Saturday

19th Aug 2017

Analysis

Serbia and the convenient spy

  • Belgrade: Vucic just won elections, but the economy, and his popularity, are wobbly (Photo: Milos Milosevic)

Twenty years after the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia, Serbia and Croatia are at war again, albeit a cold one.

The two countries’ relations hit a new low this week, with an overblown spy affair dominating the headlines in both Belgrade and Zagreb.

Thank you for reading EUobserver!

Subscribe now and get 40% off for an annual subscription. Sale ends soon.

  1. €90 per year. Use discount code EUOBS40%
  2. or €15 per month
  3. Cancel anytime

EUobserver is an independent, not-for-profit news organization that publishes daily news reports, analysis, and investigations from Brussels and the EU member states. We are an indispensable news source for anyone who wants to know what is going on in the EU.

We are mainly funded by advertising and subscription revenues. As advertising revenues are falling fast, we depend on subscription revenues to support our journalism.

For group, corporate or student subscriptions, please contact us. See also our full Terms of Use.

If you already have an account click here to login.

The story erupted last weekend, with the spectacular arrest of an alleged Croatian spy after what was described as a months-long coordinated effort by Serbian security services. At first, not much was revealed except that the man, a former military officer, was caught just as he was about to defect to Croatia.

As more details emerged, it turned out that the suspect, a retired low-ranking officer of the Serbian rebel army in the 1991-1995 war, was indeed spying for the Croats, supplying them with information about his former colleagues.

This reportedly led to several war crimes indictments by Croatian courts.

On Tuesday the accused, 56-year old Cedo Colovic, pleaded guilty in what was probably one of the shortest trials in Serbia’s history. He was sentenced to three years in prison, the minimum penalty for espionage under Serbian law.

The Croatian government, which is counting its last days before 11 September parliamentary elections, denied any links to Colovic.

“This looks like a script from Communist-era propaganda films”, said Croatian foreign minister Miro Kovac in a televised interview on Wednesday. He also accused Serbia of launching a “diplomatic aggression” against Croatia and warned that “this will not be tolerated”.

Most analysts agree that the spying affair was indeed fabricated, or at least blown out of proportion.

“It seems that the authorities were trying to demonstrate that Serbia still has some teeth left in its jaws”, said Predrag Mihajlovic, the deputy editor-in-chief of Belgrade-based Blic daily newspaper.

Aleksandar Dimitrijevic, a former head of Serbian military intelligence, described the case as “pure media hype”.

But if Serbia pulled this instrument from the Cold War era toolkit, it’s because it has some grounds for feeling victimised.

Earlier this year, Croatia blocked the opening of two chapters of EU enlargement talks with Serbia, demanding concessions on several bilateral issues.

The two important chapters were eventually opened in early July, but only after German chancellor Angela Merkel exerted some serious pressure on Zagreb to soften its stance.

Just this week, Croatia’s ruling HDZ party successfully blocked the Serbian Progressive Party, led by Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic, from being admitted to the ranks of European Peoples Party (EPP), the dominant coalition in the European Parliament.

Joining the EPP would significantly boost Vucic’s standing on international scene, where many still eye him with suspicion because of his ultranationalist past.

EU or Russia?

Vucic doesn’t have to worry about polls, since he recently emerged victorious after early elections in May, which he called to consolidate his power. But he didn’t win as much votes as he hoped for, and is now facing a stronger opposition in parliament. Also, the opinion polls do show a slow, but steady decline in his popularity.

Tougher challenges lie ahead. With about €350 in average monthly incomes, Serbia is among the poorest countries in the region. The biggest foreign investor, Italian carmaker Fiat, is reportedly preparing to shut down its only plant next year.

Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund and The World Bank are demanding more cuts in the public sector, which would add tens of thousands to the army of the unemployed.

Lately, Vucic is finding increasingly difficult to balance between his proclaimed goal of leading Serbia into the EU, while still maintaining good relations with Russia and reigning in domestic nationalists, which demand a pivot towards Moscow.

Russia recently stepped up its efforts to drive a wedge between Serbia and the West. Last week, Russia’s ambassador to Belgrade Aleksandar Chepurin warned of “attempts to create organised chaos in the Balkans, much in the way it was done in Ukraine and the Middle East”.

Vucic also faces a growing protest in Belgrade over government’s plan to build a luxury apartment complex on the city’s waterfront. The project, financed by a shady company from United Arab Emirates, triggered mass demonstrations this summer when several tenants were forcibly removed from the area, and their homes were destroyed. Another big anti-government rally is scheduled for September 29.

Echoing Chepurin’s words, the government claims that the waterfront protests are sponsored by billionaire George Soros and unnamed foreign intelligence agencies in order to start “a colour revolution”.

