On February 1, 2021, Serbian President, Aleksandar Vučić was in Paris for talks with his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron.
On that occasion, Macron said to his guest: “I particularly want to highlight the place that Serbia occupies for France.“ Vučić was equally warm: “France is an important country for us and a traditional true friend of Serbia.“
The usual diplomatic cordiality, aside, for the Balkan observers, the visit signifies that Serbia, the strategically most important country in the Balkans, has embraced France as its main great power backer in the West.
The ties between Paris and Belgrade have a deep historical foundation. The French cultural and political influence inspired Serbia on its path to independence from the Ottoman Empire. Serbia’s first constitution, the Sretenje Constitution of 1835 was inspired by France. In World War I, France was Serbia’s main ally in the West, leading to the erection of the Monument of Gratitude to France that stands to this day in Kalemegdan, Belgrade’s historical park and fortress.
In between two world wars, France had strong cultural influence in the newly founded Yugoslavia. France helped the formation of the Little Entente, the loose alliance of Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Romania and the Czech Republic against Germany and the Soviet Union.
The Yugoslav Wars and French participation in the 1999 NATO war against Serbia shook this historically strong relationship. Still, during that war, French opposed bombing Belgrade bridges. After the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević’s regime in 2000, French President Jacques Chirac was the first Western leader to visit Belgrade in late 2001.
Is Belgrade’s pivot a re-enactment of old historical ties? Not necessarily. History did not play a significant part in November 2018 during the centenary of the World War I armistice. During the ceremony, the Serbian President was not seated close to the world leaders, while the Kosovo President was.
Belgrade perceived this as disrespectful towards the old historical alliance and heavy Serbian casualties from that war, prompting the French ambassador in Belgrade to apologise. In April 2019, several pro-government tabloids in Serbia posted on their websites that the fire that caught the historic Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was “God’s punishment” for displaying the “fake state Kosovo’s” flag. The reports were retracted most likely due to the intervention from the Serbian government.
Is this pivot about Serbia’s European integrations? President Vučić talks about President Macron being a Serbian ally on its road to the European path. In July 2020, Serbia was the first country to accept the new methodology of EU enlargement, a French proposal.
However, the EU integrations is a rocky path. The EU is tackling its challenges, and in 2020 Serbia did not open a single chapter in its accession talks with the EU over the declining rule of law. Macron himself is weary about enlargement before the EU system reforms itself. In 2019, France vetoed precisely on that ground the opening of EU membership negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. The new EU enlargement methodology was the result of a compromise with France.
So, why is Belgrade embracing Paris?
The embrace is due to Serbia’s need to have a great power backer in the West, particularly as the old partnerships of Serbian President Vučić are in crisis. For years, Vučić’s main backer in the West has been Germany led by Angela Merkel. In that relationship, Vučić backed Merkel’s policies during the migration crisis, while using ties with Merkel for domestic legitimisation. That partnership is cooling down. Merkel is displeased with the idea of land swap that Vučić advocated as a solution to Kosovo dispute with former Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaçi during Donald Trump’s presidency, and with Vučić’s illiberal tendencies at home.
The relations with the US are also uncertain as Vučić made a failed bet on Trump’s re-election, and now he fears that Germany and the US might jointly pressure him in recognising Kosovo without any face-saving concessions.
In need of great power mentor in the West, and with Germany and the US out of the game, who was left? The UK is caught in the post-Brexit ordeal, leaving France. The foundation was set in the summer of 2019 when Macron was the first French President to visit Belgrade after 18 years. In front of the Monument of Gratitude to France, Macron gave a speech in well-rehearsed Serbian, impressing the gathered Serbian citizens and eliminating past unpleasantries.
Now, Serbia is purchasing Mistral, an infrared man-portable air-defence system from France. In 2019, French construction Vinci began its 25 years concession for modernising and managing the Belgrade airport. The French utility company Suez will develop a waste management facility in Vinča. During summer 2019, Serbian tabloids praised Macron as the greatest Serbian ally in the fight for Kosovo although France has been among the first to recognise independent Kosovo.
Serbian elites invest in strengthening ties with France, in making France their new diplomatic protector. They hope that France can ease any potential pressures on Kosovo from Germany and the US, particularly in light of the Berlin-Paris duopoly within the EU. The relations with some of the Eastern partners are also shaky. Despite warm facade, Russia is unhappy about Vučić’s cooperation with the US under Trump, and Serbia does no know if Russia will compromise on Kosovo in a hypothetical bargain with the US. China has already replaced Russia as Serbia’s leading Eastern partner. Belgrade is now pairing Paris and Beijing to increase its bargaining power as evident from a planned project for Belgrade metro between French and Chinese companies. The recently signed EU-China investment deal in which President Macron played a part probably also inspired Vučić and his associates to make this move.
Whether leaders in Belgrade profit from their partnership with Paris, remains to be seen. It is dubious whether France is deeply interested in the Balkans and uncertain whether Macron will win his re-election in 2022. One thing is for sure. When President Vučić wants to talk with Europe, he will dial Macron’s number. For now, at least.
Vuk Vuksanovic is a PhD researcher in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), an associate of LSE IDEAS, LSE’s foreign policy think tank, and a researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP)
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