Serbia’s Leader Rejects ‘Little Putin’ Label Amid Fears of Russian Meddling

BELGRADE, Serbia — Serbia’s strongman chief, Aleksandar Vucic, is fed up with being reviled as a “little Putin” intent on aggression towards his nation’s fragile neighbors within the Balkans.

For starters, Mr. Vucic famous wryly in an interview within the library of the presidential palace this month, “I’m nearly two meters tall.” That makes him about 6-foot-5. (Vladimir V. Putin is an estimated 5-foot-7 at most, although the Russian president’s precise top, a delicate subject for the Kremlin, is a secret.)

Behind Mr. Vucic’s levity over bodily stature, nonetheless, lurks a severe query that torments the Balkans and preoccupies Western diplomats.

Is Russia, mired in a brutal conflict in Ukraine, utilizing Serbia to stir division in Europe and provoke renewed battle within the former Yugoslavia to distract NATO from the battle raging to the east?

These fears flared last week when an esoteric dispute over license plates between Serbia, which is certain to Russia by historical past, faith and deep hostility towards NATO, and the previously Serbian province of Kosovo led to unruly protests, roadblocks and gunfire — setting off alarm bells within the Atlantic alliance.

The unrest in Kosovo, and strains in nearby Bosnia and Herzegovina attributable to Milorad Dodik, the belligerent, Moscow-backed chief of the ethnic Serb enclave there, and by hard-line Croat nationalists have led to warnings that Russia is making an attempt to stoke tensions, stilled however by no means actually resolved, from the Balkan wars of the Nineties.

“Russia calculates that the extra time the West spends sweating within the Balkans, the much less time it should spend sweating in Russia’s yard,” stated Vuk Vuksanovic, a researcher on the Belgrade Middle for Safety Coverage.

“However there are limits on what Russia can do,” Mr. Vuksanovic added. “It wants native elites and these don’t wish to be sacrificed for Russian pursuits.”

America’s ambassador to Serbia, Christopher R. Hill, a veteran diplomatic troubleshooter whose current appointment signaled Washington’s heightened anxiousness over the Balkans, stated that Russia, providing solely “financial blackmail” and “chaos all through the area,” had discovered few takers.

“Regardless of Russia’s affect on Serbia’s power sector and regardless of its pervasive disinformation efforts right here, Serbs have determined that their future is with Europe and the West,” Mr. Hill stated.

Russian information retailers and social media accounts have for months pumped out incendiary experiences of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo and Bosnia struggling insupportable oppression. The experiences, which largely reprise Russian propaganda concerning the struggling of ethnic Russians dwelling in Ukraine, have emboldened hard-line, pro-Moscow Serb nationalists.

Anger among the many round 65,000 ethnic Serbs who nonetheless dwell in Kosovo, inhabited largely by ethnic Albanians and wrenched from Serbian control by a NATO bombing marketing campaign in 1999, has simmered for years. However tensions spiked dangerously on July 31 in response to a plan, later postponed, by the Kosovan authorities to ban Serbian license plates and id paperwork beginning Aug. 1.

Slavisa Ristic, former mayor of Zubin Potok, a city in northern Kosovo inhabited nearly fully by ethnic Serbs, stated that he would by no means voluntarily put Kosovan plates on his automotive as a result of that might imply recognizing Kosovo’s independence, one thing that just about all Serbs, together with President Vucic, say is out of the query.

Borko Stefanovic, an opponent of Mr. Vucic who chairs the Serbian Parliament’s international affairs committee, stated that the automotive plates challenge was “so minuscule it’s completely ridiculous.”

“However,” he added, “right here within the Balkans, such symbolic issues are of giant significance.”

Final week, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary common, tweeted that he had spoken with Mr. Vucic concerning the flare-up in Kosovo, declaring that the alliance, which leads a peacekeeping mission within the former Serbian territory, “stands able to intervene if stability is jeopardized.”

Additionally calling for calm has been Mr. Hill, the U.S. ambassador. In an interview in Belgrade, the Serbian capital, Mr. Hill stated that whereas he thought of armed battle unlikely he had informed Mr. Vucic: “Wars have began over land, cash, even a wonderful lady. However this may be the primary conflict I’ve ever heard of that was began over a license plate.”

Rife with potential flashpoints, each symbolic and of substance, the lands of the previous Yugoslavia replicate on a smaller scale the forces at play in Ukraine: a regional hegemon, on this case Serbia, seething over misplaced territory and scattered ethnic kin; and a geopolitical tug of conflict between Russia and the West.

