Belgrade just hosted the biggest gathering of world leaders you've never heard of

Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic, center in first row, poses as part of a group photo with participants of the Non-Aligned Movement countries summit in Belgrade, Serbia.
Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic, center in first row, poses as part of a group photo with participants of the Non-Aligned Movement countries summit in Belgrade, Serbia. Copyright Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
Copyright Darko Vojinovic/Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
By Aleksandar Brezar
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Josip Broz Tito, Jawaharlal Nehru and... Aleksandar Vucic. Serbia's leader is making a pitch for the leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement.


It was the largest gathering of world leaders that no one paid attention to.

On Monday, the Cold War-era alliance that brought together almost all of South America, Africa, and significant parts of Asia -- counting 120 states -- met in Belgrade, the city where it was founded 60 years ago.

Second only to the United Nations when it comes to the size of membership -- the Non-Aligned Movement proudly represented the countries formed in the wake of the world’s big empires and colonisers and features figures such as Nelson Mandela and former Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as its past presidents.

Flags from all these countries appeared on signposts across the Serbian capital, as high-level delegations flew in from places ranging from Guatemala to Azerbaijan.

The summit once represented the noble ideal of unifying what the West often derisively referred to as “the Third World.” It was a part of Yugoslav socialist president Josip Broz Tito’s strategic foreign policy aiming to give his country and others more sway globally; today, it is being reinvigorated by Serbia’s former ultra-nationalist turned moderate president Aleksandar Vučić.

Vučić used the opportunity to launch a weapons and military equipment fair and to welcome Russia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov into the organization as the summit’s top star -- a dose of irony given that the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement intentionally sidelined Russia and the Warsaw Pact in an effort to forge their own socialist path.

Third-way socialism

At the onset of the Cold War, the world was divided into two blocs — one led by the United States and the other by the USSR. But it was socialist Yugoslavia’s leader Tito, the wartime antifascist leader turned president, who -- together with India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru -- declared their countries "non-aligned" in 1950 when they decided not to take sides in the Korean War.

Eleven years later in 1961, the movement was formalised in Belgrade, then the capital of Yugoslavia, with Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Naser, Ghana’s president Kwame Nkrumah and Indonesian president Sukarno.

But being non-aligned wasn’t just about staying out of wars launched by the US or the Soviet Union, respectively. It was also about empowering those countries — as many as two-thirds of all UN member states in the early 1960s — that had achieved independence from their former European colonisers. They sought to craft a domestic and foreign policy that would place them first — something they could not trust the Soviet Union or the US and Western Europe would do.

This was a monumental task for these societies, argues Hrvoje Klasić, a prominent historian of Yugoslavia.

“They had the option of joining one of the two blocs and to continue collaborating with their former colonial owners and that was simply out of the question, after so many centuries of struggling to free themselves,” he said.

“The other option was to connect among themselves and collaborate, both politically and economically. It was about societies with similar sets of problems looking for their own place under the sun, so to speak.”

But it was Yugoslavia — the only European member of the alliance bar Cyprus — that found itself at the forefront of the movement, despite its problems being largely different than those of the rest of the member states. This unexpectedly made it into a strong international player.

“The country was neither in the West nor in the East and it had no strong allies,” Klasić said. “But when you lead 80 or 90 countries no matter how poor, all of a sudden you can not be ignored.”

-/AFP or licensors
Yugoslav President Marshal Josip Broz, better known as Tito, shares a joke with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser (L) and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1956.-/AFP or licensors

The movement was also never politically homogenous, with members ranging from communist dictatorships to republics and kingdoms.

“There’s a distinction between being non-aligned and neutral. The movement was never neutral like Switzerland for example, meaning they refused to meddle. The non-aligned took part in so-called ‘peaceful, active coexistence,’ where active meant that they participated in global issues.”

And both sides profited.

Yugoslavia became home to thousands of students from the Non-Aligned countries studying everything from medicine to engineering, while hundreds of Yugoslav companies suddenly found work, “from Singapore to Iraq and Botswana,” constructing hydropower plants, dams and airports.


But the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union meant the need to be non-aligned became practically irrelevant. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s led to the movement falling into relative obscurity.

Many of the bloc’s members, like Bahrain, Qatar, Angola, or India are no longer developing countries. Over the years, the movement gradually turned into mostly a vehicle for economic cooperation.

Not in the eyes of Serbia.

Serbian president dreams of Tito

After many years of treating the Non-Aligned Movement as not much more than a historical anecdote, Serbia is the only one of the seven states that became independent after the breakup of Yugoslavia to push to become its most active member.

That said, Vučić is hardly following in Tito’s footsteps, despite cashing in on Yugoslavia’s credibility within the bloc.


Tito was barely mentioned at the summit in Belgrade, said Klasić, while none of the non-aligned who came to the summit officially went to Tito’s grave at the House of Flowers to pay their respects.

It is not surprising, considering the largely nationalist paths that the former Yugoslav countries chose after the breakup.

“If you look at, say, Serbia or Croatia in the 1990s, you see that these societies rejected the entire legacy of socialism and Yugoslavia. The selective approach where everything that had something to do with Yugoslavia all of a sudden became undesirable, whereas everything related to Serb or Croat national identity became desirable, made Tito but also the Non-Aligned Movement very undesirable,” Klasić said.

