The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Putin already has at least one client regime in Central Europe

Serbian Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin (left) with Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Kremlin's Security Council, in Moscow on Dec. 3. (AP)
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MOSCOW — While the world’s attention is understandably focused on the Kremlin’s growing threats against Ukraine, a less-noticed political scandal brewing in the Balkans has served as a reminder that Vladimir Putin already has at least one client regime in Central Europe. Last week, Serbia’s independent media revealed that the country’s security agencies are effectively running errands for Russia’s Federal Security Service — and assisting the Kremlin in going after its political opponents.

Last May, a group of Russian municipal lawmakers and democracy activists attended an educational seminar in Belgrade. The meeting, co-chaired by prominent opposition leader Andrei Pivovarov and me, was intended as a (less eventful) sequel to our earlier conference in Moscow, at which all the participants were arrested. With European Union borders still closed to Russian citizens — and Russia’s Sputnik coronavirus vaccine still not recognized for international travel — Serbia was one of the few destinations for activists looking for a quiet place to gather.

The seminar did indeed proceed smoothly — but the scandal, as it turned out, was yet to come. According to a story first reported by the Serbian press in December, our seminar was wiretapped by the country’s Security Intelligence Agency. A week later, Serbian Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin flew to Moscow and handed the transcripts to Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council and a key Putin associate. Two weeks later, Pivovarov was arrested, Belarus-style, on a Polish passenger plane about to take off from the St. Petersburg airport. He is being held in pretrial detention and is facing a six-year prison sentence on the charge of “assisting an undesirable organization.”

According to reports, Patrushev thanked Vulin for his vigilance, while Russian state television praised the Serbian security forces, gleefully contrasting Belgrade with Eastern European capitals that warmly welcome “Russophobes” — the Kremlin’s term for Putin’s political opponents. Beyond that, the story did not get much attention — at least for the time being.

Everything changed last week, when Serbia’s main independent newspaper carried the news on its front page, accusing the government of acting “in the service of Putin’s regime.” Serbia’s pro-democracy opposition, which is expected to make gains in April’s parliamentary and municipal elections, slammed President Aleksandar Vucic for “turning Serbia into a foreign outpost.” The European Union — which Serbia is on course to join by 2025 — called for an investigation, while senior E.U. lawmakers condemned Belgrade for “collaborating with an autocratic regime.” Serbia “must choose whether it wants to truly transform itself and join [the EU], or further align with the autocrats from #Moscow and #Beijing,” tweeted Viola von Cramon, a German member of the European Parliament and a party colleague of Germany’s new foreign minister. The “politics of sitting on two chairs is unacceptable.”

For the authorities in Belgrade, the news could not have broken at a worse time. Only last month, the Serbian government opened a new round of EU accession negotiations, making what officials in Brussels termed a “very important step forward.” It also comes at a time of renewed U.S. interest in the Balkans — and a renewed emphasis on Serbia. During his Senate confirmation hearing last month, veteran U.S. diplomat and ambassador-designate to Belgrade Christopher Hill called Serbia “an important security partner for the United States,” vowing to help the country “build resilience to malign external influence, including from Russia and China.” It seems that influence extends to the very top of Serbia’s government.

The situation may seem painfully familiar — especially to someone like Hill, who has been dealing with the Balkans since the 1990s. For years, then-Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic presided over the last major bastion of authoritarianism in Central Europe, making his regime notorious for the murders of opponents, state censorship, fraudulent elections and virulent state-driven nationalism. Both Vucic and Vulin should remember it well, having served, respectively, as Milosevic’s information minister and as deputy chief of a party run by Milosevic’s wife.

In October 2000, that regime came crashing down as hundreds of thousands of Serbs gathered on the streets of Belgrade in what became known as the “Bulldozer Revolution” — the first in a series of pro-democracy uprisings in post-communist states that took place on Putin’s watch, leaving him with an overarching fear of street protests. Serbia’s new government handed the former dictator for trial to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague, where he spent the rest of his days in custody.

At their recent meeting in Moscow, Vulin and Patrushev reportedly agreed to establish a “working group for combating color revolutions” (a term denoting pro-democracy uprisings in authoritarian states), including by stepping up joint monitoring of civil society organizations, opposition activists, and independent media. The problem for both security chiefs — and for their political masters — is that when enough people in society are willing to stand up to authoritarianism, all the wiretaps, working groups, and monitoring efforts become powerless. Recent history has shown this clearly. Just ask the Serbs.