Image One: Immediately after the October changes in Serbia and in the midst of preparations for the visit to China of former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, the headquarters of the Communist Party of the most populous country received an unusual dispatch from Moscow. It requested the Chinese authorities to cancel the visit because Kostunica was "the representative of treacherous powers that surrendered the freedom combatant Slobodan Milosevic to hostile West."
Image Two: The newly elected president of Serbia Tomislav Nikolic meets the new President of Russia Vladimir Putin in Moscow and receives an unusual request - to convey the warmest greetings to the outgoing Serbian President Boris Tadic, with whom he had a very good cooperation.
What has changed in the Serbian-Russian relations over the past twenty years? Will the changes in the Serbian regime influence the quality and type of these relations? And will Russia, as many believe, have more significant role in the Balkans?
Vyacheslav Nikonov, a political scientist and executive chairman of NGO Foundation "Polity", first gives the answer to most important question. "The fact that Nikolic was elected president does not mean that relations between the two countries will be different. I do not believe there will be any changes in the relations, because there are no reasons for that. Serbia and Russia have good relations and it has nothing to do with who is in power in Belgrade."
Before the elections, both presidential candidates, Boris Tadic and Tomislav Nikolic, strove to present themselves as key partners of Russia in the Balkans. There were some low moves, like when the Moscow newspaper Kommersant wrote in late February that Nikolic is trying to slander Tadic in talks with Russian officials, “portraying him as too Western-oriented." According to the Russian sources, he also said that he wished to conduct a foreign policy similar to one of Josip Broz Tito - equally close to both Russia and the West.
Alla Yaskova, an expert on the Balkans at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said then that the pro-Russian politics in the election campaign sounded good, but that things would certainly change after the elections. "No leader will be able to conduct such a politics."
NEW REALITY: Maxim Yusin, a journalist and analyst of Kommersant newspaper, says for Novi magazin that Russia has an emotional view of a new reality in Serbia, which presents Nikolic as a patriot who will change the entire Serbia. But, there also are pragmatic people who know Serbia and its people better than emotionalists and who believe that Nikolic's victory will not bring any changes. "Nikolic is different today than five years ago, the one from Seselj's party. It would not be wise for Russia to expect anything radical. Nikolic will not become a puppet whose moves are determined by Moscow. "
All interviewees agreed in the view that, in contrast to October 5th, Moscow welcomed these elections in Serbia much better prepared. Twelve years ago the situation was quite different. Neither the Russian diplomats nor the people from Putin's environment could have predicted the situation. During those elections, Moscow just gave the impression of having a neutral position, thus offending Milosevic’s supporters who had expected more significant support, but also the Serbian democratic opposition of that time which had hoped that Russia would be among the first countries to recognize their victory in the elections. It turned out just the opposite - Moscow was one of the last capitals to congratulate Kostunica. The situation was best assessed by a former National Security Advisor to U.S. President who said that Russia supported democratic forces at five minutes to twelve, although it was expected to do it at ten to twelve.
"One thing in the Serbian-Russian relations is a constant. What many consider as great Russian friendship with Serbia, especially during the nineties, is nothing but the instrumentalization of Serbia in the fight against the West, Russian political parties never cared for the people of Serbia nor for Serbia as a state, clearly states Andrey Pyontovski, a Russian analysts and former director of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Moscow. He explains that the interest of Russian political class towards the Balkans is now much smaller, which can actually be an excellent starting point for building bilateral relations on a sound basis. "For many years, Russian political parties and diplomats, including the Kremlin, used the former Yugoslavia as a toy of the West, says Pyontkovski.
WRONG CHOICE: Vyacheslav Nikonov from the Foundation "Polity" somewhat agrees with this view and reminds that the choice "either the EU or Russia" is wrong because both are busy with their problems. "Do you really believe that Europe is now thinking about Serbia, in addition to the crisis they have in Greece, Italy, Spain?"
Maxim Yuzin warns of "a dangerous thing", which is the new attempt of using nationalism to move Serbia away from the future EU membership. "The relations with NATO are also a very serious question, but in the end, it is all up to Serbia."
In this way Yuzin opened the sensitive topic of Russian-Serbian relations on which the interviewees of Novi magazin disagree. Yuzin believes that it won’t be a tragedy when Serbia joins NATO one day. "From a military point of view, we will certainly not fight against NATO. It will be good for Russia to have another friend within the Alliance."
Vyacheslav Nikonov agrees that the procedure for accession to NATO will take a long time and that the membership in the Alliance should not be expected in the near future. At the same time, he reminds of the case of Georgia, noting that, "NATO is not at all in a hurry to let it become a member”. But Nikonov believes that Serbia's accession to the Alliance would change its relations with Russia. "Of course it will change the relations between Serbia and Russia, if it happens. But I do not believe that Serbia will join the NATO. Serbs are a not the people who would choose something that can destroy their country. "
Now let’s go back to the beginning of the story and the Russian dispatch. The Moscow press wrote at the time that another dispatch has caused the unpleasant situation to be resolved to the mutual benefit. It was written by former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica on the JAT flight bound for Beijing. "While flying over your great country, I take this opportunity to send my warmest greetings and wishes," said the message.
Who defends Kosovo
Serbia almost undoubtedly believes that Russia is the main defender of Serbian interests when it comes Kosovo and that Moscow will always stand in defense of Serbian interests. Maxim Yuzin, an active member of opposition of Putin's re-election, says he criticizes Russian president in many things, but that he entirely agrees with him when it comes to Kosovo. "It is a matter for Serbia. When our French, German or American friends put pressure on us to accept Kosovo’s independence, I always explain that we, Russians, cannot do anything before Belgrade. If Belgrade accepts Kosovo, we will do it the following day. But not and by no means before Belgrade".
Yuzin adds that he believes Serbia would eventually be forced to accept Kosovo.
"The independent Kosovo, which Serbia will have to accept, will be independent Kosovo but without Kosovska Mitrovica and the north, at least I hope. We will follow your decision, regardless of who is in power in Moscow," said Yuzin.