Serbia is getting dangerously close to the bloc of autocratic and aggressive regimes, such as those in Moscow and Tehran, and thus, turning its back on its Western partners, writes Orhan Dragaš.
Orhan Dragaš is the founder and director of the International Security Institute based in Belgrade.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian visited Serbia on 4-5 December, thus continuing a series of frequent meetings between the Serbian state leadership and the leaders of the Tehran regime. Similar to all previous meetings this year, this visit of the Iranian minister did not have any visible content. No agreement was signed. There was no talk of joint business or specific bilateral activities. There was no mention of the mass protests in Iran and the repression of the state against its people, Iran’s nuclear program, or the sanctions to which it is subjected.
That is why the question arises, why did Serbia invite the head of Iranian diplomacy to visit? There were no reasons for that, not even protocol reasons. Ali Bagheri, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iran, visited Belgrade at the beginning of October, and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić spoke with the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in New York on 22 September at the UN General Assembly.
What is the reason for the visit of the head of Iranian diplomacy to Belgrade only two months after the talks between the two leaders of state, considering they are not neighbouring countries or partners who need to communicate often at the highest level?
Serbia had absolutely no reason to host Minister Abdollahian, especially not today, when the entire democratic world is outraged by the repression of the regime in Tehran against its own population. The statements of the Serbian officials, the president, the prime minister and the head of diplomacy who received the Iranian minister, sent the same message – Serbia is grateful to Iran for not recognising Kosovo’s independence.
That gratitude has been repeated for 14 years, since Kosovo declared its independence. Serbia expresses its gratitude in international institutions, where it persistently votes against, or abstains, when it comes to resolutions condemning brutal violations of human rights in Iran or its nuclear program.
Serbia gets nothing in return, except damage. Because of this position, Serbia traditionally has a very bad reputation with its main partners in the European Union, because voting in favour of Iran is recognised as a gross refusal to accept the common European foreign and security policy, which Serbia should also implement, as a candidate for EU membership.
Serbia does not have an economic motive to organise such frequent meetings with the Iranian state leadership. The annual trade exchange barely amounts to $50 million, which is equal to the seven-day trade with neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina. Serbia realises two thirds of its total exchange with the large EU economies which are Serbia’s biggest partner, so there is no need for comparison.
On the other hand, Iran has a motive to use Belgrade’s favourable position. As part of his current visit to Serbia, Minister Abdollahian convened a meeting with all Iranian ambassadors in Europe. Belgrade served only as a base for Iranian diplomats to hold an internal meeting with their boss, which is certainly important to Tehran, bearing in mind the sanctions and travel restrictions on Iranian officials.
This visit of the Iranian minister confirms the incomprehensible manner of Serbian diplomacy to organise meetings that do not benefit, but only harm it, while the benefit goes exclusively to the other side.
During the September session of the UN General Assembly, the then head of Serbian diplomacy, Nikola Selaković, signed an agreement in New York with Sergey Lavrov on diplomatic consultations between the two countries for the next two years. It is a technical document, which can be exchanged by two ambassadors, far from the TV cameras. But this time Russia needed a propaganda image for its own public, to show that its minister is not isolated in the UN headquarters, that he has meetings and even signs some kind of interstate agreements. Even then, Serbia did not derive any benefit. On the contrary, it suffered only political damage from its partners in Europe and America.
When we take into account that Serbia is the only remaining European country that has not imposed sanctions on Russia, that Serbia is ready to help when Russian diplomacy needs it, then the visit of the head of Iranian diplomacy to Belgrade indicates that it is difficult to talk about a series of coincidences or diplomatic confusion.
If, as a traditional political, economic and cultural partner, Serbia can perhaps offer some justification for contacts with the Kremlin, in the midst of its war of conquest against sovereign Ukraine, then it cannot find any convincing reason for a similar intimacy with Tehran.
By tying its entire foreign policy to Kosovo, whose independence it does not recognise, Serbia is getting dangerously close to the bloc of autocratic and aggressive regimes, such as those in Moscow and Tehran, and thus, turning its back on its Western partners. And these Western partners – the EU and the United States – are Serbia’s key interlocutors for the agreement on Kosovo. In the new international context, which is determined by the Russian aggression against Ukraine, where Iran appears as an accomplice in that aggression by supplying Moscow with weapons, Serbia cannot expect any result regarding its most important issue by siding with the renegade regimes in Moscow and Tehran.
If it is a matter of mistakes in the planning of diplomatic meetings, they are so frequent that the question arises about the integrity of the Serbian state leadership to make useful decisions for its country and to refuse communication with countries from which it suffers only harm. But if it is a thought-out foreign policy strategy, then the matter is much more serious and means turning one’s back on the proclaimed path to the EU and joining the bloc of isolated and violent autocracies, led by Russia and Iran.
On the same day when the EU launched a new round of sanctions against Russia and stopped the import of its oil into European territory, the head of Iranian diplomacy, one of Moscow’s closest allies, visited Belgrade. Serbia’s attitude towards the new political, economic and security architecture of Europe and the world, which is being created as a result of Russian aggression against Ukraine, will be observed in that symbolism. Hospitality for the Iranian minister, at this very moment, was more than a gesture; it was an open message from Serbia, showing who Serbia sees as an ally and partner. And it will remain so until the government in Belgrade proves otherwise.