Russia’s President Vladimir Putin may be losing his mojo at home, but there is surely one country where his star continues to shine as brightly as ever: Serbia.
“Putin, you Serb, Serbia is with you,” chanted fans in March 2011 as the then Russian prime minister entered Little Marakana stadium to watch Red Star Belgrade play Zenith, an outfit from his hometown of St Petersburg.
Three and a half years later, in October 2014, Putin attended as a guest of honour a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of Belgrade’s liberation from Nazi occupation with the help of Soviet troops.
Now he is back in Serbia once again, and he is as popular as he was over four years ago.
On January 17, more than 30,000 people from across Serbia cheered for the arrival of a dear friend and ally in downtown Belgrade. “Brother Putin, save the Serbian people and the land of the Serbs,” read one placard. The crowds grew ecstatic as the two heads of state entered the neo-Byzantine Saint Sava cathedral, restored with a Russian grant. With 7,000 police on patrol and the Belgrade traffic blocked, it was a day to remember.
The welcome Putin received in Belgrade signals that Russia still wields influence in the Balkans even though it experienced a series of setbacks in the region in the past two years.
Montenegro, an old-time friend of Moscow, joined NATO in June 2017. Russia’s objections and disruptive tactics, including an alleged foiled plot backed by the Russian military intelligence to overthrow the Montenegrin government, could not stop the alliance’s expansion into the Balkans.
And today, the newly renamed Republic of North Macedonia has a realistic chance of joining NATO too. The pro-Western coalition in Skopje succeeded in changing the country’s constitution to ratify the compromise deal signed with Greece, which allowed the long-standing Macedonian name issue to be resolved. Having survived a no-confidence vote, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has the parliamentary support to ratify the Prespa Agreement and win approval for North Macedonia’s accession to NATO.
To be sure, Russia’s security is not under threat. Montenegro and North Macedonia lie far away from Russia’s borders. But in this era of zero-sum politics, any gain for the West is a loss for Moscow, albeit symbolic.
That’s why it matters that Serbia continues to nurture its ties to Russia. It is possibly the closest thing the Kremlin has to an ally in Europe beyond the post-Soviet space. Formally committed to a policy of neutrality, Belgrade benefits from a defence cooperation agreement with Moscow and receives military hardware from Russia. It refuses to join the Western sanctions, despite the ongoing membership talks with the European Union.
Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic and Putin are discussing the routing of TurkStream 2, a gas pipeline linking Russia and the EU, through Serbia. Gazprom is ready to invest $1.4bn in the venture, Putin declared at a press conference. A trade agreement between Belgrade and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) is reportedly in the works, too. Most importantly, Putin is throwing his weight behind Serbia in the dispute over Kosovo. In Belgrade, he fired criticism at Kosovar Albanians for establishing an army, a violation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 passed following the 1999 war. The West is destabilising the Balkans, Putin insists.
Moreover, Serbia is Russia’s gateway to former Yugoslavia. In Belgrade, Putin met Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the tripartite Bosnian presidency who is backed by Moscow in his effort to carve out a quasi-independent status for Republika Srpska, one of the two entities within Bosnia and Herzegovina. He had lunch with the leaders of Montenegro’s opposition Democratic Front, die-hard critics of NATO membership who are now prosecuted for links to the coup plot. Prior to the visit, Putin lashed out at the West for imposing a new name on Macedonia, echoing nationalist arguments in the country against compromise with Greece. By contrast, as Putin asserted, Russia would honour any solution to the Kosovo issue negotiated by Belgrade and Prishtina without outside interference.
But what is Putin’s endgame in the Balkans?
For all its emotional appeal in Serbia, Republika Srpska, Montenegro and further afield, Russia is neither willing nor able to establish its hegemony in this region. The EU is by far the most important economic player, accounting for two-thirds of the trade and the bulk of FDI flowing into the region. Outside energy, Moscow’s footprint is limited. Even the success of the TurkStream project hinges on the approval of the European Commission, which has the authority to rule on whether the venture conforms to the EU’s competition rules. Locals are fully aware of that reality. “Russia might be in our hearts, but our car navigation systems have Munich as a destination,” Serbs quip. Turning to security, not only is NATO enlarging to ex-Yugoslavia but it also has troops on the ground, unlike Russia. The Kremlin’s best hope is to act as a spoiler and leverage its Balkan assets to obtain an advantage in the broader contest with the West.
The clear winner in all this appears to be President Vucic. Being awarded by Putin the Alexander Nevsky order, reserved for the likes of Belarus’s Lukashenko and Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, boosts his domestic popularity.
