India-Serbia: Growing relations

Updated: October 11, 2021 11:12 AM

The first Summit was hosted by Belgrade as the capital of Former Yugoslavia in 1961. The Meeting is jointly co-hosted by President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia and President Aliyev of Azerbaijan, the current Chair of NAM.

india serbia tiesSerbia unilaterally abolished visas for all colors of Indian passports, boosting tourism and business

By (Mrs) Amb Narinder Chauhan, 

With Covid increasingly coming under control, the Indian diplomatic calendar is now limping back to the normal of official visits. The PM of Denmark was in India recently. Now, Minister of State for External Affairs, Mrs Meenakshi Lekhi is visiting Serbia from 10-13 October 2021, as the Special Envoy of Prime Minister to attend the High-Level Commemorative Meeting to mark the 60th Anniversary of the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement. The first Summit was hosted by Belgrade as the capital of Former Yugoslavia in 1961. The Meeting is jointly co-hosted by President Aleksandar Vucic of Serbia and President Aliyev of Azerbaijan, the current Chair of NAM.

It is in this context that the recent visit to India (September 19-20) of the Serbian Foreign Minister Nikola Selakovic can be seen. As a Special Envoy of the Serbian President, Minister Selakovic extended an invitation to the Indian leadership to mark the important event. The late President of former Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito had similarly undertaken visits to a host of newly independent countries to personally invite their Heads of State/Government to the first Summit. It is said if Non-Alignment was a brain child of Pandit Nehru, it developed into a movement at the hands of Marshall Tito. It is widely believed that while India is the strongest link in NAM it is the weakest link in Quad!

Minister Selakovic reminded that as a co-founder of the movement, former Yugoslavia gave its contribution to creating a vision of a different world, and that Serbia, as one of the successors of Yugoslavia, is proud of that part of its history. That NAM continues to be cherished by Serbia is a testimony to the importance the country attaches to the five principles of Panchsheel, particularly upholding the territorial integrity and sovereignty of a nation state that came under major challenge during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. That Serbia continues to face threats to its territorial integrity remains a matter of concern.

The center of activity will be Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, once capital to what are now six countries of Former Yugoslavia, namely, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Slovenia, now North Macedonia and Serbia. Serbia was the largest and the most populated of the six provinces of former Yugoslavia, a founding member of the NAM. It is said if the disintegration of the USSR signified the end of the cold war, the disintegration of Yugoslavia signaled its result. The continued existence of a major non-aligned nation on the eastern periphery of Europe was considered a challenge to the major powers of the continent. Yugoslavia was the only European nation that was non-aligned, the rest either belonged to the US led NATO camp or the USSR led Warsaw Pact.

After the disintegration of Yugoslavia, its membership in NAM was suspended. In 2001 Serbia joined NAM as an Observer. In 2010, Serbia launched 100 scholarships for students from NAM countries. In 2011, Belgrade hosted the commemorative ministerial meeting of the NAM countries to mark the 50th anniversary of founding of NAM in Belgrade.

I was posted to Belgrade as India’s Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Republic of Serbia in 2013. It was an exciting period when the country was emerging from the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the devastation of the Kosovo War and 10-year UN sanctions. It was regaining its rightful place in the comity of nations signaled by the presence of almost 100 bilateral diplomatic missions, UN and international offices in Belgrade, the highest in the region; all eyes were focused on Serbia.

At that point of time, almost the entire political activity was concentrated on the dialogue between Serbia and the EU in Berlin, Germany. Surrounded as it is by EU and NATO member states, Serbia had realized that its future lay in joining the EU to ensure peace and prosperity for its people. Serbia in 2014 became a candidate country for accession to the EU; the dialogue process started on the acquis Communautaire, the body of EU rules and regulations that Serbia would have to adopt and comply with in order to be accepted in the privileged club. The negotiations normally take 10 years. Currently, the EU accession negotiations are ongoing, and are expected to be completed by the end of 2024, allowing it to join the Union by 2025. Of the ex-Yugoslav countries, Slovenia and Croatia are members of EU; apart from Serbia, other candidate countries are Montenegro and North Macedonia.

This is a process I am familiar with, having served in Brussels, the seat of EU, as Counsellor/Minister in the Indian Embassy accredited to EU, Belgium and Luxembourg. What are the prospects of an early entry of Serbia into the EU? It is contingent upon progress in normalization of relations (not recognition) between Serbia and the autonomous province of Kosovo that had unilaterally declared independence in 2008, not recognized by Serbia. Kosovo is central to the Serbian identity: it is the fountainhead of Serbian nationalism and the Serbian Eastern Orthodox Church. India’s policy has always been against unilateral declaration of independence by any entity. This is a principled position and remains so. It is for this reason, among other things, that Serbia continues to cherish relations with India that were forged at the first NAM Summit in Belgrade in 1961. The close friendship of Nehru and Tito is legendary; there is a Nehru Street in New Belgrade as there is a major arterial road in South Delhi named Josip Broz Tito Marg.

