Excellences, Ladies and gentlemen, dear Friends,
The end of the 20th century was marked by wars in Europe, and in the Balkans, in which Yugoslavia collapsed. Less than 30 years later, we have a war in Europe once again. In the meantime, we weren't without wars on other continents. One commonality of all wars is that they were started by, or the responsibility for them lies with, authoritarian and dictatorial regimes. This is the first warning that every democratic society and state must take note of. As long as such regimes exist, especially in Europe, democracies must be ready for war. Every kind of war.
Nowadays, the clear evidence for such a point is the brutal aggression of Russia, or more precisely of Putin's regime, in Ukraine. In his desire to recolonize the states founded after the peaceful disintegration of the USSR, Putin even threatens the world with nuclear weapons. The response from democratic countries of the world must be strong and united, which so far has been the case: I hope it will remain so in the coming years.
The world is emerging from the huge health crisis of the pandemic that has taken 6 million lives, but we are now facing an even greater danger – the possibility of a nuclear war.
The pandemic has clearly demonstrated our interdependence and that no country is an island. Therefore, Putin's aggression must not only serve to strengthen the concept of Euro-Atlantic collective security, but to extend it. The tragedy that Ukraine is facing shows that those countries that are not a part of a broader collective security alliance are the first ones targeted by the doctrine of "limited sovereignty" first propagated by Leonid Brezhnev in the soviet communist era. This is precisely what is going on here. If Moscow had had a partner in Berlin, as it had it in 1939, we would not have been in the position we are now. Luckily for humanity, history did not repeat itself. On the contrary, nowadays, Germany plays a pivotal role in democratic Europe. As the strongest European economy, along with that of the USA, Germany will bear the most significant load in defending the democratic and civilizing values of the modern world.
There were clear indications that we were heading toward a year reminiscent of 1939. From Putin's speech during the Munich Security Conference in 2007, through to the occupation of parts of Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014, as well as the formation and financing of left- and right-wing extremist parties and groups in numerous European countries by Moscow, Putin has been sending a message to democratic Europe that he wants a new division of the world, but first and foremost Europe, into spheres of interest. Moreover, he suggests that the non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler was an excellent agreement, but that the latter later repudiated it. We in Serbia have already experienced that in the 1990s. This was called “unity between the left and right patriotic forces.” We all know the consequences.
From this comes the second warning that we need to heed: that we are late with our response to this evil that was always there in plain sight, or our reactions to it were grossly insufficient, especially after the occupation of parts of Ukraine in 2014.
Unfortunately, Putin's imperial politics strongly influences the Western Balkans nowadays. The fact that he was defeated while trying to stop Montenegro and North Macedonia joining NATO does not necessarily mean that he has given up on his intention to destabilize our region. On the contrary, Russia’s long-standing security and media efforts have left deep divisions in our societies. Those loyal to Putin are still strong, and they are looking for every opportunity to prevent the official pro-EU orientation of our countries.
The security situation in the region is even more complicated because Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo are not members of NATO. Luckily, we have EUROFOR in Bosnia and Herzegovina and KFOR in Kosovo, with a mandate from the UN Security Council.
During the last two decades, Russia has intensified its activities in Serbia and the Republic of Srpska through both public and covert actions, intense propaganda, and "soft power" instruments. This has resulted in the broad support that Putin has from the Serbian public. The most vital lever of Moscow's soft power influence on Belgrade is the unsolved problem of Kosovo. Of course, there is also the total energetic dependence on Russia, which was brought about by the pro-European Serbian government starting in 2008. Although all Serbian governments, starting with the fall of the Milosevic regime, publicly took a pro-European stance, since the assassination of the late prime minister Djindjic, public support for Serbian EU membership has been decreasing and the anti-European, pro-Putin narrative has been increasing. Nowadays, we are in a situation in which Serbia is the only country, besides Bosnia and Herzegovina and Belarus, that did not impose sanctions on Russia, but also sadly probably the only country with public gatherings that express support for the Russian aggression toward Ukraine.
The fact that Serbia voted for the Resolution on peace in the UN provides a glimmer of hope that the new Serbian government will join the joint resistance to Putin's war adventures after tomorrow's elections, and choose the European side, since Putin has forced it to clearly take sides, whereas it would really have preferred to have at least one foot in the Russian camp.
This is the third warning to heed. Europeans must not delay taking the necessary steps to stabilize the Western Balkans as they did with Ukraine.
Let us remind ourselves of an excellent example from history. In the 1970s, the statocracies in Greece, Spain, and Portugal collapsed. Relatively quickly, at the beginning of the 1980s, the then nine members of the European Community accepted these countries into their community and helped them strengthen their democracy and stabilize their societies.
Back then, the threat was that these countries could go back to their authoritarian heritage.
Now, the nuclear threat has a name, “Vladimir Putin”.
The critical task facing civilization is to defeat this threat. In the Western Balkans, it additionally confirms the necessity for consolidation among us, which is the only right way forward. On that road, the Podgorica Club, with the precious support from UPF, with this Peace Embassy, will play a role.