Someone asked me over the Christmas period which of the three countries I have spent a lot of time in over the last three years - Belarus, Serbia and Ukraine (in that chronological order) - I liked the most. And of course there is no easy answer to a question of that scope and generality and magnitude and I am not going to rank them in order of preference. However the question did cause me to reflect on the differences between these three countries, because they are all, while sharing certain Slavic language characteristics and cultural traits, very different countries in many ways from one-another. So I decided to jot down a few observations about these three countries, confident that people in both Serbia and Ukraine will read and I hope be interested in what I have to say and saddened that people in Belarus in all likelihood will not be able to do that because their society is so oppressive.
And that leads me to the first difference between these three countries which is freedom of expression. In Belarus there is virtually no freedom of expression. You do not feel comfortable expressing political opinions in Minsk and when I was there I was extremely careful about what I said whether in public or in private. I expressly shunned political conversations and nobody wanted to have them with me. There was a sense of constant surveillance and that saying the wrong thing could get you into trouble. By contrast both Ukraine and Serbia have freedom of expression in that you can say whatever you want without fear of harassment or persecution by the state; and this tradition has lasted longer in Serbia than in Ukraine. However in Serbia there remains a substantial sense of influence upon the media both by government and by foreign governmental interests than in Ukraine. I fear that Russian money is being used to garner influence in the Serbian media through purchase of advertisements and the like, and I am not the only person to express that view. Nevertheless Serbia remains free in the sense that I can say such things and not fear persecution the next time I return to Serbia. In Ukraine I think the media is more genuinely free and independent. People in Serbia, incidentally, are much more free and open with the harshest criticism of the government whereas people in Ukraine are more reticent to talk openly about domestic politics. That may be both because in Ukraine the country is at war and it can be seen as unpatriotic to criticise the government; and because Ukraine has a legacy of KGB paranoia that it is only now shaking off.
Ukrainian media is of course heavily anti-Russian; Serbian media is mixed in its attitudes towards Russia. There is some crude pro-Russian populism, of course; there is cautiously pro-Russian thinking in more intellectual media and there is some strong anti-Russian thinking. Serbs harbour a certain schizophrenia towards Russia; there is this imagined historical bond but Serbs well know that contemporary Russia does little to assist them beyond meddle in their internal politics. In Belarus there is no discussion in the media of Russia at all, save in the most anodyne terms, because there is no discussion in the media of anything controversial. The media is entirely muzzled. By the way, Serbia retains a studious official neutrality in the war in Ukraine, much to the West’s chagrin but both Ukrainian and Russian refugees are welcome in Serbia.
The next set of observations I would like to make are about corruption and organised crime. Belarus is the least corrupt of the three countries; Ukraine is the most corrupt but that appears to be changing as Ukraine improves her game since the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine rendered EU membership an increasing imperative. It used to be common in both Serbia and Ukraine that Police were bribed; this no longer takes place in either country in my experience. It certainly doesn’t happen in Belarus, where the law is meticulously observed in every minute detail; the problem is rather that the law is extremely repressive and imposes swingeing constraints upon what we would consider normal social activity. In both Serbia and Ukraine the Police are respected more than the courts; I do not have enough information to make an assessment about this in Belarus but the courts there do seem to have a reputation for applying Belarus’s harsh laws in an uncompromising fashion. Ukrainian conscription has eliminated large swathes of organised crime because the organised criminals are now in the Armed Forces or abroad whereas organised crime in Serbia remains a huge problem by reason of the flows of drug money through the country. The international community is struggling to deal with this problem and does not yet have a coherent and connected policy on how to combat it. Corruption at senior levels of Ukrainian government remain a very grave concern.
Serbs are more latin, temperamental, boisterous and sociable people than either Ukrainians or Belarusians. I always thought this had something to do with their proximity to Italy and the Adriatic. They are more suspicious of foreigners than Ukrainians, who have come to embrace foreigners en masse by reason of their support for Ukraine in the conflict with Russia. Ukrainians are more honest in their business dealings than Serbs, who are more likely to resile upon agreed terms whereas Ukrainians find this deeply dishonourable. Serbs I suppose can be “sneaky” whereas Ukrainians are generally direct and absolutely to the point. Once something is agreed you follow it to the spirit and the letter and you do not deviate. So Ukrainians are far easier to do business with and they are better businesspeople than Serbs for this reason, because the understand the sanctity of contract. In Belarus you can’t do any business at all or the government might come after you.
Serbia has just had some elections that were undoubtedly flawed in a number of respects but probably approximately reflected the will of the majority of Serbs to re-elect the Serbian Progressive Party, a conservative party that finds its electoral base in rural Serbia, as the dominant party of power. The Progressives seek to steer a middle course between Europe and Russia in Serbia’s dealings which is a legacy of Tito-era Yugoslav communism but it ends up achieving little for them as Serbia has no future in the shadow of the Russian Federation, shunned by all Europe and by the United States in consequence of her military adventurism in Ukraine. Serbia is I think only slowly and now waking up to the fact that an alliance with Russia is more worthless than it ever has been and I hope Serbs are increasingly viewing their future as European with all the compromises that requires for Serbia fully to join the European community of nations. Ukraine has recently been undergoing this process and Serbia must now do so too. Serbs in the more pro-western and liberal capital Belgrade have been demonstrating on the streets in recent days against what they allege to be rigged elections, which is their right and demonstrates the relative health of democracy and free expression in Serbia; while there were some trouble-makers, those protests passed off mostly without incident. In Belarus the last election in 2020 was totally rigged and as a result the government in Minsk is an international pariah. Demonstrations against the result were ruthlessly suppressed.
Belarus is so profoundly in the Russian orbit that there is probably little we can do to now to coax her towards European values. Ukraine understands exactly what is necessary and is the furthest along the road despite being at war. In Serbia there is still everything to play for. Russia is toying with Serbian politics, purporting to support both the ruling party (to delegitimise it in the eyes of the West) and supporting the Opposition (to destabilise the ruling party). In the West we need three different strategies for each of these crucial buffer states. For Belarus the policy is containment; for Ukraine it is wholehearted support conditional upon clamping down on corruption; for Serbia it is working with Serbia’s more diligent and well-intentioned politicians unequivocally to undermine the influence of the Russian intelligence services in disrupting the country’s institutions and civil society.