India’s External Affairs Minister Dr. S. Jaishankar paid a successful visit to Serbia. Apart from meeting his Serbian counterpart Ivica Dacic; Dr. Jaishankar called upon Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Speaker of the National Assembly in Belgrade. The interactions focussed on transforming the bilateral partnership in sync with the needs of the 21st century. The highlight of the visit was signing of the Defence Cooperation Agreement that is likely to anchor their bilateral ties in the future.
Indo-Serbian ties are rooted in history. With Serbia being part of erstwhile Yugoslavia, the two countries were founding members of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM). The Movement had propelled the names of Pandit Nehru and Joseph Tito in each other’s national consciousness. Their shared past are also reflected in the interactions of Swami Vivekananda and Rabindranath Tagore with Serbia’s intelligentsia.
This exceptional warmth in their friendship, however, did not translate into a more robust partnership following the end of the Cold War. With both countries seeking to navigate the unfolding complex strategic landscape, their foreign policy priorities were diverted towards their immediate neighbourhood and managing great power relations. A period of stagnation marked the next quarter century of their bilateral ties.
Dr. Jaishankar’s visit, as part of the recent improvement in the bilateral political contacts, can be seen through the lens of reconnecting with an old friend at a time when both countries are undergoing rapid national transformation. India has emerged as one of the fastest growing emerging economies and is increasingly looking to shape global outcomes. Similarly, Serbia appears to have overcome its internal turmoil following the bifurcation of Yugoslavia and disruption brought about by Kosovo’s secession. It has recorded impressive growth in a slowing European continent and is on track to join the European Union (EU) by 2025.
Today, there are growing convergence of interests between a new India and a new Serbia to tackle the ongoing global upheavals. Globalisation, which has been the pillar of 21st century, is facing headwinds. Growing protectionism, capital being laced with conditionalities and technology induced disruptions have muddied the global strategic environment. Traditional and non-traditional security threats have grown in magnitude. The old strategic equilibrium has been disrupted while a new balance of power is yet to emerge. Combining each other’s strengths can help India and Serbia navigate these emerging challenges. This collaborative approach blends-in with the principles of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, meaning the world is one family, and Vishwa-Bandhutva – the brotherhood of the world – in Sanskrit, thereby, reflecting India’s desire to work with all and resolve global problems in a cooperative spirit.
The bilateral partnership is marked by mutual strategic empathy that has seen India and Serbia support each other’s core strategic concerns. Belgrade’s declaration of Jammu and Kashmir being an internal matter of India is in line with India’s support to Serbia against Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence. They have also supported each other in multilateral forums including India’s candidature for Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and an expanded United Nations Security Council.
Serbia’s geo-strategic location is of significant relevance for India. Straddling Central and South-east Europe, Belgrade has the potential to be India’s gateway to Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Apart from being a communications hub in the region, Belgrade has favourable trade agreements with the EU, Russia and Turkey.
Despite their complementarities, bilateral trade at US$ 200 million remains the weak link. At a time when India has pulled out of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations, there is a compelling rationale to explore new trade agreements and source of investments. Pharma, agriculture, IT, holistic healthcare including Ayurveda and Yoga, defence and tourism sectors hold the potential to qualitatively strengthen the economic partnership. The improvement in their World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ratings and relaxation of bilateral visa requirements can embed Indian and Serbian companies in each other’s ongoing transformation.
The potential of this partnership is immense. The challenge will be to continue the momentum and translate the political goodwill into a robust strategic partnership.
Script: Rajorshi Roy, Research Analyst, IDSA