The Serbian president has recently seen weeks of street demonstrations uniting citizens across the political spectrum, from liberals to the nationalist far right. What they are protesting is Serbia’s turning into a fiefdom where the president controls all branches of the state, the public sector and, of course, the media. Now, piggybacking on Putin, Vucic has rallied a crowd of his own. Thousands of his supporters were bussed from far-off corners across the country.
Russia also seems to be backing his plans to cut a deal with the Kosovar president Hashim Thaci, potentially based on a swap of territories. For Serbia, recognising Kosovo as a sovereign state would be painful. But it would also clear the most formidable hurdle to EU membership.
Anointed by Putin, Vucic comes across as a statesman and patriot, not a national traitor in the making. He made headlines when he presented the Russian leader with a shepherd dog. But the real gift was from Putin to Vucic.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.
Why the Women’s Tennis Association rallied for Peng Shuai
A prominent Chinese citizen associated with a major international organisation disappears, then a letter is sent stating all is well. The organisation appears to accept the letter at face value although questions remain before the citizen emerges months later under duress. The circumstances are different but there is a similar thread to the disappearance of…
A prominent Chinese citizen associated with a major international organisation disappears, then a letter is sent stating all is well. The organisation appears to accept the letter at face value although questions remain before the citizen emerges months later under duress.
The circumstances are different but there is a similar thread to the disappearance of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who last month accused former Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual misconduct, and Meng Hongwei, the former head of Interpol, who disappeared on a trip to China in 2018 and 18 months later pleaded guilty to corruption. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison.
Following Meng’s disappearance, Interpol largely appeared to accept his resignation letter and Secretary-General Jurgen Stock told the Associated Press news agency that the international police body was forbidden by internal rules to investigate.
Things could have turned out the same for Peng, a world-class athlete and Olympian, after a social media post about her ordeal with Zhang was deleted, except that the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) immediately began to push back. Prominent tennis players also followed suit, including Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams.
The WTA has also continued to raise questions even after Chinese state broadcaster CGTN shared an email on Twitter – purportedly from Peng – saying that she was “not missing” or “unsafe” and that reports of her allegations were “not true”. She reemerged in public a few days later and spoke to the International Olympic Committee over a now heavily-criticised video call.
“[It] remains unclear if she is free and able to make decisions and take actions on her own, without coercion or external interference,” WTA Chairman and CEO Steve Simon said afterwards, stressing that the organisation remained concerned about her wellbeing.
The alleged email from Peng Shuai to Steve Simon that was aired on state broadcaster CGTN last month [CGTN/Twitter via Reuters]After the WTA’s repeated expressions of concern about Peng Shuai’s wellbeing, the IOC said it had held a video call with the player and released a still photo from the call [IOC via EPA]Late on Wednesday, the WTA announced the “immediate suspension” of all tournaments in China and Hong Kong. China hosted nine WTA events in 2019 and a year earlier signed a 10-year deal to host the WTA finals in Shenzhen, according to Reuters news agency.
“It’s really crazy that the Women’s Tennis Association has more credibility right now than Interpol in pushing back on China’s gross human rights abuses, abduction of members of its organisation, and poking holes in what is just thinly-veiled coercive statements and propaganda,” said Michael Caster, co-founder of the human rights watchdog Safeguard Defenders, which monitors disappearances in China.
China’s foreign ministry has accused critics and media of “malicious hyping” and politicising Peng’s disappearance from public view.
Meanwhile, Zhang, the high-ranking party member at the centre of Peng’s allegations, has not been seen in public in several weeks, according to Caster.
He described Peng’s situation as part of the same “playbook” used by the Chinese government when concerns are raised about the wellbeing of a citizen or foreigner living in China – from human rights lawyer Wang Yu to Swedish human rights activist Peter Dahlin who went on to become one of the founders of Safeguard Defenders.
“These farcical public presentations from Peng Shuai are clearly scripted as part of a propaganda effort and we say that because we’ve seen this movie before,” Caster told Al Jazeera.
In announcing the suspension of tournaments, the WTA’s Simon stressed that China’s handling of Peng’s case was not acceptable and should not be allowed to become acceptable.
“If powerful people can suppress the voices of women and sweep sexual assault under the rug then the basis on which the WTA was founded – equality for women – would suffer an immense setback,” Simon said in a statement. “I will not and cannot let that happen to the WTA and its players.”
