Foreign policy
Russia - EU

Neutral Serbia, or European Serbia?

Riddle Russia on how Serbia is signaling readiness to support anti-Russian sanctions as part of its push for European integration

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Photo: Scanpix

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, now in his tenth month of facing international criticism for refusing to join sanctions against Russia amid the war in Ukraine, has sent a clear signal of readiness to cooperate on this issue. Vučić said in early December that he will not allow Serbia to be used as an instrument for bypassing sanctions. At the same time, Serbia’s authorities continue to provide services that are of importance to the Kremlin, though there seems to be no appetite to widen cooperation. Serbian public opinion regarding the introduction of anti-Russian sanctions is being surveyed; based on the polls, public support for sanctions is growing.

Serbia’s first foreign policy steps after the formation of a new cabinet (which dragged on after the April elections for no apparent reason until the end of October) show that Belgrade is trying to break the deadlock in the European integration process without taking steps that could be perceived as hostile in the Kremlin. This is indicated, among other things, by Vučić’s statement, made on December 2 at a joint press conference with EU Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighborhood Policy, Oliver Varhelyi.

Adjusting the rhetoric

Vučić’s admission that «Serbian authorities have already responded to cases of re-export of certain goods, and government agencies have detained people from companies that were involved in circumventing sanctions against Russia») is quite sensational. The Russian media tried to downplay the significance of this statement, but in reality it is a noticeable adjustment in the rhetoric of Belgrade, which has so far emphasized that it does not intend to succumb to European pressure on the Russian issue.

What Vučić said does not mean he is in a hurry to distance himself from Moscow. In fact, Serbia is seeking a «quiet» joining of anti-Russian sanctions in response to the persistent demands of the European Union to harmonize the Serbian foreign policy with the European one. More significant adjustments in the Russian direction can be expected in the spring — after the end of the heating season, considering Serbia’s almost 100% dependence on Russian gas. This is also indicated by the recent visit of the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who announced the provision of assistance to Serbia to the tune of 160 million euros in connection with the energy crisis.

Serbia will not automatically support anti-Russian measures; instead, Belgrade will opt to block some individuals and organizations from European lists. Thus, the sanctions will be introduced gradually and presented as a necessary measure, and as a necessary compromise. As Vučić himself recently put it, he never swore that he would not impose sanctions on Russia: «If there is an existential threat to Serbia, I will turn to the citizens and say that we must do it.»

Few doubt that on the Serbian political scene, Vučić is the only person who determines the degree of «existential threat» and the timing of «forced» decisions. Vucic also plays into the hands of recent public opinion polls: from May to October, the number of supporters of anti-Russian measures in Serbian society increased by 10%.

An important voice

Serbian authorities would like to keep their usual balancing act. While Belgrade is clearly not looking to intensify ties or rapprochement with Moscow, it continues to provide the Kremlin with some services that stick out in the face of the war in Ukraine and the international community’s efforts to increase Russia’s isolation.

So, on November 14, Serbia for the first time in a long time abstained from voting in the UN General Assembly on a document related to the Ukrainian conflict. In this case, we are talking about creating a register of damage caused to Ukraine during the hostilities. 94 states voted in support of the document, 13 countries voted against, including Russia, China, Belarus, and Cuba. 74 countries abstained, including the UAE, Serbia, South Africa, India, Indonesia, Israel, Egypt, Brazil and Armenia.

The Serbian Foreign Ministry did not explain its position, leaving observers room for various interpretations— to the point that Belgrade itself is trying to avoid such financial claims in the future due to the Kosovo conflict of the 1990s. If these diplomatic decisions by Serbia look like an anti-Western or anti-Ukrainian approach, that does not seem to bother Aleksandar Vucic much. In such cases, he usually refers to «neutrality», «Serbia’s interests» and a difficult military past when the country was bombed by NATO during the Kosovo conflict.

In addition, Belgrade is trying to «meter out» its voice in the international arena. Since the beginning of the war, Serbia has joined all the main declarations and resolutions in the UN and the EU condemning the Russian attack on Ukraine and has declared that it does not recognize the results of the referendums held in the four occupied regions of Ukraine. Earlier, in 2014, Belgrade refused to recognize the annexation of Crimea as legal. The latest UN vote of abstention is a move towards a more neutral stance that is meant to improve Serbia’s image in the eyes of the Kremlin.

Dubious gift

A new nod to the Kremlin soon followed: Vucic received Turko Daudov, adviser to the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, behind closed doors. This meeting was not officially reported and became known only after Daudov posted a photograph on his Instagram, in which the Serbian leader appeared in a traditional cloak and hat in his hands.

Serbia and Chechnya do not have significant economic and political ties; Vucic usually discusses serious issues with the Russian ambassador or high-ranking representatives from Moscow. It is difficult to say what the need was for contacts with the assistant of the most notorious Russian figure, who is under international sanctions because of the war in Ukraine and the gross violation of human rights in Chechnya. Daudov himself wrote that he held the meeting on behalf of Kadyrov «at this difficult time, when Russia stood up for spiritual, traditional and family values, showing the West its rejection of the alien ideology imposed on them.» According to Daudov, the leadership and people of Serbia not only did not oppose Russia, but also «showed their support for the Russian Federation.»

