In 2019, Serbia grabbed the headlines by overtaking NATO member Croatia as the biggest military spend in the Balkan region, spending $ 1.14 billion, a 43% increase over compared to the previous year.
This year, Serbia’s defense budget has nearly doubled from $ 700 million in 2018 to around $ 1.5 billion, according to open source intelligence specialists at Janes Defense Budgets.
As the pandemic escalated last year, many Serbs questioned the country’s priorities when it was reported in November that more money was being spent on weapons than on establishing COVID- hospitals. 19.
During this time, displays of military might have become regular.
In September, as Serbian unity was celebrated as part of a new national holiday, President Aleksandar Vucic said the army was “five times stronger” than a few years ago, announcing spending more important.
Following a military exercise in the Sanjak region in June, Vucic said the army will “be greatly increased over the next nine months” and will “still be able to defend our country and our people”.
The announcements made some neighboring countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro weary of Serbia’s motives, especially amid calls from Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin to form a “Serbian world”.
Vulin has repeatedly stated in public and to local media that all Serbs should unite politically under the leadership of Belgrade, and “over time, peacefully … unite formally”, suggesting that they unite the territories where they are. live.
Critics have called his calls an updated version of the Greater Serbia ideology of the 1990s, which resulted in war and ethnic cleansing in the region.
“The Serbian world is indistinguishable from Greater Serbia, or from all Serbs in one country,” said Daniel Serwer, one of the negotiators of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia.
Reuf Bajrovic, co-chair of the US-Europe Alliance organization, told Al Jazeera that he believes Vucic is preparing to use military force in Kosovo and Bosnia when international circumstances change in his favor, such as when American troops withdraw from KFOR (the peacekeeping force directed in Kosovo) or when Russia – an ally of Serbia – decides to intervene directly in the region.
“The mercenaries trained by Russia in Bosnia and Montenegro are an integral part of the Serbian military strategy for the region. It is a carbon copy of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s actions before the invasion in Georgia and Ukraine, ”Bajrovic said.
“Vucic government officials have openly declared that Serbia will use military force in its neighborhood, including a threat Vucic issued against NATO troops in Kosovo last week,” Bajrovic said.
Last week, as tensions escalated at the Serbian-Kosovar border over a license plate dispute, Vucic gave NATO a 24-hour ultimatum to respond in case violence broke out. against the Kosovo Serbs.
If they didn’t, Serbia would “react”, he told NATO’s secretary general in a phone call.
“We now have 14 MiG-29s,” Vucic told Western officials on a Serbian talk show. “They thought I was joking… Doesn’t Serbia have the right to [use] its helicopters and planes in central Serbia?
Serbia should abandon any European ambition if it acts militarily against Bosnia or Kosovo, Serwer said, adding: “But Vucic seems to have already given up on EU membership.
“The situation is dangerous. NATO must make it clear that it will not tolerate the mobilization of Serbian forces against its neighbors, as it did last week against Kosovo, which has no army.
According to Janes Defense Budgets, “tensions with the former Serbian province of Kosovo remain the most important determinant of national security” for Serbia.
“Hidden from the public eye”
Where exactly is Serbian defense policy heading is a “million dollar question” for Marija Ignjatijevic, a researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy.
“The most of [Serbia’s] planning and strategic documents remain hidden from the public or are non-existent, ”she said, explaining that increases in the military budget are made“ ad hoc ”in accordance with foreign policy interests.
“In addition, the Serbian armed forces and weaponry are constantly misused in pompous nationwide exercises and parades, followed by sensational press campaigns – in order to consolidate power and gain more power. voice, but also to score in geostrategic games, ”said Ignjatijevic.
Andrew MacDonald, senior analyst at Janes Defense Budgets, told Al Jazeera that in 2021 Serbia’s defense spending jumped to 2.6% of its GDP, “definitely outside the country’s norm” and ” above average, especially for Europe “.
For Serwer, Vucic’s position is “clear”.
While it is doubtful whether the Serbian president will soon resort to military force in Kosovo or Bosnia, “he would be happy to have the opportunity to do so,” Serwer said.
“Serbia is strengthening its ties with Russia and China, reducing its European aspirations and focusing on the ‘Serbian World’, which is another name for the Greater Serbia.
“The military balance in the region is changing, which is impacting perceptions everywhere.”