A Cold War era relic, the Non-Aligned Movement is still seen as useful by one of its founding members – Serbia – and a prospective new-comer, Russia. Both are aiming to project their soft power among the organizations 130+ members and observers. And both may be expecting too much from a Movement that never really managed to become a real alternative to the world’s power poles.
A Cold War era relic with a contemporary Russian twist
A summit dedicated to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement was recently held in Belgrade, as one of the founders was Yugoslavia, led at that time by Josip Broz Tito. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) is the largest group of states after the United Nations and was founded in the middle of the 20th century at the height of the Cold War, as a counterweight to the opposing blocs led by the Soviet Union and the United States.
Yugoslavia, which had been a communist country since the end of World War II, broke up with the Soviet Union in 1948. By distancing itself from the Soviet Union, and without ambitions to side with the Western bloc, Yugoslavia saw its chance in the Non-Aligned Movement. However, plenty of NAM members were in fact close allies of the Soviet Union (with Cuba standing among the lot), and the Movement had a sizable share of countries ran by bloody dictators in its ranks, not to mention members, like Iran and Iraq, who went at war with each other.
Today, the movement has 120 members and 17 observer countries. Among them are Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, from the former Yugoslavia. Since its founding, the Movement has not had a formal hierarchical structure, but its leadership has changed by rotation at summits held every three years. The movement is currently led by Azerbaijan, which will give up its place in 2022.
The name of the Non-Aligned Movement arose as an idea that the movement would be a political alternative for countries that want to avoid opting for a military-political bloc and articulate an independent foreign policy approach. In September 1961, officials from 25 countries gathered in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia (then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), for the first conference of the Movement.
When the first conference of non-aligned countries was held in Belgrade in 1961, numerous delegations from different parts of the world were able to win sympathy for their problems and aspirations in international relations for the first time in one European capital. Belgrade became an important station for various consultations, negotiations, and international initiatives of Third World diplomats during the Cold War.
Among the participants in this year's gathering, the presence of Russia stands out, which appears for the first time since the founding of the Movement as an observer, a status it received in July this year following an initiative of President Vladimir Putin. Russia's inclusion in the Non-Aligned Movement can be interpreted as an attempt to gain influence against the West and the European Union. Additionally, Russia is projecting the influence in the Balkans using Serbia as its most important ally in the region.
Russia's status as an observer in the Movement opens the possibility of a new contribution in international relations, said the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov, at the summit in Belgrade.
The issue of Russian influence in Europe is one of the leading topics in the international community. The same is the case with the region of the Western Balkans, which is seen as an area for competition of the East and the West, and where Russia, through its ally Serbia, is trying to further project its influence.
Judging by the entry of some Western Balkan countries into NATO or by the region’s European aspirations, the question of the scope of Russian influence arises. Another issue that arises from Russia's tactics to expand its influence is the issue of Russia's long-term strategy in this region or, rather, the lack thereof. Judging from Moscow’s actions in the Western Balkans, one gets the impression that Russia does not have a long-term strategy to expand its influence in this region, and instead it’s merely pointing a finger at the West and presenting itself as an alternative to the bureaucratized European Union.
The only strategy that exists when it comes to Russia's attitude towards Serbia is to freeze disputes and maintain the status quo. In that way, Russia assures itself that a country with an unresolved issue, in this case Serbia's relationship with Kosovo, will not be able to become part of NATO.
Promoting Serbia’s soft power through arms and vaccines
Although the officials at the summit have discussed vaccination, climate change, or the fight against terrorism, the gathering itself is still seen as just another nostalgic reminder of the attempts to create a more just and multipolar world during the bloc divisions. The organizers of the gathering once again tried to affirm the idea of multilateralism, although the ideas of the Non-Aligned Movement, as well as the movement itself, today, just like 60 years ago, do not have too much political weight.
However, for the host, Serbia, the Non-Aligned Movement is still a useful medium for promoting its economic and political objectives, and for attempting to exert soft-power on the international stage.
