Serbia: caught in the EU-Russia crossfire

Serbia: caught in the EU-Russia crossfire

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic paid an official visit to Austria last week to discuss the two countries’ assumption of joint chairmanship of the OSCE in 2017. However, during the press conference following the meetings, Vucic returned to a familiar topic by underlining that although EU integration tops Serbia’s foreign policy agenda, the country also desires to foster friendly relations with Russia.

After recent changes in the fundamental underpinnings of the international arena, Vucic has been called on to clarify his country’s position; and he has done so several times and on various platforms.
For instance, Vucic told Pink TV in his Christmas interview that Serbia’s main strategic goal is to become a member of the European Union.

During the program, he delivered a remarkable speech on Serbia’s position between the EU and Russia, a topic which has been increasingly discussed since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis. In recent months, the Vucic has repeatedly expressed the direction of his government’s foreign policy to the public.

Vucic also addressed the country’s position vis-à-vis the Ukrainian crisis. Between its strategic ally Russia and the EU, “Serbia has succeeded to keep its position and remain neutral,” he said, adding that Serbia did not promise the West that it would assume a position against Russia, and vice versa; it did not promise Russia it would act against the West.

Since the onset of the Ukrainian crisis, Russian-EU relations have not shown any sign of warming, a reality that has been further exacerbated by Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Economic sanctions implemented against Russia by the EU and the U.S., political instability in the region and fluctuations in the energy market have indeed made 2014 a long year for Russia according to USAK expert on Russia Kerim Has. Also, it appears that Russia’s economy will continue to face hardship in 2015, a prediction that formed the basis of Russia’s decision to release a new economic reform package amid the recent crisis.

It is in this context that countries such as Serbia with traditional, cultural and historical ties to Russia on the one hand and aspirations to join the EU on the other find themselves navigating increasingly difficult waters.

Serbia commenced accession talks with the EU last year in January directly following the EU’s talks with Kosovo in Brussels. In spite of the fact that Serbia’s inclusion in the EU is a topic of debate in both Serbian domestic politics and within the international community at large, and regardless of the crises that Serbia’s coalition may be facing, Vucic has made clear that his country’s most important strategic objective is increased integration with the EU. 

As a candidate country, Serbia has come to face increasing pressure for it to act in unison with the EU in enacting sanctions against Russia. In return, Russia has become a more visible actor in the Western Balkans, which it sees as a new playground, says Judy Dempsey from Carnegie Europe in her latest opinion piece. Russia is trying to dissuade Serbia from siding with the West with its economic investments, political support in regional disputes and public diplomacy; the latter of which has become a very important and effective instrument on Serbia’s populace. 

However, Serbia remains deeply disappointed at Russia’s cancelation of the South Stream Pipeline that was expected to fertilize Serbia’s fledgling energy market. As the EU’s pressure on Serbia regarding its position toward Russia increases day by day, Russia’s visibility on the ground is becoming more apparent. In this sense, the two historical allies’ relations have seen a peak with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Belgrade last October, in which he was the guest of honor for the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Serbian capital from Nazi occupation. 

It is well known that Russia has a strong desire to invest in Serbia. While such involvement is met with skepticism on the part of the EU, Russia has nonetheless made several strategic investments in Serbia’s railways, defense systems, telecom industry and infrastructure.

The tense dynamic has been illustrated in a number of cases. For one, Russia’s state-led Russian Railways, whose president, Vladimir Yakunin, is on the EU’s list of individuals banned from entering any EU country, is now upgrading a 220-mile stretch of railroad in Serbia. Additionally, Russia’s state-owned energy company Gazprom supplies the majority of Serbia’s natural gas. One more, but certainly not the last, example is seen in the fact that Lukoil, another Russian energy company, holds nearly 80 percent of Beopetrol, which is one of Serbia’s largest gas station chains. 

Putin recently declared that Serbian exports to Russia could reach $500 million per year if the two sides enforce their agreements, further stating that such an arrangement “would be very beneficial for Serbia and would bring new jobs, but would also be beneficial for Russia.”

In the end, Serbia is finding it increasingly difficult to balance its relations with Russia and the EU, and unless a form of détente is experienced by the conflicting parties, this trend is likely only to accelerate.