The memories of NAM days are kept alive at the Tito Museum in Belgrade with life size pictures and audio visuals of NAM leaders, including Nehru. The Tito Museum is the first in the itinerary of city tourist buses. A plaque dating back to NAM Summit of 1961 adorns the foyer of the grand National Assembly. There is deep nostalgia for the Tito days when people would have breakfast in Belgrade, lunch in Zagreb and dinner in Slovenia. The bitter memories of the Yugoslav wars still hang in the air with tell-tale signs of bombed buildings in Central Belgrade. The erstwhile provinces of former Yugoslavia may be politically divided today, but economically and culturally they keep open borders. We still have a situation where the aerospace company that services the engines of Kiran trainer helicopters of the IAF has its HQ in Belgrade, factory in Bosnia and its owners from Montenegro!!

Another reason why NAM is dear to Serbia is that a vast majority of NAM members support Serbia in not recognizing the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo. India has a principled position on Kosovo that is understood by the US and its allies. In September 2020, Belgrade and Pristina agreed to normalize economic ties; Belgrade also agreed to suspend its efforts to encourage other states to either not recognize Kosovo or to revoke recognition for one year, while Pristina agreed to not apply for new membership of international organizations for the same period: during my tenure there, it was often that India stood up for Serbia to oppose any such move by Kosovo!!!

That India is with Serbia on this issue is a matter of immense pride for the Serbs and the Serbian leadership. The President of Serbia would greet me warmly at public events and whisper in my ear, ‘let people see’. The Prime Minister of Serbia would pull me by the hand and say, ‘you will always stand next to me’. The Foreign Minister of Serbia signed a 99-year lease for the Indian Embassy Residence.

Serbia also enjoys privileged relations with Russia, a major European power that never bombed Serbia, where the rest of Europe did. It is said Belgrade or Beograd, the White City, was destroyed 30 times in its recorded history, the last in 1999 by 79-day NATO bombing, to end the Kosovo war. Russia is also Slavic and a fellow eastern orthodox country. It is a treat to watch classic Russian ballets at the cultural theatres of Belgrade. Belgrade is so culturally alive; it is said there may be a war going on outside, the theatres would still be full. Its cafes overflow with a tall, handsome and fashion-conscious young population. I have always maintained that Belgrade is the best station to live in. It is also easy on the pocket.

Serbia has developed close economic relations with China as well. It is a lynchpin of China-CEE Forum connecting the Western European market with Chinese investments in the Greek ports, the maritime silk route. Serbia is strategically located and a transport corridor linking West Europe with East Europe. Hence, it is equally important for the EU to take Serbia into its fold. Serbia, however, has no appetite to join NATO, having suffered untold devastation at its hands in 1999. The NATO led force in Kosovo still has 3,500 troops (Bondsteel) provided by 27 countries.

Serbia provides access to more than a billion-consumer market of EU, Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and the Stan countries, with which it has wisely crafted free trade agreements. We would do well to use Serbia as a base for Indian companies to set up manufacturing units. India has developed an IT Park in Serbia; the Balkan brand of agro-machinery IMT has been acquired by India’s TAFE. In 2017, following then PM Aleksandar Vucic’s visit to India, Serbia unilaterally abolished visas for all colors of Indian passports, boosting tourism and business. Mutual recognition of Covid vaccination certificates would be a step in the right direction. The mighty river Danube runs its longest in Serbia and at one point is at its widest, almost like a sea. Several Indian films, including Uri, have been shot in Serbia. Serbia will certainly seek a reiteration of India’s support against Kosovo; other topics may include progress in EU accession negotiations and dialogue with Pristina. It would be useful to go beyond the virtual mode and hold in person the wide-ranging bilateral dialogue framework on a whole host of topics. Serbia’s consistent support at international fora counts.

Currently, at 125 members and 25 observers, NAM is the largest grouping of States outside the UN. It is a good time for the NAM to introspect on the way ahead in an increasingly challenging geopolitical scenario globally. During the visit, the Indian Minister will also get the chance to participate in a meeting of the women delegates and women ministers, presided over by the President of the UNGA. Gender issue, a very important pillar of the UN Millennium Development Goals, has taken center stage in India and in international fora.

(The author is a former Indian ambassador to the Republic of Serbia. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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