Game, set, and match to the @WTA in the grand slam for sports and human rights in #China! Steve Simon announces WTA’s decision to suspend tournaments in China… via @WTA https://t.co/LlZ7yW86BQ @hrw @MinkysHighjinks @hrw
— Sophie Richardson (@SophieHRW) December 1, 2021
I applaud Steve Simon & the @WTA leadership for taking a strong stand on defending human rights in China & around the world. The WTA is on the right side of history in supporting our players.
This is another reason why women’s tennis is the leader in women’s sports. https://t.co/PHiU0S7Prw
— Billie Jean King (@BillieJeanKing) December 1, 2021
Other international sporting bodies have already been targeted by Beijing over positions taken by their players and officials.
China briefly stopped airing NBA games after Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for Hong Kong’s 2019 democracy protests and erased Premier League football player Mesut Ozil from the Chinese internet after he spoke out against China’s treatment of Muslim Uighurs.
More recently, games involving the NBA’s Boston Celtics have been pulled from broadcast in China as Enes Kanter, their centre, continues to make criticisms about President Xi Jinping and China’s treatment of Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet while also voicing support for Taiwan.
Moment of reckoning
The WTA, however, had political momentum and timing on its side allowing the organisation to take a calculated risk, says Simon Chadwick, a professor of international sports business at Emlyon Business School in France.
Peng’s case and allegations of sexual misconduct also come at a moment of reckoning in the sports world over #MeToo allegations and mental health following the public struggles of athletes like Osaka and American gymnast Simone Biles.
“Number one for the WTA is that women and girls are their core business. It’s what the organisation is founded upon and to not be seen as supporting someone who apparently has gone missing would undermine what the WTA does,” Chadwick said.
“My feeling is that the WTA probably made a calculation and decided that it stood to lose more globally by not saying anything, then it stood to lose by essentially standing up to China.”
Chadwick says that despite considerable investments in the Chinese tennis industry, women’s tennis has not taken off there as quickly as the WTA initially anticipated.
Its deal with China has also struggled as a result of the pandemic. So far, Shenzhen has hosted only one WTA finals event in 2019. The 2020 final was cancelled as a result of the coronavirus, and the 2021 event was moved to Mexico following another Covid-19 outbreak in China.
The NBA came under pressure in China after Houston Rockets manager Daryl Morey tweeted his support for the Hong Kong protesters in 2019 [File: Xihao Jiang/Reuters]That may give the WTA the kind of latitude unavailable to groups like the IOC, which is due to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing in February. That organisation has also suffered as a result of the pandemic with the Tokyo Olympics, pushed back a year and not attended by the usual number of spectators.
Following Peng’s disappearance, the IOC has said it would “continue our open dialogue on all levels with the Olympic movement in China” following questions about Peng, according to the Associated Press.
Emma Terho, the IOC Athletes Commission Chair, said on Twitter that the organisation prefers a policy of “quiet diplomacy”.
Based in the Republican state of Florida, the WTA may have also felt some political pressure beyond Beijing.
Washington is mulling a boycott of the Winter Games protest against human rights abuses in places like Xinjiang and Hong Kong, notes Chadwick.
“I wonder to what extent there may have been some political pressure from within the United States put on the WTA to respond in the way that it did. I think from the perspective of the WTA, they reacted very, very quickly… unusually quickly, within a matter of two or three days, he said. “And that is extremely unusual.”
On Wednesday, Simon expressed regret at having to suspend events in China, but he said he was “greatly concerned” at the risks players and staff could face if events were held in the country in 2022.
He once again urged Beijing to prove Peng was free, and able to speak “without interference or intimidation” and to fully investigate the allegations of assault.
“I remain hopeful that our pleas will be heard and the Chinese authorities will take steps to legitimately address this issue.”
Mexico and US to launch plan to stem Central American migration
The vast majority of people heading to the US-Mexico border are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.Mexico’s foreign ministry has said the Mexican and US foreign development agencies will work together on a project to address the root causes of migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The “Planting Opportunities” project announced on Wednesday will…
The vast majority of people heading to the US-Mexico border are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.Mexico’s foreign ministry has said the Mexican and US foreign development agencies will work together on a project to address the root causes of migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
The “Planting Opportunities” project announced on Wednesday will bring together the Mexican Agency for International Development Cooperation (Amexcid) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and target the three so-called Northern Triangle countries.
Migration from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador has fuelled record numbers of people being apprehended at the US-Mexico border, as asylum seekers have tried to enter the United States after fleeing poverty, violence and political instability.
