Russia became at the epicenter of the espionage scandal in Serbia two weeks before the visit of Serbian President Alexander Vučić to Sochi and negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Recently, a video was shot on YouTube and Twitter last December, where Assistant Military Attache of the Russian Embassy in Serbia Georgy Kleban (GRU officer) handed over a bag of money and a bottle of vodka to retired Serbian Lt. (the exact name of the Serbian authorities did not reveal), after which both went to the bar.
The video was uploaded and distributed by an anonymous user under the nicknames Kdjuey Lskduf and kdjuey, who wrote a series of posts about Russia corrupting Serbia and is not a "friend". Last week, this video was circulated by the Serbian media. Vučić held consultations with the Minister of Defense, the head of the Serbian Military Security Agency, met with the Russian ambassador and after the meeting of the Security Council confirmed the authenticity of the videos.
He said that Serbian secret services had long been following Lieutenant Colonel, who had previously worked with Croatian intelligence, noted the importance of improving the effectiveness of Serbian counterintelligence. At the same time, Vučić emphasized that the espionage scandal will not affect relations with Russia, which is beneficial to work with, and Putin might not have known about the operation of Kleban, who has not been working in Serbia since the summer of 2019.
Head of foreign intelligence of the Russian Federation Nikolai Patrushev refused to comment on the failure of Kleban in Serbia. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called the video a provocation. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said nothing could spoil relations between Russia and Serbia.
The Russian media release information that the communication between Kleban and the former Serbian military might have nothing to do with espionage and men simply could solve some business problems. The espionage scandal that has erupted will negatively affect the climate of bilateral relations between Russia and Serbia, and this is in the interests of third parties.
In God we trust, the rest we check
The very fact that Russian GRU has informants in Serbia suggests that the Kremlin does not trust Vučić. Until recently, Serbia was almost perceived as Russia's closest partner in the Balkans. Vučić opposes the expansion of NATO, re-equips the Serbian army with the support of Russia and buys Russian weapons.
To emphasize its special attitude towards Serbia, Russia even carried out gratuitous deliveries of military helicopters and tanks. Since 2014, both countries regularly conduct military exercises. We should not forget about the reverent attitude of a significant number of Orthodox Serbs to Russians, united by anti-Americanism and the complexes of the besieged fortress, a great power.
During Putin’s visit to Belgrade this year, thousands of local fans went out to meet him and even kissed portraits of the Russian president on camera. Serbs respect Putin as a supporter of the idea of a multipolar world that wanted to spit on US interests and keeps the post-Soviet countries in check, as Slobodan Milosevic once wanted to keep the former Yugoslav republics from drifting to the West.
Modern Serbia is no longer the Yugoslavia of the time of Tito, but certain continuity in foreign policy persists, which does not suit the Kremlin. The Serbian President advocates for Serbia’s international neutrality in the military-political sphere, against membership in both NATO and the Collective Security Treaty Organization, where Russia dominates.
Vučić's Serbian Progressive Party maintains ties with the ruling United Russia party in Russia. This year, Serbia entered into a free trade area agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union. However, this does not prevent Serbia from participating in the Individual Partnership Plan with NATO since 2015, which allows receiving military assistance from the West.
In 2017, the landing troops of Serbia and the United States conducted joint exercises. Vučić sets the goal of Serbia's accession to the EU.
Despite the fact that Serb mercenaries among the right-wing radicals are fighting on the side of pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas and participated in the annexation of Crimea, Vučić did not recognize the peninsula as Russian territory. The annexation of Crimea resembles the separation of Kosovo from Serbia with the support of NATO, which Vučić refuses to recognize.
Vucic’s overly moderate political course does not suit Russia since it sees in Serbia an outpost of its influence in the Balkans, a lever to deter the integration of Northern Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Herzegovina into NATO and the EU.
However, Vučić is not ready to take action to destabilize the socio-political situation in neighboring countries in the interests of Russia. He even tried to negotiate with the Kosovo authorities on the exchange of certain areas in the south of Serbia, where Albanians compactly live, to the northern regions of the separatist entity, where many Serbs live.
