The fact that the public appearance of the Russian ambassador at an electoral rally of a political party is not in accordance with diplomatic rules cannot be disputed. Not because of what he said, that is, not by its content – which is something that can be further discussed, but by its form, because, as a diplomatic representative of a foreign country, he advocated in favor of a political party. For example, it would not be a diplomatic problem if the Russian Prime Minister, or even the Russian President, came and gave their support to the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). Because it would not be a problem if Chancellor Merkel came to Belgrade and gave her support to the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), since her party and the DSS are members of the same international party organization. The content of the support could constitute a problem, but not the form itself – the fact that a foreign statesperson speaks at the rally of a party close to the one she or he is a member of. Of course, Mr. Konuzin could have spoken as the representative of United Russia, which he, in fact, did do, but the assessment was probably that it was better to make an undiplomatic move, then to define the party affiliation of an ambassador.
Naturally, people in Serbia are now claiming that everyone does this – for example, the German ambassador, the Hungarian ambassador, while the US ambassador even composes the government. Ergo, they are all the same. However, this is completely untrue. First of all, even if they were the same, they committed the same undiplomatic acts, which is not an excuse either for the Russian ambassador, or for the Serbian Progressive Party. However, there are no examples (or at least I am not aware of any), where a foreign ambassador supported one party in a democratic country. In order to make a clear distinction, it must be noted that, for example, the appearance of ambassador Konuzin at the Security Forum was, in its form, in accordance with diplomatic rules. The fact that the ambassador of a country addressed Serbian participants and asked them if there were any Serbs amongst them, can be questionable, but not because it is offensive – rather because such meetings are not a Cold War battlefield, but a place to discuss certain issues. Consequently, the participant from Russia does not speak as a member of the Russian nation, but as a person who has an opinion on the subject. The claim that the Russian ambassador brought into question the patriotism of Serbs present, and that this was the reason for the authorities to admonish him, is absurd. The subject of such meetings is, among other things, the meaning of patriotism. Thus, measuring the nationalism of participants who discuss this subject is the same as missing the point. However, this happens at such meetings, and usually leads to a talk between the ambassador and his ministry, as in the case of the German ambassador, who clumsily compared Hungary to Serbia. This does not, or should not, concern either the organizer, or the participants, or the unburdened public.
Furthermore, when an ambassador supports the Prime Minister, or any other government official, as for example, Minister Lavrov constantly supports Minister Jeremic, this must be judged by its content, not by its form. It is totally appropriate if the US ambassador, for example, praises the government or the Prime Minister for their success in the realization of an international project, even if only to point out that her country will strongly support the government, that is, the host country, in what the government plans to do to the benefit of its country.
The same goes for the fact that the ambassador of a country has the obligation to point out the policy of his or her country wherever he or she deems it necessary. When the ambassador of a country which recognized Kosovo says that this is no longer an issue for his or her country, that is not an undiplomatic move. This is what an ambassador is for, it is his or her basic function. This is something that hosts expect from ambassadors. Otherwise, they would have doubts as to the policy of the country the ambassador represents – which would be the same as if no diplomatic relations existed. It would be inconceivable for the Russian ambassador in Georgia, if one existed, or for any Russian official for that matter, not to say that his or her country recognized Abkhazia or South Ossetia, and that this is no longer an issue for the government he or she works for. The same goes for the statements of governments and representatives of countries which have certain objections to measures Serbia wants to implement. It is to be expected that the government of Hungary declares its disagreement with the Law on Restitution, if it does not agree with this law, which does not necessary mean that this opinion has to be taken into account. This is, without a doubt, a very sensitive question, and, while the form is unquestionable, the content must be considered with great care. For example – it is one thing to insist on the interests of one’s own citizens, who’s interests could be affected by a decision of the Serbian authorities (either executive, legislative or judicial), and an entirely other thing to exert pressure, diplomatic or any other kind, in order to support citizens of a foreign country on the basis of ethnicity, or some domestic parties. This is unacceptable, both in form and in content.
The Russian ambassador acted undiplomatically. This is the form. What about the content? What did the ambassador say? Since he acts as the representative of a state, by the mere fact that he made a speech at the electoral rally of a party he declared that Russia supports the Serbian Progressive Party on the following elections. What this support consists of is less important. It goes without saying that Konuzin pointed out the same goals the Serbian Progressive Party stands for. The fact that these goals, at least declaratively, do not differ much from the goals of the Democratic Party (DS), should not offer DS much comfort. Via its ambassador, Russia wrote off the Democratic Party. I do not doubt for a second that the representatives of DS will try to compete with the Progressives for Russian support. However, this represents both a loss of time and of political capital. Starting from Konuzin’s speech, everything they might do to win the favor of Russia will be counted as points for the Progressives. Whether the leaders of the Democratic Party understand this – remains to be seen. The patriotic pundits do understand. They keep warning the Democrats that they are working against their own, as well as against state and national interest, if they protest, because it is the only answer that gives them any chance of winning on the next elections.
Why did the Russian authorities do this? For two basic reasons, I guess. One is to force a commitment from the SNS, which may continue to represent itself as a pro-European party, while the voters nevertheless perceive it as pro-Russian, which is basically what ambassador Konuzin said. This should dispel the illusions of those who had second thoughts about how far the Progressives were willing to go in their Euro-enthusiasm. The second is to diminish the coalition potential of the Democratic Party. DS cannot remain in power unless it secures a coalition with smaller parties, first of all, the Socialist Party of Serbia and the parties close to it. However, the Socialists must now consider whether they want this coalition, or whether it is better for them, as well as for their coalition partners, to turn to the Progressives, that is, the Russians. If the Democratic Party is left only with the Liberals and the Serbian Renewal Movement, it should be expected that they will become the opposition after the next elections.
The final question is – will the Democratic Party be ready to draw these conclusions publicly and demand that the Serbian Progressive Party explains why it asked for open support of a foreign country, and what specific commitments it undertook? It is clear that, with his public appearance at the SNS electoral rally, ambassador Konuzin informed the Serbian public that SNS assumed specific obligations towards the Russian state. Only the public does not know what these obligations are. What is thus the content of this formal undiplomatic behavior?
Who will speak up for the Democratic Party and ask this question? It would be natural if the Minister of Foreign Affairs Vuk Jeremic talked with the ambassador about the form. However, he remained meaningfully silent. Those who are standing up to represent the government and the Democratic Party are doing it in such a way that it would be better if they did not do it at all. The question is very simple – will the next government be composed in Moscow? As far as one can see, there is no one willing to pose this question to the Serbian Progressive Party. They are unable to find the form, and they are afraid of the content.
Translated by Bojana Obradovic