Coincidentally or not, the International Fair of Arms and Military Equipment "Partner 2021" was organized within the Belgrade Fair, where the summit of the non-aligned is being held. It was an opportunity for Serbia to strengthen its military relations with other countries, but also to conclude some deals regarding military equipment.
Serbian diplomacy used the Non-Aligned Summit in Belgrade to promote its own military weapons, maintain the support of smaller countries regarding the non-recognition of Kosovo, try to strengthen relations with Belarus and Russia, as well as Azerbaijan, and promote Serbia by donating vaccines to third world countries.
‘It is important to oppose the great powers in the promotion of weapons and military equipment, it is important to build our path on that issue as well, and to choose those areas in which we can compete because we cannot do everything’, Serbian President stated.
This is another in a series of attempts by Serbia to consolidate its position of non-alignment with neither the East nor the West, but to show, by cooperating with all world powers, that no one can fully embrace Serbia. In this way, Vucic sees himself as a keeper of Tito's policy of non-alignment, although in fact Serbia undoubtedly belongs to the community of European states on which it depends the most.
In the language of diplomacy, Ukraine was the sharpest, which, as an observer, called on other non-aligned members to act against Russia. This followed as a reaction to the appearance of Russia for the first time at the Summit of the Non-Aligned, as an observer, which for many will remain one of the main impressions of the gathering.
During the summit, Serbian Foreign Minister met the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus Sergei Alejnik, whom Selakovic thanked for fraternal support and policy of non-recognition of independence Kosovo. This emphasis of support can also be interpreted as an attempt to improve relations between Serbia and Belarus, which were shaken in July this year, when Serbia partially complied with the sanctions imposed by the European Union against the authoritarian regime of Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus.
The policy of promoting non-recognition of Kosovo's independence, especially by lobbying among smaller countries, remains one of the central tactical diplomatic goals of such bilateral meetings, but also of Serbia's overall efforts in organizing this gathering. This summit served to check the pulse of many countries regarding their attitudes towards Kosovo's independence, which again becomes relevant now that a one year moratorium on lobbying against the recognition, agreed by Belgrade with the US, came to an end.
Serbia also takes pride in donating anti-coronavirus vaccines to non-aligned countries. This was especially emphasized considering the message sent by the President of Azerbaijan on global differences in vaccine availability between rich and poor. Holding the Non-Aligned Movement summit is just one of Serbia's initiatives to strengthen its regional and international influence. Recently, Serbia has played an active role in donating vaccines not only to the countries of the region, but also to the countries of North Africa, and to the Czech Republic, which is an EU member state. In this way, the authorities in Belgrade are trying to send a message to both the domestic and international public that Serbia is independent and ready to act alone without the help of foreign partners.
Why Belgrade’s bet on NAM may not pay off
Hosting the Non-Aligned Movement summit may also have domestic benefits for the Serbian government. In the run-up to the 2022 general elections, the ruling Serbian Progressive Party and Aleksandar Vucic will probably claim that, by gathering representatives of the non-aligned countries in Belgrade, they managed to give Serbia's the same reputation that Yugoslavia had.
However, it should not be forgotten that today's Serbia does not have the capacity of the former Yugoslavia, as well as that the circumstances have changed, and it is not possible to continue the policy pursued by Yugoslavia.
The Non-Aligned Movement had its clear goal, purpose, and vision when it was founded 60 years ago. However, today the circumstances have changed so much that it is only possible to hold a commemoration of this movement, which was the official reason for the gathering in Belgrade. The authorities in Belgrade are constantly trying to make Serbia's position bigger and more important than it actually is and they count on Russia’s support to achieve that, but a Cold War relic is hardly the means to do it.
Neither Serbia, nor Russia, have clear strategies or visions regarding their activities in NAM, except strengthening their influence among the member states. While for Russia’s perspective this makes sense, as Moscow is trying to present itself as an alternative to the Western system, it is a lot harder for Serbia to find a justification for following this path. The country has officially committed itself to EU integration years ago – and getting to Europe cannot be achieved clinging to obsolete policies and organizations.