Vučić evolved from ultranationalist and member of the “Serbian Radical Party” of Vojislav Šešelj (until 2008) into a moderate conservative. He has moved away from the idea of Greater Serbia and the unification of the lands of neighboring Balkan countries around Belgrade, where ethnic Serbs live compactly, and benefits from cooperation with Russia and the West. He is trying to unite both Serbian conservatives and liberals around him.
It would be beneficial for Russia if Serbia was headed by an anti-Western populist who considers Crimea part of Russia instead of Vučić.
The Russian special services have taken root on Serbian soil and are working with informants with contacts in the military and political circles to obtain information on decisions of national importance at the preparation stage, to prepare incriminating evidence on Serbian officials for subsequent blackmail.
Cold shower of the West
Perhaps a scandalous video was prepared and then leaked to the public by representatives of the special services. Professionals worked. The video was shot from several angles, and the cameras were installed on the street, in the bar and in the car of the former Serbian military.
The head of the parliamentary committee on Kosovo, Milovan Drecun suspects that this is the work of the Bulgarian special services. Bulgaria is a time-tested US ally in NATO and a member of the EU, which are alarming Russian-Serbian military exercises.
Serbia and Bulgaria fought each other in the first half of the 20th century. In 1999, Sofia provided its airspace for NATO aircraft during the bombing of Yugoslavia. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov from the GERB party is wary of Russia's geopolitical expansion in Eastern Europe. There are territorial disputes between Bulgaria and Serbia.
The ruling coalition in the Bulgarian parliament includes the far-right Ataka party, which expresses claims on the border regions of Serbia inhabited by ethnic Bulgarians.
Serbian intelligence agencies may be involved in the espionage scandal. According to Serb analyst Pregrad Petrović of the Center for Security Policy in Belgrade, there is a split in the intelligence community of Serbia among proponents of rapprochement with Russia and adherents of European integration.
It is possible that the Serbs could have spied on Kleban and his informant. The espionage scandal involving Russia is a cold shower of the West for Vučić, so that he has an idea of the real face of the Kremlin, gets rid of the illusions of an equal partnership with the Russian Federation. Vučić is made to understand that Putin will conduct a dialogue with him from a position of strength.
Vučić was left for two weeks before negotiations with Putin so that he would have time to reconsider his position on a number of issues of bilateral cooperation. NATO member countries are not interested in the appearance of the Russian Pantsir and S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems at their borders, which were used during the military exercises of Russia and Serbia. Belgrade is interested in acquiring them.
US Special Representative for the Balkans Matthew Palmer warned the Serbian authorities of the threat of imposing US sanctions in the event of the acquisition of Russian weapons. It is beneficial for the West that Serbia maintains international authority.
The purpose of the scandal is to damage the prospects for cooperation between Russia and Serbia in the energy sector. Serbs buy Russian natural gas. In spring, Serbia began construction of its section of the Turkish Stream Russian gas pipeline from the border with Bulgaria to Hungary and planned to complete the work before the end of the year.
The Turkish Stream is competing with another Trans-Anatolian Gas Pipeline project from Azerbaijan to the Balkans, in which Turkey and Bulgaria also participate.
Such supporters of diversification of natural gas import directions to the EU and reduction of energy dependence on Russia, such as Poland, the Baltic countries, Romania, are interested in the project. In November, it was planned to begin supplying natural gas via the Trans-Anatolian gas pipeline to Greece. The construction of a section of this gas pipeline on the border of Greece and Bulgaria is currently underway.
Ukrainian press spreads the versions that Vučić himself could have stood behind the espionage scandal in order to strengthen his position before negotiations with Putin. There is an opinion that the Russian special services could specially release the video in order to expose the Serbian president as a weak leader, increase criticism of him in Serbian society and create the preconditions for a more loyal politician coming to power.
These assumptions rest on the very fact that such scandals undermine confidence in bilateral relations. In 2002, Serbian law enforcement officers arrested an employee of the American Embassy, who was suspected of spying and recruiting deputy and retired general Momčilo Perišić.
Serbia's espionage scandal is not the first failure of Russian intelligence in the Balkans this year. In September-October in Bulgaria, leader of the Russophile movement Nikolai Malinov and an employee of the Russian embassy on suspicion of espionage were detained.
Russia does not make any sense to put on its own steps in the Balkans. It's all about the low competence of the Russian special services.