In Spending on Serbs Abroad, Serbia Looks to Maintain Influence

Most of the money Serbia spends on Serbs in the rest of the former Yugoslavia goes to those in Bosnia and Montenegro, where Serbian influence is greatest.

Visiting Montenegro this month for the funeral of a senior Serbian Orthodox bishop, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic stopped by the ‘Serbian House’ in Podgorica, founded in 2017 and opened in 2019 to promote Serbian science and culture in a country where 30 per cent of people identify as Serb.

The Serbian state under Vucic has invested some four million euros in the initiative since 2017, including the purchase of its premises in the capital.

“Even when they attack us for investing too much money, we will invest even more,” Vucic said during the visit on November 1. “I am happy that this is a gift from the Republic of Serbia to the Serbian people in Montenegro, and there will be more – on the coast and in the north of Montenegro.”

Indeed, the money granted to Serbian House represents only a small slice of the funds flowing from the Serbian budget to Serbs in former Yugoslav republics – at least 33.8 million euros over the past four years, probably more given that official data for the past two years has still to be published in full.

More than half of this amount went to Bosnia and Herzegovina and its mainly Serb-populated Republika Srpska, one of the country’s two entities. Next in line were Montenegro, Croatia, North Macedonia and Slovenia.

Analysts say it is no coincidence that Serbs in Bosnia and Montenegro are the biggest beneficiaries of the Serbian largesse.

“Serbia has significant influence over representatives of the Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro, and if we start with territorial changes in the region on the principle of ethnicity, the potential for the creation of a Greater Serbia is seen in these two countries,” said Aleksandar Popov, director of the Centre for Regionalism, an NGO based in the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad and which promotes decentralisation.

Vucic, meanwhile, gets to present himself “as the protector of all Serbs in the region,” Popov told BIRN. “The political leaders of the Serbs in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina are helping him a lot.”

‘Moral obligation’

Receiving Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik in Belgrade this August, Vucic announced more money for Republika Srpska this year and next, describing the financing as “a moral obligation”, so that Serbs in Bosnia can “preserve what their grandfathers, great-grandfathers and fathers left behind.”

“We will, of course, not hide anything,” he said. “We will brag about it.”

Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, regularly advocates the dissolution of Bosnia and for Republika Srpska to go its own way. He and Vucic have met at least 36 times since 2017.

According to Serbian budget data for 2016-2018, government decisions and media reports, the Serbian government gave at least 22 million euros to Bosnia, mainly to Republika Srpska, between 2016 and 2020.

Just over 11 million, for example, went to Republika Srpska in 2017 and 2018 “in order to build and strengthen relations” between the entity and Serbia. In 2017, Serbia donated 988,000 euros to the municipality of Srebrenica, site of the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in July 1995 by Bosnian Serb forces and, since the end of the 1992-95 war, part of Republika Srpska.

According to Republika Srpska’s own statements and data, the donations totalled 29 million euros.

Over the same period, 2016-2020, the Serbian government gave at least 6.4 million euros to Serbs in Montenegro, 2.5 million to Croatia and some 40,000 euros to North Macedonia.

The money is disbursed either via direct donation or through competitions for media outlets or cultural projects to apply for funds. The Serbian Orthodox Church is a regular recipient in all of these countries.

‘Any help is welcome’

In North Macedonia, Serbia supports a number of Serb media outlets, the Serbian cultural-information centre SPONA and a host of small organisations and associations.

But one recipient, the Serbian Community in Macedonia, is struggling to stay afloat even with the funds it receives from Serbia, said its head, Gordana Stojkovska.

Founded in 1991 as federal Yugoslavia fell apart, the Community has roughly 15,000 members but finds it hard to fund the cultural events, language classes and magazine editions that are its staple.

“We don’t have premises or an office where we could employ at least one person, consolidate out scattered library of books and have a meeting from time to time,” Stojkovska told BIRN, and complained that Serbian institutions were channelling money to newer, smaller associations “without even knowing where the money is going or for what.”

In terms of media and cultural grants, the biggest proportion went to the Serbian community in Croatia.

Srdjan Jeremic, head of the Joint Council of Municipalities, ZVO, created in 1998 as a body to support Serb culture in eastern Croatia following the 1991-95 Croatian war, said funds from Serbia in recent years as “increased significantly.”

“Of course, any help is welcome, especially help from the mother country,” Jeremic told BIRN. “The funds we have at our disposal, which came from other sources, are not enough to meet our needs.”

Most of the money is spent on schooling for ethnic Serb children and support for Serb culture and language, as well as media. Three Serb radio stations operate in the eras, while the ZVO produces its own television show.

In Bosnia, one new recipient of Serbian funds is the Forum Theatre in East Sarajevo, part of Republika Srpska.

“This is not just about money but about deepening cooperation between the Serbian peoples on both sides of the Drina,” said Forum Theatre founder and director Vitomir Mitric, referring to the river that runs along a large part of the border between Bosnia and Serbia.

Marking Serbian Statehood Day in February this year, Vucic welcomed to Belgrade “Serbs from the region”, on this occasion Serb representatives from Montenegro and Bosnia’s Republika Srpska.

“We talked about the need for unity and solidarity and to always stand with our people in Republika Srpska and Montenegro,” Vucic said after their meeting. “We will continue to support the Republika Srpska, but also our people in Montenegro, via all institutions. And we will fight to preserve peace and stability.”

Popov of the Centre for Regionalism said Vucic’s talk of the money flowing to Serbs in Bosnia and Montenegro can be looked at as serving an “internal use”, i.e. for domestic political gain. But, he said, “in the long run, Serbs in these countries are seen as potential for possible future territorial divisions.”

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