The surge in arrivals has piled political pressure on the administration of US President Joe Biden, whose Republican rivals have accused him of causing “chaos” at the border.
Mexico’s National Guard has been dispatched along the country’s southern border with Guatemala and along main roads to stem the flow of migrants [File: Daniel Becerril/Reuters]During the last fiscal year, US authorities detained some 1.7 million people along the border.
The US has been increasingly reliant on Mexico to stem the flow of migrants, as it returns to Mexico the majority of people who arrive at the border under a Trump-era border restriction enacted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The US is also in talks with the Mexican government to restart a programme that would force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their US immigration court hearings.
Both Biden and Mexico’s leftist President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador have vowed to tackle what they call the “root causes” of migration.
They have pointed to poverty, lack of education and job opportunities, gang violence, political instability and corruption as some of the leading causes of migration, especially of young people.
The new US-Mexico collaboration will begin in Honduras, with an effort to teach job skills to more than 500,000 at-risk youth, the Mexican foreign ministry said on Wednesday.
The department did not provide details about the programme or how much funding would be allocated for the scheme.
The project will bring together the Mexican Agency for International Development Cooperation and the United States Agency for International Development [File: Jose Torres/Reuters]As a presidential candidate, Lopez Obrador had touted social programmes aimed at creating better lives for people in Central American countries, which he said would discourage people from leaving.
But those plans were shelved after former US President Donald Trump took office and made hardline, anti-immigration measures the main focus of his government.
In recent years, Mexico has blocked several caravans of people seeking to reach the US. It also has dispatched its National Guard to the country’s southern and northern borders to try to keep people away.
Displaced Syrians face brutal winter exacerbated by economic collapse, charity warns
PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron called on his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, to return to fulfilling Tehran’s obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal “without delay,” Macron’s office said, as negotiators seek to revive the accord through talks in Vienna.During telephone conversations on Monday, Macron urged Raisi to engage in a “constructive manner” with the talks,…
PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron called on his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, to return to fulfilling Tehran’s obligations under the 2015 nuclear deal “without delay,” Macron’s office said, as negotiators seek to revive the accord through talks in Vienna.During telephone conversations on Monday, Macron urged Raisi to engage in a “constructive manner” with the talks, which resumed this week after a suspension of almost half a year following the election of the hardliner to the Iranian presidency.European powers are seeking to revive the nuclear deal, more formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It has been moribund since the US withdrew from the agreement in 2018, prompting Tehran to ramp up nuclear activities as Washington reimposed sanctions.France’s objective is “to see Iran return to full respect for all of its commitments under the JCPOA and that the United States returns to the agreement,” the French presidency said.Macron also “underscored the need for Iran to engage constructively in this direction so that the exchanges allow a swift return to the agreement,” it added.“Iran must return without delay to compliance with all its commitments and obligations … and quickly resume cooperation that allows the (UN atomic energy) agency to fully carry out its mission,” it said.Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Bagheri, adopted a hard-line approach after just one day of the resumed talks, suggesting that everything discussed during previous rounds of diplomacy could be renegotiated.Speaking to Iranian state television, he described all that has been discussed so far as merely a “draft.”He added: “Drafts are subject to negotiation. Therefore nothing is agreed on unless everything has been agreed on.“On that basis, all discussions that took place in the (previous) six rounds (of talks) are summarized and are subject to negotiations. This was admitted by all parties in today’s meeting as well.”Bagheri’s remarks directly contradicted comments on Monday by EU diplomat Enrique Mora, who is leading the talks.“The Iranian delegation represents a new administration in Tehran with new, understandable political sensibilities, but they have accepted that the work done over the six first rounds is a good basis to build our work ahead, so no point in going back,” he said.Another state TV report highlighted Bagheri in Vienna saying that Iran demands a “guarantee by America not to impose new sanctions” or reimpose previously lifted sanctions.Mohammed Eslami, Iran’s civilian nuclear chief, reiterated this demand in comments to Iran’s official IRNA news agency.“The talks (in Vienna) are about the return of the US to the deal and they have to lift all sanctions and this should be in practice and verifiable,” he said.Raisi’s office said that he urged Macron “to strive with other parties in Vienna to conclude the negotiations and lift the sanctions against Iran.”Raisi said: “Sending a full team to the talks shows Iran’s serious will in these talks.”Referring to the US, he added: “Those who have started to violate the nuclear deal must gain the confidence of the other party for the negotiations to proceed in a real and fruitful manner.”