Russian and Chinese Dazzling Charm Offensive in Serbia

Inside the cavernous concrete expanse of the Church of St Sava on Belgrade’s Vracar plateau, there is a shimmer of gold behind the huge metal scaffolding. This glimpse of imposing beauty, in contrast to the drabness of many of Belgrade’s contemporary projects, comes from the church’s new mosaic, depicting Jesus Christ surrounded by angels, the Virgin Mary and the apostles.
More than just a work of great craftsmanship, the mosaic, when was unveiled in Januray 2018, heralded the beginning of the end of the construction of the Church of St Sava. This showy project was started in 1935 to celebrate Serbia’s national saint who founded the Serbian Orthodox Church in 1219, and whose remains were burnt in Belgrade by the Ottomans in 1595.

As well as honouring St Sava, the marble-clad mega-church, which can be seen from most of Belgrade, was from the start a somewhat outsized monument to the perseverance and ascendancy of the Serbian state, in the same way that the National Mall in Washington DC celebrates US power, or the Houses of Parliament seek to impress anyone coming to the heart of the former British Empire.

The pinnacle of contemporary church art in Serbia, the mosaic is a four-million-euro gift from the Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom Neft and was designed by Nikolai Mukhin, an artist best known for his work on the restored Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. It also one of the most effective acts in Russia’s continued bid to strengthen its soft power in Serbia.

As soon as the gift was announced – and in subsequent reporting – it was hailed by the press and Serbian church officials as yet another symbol of friendship and mutual support between the two Slavic (predominantly) Orthodox Christian nations. For those who have missed the news, there are already a couple of large information boards dotted around St Sava, emblazoned with intertwining Russian and Serbian flags, explaining in Serbian, Russian and English the importance, and provenance, of the gift.

The mosaic is the most recent in a long line of high-profile gifts to the Serbian capital by regional and global powers in their bid to win over Serbian hearts and minds, as well as, of course, business and strategic alliances.

China secured its place in Belgrade’s geography though the construction of the Mihajlo Pupin Bridge, more popularly known as ‘the Chinese Bridge’, over the Danube between the suburbs of Zemun and Borca, and will soon finish a futuristic-looking cultural centre in New Belgrade on the spot of its former embassy building, which was destroyed during NATO bombing in 1999.

The Turkish development agency TIKA is working hard on restoring Ottoman heritage in Serbia, and most recently restored a wonderful 16th Century fountain in the Upper Town of the Belgrade Fortress.  Even Azerbaijan made its mark by paying for the reconstruction of Tasmajdan Park in central Belgrade in 2010, which now features a statue of Heydar Aliyev, Azerbaijan’s first president.

On the other hand, when asked about recent architectural interventions in the city by Western nations, Belgraders are very likely to point to a spot a few hundred metres away from St Sava: the mangled ruins of the grandiose Yugoslav Army HQ in Nemanjina, destroyed during the NATO air strikes.

This, of course, is highly ironic, not only given Serbia’s strategic shift towards the West post-Milosevic but also because the EU and its member states have granted Serbia funds that have exceeded three billion euros since 2000 – far outstripping the value of assistance and gifts Serbia has received from anywhere else.

Nevertheless, despite the size of its assistance, the West seems to be struggling to ingratiate itself with the average Serb.

Although grants coming from the EU amount to 75 per cent of all those given to Serbia between 2000 and 2015, when Serbs were asked who is the most generous donor to Serbia in a 2017 survey, the EU was listed by only 23 per cent of respondents, only a few percentage points ahead of Russia and China.

Given the increased rivalry with Russias, it is probably even more worrying for Western diplomats that a significant chunk of the Serbian population still views the US, the EU and especially NATO with high levels of distrust. Even the Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, during an interview for popular talk show Cirilica broadcast by Happy TV last month, said “the US, the UK and France are far from [Serbia’s] true friends”.

Although the reasons behind the lack of Western soft power’s ‘bang for its bucks’ in Serbia are complex, ranging from the traumatic wars of the 1990s to the strength of anti-Western tabloids, a glance over the ‘gifts’ Belgrade has received hints at a communication problem at the heart of many Western charm offensives.

While EU members and other Western countries invest in projects that benefit a lot more Serbs in the long run than parks and mosaics, such as schools, refugee centres and water treatment facilities, only a few of them have captured the imagination of the Serbian press or public. Few have the symbolic value of putting an ostentatious, if otherwise not overly practical, monument at a place of historic significance showing off their friendship with Serbia.

Even in high-profile projects like the EU-funded reconstruction of the impressive Golubac fortress close to the Iron Gates of the Danube, or support to the UNESCO protected site of Felix Romuliana, the message of support and protection of Serbian heritage does not seem to filter to the average Serb due to the often lifeless (and occasionally arrogant) project-speak employed by the West.

In general, rather than using effusive language about centuries-long friendships and historic ties, like their Russian and Chinese counterparts, Western diplomats tend to offer more restrained assessments of Serbia and more often than not focus on problems in the country, which unfortunately makes them sound scolding or condescending in comparison, even if their messages are, arguably, more helpful. Even the recent good news about the improved chances of Serbia and Montenegro joining the EU by 2025 were delivered with little exuberance.

Although bureaucratic high-mindedness looks down on populist messaging and efficiency-minded project forms prefer obscure public sector training to investing in national monuments, the occasional stroking of national egos in small nations with traumatic recent pasts like Serbia does seem to work wonders for popularity and getting your message across.

Despite their geopolitical differences, the West could learn a lot from their Eastern rivals in making a small nation feel welcome to the club.

An earlier version of this article was published in BIRN’s bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight and is available on the Balkan Insight portal

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3 thoughts on “Russian and Chinese Dazzling Charm Offensive in Serbia

  1. I like the article Srdj!

    I think the point you make is right: EU funds might be much bigger than everything else, but they are incredibly abstract. A big mosaic, or a bridge, has tangible benefit right here, right now. A project to improve governance probably has tangible drawbacks right here, right now (more process to deal with, rules to follow) even if the benefits are big in the long run.

    A lot of policymakers I think are locked in ivory towers and deal with highly analytical policy papers all day. While their solutions may be “better”, they get beat on the messaging, making it feel “real”. Donald Trump’s “build that wall” may be stupid, but it’s tangible and you can easily picture it in your mind – hence why it sticks and outweighed Hilary’s “the presumptuous nominee” quip.

  2. As a proud Serb living in the West for last 19 years I still wander how Western Nations don’t get Serbian people. We are very small, but proud nation (sometimes without reason), but we just want to be respected. West do not show simple respect for the history, interests and what our people want. That is very, very simple. Being arrogant will not get anything done. I wish there are wiser politicians in the West… I wish.

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