When thinking about the most controversial external actor in the Western Balkans from Brussels’ perspective, one tends to look east. Russia has long been labelled the most influential (and problematic) external actor in the region. Pundits and politicians such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel have been warning about Russia’s interference and "divide and rule" strategy to win influence over Eurosceptic sectors of local societies. In 2017, the then-EU High Representative Federica Mogherini voiced her concern that “Moscow's presumable goal is to loosen the region's connection to the EU and present Russia as an alternative to a dissolving union". The problem seems most acutely perceived in the case of Serbia, where Russia’s influence has been capitalising on longstanding political, energy, cultural and religious ties, to the extent that Moscow is frequently referred to as a “big brother”.
Yet, the COVID-19 emergency may force us to look further east. Despite not opposing EU integration formally, China is reported to have joined Russia’s attempts to undermine the EU response to the COVID-19 crisis, both within the 27-country bloc, as well as in the Western Balkans and elsewhere, spreading disinformation. And China’s voice resonates louder and louder as its economic weight augments. It is again in Serbia where this trend is showing up more clearly. As The Guardian reports, against the perceived lack of prompt support from Brussels, Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic declared “European solidarity does not exist. It was a fairy tale. I have sent a special letter to the only ones who can help. That is China”. China sent supplies and equipment indeed, and so did Russia, committing to send 11 military planes carrying medical equipment to Serbia, according to the defence ministry in Moscow. But while Vucicthanked Vladimir Putin on Twitter, saying friendship between the two countries was “reaffirmed”, a much warmer reaction was reserved to the Chinese president, celebrated through a massive billboard in central Belgrade reading “Thank you, Brother Xi!”, among manifestations of China’s closeness, such as claims by the former Chinese ambassador that Serbia and China are “one family, truly”.
Increased cooperation with Beijing is not news; Serbia has become the fourth-largest recipient of Chinese investment in Europe. Yet, such a praising attitude has raised eyebrows in more than one capital: not only could it signal a decreasing EU influence, but it could also mark a possible end of Russia’s traditional big-brother role in Serbia. Although it is too early to assess the actual consequences of the pandemic on the power equilibriums in the region, there are indications that China might indeed become the most influential external player in Serbia – and in the wider region. In the potentially catastrophic situation in which the world economies – especially the most fragile ones, such as those of the Western Balkan states – will find themselves in the aftermath of the pandemic, an increasingly important criterion when choosing allies and even “big brothers” will be their ability to help pay the bill for the economic stop imposed by the health emergency. With its own economy in tatters and patchy dealing with the current dramatic upsurge in COVID-19 cases, Russia simply doesn’t look like a good candidate for that. This situation of deep uncertainty, driven also by extremely low global oil prices, may reduce Russia’s economic footprint in the region and stress even further the economic asymmetry that characterises Moscow’s relations with China.
The big question is: how is Russia going to react to this? Is this asymmetry going to create deep tensions between Russia and China in the Western Balkans? Similar to Central Asia, Moscow cannot but acknowledge Beijing’s increasingly heavier economic weight and, hence, power of attraction for states in the region. Yet, in light of the solid partnership it has built over the years with China, Russia considers growing Chinese influence as the lesser evil. Apart from economic cooperation, Russia and China are also converging more and more around political values and they make no secret of the fact that both countries’ strains with the West are but drawing them even closer. A 2018 Valdai report notes “the only reasonable option is transitioning from rivalry over the region to multilateral coordination or a concert of powers”. Such a “concert” possibly includes China but also Turkey, with whom Russia has also been strengtheningties despite significant strategic differences and periodic clashes. In the end, this vision resonates well with Russia’s discourse on multipolarity – and it will always remain a much more preferable scenario compared to Euro-Atlantic integration anyway.