In fact, renewed friendship with Non-Aligned member states is a convenient vehicle for Serbia’s main international diplomatic effort -- to reduce the significance of Kosovo, and rally countries globally to de-recognise or ignore the independence of its former province.

Speaking at the plenary session on Monday, Vučić used the opportunity to debate the issue of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008 after it became a UN protectorate following the 1999 NATO intervention in the country.


Although it is not a full-fledged member of the UN, Kosovo has been recognized by 117 countries.

But 15 countries have withdrawn the initial recognition - all but three are Non-Aligned Movement members.

“Fighting for its territorial integrity and sovereignty, Serbia is defending both the universal principles of the United Nations, but also some of the key principles of the Non-Aligned Movement,” Vučić said on Monday.

“Serbia is extremely dedicated to finding a compromise and a permanent solution. There’s no alternative to dialogue,” he said.

The summit, according to Klasić, is just “another display of Serbian political wanderings” and a way for Vučić to score points domestically among his voters.


“Nominally the country wants to join the European Union, but if you look at his and decisions of his people over the past decade, you see that he’s much closer to Russia and some Asian countries.”

“I think Vučić never got over the fact that he didn’t become a regional leader. But Serbia, although the largest in the region, is neither the most prosperous nor the strongest. So I think he’s using any opportunity to show people he’s relevant,” he said.

For Klasić, the attempt to use the Non-Aligned Movement to score points regionally and perhaps sell some weapons sullies the original intent of the movement.

“When countries like Indonesia, Yugoslavia, Mali and Egypt appeared united at the UN, they were much stronger than when they present themselves individually.”

Economic relations equal weapons trade

While Russian FM Lavrov marked the first day of the summit, on Tuesday, Vučić opened the country’s biannual military equipment fair, showcasing artillery and rocket systems, armoured vehicles, radar systems, and patrol boats.


“In the world of interests there is no mercy for the weak, only respect for those who are strong. That’s why it’s important for us to develop our defence industry, in order to protect peace and stability, and so we’re not humiliated and endangered,” Vučić told the public broadcaster RTS at the ceremony introducing a new Serbian-made armoured vehicle, called the "Lazanski".

The fair, called “Partner 2021,” usually takes place in June and was closed to the public for the first three days, admitting “business visitors” only. Local media reported that many of the representatives of the Non-Aligned delegations attended.

Jelena Ćosić, an investigative journalist at ICIJ, believes this is no coincidence, given Serbia’s vested interest in exporting weapons to developing countries.

“The countries present at the summit are also some of the biggest buyers of weapons, not only from Serbia but also from other Balkan countries,” she said.

“Weapons sales as a form of trade is not problematic in itself, but investigations in the past have shown that some of the weapons produced by Serbia or left over from the Yugoslav wars ended up in war zones and were used by sides that could bring the role of Serbia into question as it goes against international conventions.”


Ćosić, who researched Balkan arms exports for Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, or Krik, said there is a huge arms flow from the region to Saudi Arabia and Turkey, with weapons ending up in war zones in Yemen and Syria.

Over the years, Yugoslav and Serbian-made weapons and ammunition were found by international investigators like the London-based Conflict Armament Research in places like Yemen, the Donbas region of Ukraine, and Cameroon, as well as in the hands of ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. The Serbian government has rejected any direct connection with the weapons found.

In 2020, outlets in Azerbaijan reported that Armenia used Serbian-made munition to shell villages in Nagorno-Karabakh. President Vučić replied by stating that “Serbia exports ten times more weapons to Azerbaijan” than Armenia, further saying that “Whatever you do, you can’t please everyone.”

Azerbaijan is a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, and it’s currently presiding over the bloc until 2023.

The weapons found in Yemen, for instance, were sold to Saudi Arabia, while some of the armaments that ended up with ISIS were sold to Burundi. All three are also members of the bloc. A lot of these weapons are outdated and some should have been deactivated, Ćosić claimed.


In the meantime, Serbia has moved into armoured vehicles production, as is the case with the "Lazanski" personnel carrier, named after the late Serbian ambassador to Russia, Miroslav Lazanski. Ćosić said this is mostly done for show.

“Serbia hasn’t sold that many armoured vehicles, mostly because we simply weren’t that competitive. The vehicles had design issues and would often come back for some form of refurbishing or repairs, at least early on,” she said.

“It’s mostly for domestic, and in part, regional publicity. The idea is to show that there’s a deterrent if Serbia is attacked — which I think is pure demagogy and propaganda which has increased lately — more than us suddenly becoming rich from it because Serbia doesn’t have the resources to mass-produce these vehicles, while vehicles from other countries tend to be much better,” she explained.

In the end, Ćosić is sceptical whether Vučić’s big show of military might in front of his Non-Aligned partners will result in any significant earnings for the country.

“Countries that buy weapons from Serbia don’t go for the more expensive equipment. The weapons that they buy are bought for their foot soldiers who usually aren’t even professional soldiers but rather regular folk.”


“Simply put, this is not done for profit, but rather a dangerous form of manipulation for the sake of scoring cheap political points domestically,” she said.

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