes, it requires “pre-existing knowledges of past imperial ‘successes’ and accepting images of empire among the British public.”

The said narrative has significant consequences, as the ‘Global Britain’ advocates tend to selectively exploit the past to imagine the future and effectively turn history into a “proxy for ideology,” as Robert Saunders from Queen Mary University of London argues.

He further mentions, one of the most famous figures of the British right, Enoch Powell, who argued that “all history is myth” in a sense that “the stories told about the past carried political meanings.”

Saunders continues, believing that the post-war Britain suffered from a special kind of myth known as “the myth of empire,” which caused “grave psychological damage” to the British people.

This manifested itself in a dual way: first, as “a pervasive sense of decline that had sapped the British of self-confidence” and second, “as a longing for empire-substitutes, such as the Commonwealth or the European Community.”

Professor Paul Gilroy (UCL) made similar observation in his book arguing that after the end of World War II, British life has been “dominated by an inability even to face, never mind actually mourn, […] the end of the empire and consequent loss of imperial prestige.”

This constant fear of reconciling with the past has managed to produce an extremely unbalanced identity of the nation burdened with a distorted vision of its country, called by Sathnam Sanghera in his latest book titled Empireland, which “recast a coercive military empire as a champion of “free trade”; and, in so doing, established entrepreneurialism, rather than empire, as the golden thread connecting past and present,” as Dr Saunder’s put it.

What is noticeable about the ‘Global Britain’ narrative, in the mentioned sense, is that it takes out the empire—one whose reach stretched from Africa and the Americas to Asia and Australasia, and also Europe if we count the colonisation of Ireland—from the equation leading to its status of “the world’s largest and most powerful trading nation,” as former international trade secretary Dr Liam Fox put it during his Free Trade speech in 2016.

Hence, when advocates of ‘Global Britain’ romanticize the vision of Britain trading across the Commonwealth—which they tend to describe as an association of “some of the world’s oldest and most resilient friendships”—they tend to forget to tell the complete story in what particular circumstances those very “friendships” were established and further sustained through “imperialism of free trade,” as John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson explained in their peer-reviewed article of the same title published in The Economic History Review 1953.

To illustrate this in greater detail, it is best to turn to Shashi Tharoor’s insights provided in his book, where he says the following:

“Free trade was, of course, suited to the British as a slogan, since they were the best equipped to profit from it in the nineteenth century, and their guns and laws could always stifle what little competition the indigenes could attempt to mount. A globalization of equals could well have been worth celebrating, but the globalization of Empire was conducted by and above all for the colonizers, and not in the interests of the colonized.”

In other words, what ‘Global Britain’ advocates are doing is “use ‘trade’ as a euphemism for ‘empire’,” as Dr Robert Saunders argues.

What is also significant about the group is the attachment to the idea of ‘Anglosphere,’ which has its intellectual roots in the late 19th century’s Victorian discourses about “Greater Britain.”

Resurrected after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the mythology of the “English-speaking peoples’” union served as a counter, and culturally more “natural,” narrative to the one embracing UK’s membership in the EU, as well as the British very own attempt to make sense of the post-Cold War moment.

Furthermore, as Professor Duncan Bell from University of Cambridge argues in his excellent article published in 2017 in the Prospect magazine, “dreams of deep Anglosphere integration, and of political unification, are symptomatic expressions of colonial nostalgia, underwritten by fears about Britain’s declining status.”

Importantly, it was British historian Robert Conquest who most comprehensively articulated—and inspired politicians like Margaret Thatcher, who referred to his idea of the broader alliance between the “English-speaking peoples” in her speech to the English-Speaking Union in December 1999 in New York—the idea of Anglosphere.

What is interesting about Conquest’s “bold charge that existing international bodies had failed,” as Professor Bell mentioned, is its similarity to the current language used by Brexiteers (and Trump supporters).

Echoing the famous historian’s concern, Theresa May told the audience at the Conservative Party conference in October 2016 that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere—you don’t understand what citizenship means.”

The statement with a clear aim to rejuvenate patriotism after the Brexit referendum, which should be understood in the broader context of growing tendency among the Conservative Party voters to lean towards anti-globalism (as it was confirmed in the already mentioned BFPG’s survey published this year), has its roots in the Victorian era, namely in the ‘civic imperialism.’

As Duncan Bell argues in his book, civic imperialism “placed duty, individual and communal virtue, patriotism, disdain of luxury, and the privileging of the common good, at the centre of the political universe.” Bell also continues that “empire and liberty, it was argued, were intimately connected.”

What is visible here is that “the image of 19th century Britain has so far appeared to play an outsized role” in ‘Global Britain’ narrative, as Harvard University’s research paper published this year and titled Finding ‘Global Britain’: political slogan to hard economic policy choices observes.

What follows?

Since the “conditions which allowed the UK to dominate global industrial production, such as a large lead in industrial productivity and the coercive power of the British Empire, no longer apply,” as the paper concludes, it is still safe to argue, repeating Dean Acheson, that Britain had “lost an empire and not yet found a role.”

Trapped in hubris, the ‘Global Britain’ narrative seems to be missing the true security challenges while pursuing its “quest for a unique role” in the world, which, like Christopher Hill wrote, is “like the pursuit of the Holy Grail” and can be “a fatal distraction to politicians with responsibilities,” who may find the levelling-up agenda more vital than the search for the long-lost imperial grandeur.

With a clear collapse in trust in the government in terms of its willingness to act in the British public’s interest when foreign policy decisions are concerned, the possible overload of ‘Global Britain’s’ often competing agendas run the high risk of not only turning into nemesis for Britain itself, but the U.S. and the very ‘special relationship’ which London is so desperately trying to preserve.

From our partner RIAC

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