Historical lessons of a forgotten alliance


Many moments of suffering have remained in the historical memory of Serbian people, and many of them are a reminder of the alliance with and support of Russia. Probably the most dramatic of those moments is represented by the period of Serbian army’s winter retreat across Albania under the rush of significantly stronger united armies of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria. Although still undefeated, alone in the Balkan warzone, the Serbian army was forced to leave the country for the sake of its preservation, which represented the most significant guarantee for the possibility of achieving national interests, the first of them being the final unification of Serbian people. Russian and Serbian western allies, England and France, seeing Serbia as the forerunner of Russian domination on the Balkans and further, and Italy sensing the possibility of having Serbia as a future enemy on the Adriatic Sea, were not in a hurry to help the Serbs who were literally dying of cold and starvation. Being unable to provide Serbs with military and material aid through the Danube waterway due to Bulgaria entering the war and taking the German side, Russia used diplomatic means to persuade its hypocritical allies to provide much needed help. The climax of that diplomatic offensive was the Russian emperor’s telegraph to the King of England and the President of the Republic of France, sent on January 18th, 1916, informing them about Russia’s decision to break the alliance unless the Serbian army was saved. Only then did the help and rapid evacuation of Serbian people to the territory of neutral Greece start to come into effect. 

Due to ideological and political motives, these historical facts were often neglected when talked about the joint Russian–Serbian history. However, they should be remembered precisely now, when marking the 100th anniversary of the Great War. But also because Russia is currently reliving the final stage of “The Eastern Question” from one century ago, when, defending its interests, it got involved in disputes of different intensity in the Black Sea basin, Asia Minor, the Near East and of course the Balkans, with all of those who oppose its interests. The current crisis in the relations between Russia and Turkey is the newest confirmation of the above mentioned in the series of other disputes (e.g. failure of “the South Stream” project or the attempt to flare up the Islamic extremism close to its borders).  Serbia is also facing the intensification of a choice, similar to one from more than 100 years ago: giving up its independence entirely, and giving up the right to fight for the possibility of Serbs living free on its ancestral territories for the illusive peace, and affiliation to the so-called Western world/European Union, or the continuation of a difficult and uncertain fight.

The right decision can be made only by analyzing the consequences of past choices so it is good to remember the lessons from a century ago.

The first association to the role of Russia in the Great War often refers to its last days of active participation in it. Those were two revolutions acting as an introduction to a horrible Civil War and the downfall of what was accomplished during the period of the Russian Empire. It is very common in Serbia, and often in malicious way, to remember huge Serbian casualties for the purpose of questionable achievements. Without denying the truthfulness of the above mentioned, it should be said that the decisions of Russian and Serbian leadership led to other, even more positive, consequences, both short term and mid-term, as well as long term.

From a short term perspective, getting into a dispute of global proportions for the sake of defending its own reputation as a great power and the role of the Orthodox Slavic protector, and pleasing  then the mostly pro-Serbian public opinion, Imperial Russia gained a significant military ally in the unavoidable conflict with Central European powers. Let’s not forget, although small, the Serbian army represented an important part of the Russian military plan, not only playing the passive role of the force which dragged the enemy forces away from the Eastern front, but also as an active power which took offensive actions on Russian request (the Serbian offensive in 1914 on Austria–Hungary territory in Srem and Bosnia as a reinforcement to Russian army participating in harsh battles in Galicia; the Serbian attempt to breach the Bulgarian-German front in Macedonia as a support to the Brusilov offensive; finally, the existence of the Serbian volunteer corps in Russia which consisted of around 40,000 people, which fought within Russian imperial army from 1916 until the end of the Eastern Front). On the other hand, Serbia reaped the benefits of its pre-war pro-Russian politics: stable inflow of military and other material through the Danube, providing monetary funds in the form of favorable Russian loans for warfare, and the arrival of Russian military formations to Serbia until its collapse in the winter of 1915, as well as later to the Salonika Front where they fought alongside Serbian and other allied units.

