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Serbia’s Chief 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 in opposition to 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 peak, a delicate matter for the Kremlin, is a secret.)

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

Is Russia, mired in a brutal battle 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 final week when an esoteric dispute over license plates between Serbia, which is sure 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 close by 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 attempting 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 is going to 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 need to be sacrificed for Russian pursuits.”

America’s ambassador to Serbia, Christopher R. Hill, a veteran diplomatic troubleshooter whose latest 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 vitality 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 shops and social media accounts have for months pumped out incendiary reviews of ethnic Serbs in Kosovo and Bosnia struggling insupportable oppression. The reviews, which largely reprise Russian propaganda in regards to 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 stay in Kosovo, inhabited principally by ethnic Albanians and wrenched from Serbian management 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 solely by ethnic Serbs, stated that he would by no means voluntarily put Kosovan plates on his automobile as a result of that may 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 automobile plates difficulty was “so minuscule it’s completely ridiculous.”

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

Final week, Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary common, tweeted that he had spoken with Mr. Vucic in regards to 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-about armed battle unlikely he had advised Mr. Vucic: “Wars have began over land, cash, even a good looking lady. However this could be the primary battle 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 battle between Russia and the West.

A senior legislator from Mr. Vucic’s get together, Vladimir Djukanovic, has seized on the thought of Serbia as an avenger that “might be compelled to start the denazification of the Balkans,” an ominous echo of Russia’s said aim in Ukraine and of Belgrade’s pursuit of a “Higher Serbia” within the Nineties.

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

The Russian International Ministry added gasoline to the Kosovo hearth final week by accusing ethnic Albanian “radicals” of attempting to eject ethnic Serbs from the territory and of scary unrest “to launch a violent state of affairs.”

Mr. Putin has repeatedly cited NATO’s navy intervention in assist of Kosovo’s separation from Serbia in 1999 as a justification for Russia’s aggression in opposition to 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 nations 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 proper 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 battle in Ukraine.

“There’s much less now that Russia can really do. Its skills are extra restricted and it’s extra remoted. Its assets are centered on Ukraine,” he stated.

Take, for instance, Mr. Dodik. Boasting of robust assist from Russia, the Bosnian Serb chief provoked a probably violent disaster late final 12 months with a vow to arrange his personal ethnic Serb military and successfully secede from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

But in April, two months into the battle 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 broadly 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 advised him. “Serbia,” Mr. Vucic added, “has all the time supported the territorial integrity of Bosnia” as outlined by the 1995 Dayton peace settlement.

Mr. Vucic stated that he had nothing to do with the latest protests over the license plates in northern Kosovo, saying that ethnic Serbs there have been “one hundred pc fed up,” notably 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, nevertheless, one factor appears clear: “We’re caught in a proxy battle like Ukraine, solely on a a lot smaller scale,” stated Mr. Stefanovic, the Serbian international affairs committee chairman.

That wrestle, lamented Mr. Vucic, has put his nation in a painful vise, squeezed between dependency on Russia for vitality and diplomatic assist 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 very least not till Serbia’s stalled, 13-year-old utility to affix the European bloc picks up pace. (Greater than 80 % of Serbs oppose sanctions on Russia, in accordance with a latest opinion ballot.)

To Moscow’s fury, Serbia in March backed a United Nations decision 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 battle in opposition to all people.”

“It isn’t 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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