In fact, the Serbian authorities do not provide any support to Russia in conducting its special operation or confrontation with the West. Daudov’s visit was essentially used by the Russian side for propaganda of anti-Western statements. The Russian ambassador in Belgrade Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko condemned those who criticized this meeting and accused the «tolerant Westerners» of Russophobia.

Meanwhile, in the Serbian government of the previous composition, they already expressed dissatisfaction with the distortions of the Serbian position and the abuse of its unwillingness to impose sanctions against Moscow. Here we mean, first of all, the statements of the Russian Foreign Ministry and Chechen representatives, who more often than others present Serbia’s attempts to continue the policy of balancing as a pro-Russian approach.

Homebase for disinformation

Another controversial service to Moscow is tolerating pro-Kremlin propaganda. In November, the Russia Today (RT) TV channel began broadcasting online in Serbian in Serbia, despite criticism from the European Union, which had previously imposed sanctions against this media corporation. Broadcasting of TV programs is planned to begin by 2024. Taking into account the language factor, the new project can count on an audience not only in Serbia, but also in Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, partly in Kosovo, as well as any countries where the ex-Yugoslav diaspora lives.

Judging by the publications, considerable attention is paid to the events around Ukraine with an accusatory emphasis on the Ukrainian authorities and the promotion of the thesis that «Russian intervention in Ukraine is a typical preventive self-defense.»

The emergence of yet another state-owned Russian media outlet (besides Sputnik) solidifies Serbia’s reputation as a base for spreading Russian influence and disinformation in the region. Before that, a year ago, there was a scandal in Serbia because of the work of the German-language TV channel RT auf Deutsch (RT DE). Its launch became possible due to the how the Serbian authorities issued a broadcasting license behind closed doors. This channel was launched on December 16, and a week later it was removed from broadcasting in Europe.

Since the Serbian media regulator granted the license shortly after Vucic’s visit to Russia, some observers thought it was part of a lucrative gas deal, which was of particular importance to Vucic at the start of the campaign. Actually, the energy factor is one of the key factors for the Serbian authorities in developing positions in the Russian direction, especially in the context of the protracted conflict in Eastern Europe.

Stagnation of EU negotiations

Vučić is considered a pragmatic politician, skillfully balancing between his partners in the West (where two-thirds of the investments and financial assistance come from) and the East (where the gas comes from at a price of $ 400 per thousand cubic meters). The Ukraine war, however, has narrowed the room for maneuver. Vucic’s inflexibility on the issue of sanctions, which he demonstrated in the first nine months of the war, in addition to image costs in the international arena, led to stagnation in negotiations on European integration.

There are, of course, other obstacles to progress in dialogue with the EU (for example, problems with the rule of law or the often interrupted normalization dialogue with the Kosovo authorities, who declared independence from Serbia in 2008). But relations with Russia have been named in recent months by many experts and politicians as the most significant problem.

This summer, Serbia did not receive the green light to start negotiations with Brussels on the third block, which includes chapters such as «Information Society and Media», «Taxation», «Economic and Monetary Policy», «Social Policy and Employment», «Entrepreneurship and Industrial Policy», «Science and Research», «Education and Culture» and «Customs Union». So far, there are no signs of recovery from stagnation.

Serbia is already being compared to the EU «eternal candidate» Turkey, and its foreign policy to Hungarian, meaning that the image of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is built on disputes with Western democracies, the search for allies in a conservative environment and public statements in the style of Russian propaganda. Anti-European discourse resonates in conservative circles in the Balkans, which allows Vučić to earn political points, but most of the trade, investment and technology is in the EU, and able-bodied youth are leaving Serbia without waiting for progress on the European path.

On the way towards sanctions

And although the new government of Serbia has declared EU integration a strategic goal, Brussels expects Belgrade to confirm this with «concrete actions.» «Particularly in the context of Russia’s aggressive war against Ukraine, the Council expects Serbia to demonstrate unequivocal commitment to the EU and uphold our common principles and values,» says the draft statement which will be adopted at the December meeting of EU foreign ministers. In a sense, Vučić’s recent statement about the «detentions of people from companies that were involved in circumventing sanctions against Russia» can be attributed to «concrete actions» in a sense. But Brussels is interested in a more tangible distancing of Belgrade from Moscow.

The intensification of the conflict along the EU-Vucic line could call into question the entire integration process, which in the longer term would mean the abolition of the visa-free regime, as well as the free trade regime, the reduction of financial assistance, the closure of student programs, etc. Given the degree of dependence of Serbia, a key country in the region, on the European market and investment, this would have serious consequences for both the economy and security in the Balkans.

The harmonization of foreign policy desired by Brussels will not happen quickly, but the gradual accession of Serbia to anti-Russian sanctions is becoming more and more likely. Without this, it is impossible to revive the European perspective, and Vučić has shown interest in this in recent weeks, sending positive signals both in the Kosovo direction (an agreement has been reached with Pristina on overcoming the crisis around personal documents and car numbers) and in Russia.

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