What is Serbia trying to achieve with its military buildup?

In 2019, Serbia made headlines by overtaking NATO member Croatia as the Balkan region’s biggest military spender, spending $1.14bn, an increase of 43 percent from the previous year.

This year, Serbia’s defence budget almost doubled from the 2018 figure of $700m to about $1.5bn, according to open-source intelligence specialists at Janes Defence Budgets.

As the pandemic intensified last year, many Serbians questioned the country’s priorities when it was reported in November that more money was being spent on weapons than setting up COVID-19 hospitals.

Meanwhile, displays of military power have become regular.

In September, as Serb 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, as he announced greater expenditure.

Following a June military drill in the Sandzak region, Vucic said that the army will be “drastically increased in the next nine months”, and will “always be in a position to defend our country and people”.

The announcements have made some in neighbouring countries such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro wary about Serbia’s motives, especially amid calls by Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin on forming a “Serb World”.

Vulin has repeatedly said in public and to local media that all Serbs need to unite politically under the direction of Belgrade, and “with time, to peacefully … unite formally”, suggesting they unite the territories where they live.

Critics have slammed his calls as an updated version of the Greater Serbia ideology of the 1990s, which culminated in war and ethnic cleansing in the region.

“The Serb World is indistinguishable from Greater Serbia, or all Serbs in one country,” said Daniel Serwer, one of the negotiators of the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement which ended the war in Bosnia.

Reuf Bajrovic, co-chair of the US-Europe Alliance organisation, told Al Jazeera that he believes Vucic is preparing to use military force in Kosovo and Bosnia when international circumstances change in his favour – such as when US troops withdraw from KFOR (the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Kosovo) or when Russia – Serbia’s ally – decides to directly intervene in the region.

“Russia-trained mercenaries 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 pre-invasion actions in Georgia and Ukraine,” Bajrovic said.

“Vucic government officials have openly stated that Serbia will use military force in its neighbourhood, including a threat Vucic issued against NATO troops in Kosovo last week,” Bajrovic said.

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