A senior legislator from Mr. Vucic’s celebration, Vladimir Djukanovic, has seized on the thought of Serbia as an avenger that “might be pressured to start the denazification of the Balkans,” an ominous echo of Russia’s stated goal in Ukraine and of Belgrade’s pursuit of a “Larger Serbia” within the Nineties.

Mr. Vucic, who publicly denounced Mr. Djukanovic’s assertion as “silly” and “irresponsible,” stated: “We’ve got our nation. We aren’t thinking about increasing our borders and entering into any fights with our neighbors.”

The Russian International Ministry added gasoline to the Kosovo fireplace final week by accusing ethnic Albanian “radicals” of making an attempt to eject ethnic Serbs from the territory and of frightening unrest “to launch a violent state of affairs.”

Mr. Putin has repeatedly cited NATO’s navy intervention in help of Kosovo’s separation from Serbia in 1999 as a justification for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, which he claims is to guard ethnic Russians in Donetsk and Luhansk.

“Putin is utilizing and well studying out of your errors, which you’re by no means going to confess,” Mr. Vucic stated, referring to the West.

Most Western international locations acknowledge Kosovo as an unbiased state, however different nations, together with Serbia, Russia, China and 5 European states don’t.

“Kosovo for Russia is the right low-cost funding that simply retains on giving,” stated Mr. Vuksanovic, the Belgrade-based researcher. Nonetheless, he added, Russia’s capability for mischief-making within the Balkans has been severely constrained by the conflict in Ukraine.

“There’s much less now that Russia can truly do. Its talents are extra restricted and it’s extra remoted. Its sources are targeted on Ukraine,” he stated.

Take, for instance, Mr. Dodik. Boasting of sturdy help from Russia, the Bosnian Serb chief provoked a potentially violent crisis late final yr with a vow to arrange his personal ethnic Serb military and successfully secede from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

But in April, two months into the conflict in Ukraine, Mr. Dodik instantly introduced that he was suspending his secessionist plans. “He checked out Ukraine and noticed how the West reacted to Russia. He realized that he needed to tone issues down,” Mr. Vuksanovic stated.

Whereas Russia has been extensively accused of encouraging Mr. Dodik’s secessionist ambitions, Mr. Vucic is credited by diplomats within the area with serving to rein them in.

Mr. Vucic stated that he had spoken to Mr. Dodik about his secessionist undertaking however declined to say what he had informed him. “Serbia,” Mr. Vucic added, “has all the time supported the territorial integrity of Bosnia” as outlined by the 1995 Dayton peace agreement.

Mr. Vucic stated that he had nothing to do with the current protests over the license plates in northern Kosovo, saying that ethnic Serbs there have been “one hundred pc fed up,” significantly with the Kosovar authorities’s refusal to implement key elements of a 2013 settlement that promised them a measure of self-rule.

Beneath layers of intrigue and native political feuds, nonetheless, one factor appears clear: “We’re caught in a proxy conflict like Ukraine, solely on a a lot smaller scale,” stated Mr. Stefanovic, the Serbian international affairs committee chairman.

That battle, lamented Mr. Vucic, has put his nation in a painful vise, squeezed between dependency on Russia for power and diplomatic help over Kosovo, and calls for from Western powers that it be a part of efforts to punish Moscow for the Ukraine invasion.

“I get stress from them each single day to impose sanctions on Russia,” Mr. Vucic stated. That, he added, won’t occur, at the least not till Serbia’s stalled, 13-year-old software to hitch the European bloc picks up velocity. (Greater than 80 % of Serbs oppose sanctions on Russia, in accordance with a recent opinion poll.)

To Moscow’s fury, Serbia in March backed a United Nations resolution demanding that Russia halt its invasion, a vote that led to an uproar from radical Serb nationalists, who denounced Mr. Vucic as a “traitor.”

However Serbia’s refusal to implement sanctions has offered ammunition to those that view Mr. Vucic as a Russian puppet.

Noting that Serbia “stays the one nation in Europe that refuses to sanction Russia,” the prime minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, in April denounced Mr. Vucic as “Serbia’s little Putin.” “Peace and safety within the Western Balkans have by no means been extra threatened,” he stated.

Mr. Vucic dismissed Mr. Kurti’s accusation.

“Kurti needs to be a ‘little Zelensky’ preventing ‘little Putin,’” Mr. Vucic stated, referring to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. “That is his narrative — that Vucic is a horrible nationalist who needs to struggle towards everyone.”

“It’s not true in any respect,” he added.

However, with a lot stress bearing down on Serbia from all sides, Mr. Vucic conceded, “We’re caught, and we all know this.”

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