Strained Relations Between Two Balkan Neighbours

The relations between Serbia and Macedonia, which has been tense for years, was further damaged this past April 2017 when Serbian intelligence officer, Goran Zivaljevic, was in the Macedonian Parliament. Protesters attacked and injured members of the Parliament, including Prime Minister Zoran Zaev.

Shortly after the European Union and Balkans summit in Trieste, Italy, the two neighbours attempted to put aside their political differences and agreed to build a stable political relationship. The declared truce was short lived as Belgrade withdrew its entire diplomatic staff from Skopje last Sunday [August 20]. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic stated that Belgrade withdrew its staff after obtaining “evidence of very offensive intelligence against the institutions of Serbia.” However, President Vucic did not elaborate on what those “offensive actions” were.

The sudden disruption of the relations between Serbia and Macedonia coincided with hearsay evidence that Macedonia was joining diplomatic efforts at the end of October to secure the membership of Kosovo, a former Serbian province, to the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO. Moreover, Kosovo confirmed independence in 2008, nearly a decade after NATO airstrikes that expelled Serbian forces and ceased a two-year suppression on ethnic Albanians. Kosovo has gained recognition by 114 countries, including Macedonia and 23 European Union Members. This recognition has resulted in significant disruptions in Serbia and Macedonia’s relationship, which continues to be demonstrated.

Furthermore, it is no secret that Belgrade, along with its allies, Russia and China, are resistant of Kosovo membership with UNESCO. For instance, on August 21, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic stated that Macedonia’s intention to support Kosovo’s membership to UNESCO could further worsen the relationship between the two Balkan neighbours. President Vucic sent the same message indirectly when he stated that “Our job is to protect the interest of Serbia without disrupting the interests of other countries.” Nonetheless, the recent withdrawal of the Serbian embassy is a clear message to Macedonia from Belgrade that they are hurting one of their interests, which will have counter effects.

In addition, President Vucic and Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic have stated that Belgrade is interested in protecting and maintaining its political interest with its southern neighbour, but with mutual respect. In fact, the meeting of Serbian and Macedonian Foreign Ministers Dacic and Nikola Dimitrov in Nis, which came about relatively quickly, was a sign of normalization of relations between the two neighbours. The relations between Serbia and Macedonia are sensitive and with profound historical roots. As such, this recent meeting indicates that both countries would rather keep this recent incident under the carpet to focus on their mutual goal: proceeding towards the desired European Union membership. Unfortunately, this may potentially generate future instabilities that may affect Macedonian-Serbian relations.

At the height of the Kosovo crisis and with this unstable relationship, how long will both countries uphold the peace before calling it quits? Despite the efforts Macedonia makes to respect Serbia’s personal interests to maintain its relations, Skopje still states that it will vote on Kosovo’s UNESCO membership. Without a doubt, the road to mutual respect and stability between the two Balkan neighbours will still be long and difficult, as the current call for truce does not seem to be too promising.