There was a certain inevitability about a diplomatic scandal that erupted this week when a mocking Facebook post by Russia’s freewheeling Foreign Ministry spokeswoman caused outrage in Serbia — a close ally. President Vladimir Putin himself was forced to make a personal apology to smooth over the row and keep Russo-Serb relations on track.
- Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic last week signed an economic cooperation agreement with Kosovo, a former Serb province that declared independence in 2008. The deal — that was brokered by U.S. President Donald Trump — was inked in the White House, and the set-up of the Oval Office caused a minor social media storm. While Trump was seated behind a huge desk, Vucic was perched awkwardly on a small chair some distance away, looking a bit like a badly behaved schoolboy.
- Maria Zakharova, official spokesperson for Russia’s Foreign Ministry posted a photo of the meeting spliced with a photo of Sharon Stone from the 1992 movie Basic Instinct, suggesting Vucic should have copied Stone’s tactics in the explicit ‘chair scene’.
- One after another, key figures in Serbian politics joined a chorus of outrage. Marko Djuric, Director of the Serbian Government’s Office for Kosovo, tweeted that Zakharova should be ashamed of herself, while Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin also voiced his discontent. Vucic himself criticized Zakharova’s “primitivism and vulgarity”.
- Zakharova apologized on Facebook (although she did not delete the post). But that wasn’t enough. Within hours, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had spoken with Vucic on the phone. And a few days later, Vucic revealed Putin had also apologized to him in person. “As a well-bred person, I wouldn’t dream of bringing it up,” Vucic said. “I believe we have good relations [with Russia] and for me this is a fleeting, insignificant incident.”
- Russia and Serbia are close political allies. When Western countries recognized Kosovan independence 11 years ago, Belgrade turned towards Moscow, which has been consistently vocal in its support to the extent that Putin enjoys something of a cult following in parts of Serbia. The key bargaining chip in this relationship is Russia’s UN veto in respect of an independent Kosovo. But Russia has little interest in seeing the dispute resolved because that could enable Serbia to seek NATO and EU membership.
Who is Maria Zakharova?
- The 44-year-old was appointed spokesperson for the Foreign Ministry in 2015, the first woman to hold the post. “She’s like Marmite: Some people love her and some people hate her,” one Russian official said about her a few years ago. Foreign Minister Lavrov is clearly in the ‘lovers’ camp.
- Whatever your views, Zakharova is clearly a contradictory character. On the one hand, she provides a modern media service, and understands how the media operate. She doesn’t ask for questions in advance and regularly includes opposition-leaning publications in briefings (although she did weasel out of a debate with opposition leader Alexei Navalny at the last moment).
- On the other hand, Zakharova enjoys turning her public appearances into a show. She performed a folk dance for journalists at the Russia-ASEAN summit in 2016 and is a prolific social media user. Her list of gaffes include imitating a Jewish accent to claim Trump was put in power by Jews from Brighton Beach.
Why the world should care Zakharova behaves like a playground bully: trolling her opponents while the teachers look the other way. But when someone stands up to a bully, they inevitably capitulate. Maybe after this latest embarrassment, she will be more cautious. But it’ll perhaps be more interesting to see what happens to her career. Does Lavrov like her more than Putin hates apologizing?