Between Russia and the EU: Serbia’s balancing act is failing | Opinions

Because the conflict in Ukraine rages on, most of Europe has united in an anti-Russia camp. Nevertheless, there was one nation that has been refusing to select sides: Serbia.

Belgrade is seen as Moscow’s final remaining good friend in Europe, because it determined to not be part of the EU sanctions regime. Consequently, it has confronted heavy criticism and strain from EU officers who’ve made it clear that the nation, as an EU candidate state, is anticipated to align its international coverage with the EU’s Frequent International and Safety Coverage, together with by imposing sanctions on Russia.

The Serbian authorities has defended its place, saying it’s not within the nation’s curiosity to decide on sides. But, within the present polarised geopolitical local weather, neutrality is turning into more and more untenable, as EU strain continues to mount.

Serbia utilized for EU membership in 2009 and has been in accession talks since 2014. It has opened 22 out of the 35 negotiations chapters and it has regularly reiterated that its prime precedence is to turn out to be an EU member.

Nevertheless, in October, Josep Borrell, the EU’s excessive consultant for international affairs and safety coverage, affirmed that Serbia’s EU accession course of is stalling as a result of it’s not aligning its international coverage with Brussels’s.

Slowing down the accession course of shouldn’t be in itself a sufficiently efficient menace, as Serbia is aware of that it’ll not be allowed to hitch till it resolves its dispute with Kosovo, which declared independence from it in 2008.

The EU does produce other simpler choices to strain Serbia into compliance which it hasn’t used. Belgrade has obtained greater than 1.5 billion euro ($1.5bn) in pre-accession funds within the 2014-2020 interval, and is anticipated to get a fair better quantity between 2021 and 2027. If the EU decides to disclaim entry to those pre-accession funds or to cease investments, it might undoubtedly damage the Serbian economic system and growth.

However Serbia has a lot to lose, as properly, if it does observe EU’s lead in imposing sanctions on Moscow. The nation imports roughly 85 % of the fuel it consumes from Russia; doing something that might carry fuel flows right into a halt would have vital penalties for its economic system and societal consolation.

By not imposing sanctions, Serbia has secured an settlement for a three-year uninterrupted provide of fuel from Russia underneath preferential phrases.

This has allowed Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to reassure the Serbian inhabitants that it’ll not undergo this winter, as a lot of Europe is bracing itself for electrical energy shortages and eye-watering power payments. The contract has additionally put the nation able to export pure fuel to its neighbours at a revenue.

Serbia additionally has a free commerce settlement with Russia in impact since 2006 and a free commerce settlement with the Russia-led Eurasian Financial Union signed in 2019, which have opened up huge markets to Serbian exports, however might be upended if relations between the 2 international locations soured.

Moreover, Serbia has seen an inflow of Russian-owned companies shifting into the nation, largely from the IT sector, with greater than 1,000 such firms being registered with the Chamber of Commerce and Trade because the conflict in Ukraine began. The aviation sector has benefitted, as properly – with the nation’s flag provider Air Serbia remaining the one European airline to take care of common flights to Russian airports.

Final however not least, Serbia depends on Russia’s political help and affect within the UN and different worldwide organisations to dam Kosovo’s purposes for membership, which is a part of Serbian efforts to forestall its worldwide recognition.

On the similar time, since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Serbia has not at all times stood by its ally at worldwide boards. In March, it voted for a UN decision condemning Russian aggression in opposition to Ukraine and in October, for one more one rejecting the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory.

Serbian UN diplomats additionally backed suspending Russia’s membership within the United Nations Human Rights Council, which Vucic acknowledged was finished underneath strain from the EU. All of this demonstrates the pragmatism of Serbian international coverage: By standing on the sidelines of the EU-Russia battle, it has tried to have its cake and eat it too. Certainly, in its dealings with the East and West, Serbia has been guided by self-interest, somewhat than shared values – an method that appears to be in style with the Serbian inhabitants.

The EU’s warning that it could halt its accession negotiations could not have the anticipated sting, as an growing portion of the Serbian inhabitants is turning into much less keen about becoming a member of the EU anyway.

Latest polls present that not solely has help for the EU in Serbia fallen under the 50 % threshold, but additionally those that oppose EU membership have gotten better in quantity than those that help it. The decline in enthusiasm for the EU is due largely to the requirement to normalise relations with Kosovo as a situation to turning into an EU member, which is more and more perceived as an EU euphemism for Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence.

On the similar time, public sympathies for Russia are historically excessive in Serbia as a result of historic, cultural, and non secular ties between the 2 international locations. So, if pressured to select sides, might Serbia truly determine in opposition to the EU?

The reply to that could be a clear “no”. Whereas the final inhabitants might not be, the Serbian authorities is totally conscious that the EU is by far the nation’s largest commerce companion, accounting for greater than 60 % of complete commerce in 2021. Compared, commerce with Russia is lower than 5 % of the entire. Therefore, Serbia’s main financial pursuits lie with the EU.

In response to mounting strain from Brussels, the Serbian authorities’s resolve to take care of neutrality on the EU-Russia rift is starting to waver. In a current media assertion, President Vucic stated he’ll preserve his present coverage till such a time when the “prices” to Serbia turn out to be better than different issues and till Serbia must recognise a special actuality. This was seen as him making ready each the Serbian public and worldwide companions for an inevitable and imminent shift in international coverage.

The Serbian authorities has stated it won’t be able to purchase Russian oil because of the EU sanctions that come into impact in December. It has additionally introduced a 12-billion-euro ($12.4bn) funding plan to diversify its oil and fuel imports. All of this can be a signal that Belgrade could also be succumbing no less than partially to EU strain.

Serbia’s pragmatic neutrality has to date served it properly. However as realpolitik takes precedence over tactical diplomacy, it’s possible it must distance itself from Russia earlier than lengthy.

The views expressed on this article are the creator’s personal and don’t essentially mirror Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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