Serbia is one of the few countries outside the former USSR, handed over a prestigious state award to the head of Gazprom, Alexei Miller. Moreover, this happened a year after he was included in the US sanctions “Kremlin list” among 17 officials and seven businessmen close to President Vladimir Putin. The Order of the Serbian Flag is an award for outstanding contribution to the development and strengthening of peaceful cooperation and friendly relations, awarded by the head of state, and in the case of Miller, it is quite justified.
For many years now, Serbia has been receiving Russian gas at an “incredible” price, as Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic puts it, just $ 270. Perhaps, only Belarus ($ 128.5 per 1000 cubic meters) and China ($ 171 per 1000 cubic meters) can boast more favorable conditions. The new long-term agreement on gas supplies now being prepared, judging by the promises of the Kremlin, will also be favorable for Belgrade.
Media operation “all hope for Putin”
In late November, Vucic traveled to Sochi to personally ask Putin for a good discount. At the same time, a few weeks earlier, the Serbian authorities launched an information campaign, the essence of which was that high gas prices could strangle the Serbian economy and now all hope is only on the master of the Kremlin. The Serbian leader did not hide his concern about the incredible losses the economy would face if it had to pay $ 800 per thousand cubic meters, and even spoke about his fear of meeting with the Russian president. Say, if I were in his place, I would not have made such significant concessions! As a result, Vucic appeared in front of fellow citizens as the savior of the nation, who, thanks to his friendship with Putin, saved more than € 300 million, that is, “the cost of an entire national stadium.”
The dramatization of the gas issue and the “incredible” discount received in Sochi compared to the European market price should have strengthened Vucic’s rating on the eve of the April presidential and parliamentary elections. All these days in Moscow they calmly looked at his gas PR. In the end, the Serbian leader’s self-deprecation and talk of Putin’s power and generosity only play into the hands of the Kremlin.
Many observers named gas arrangements as a pre-election gift for Vucic. And, apparently, such a present is quite affordable for the Kremlin, especially since Serbia is not such a significant consumer on a European scale. In recent years, Serbia has received just over two billion cubic meters per year. It is only in fourth place among the buyers of Russian gas on the Balkan Peninsula (after Croatia, Greece and Bulgaria). Serbia itself is able to satisfy its gas needs only by 13%, the rest of the volume is purchased exclusively in Russia.
The Serbian oil and gas sector has been in pro-Russian hands for many years. From the beginning of 2021, Gazprom began deliveries through the Turkish Stream. For this, an additional 403 km pipeline had to be built in Serbia. This was done by the Gaztrans JV, in which Gazprom owns 51%, and the Serbian state-owned company Serbiyagaz – 49%. By estimates Some European experts, the construction of the new gas pipeline has further strengthened the monopoly position of these companies on the Serbian market for at least the next 20 years. Serbiyagaz is Gazprom’s main partner in Serbia. Together they own the Banatski Dvor storage facility (Gazprom has 51%, Serbiyagaz has 49%), which counts one of the largest gas storage facilities in Southeast Europe.
Gas with the smell of politics
It is obvious to experts that as long as the “strategic partnership” model is in place, the Serbs can count on a favorable price. Gazprom is able to cover losses at the expense of other markets. Moreover, this year the boom in gas prices in Europe turned out to be a record profit for him: for nine months of 2021, Gazprom earned 1.5 trillion rubles. Another thing is that the Kremlin does not make much sense to distribute gas without personal political gain. And in the case of Belgrade, it can be seen quite clearly.
Serbia, despite its orientation towards the European Union, does not weaken its interaction with Russia and does not criticize the foreign policy of the Kremlin. After the annexation of Crimea, the Serbian authorities not only refused to impose sanctions on Moscow, but also continued to expand military ties with it. Joint exercises are held twice a year, also Belgrade takes Russian military equipment as a gift. The promise of the Serbian authorities to remain neutral and not to join NATO is of particular value to the Kremlin. In addition, Serbia is a member of the EAEU free trade zone – the most ambitious Russian project, although it has no plans to deepen integration. Finally, Belgrade does not get involved in Russian-Ukrainian disputes and does not pursue (apart from isolated cases) numerous mercenaries and volunteers who fought in the Donbas.
Serbia is the only country in the Western Balkans that is developing security cooperation with Moscow. And in this sense, the visit of another high-ranking Serbian guest, who visited Moscow a week after Vucic’s talks in Sochi, is interesting. In early December, for the third time this year, Interior Minister Aleksandr Vulin, who is called the most pro-Russian official of the Serbian government, visited Russia. He presented his book and went on to thank Moscow for its generosity on the gas issue, arguing that Serbia received the lowest price in Europe thanks to Belgrade’s independent policy.
“If Alexander Vucic had not pursued an independent policy and supported the sanctions against Russia, which was demanded of him, it is not known where we would get gas from now,” claimed Serbian minister. Vulin, of course, is disingenuous: Serbia, despite some differences in the activities of its governments over the past 20 years, would hardly have aggravated with Russia, and, besides, where to buy gas is understandable in any political scenario: a real alternative that would exclude supplies from Gazprom do not exist in the region.
Sacred Alliance Against Revolutions
Vulin’s visit attracted attention not so much by the reasoning about “where to buy gas” as by the impressive the list Russian interlocutors, clearly not by his rank: Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Acting Emergencies Minister Alexander Chupriyan, Rosoboronexport CEO Alexander Mikheev and Rostec CEO Sergei Chemezov, who presented him with an award for his contribution to cooperation. I wonder what Wulin over the past year communicated with Patrushev four times, they met three times in Moscow – in May, September and December, and spoke on the phone once. As a result of these meetings, it was reported about the readiness to fight against organized crime, drug trafficking, terrorism and interference in internal affairs.
Meanwhile, the Serbian press, citing their sources approvesthat there is one more area of joint activity that is not advertised, namely the fight against “color revolutions”. The tasks of the recently formed Russian-Serbian working group allegedly include preventing mass demonstrations, spying on opposition activists, non-governmental organizations and independent journalists. It is alleged that Vulin in May handed over to Patrushev the recordings of the conversations of participants in a seminar of Russian municipal deputies in Belgrade, which was organized by opposition politicians Andrei Pivovarov and Vladimir Kara-Murza. A few weeks after the transfer of wiretapping materials, Pivovarov was arrested by the Russian special services.