EU pushes Serbia into Russia’s arms
The bloc must pressure Belgrade to abandon its longtime ally
by Helena Ivanov
People wave Russian and Serbian flags during a rally in Belgrade. Credit: Getty
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine intensifies, Serbia continues to stand out in its response to the crisis. While the Serbian government vote to support the UN resolution condemning the Russian invasion, the country did not aligned with EU sanctions against Russia. Maintaining this balance will be difficult for the government in Belgrade.
Serbia’s position reflects its political and economic interests. Russia has always been one of Serbia’s most trusted allies – notably, it refused to allow NATO intervention in 1999 and did not recognize the breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo as an independent state . Sanctioning Russia would mean that Serbia could no longer count on Russian support.
Second, in November 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić hit an agreement that set the price of Russian gas for Serbia at a quarter of European prices at the time. This agreement is due to expire in the summer – and cutting ties with Russia would lead to a difficult winter for Serbia.
Third, internal reasons explain why President Vučić does not want to impose sanctions at this stage. A sizeable number of Serbs support Russia – as evidenced by the multiple pro-Russian protests that have taken place in Belgrade over the past few weeks. Mr Vučić faces presidential, parliamentary and local elections on April 3, and aligning himself with the EU on sanctions would cost him votes.
Pressure on Serbia is mounting, some members of the European Parliament call for a suspension of accession negotiations. Following the elections Mr Vučič is expected to win, he may have some political space to introduce new measures against Russia, and we can expect further pressure from Washington and Brussels.
So far, Vučić has agreed to reduce flights from Belgrade to Moscow following an outcry that the Russians were using Serbia as a gateway to the EU. And, according to to the European Western Balkans portal, on March 12, Serbia also aligned itself with the prolonged restrictive measures against former pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
If Brussels wants to get serious action from Serbia, it needs to change its perception of what is in its interest. So far, the EU has focused on Serbia’s threat to end accession negotiations and/or cut grants and loans. But threatening to end the membership process is unlikely to significantly change Belgrade’s position, as Serbia currently does not believe it will join the bloc anytime soon. While threats to cut financial aid potentially have more teeth, Belgrade will have to weigh this against the benefits it derives from cooperating with Russia.
It may therefore be better for the EU to provide positive incentives to Serbia – possibly by making membership a predictable outcome or by offering financial incentives that exceed what Serbia currently gets from Russia. Neither seems likely at this point. Without a change in EU and US policy, the most likely outcome is that Serbia will adopt a much weaker sanctions program than the rest of the EU, leaving it stuck between Russia and the EU. West.