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Belgrade's Biden conundrum: How US-Serbian relations will shape up post-Trump ǀ View

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Many in Europe were happy that Joe Biden triumphed over Donald Trump in the 2020 US presidential elections in November, as evident from the congratulatory messages. Among numerous leaders congratulating Biden was Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić, who wrote on Twitter: "I wish you wisdom and resoluteness to face current challenges for the benefit of America and the rest of the world. I hope we will continue the good cooperation we had with Trump with you as well, and I am grateful for that".

However, this message clearly shows that for Vučić and Serbia, Biden's win brings challenges, as Vučić was among those in Eastern Europe who hoped for Trump's re-election.

It was not the first time that Vučić bet on the wrong horse. In 2016, Vučić endorsed Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump. So, why Trump this time? First, Serbs remember Biden as an ardent advocate of military interventions against the Serbs during wars in both Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. Secondly, given Biden's political biography, Trump was perceived as someone from whom Serbia could secure a less painful resolution of the Kosovo dispute, one that Vučić hoped he could sell to the people at home without committing political suicide.

Ultimately, Vučić also saw an opportunity in Trump to establish a partnership with the US, which was something that Belgrade had tried to do but failed to do so for decades. In September 2020, after Serbia and Kosovo signed an economic normalisation agreement in the Oval Office brokered by Trump, Vučić told the Serbian media that the White House doors finally opened for the Serbs after being reserved solely for Albanians and other Serbian adversaries from Yugoslav Wars.

However, with Biden now in charge, Serbian leadership faces new challenges. The first challenge concerns Kosovo. Some expect that Biden in his more transatlantic outlook will coordinate US Balkan policy with the EU, including its most influential country, Germany. For Vučić, the nightmare is having Germany and the US jointly pressuring him to recognise Kosovo, without any face-saving settlement that can be sold to the Serbian voters. The second problem involves China. Over the past years, the Chinese presence in the Balkans has increased, and Belgrade has boosted its ties with Beijing. It will become increasingly difficult for Serbia to balance between the US and China in light of the growing rivalry between the two powers.

It would be domestically risky for Vučić to reverse his policies on either Kosovo or relations with the likes of China if the public perceives him doing so as a result of pressure from an unpopular US President.
Vuk Vuksanovic
Researcher and think tank associate

China would have been a problem for Serbia in its relations with the US, even if Trump had been re-elected. The negative attitudes towards China are becoming something of a bipartisan consensus in the US. In September, the Trump administration also made a push against the presence of the Chinese tech giant Huawei in Serbia. The domestic environment in Serbia also complicates things. In yet unpublished public opinion research conducted by myself and colleagues from the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, 13 per cent of respondents perceived the US as the greatest enemy of Serbia, behind Croatia and Albania.

Given the painful recent history between Serbia with the US, this is a relatively low figure, indicating that pro-Trump narrative projected by the Serbian elite had some effect. However, now that a new US president will be in the White House, and one that is not popular in Serbia, that figure will almost certainly increase. It would be domestically risky for Vučić to reverse his policies on either Kosovo or relations with the likes of China if the public perceives him doing so as a result of pressure from an unpopular US President.

What options does President Vučić have at his disposal in managing Belgrade's relationship with Washington under these new challenging circumstances? The first option will be to rely on the personality factor. Vučić already has a history with Biden. The two leaders met twice from the time when Vučić was the Serbian prime minister, and Biden was US Vice-President in the Obama administration, first in Washington in 2015 and then in Belgrade in 2016.

Indeed, Vučić is choosing his words carefully. "I have never uttered a bad word about Biden. I know him better than Trump. Three days ago, I said Biden was likely to win, but I think it would be better for Serbia if Trump had won," Vučić told the Serbian media.

Second, Vučić and the Serbian government will probably rely on their blossoming partnership with Israel. To get closer to Trump, Serbia agreed to move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and Vučić has also built ties with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Israel lobby organisation in the US. Some believe that Serbia will give up on the embassy move now that the Trump is gone. However, Belgrade will probably use Israel and its lobby in the US to gain access and to alleviate any potential political pressure from the new administration.

The third option, Belgrade can also bide time in the hope that for Biden, Europe and the Balkans will not be priorities as he will be governing a divided country and he will be consumed with countering China. Here is the tricky part for Vučić: the US will increasingly take note of Serbia when the Chinese factor is present. On the day when Biden's victory was confirmed, Vučić said that Serbia is proud of being China's best friend in Europe.

Finally, if faced with firm US pressure on Kosovo, Vučić will try and reinvigorate his partnership with Russia to get diplomatic protection on that issue. Not a pleasant task as a partnership with Russia has been on a downward spiral and Putin did not like Vučić's pivot towards Trump.

Now that Trump is out of the picture, Serbia will not be able to complete its pivot towards the US and sever its partnerships with Russia and China, as it has to wait to see what stance the new US leadership will take on Kosovo. One thing is sure; it is not easy being Aleksandar Vučić these days.

  • Vuk Vuksanovic is a PhD researcher in international relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), an associate of LSE IDEAS, LSE's foreign policy think tank, and a researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP)

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