In March, as Europe was struck by the first outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic kissed the Chinese flag and praised Beijing for its support in fighting the coronavirus. Six months later, he met Donald Trump in the White House – and publicly supported the idea of renaming a lake after the US President.
The approval came on the heels of a delegation of U.S. officials representing six federal agencies, as well as the President’s Balkan envoy Richard Grenell, who was the first to propose a lake named after Trump.
Serbia has “opened the doors of Washington that have been closed to us for the past 30 years,” Vucic told the Financial Times in an interview in Belgrade.
The US diplomatic advance is unprecedented in recent Serbian history: while Chinese President Xi Jinping visits at least once a year, the last time a US president visited Belgrade was shortly after the funeral of Yugoslavia’s strongman Josip Broz Tito in 1980 visited courtship in a small but crucial country in the EU hinterland, whose economy is increasingly intertwined with that of China.
Since taking office in 2014, Vucic has followed a course not dissimilar to that of Tito’s non-alignment during the Cold War. However, given the escalating hostilities between Beijing and Washington, such a balancing act is becoming increasingly difficult.
Serbia is one of the main hubs for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, Mr. Xi’s ambitious and controversial corridor designed to facilitate the transport of his goods to European markets. The 7 m high hill country lies at the interface between the Greek port of Piraeus, which is largely owned by China’s Cosco, and ports in Germany and the Netherlands.
Serbia is attractive to Beijing as the largest economy in the Balkans and, despite problems with the rule of law and media freedom, has the best chances in the region to join the EU in the next decade.
In the course of a “strategic partnership agreement” between Belgrade and Beijing in 2009, Serbia received so much investment that the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently warned that the country would risk “becoming a Chinese customer state”.
These investments include a large copper mine in the eastern city of Bor and a steel mill in downtown Smederevo. The latter is emblematic of China’s foray into the country: in 2012, US Steel sold it to the state for one dollar and four years later the Chinese company Hesteel acquired it for 46 million euros and promised to invest 300 million dollars and keep 5,000 workers.
Belgrade is also working with Huawei on a Safe Cities project to provide 1,000 facial recognition cameras and recently made Europe’s first purchase of China-made FK-3 surface-to-air missiles and armed drones.
This economic cooperation has resulted in mutual political support: Beijing is backing Belgrade by refusing to recognize the breakaway province of Kosovo, and in return a senior Serbian official praised China’s repressive minority policies in Xinjiang.
US President Donald Trump, center, with Mr Vucic, left, and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti at the White House in September © Anna Moneymaker-Pool / Getty
Meanwhile, relations with Washington have been strained since the US-led NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, an 11-week campaign that forced Serbian forces to withdraw from 90 percent Albanian-populated Kosovo. The Chinese embassy was destroyed and three Chinese citizens were killed (a Chinese cultural center is currently being built on the site). When Kosovo declared independence in 2008, hooligans set the US embassy on fire.
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Now Mr. Grenell has pledged to help rebuild the former Department of Defense building and headquarters of the General Staff. In public opinion polls, support for the US has increased, although China is still more popular. “This government (Trump) did not bomb Serbia,” said Vucic.
After an Oval Office ceremony in mid-September at which Serbia signed letters of intent pledging further cooperation with Kosovo, Trump falsely claimed that he had stopped “mass murders” between Serbia and its breakaway province. Indeed, Belgrade and Pristina have renewed their commitments to the promises made under the auspices of the EU.
The real effect of the summit is “a fundamental turning point between the US and Serbia,” said Adam Boehler, CEO of the US International Development Finance Corporation, the US government’s international development agency.
In the White House, Mr Vucic agreed to “ban the use of 5G devices by untrustworthy providers”. The clause was perceived as a reference to Huawei, a partner of Belgrade in several projects.
The Serbian leader’s party, which won a landslide victory in June’s elections, could easily pass a law in parliament preventing Huawei from getting a 5G license ahead of next year’s auction.
Boehler said Washington is increasingly concerned about China’s presence in south-eastern Europe, comparing it to “neocolonization”.
“It is unheard of that there is daylight at all between the Chinese and Serbs,” remarked a Western diplomat.
Mr. Vucic’s first meeting after his return from Washington was with the Chinese ambassador, whom insiders describe as “stupid”. The following week, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic attended the opening of the Huawei Center for Digital Innovation and Development in Belgrade.
Kosovar Albanian refugees flee the war in Kosovo in 1999, which led to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia © Yannis Behrakis / Reuters
Mr. Vucic insisted that he would be able to maintain close ties with Beijing while deepening ties with Washington. “I am proud that the Chinese and a Chinese company supported us with the steel mill, but I am also very proud of our agreement with the Americans,” he said.
Serbia had become a peasant in the ongoing trade war between the great powers, but could still emerge victorious, he said: “When this peasant reaches the eighth row and becomes a queen, this is the real task I want to deliver to the Serbian people. ”
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This story has been corrected to reflect that the last time a US President visited Serbia shortly after Josip Broz Tito’s funeral was not for his funeral.