From a mid-term perspective, Russia saw the final results of its 19th century politics in the Balkans. Romania and Greece, orthodox countries which owe their independence partially to Russian patronage, led by its rulers of German origin, were conditioning their participation in the war with various compensations at the expense of Russian and Serbian war goals (Bessarabia, Constantinople, part of Vardar Macedonia, Banat) and persistently waiting for the deciding moment when they would place themselves on the winning side. Not before the second half of the war did that moment occur. Bulgaria, also with a ruler of German origin, directly entered the war taking the German side in 1915, putting its army under German command on Serbian Front, and later on the Salonika Front, as well as Dobrudza Front, where Bulgarian forces, alongside German and Turkish troops, fought against Russian (with the above mentioned Serbian volunteer corps) and Romanian forces. Hence, against the same ones who made the founding of Bulgaria possible by defeating the Ottoman Empire in the war (1877 –1878)!  Serbia, which received the least amount of help from Russia and often sacrificed for the sake of personal goals (e.g. Treaty of Saint Stefano in 1878 when Serbia was denied much of its historical southern territory for purpose of creating Greater Bulgaria under Russian patronage thus leaving her alone to Austria's influence, or similarly, the offering of a part of Serbian territory in Macedonia during the first year of the Great War, for the purpose of attracting Bulgaria to the Allies), withstood great temptations in the years of isolation from Russia, thus being forced to lead its own politics as the only solution. The Serbian attempt to find ally in Austria proved to be catastrophic several times during the 19th century. Not only did it become clear to Serbian leadership that national plans for liberation and unification of Serbs were opposed to Habsburg interest, but also that longer bonding to the above mentioned would lead to the disintegration and collapse of the two existing Serbian countries, Serbia and Montenegro. As exponents of its politics, Austria would choose those Serbian rulers and politicians who, for their party’s personal and always shortsighted interests, brought great shame to Serbian people and harm to the relations between Russia and Serbia. The only way out was independent politics with support from Russia. Or as the famous Serbian politician from that time Milovan Milovanovic vividly described - Russian politics regarding the Eastern Question was a small spark from which Serbs used to get warm, but careful not to get burnt by it. Shortly after, these messages were confirmed in a similar way during WWII: Romania actively participated on The Eastern Front with its army while Bulgaria gave its territory and Black Sea harbors for use to Hitler’s Germany. Greece was involved in a Civil War during the Italian-German occupation just to become a part of Western coalition at the end of the war, truth be told, based on the principles of distribution of power in Teheran and Yalta. Although divided into two antifascist movements, Serbs contributed significantly to fighting Hitler’s coalition, and they would also free Belgrade at the end of the war alongside the Red Army.

We can conclude that the geopolitical consequences of this forgotten alliance can be felt even today. Unlike the majority of its neighbors, Serbia is not a member of NATO or the EU and it has not joined the sanctions imposed on Russia from many European countries, thus representing the only potential Russian ally on the Balkans. Although the opposition to Russian influence can be felt in Serbia, coming from the part of society which strongly resembles their 19th century ancestors who subordinated national goals to their petty personal interests, the situation is much better compared to other Balkan countries which are once again part of the anti-Russian group. Unfortunately, Serbian people are facing serious challenges: Serbian identity is being persistently and consistently eradicated across the territory of former Yugoslavia, and the greatest Serbian success in the past decades, the existence of the Republik of Srpska, is also going to be annulled without the support of Serbia. The Republic of Serbia itself is facing financial and economic difficulties and the situation where all parliamentary parties openly support EU membership, but they are secretly aware that that includes joining NATO. Frequent debates stating that Serbia has a choice between Russia and the West are pointless in the light of its historical experience from not so long ago. But whether Russia will lose its potential ally and whether Serbia, having been left alone, will give in to internal and external pressures, depends on concrete action and cooperation. Remembering the historical lessons of a forgotten alliance could encourage us and show us the way in which we should act, and that is the way of strategic bonding and support between Russia and Serbia - for the former on a local, Balkan level, and for the latter on a global level.