Patriotic chest-banging

The aim, according to several government officials, is to destabilise Serbia and force it to give up its claims on Kosovo, the predominantly ethnic Albanian former province which declared independence from Serbia after Nato intervention in 1999.

Moreover, Serbia is under increasing efforts to exert pressure on Milorad Dodik, the leader of Serbian statelet in the neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina, to give up the idea of organising a referendum on establishing “Serbian Statehood Day”, scheduled for 25 September.

The referendum, which some fear could lead to secession, is branded illegal by Bosnia’s Constitutional Court and most of the international community, but Dodik still plans to proceed, and Vucic is trying to maintain a neutral stance.

With all these problems both at home and abroad, the spy affair was a welcome distraction.

The good news is that Serbo-Croatian cold war has no real potential to ever turn hot. Serbia’s armed forces are in no condition to start any real conflict in the neighbourhood, and Croatia is firmly tethered by Nato. But they can still bark at each other.

In the Western Balkans in general, and in Serbia in particular, patriotic chest-banging almost always works to boost politicians’ popularity.

This article is the second in a series about the situation in Western Balkan countries. The first one was from Croatia, the following one will be from Bosnia

Croatia and Serbia in war of words

The 1990's wars are again straining relations between Croatia and Serbia amid reinterpretation on both sides of World War Two memories.

Analysis

Croatian election fuels regional tensions

Despite some conciliatory voices, Croatia's latest election has been overshadowed by nationalistic rhetoric, irking its neighbour, Serbia.

Russia courts Serbia amid EU dispute

Serbian PM Vucic cut short a trip to Brussels, the same day as Russian foreign minister said the EU was pushing Balkan countries to "antagonise" Russia.

Opinion

Overcoming the plot against Turkish democracy

One year after an attempted coup, what Turkey needs is not biased and groundless criticism but more cooperation, dialogue and understanding, writes its Europe minister Omer Celik.

News in Brief

  1. Macedonia sacks top prosecutor over wiretap scandal
  2. ECB concerned stronger euro could derail economic recovery
  3. Mixed Irish reactions to post-Brexit border proposal
  4. European Union returns to 2 percent growth
  5. Russian power most feared in Europe
  6. Ireland continues to refuse €13 billion in back taxes from Apple
  7. UK unemployment lowest since 1975
  8. Europe facing 'explosive cocktail' in its backyard, report warns

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceDoes Genetics Explain Why So Few of Us Have an Ideal Cardiovascular Health?
  2. EU2017EEFuture-Themed Digital Painting Competition Welcomes Artists - Deadline 31 Aug
  3. ACCABusinesses Must Grip Ethics and Trust in the Digital Age
  4. European Jewish CongressEJC Welcomes European Court of Justice's Decision to Keep Hamas on Terror List
  5. UNICEFReport: Children on the Move From Africa Do Not First Aim to Go to Europe
  6. Centre Maurits CoppietersWe Need Democratic and Transparent Free Trade Agreements Says MEP Jordi Solé
  7. Counter BalanceOut for Summer, Ep. 2: EIB Promoting Development in Egypt - At What Cost?
  8. EU2017EELocal Leaders Push for Local and Regional Targets to Address Climate Change
  9. European Healthy Lifestyle AllianceMore Women Than Men Have Died From Heart Disease in Past 30 Years
  10. European Jewish CongressJean-Marie Le Pen Faces Trial for Oven Comments About Jewish Singer
  11. ACCAAnnounces Belt & Road Research at Shanghai Conference
  12. ECPAFood Waste in the Field Can Double Without Crop Protection. #WithOrWithout #Pesticides

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EU2017EEEstonia Allocates €1 Million to Alleviate Migratory Pressure From Libya in Italy
  2. Dialogue PlatformFethullah Gulen's Message on the Anniversary of the Coup Attempt in Turkey
  3. Martens CentreWeeding Out Fake News: An Approach to Social Media Regulation
  4. European Jewish CongressEJC Concerned by Normalisation of Antisemitic Tropes in Hungary
  5. Counter BalanceOut for Summer Ep. 1: How the EIB Sweeps a Development Fiasco Under the Rug
  6. CESICESI to Participate in Sectoral Social Dialogue Committee on Postal Services
  7. ILGA-EuropeMalta Keeps on Rocking: Marriage Equality on Its Way
  8. European Friends of ArmeniaEuFoA Director and MEPs Comment on the Recent Conflict Escalation in Nagorno-Karabakh
  9. EU2017EEEstonian Presidency Kicks off Youth Programme With Coding Summer School
  10. EPSUEP Support for Corporate Tax Transparency Principle Unlikely to Pass Reality Check
  11. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament Improves the External Investment Plan but Significant Challenges Ahead
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersCloser Energy Co-Operation Keeps Nordic Region on Top in Green Energy