When the war in Ukraine broke out, most of Europe united in an anti-Russian camp. However, there was one country that refused to choose sides: Serbia.
Belgrade is seen as Moscow’s last remaining friend in Europe, when it decided not to join the EU sanctions regime. As a result, it has faced heavy criticism and pressure from EU officials, who have made it clear that the country, as an EU candidate state, is expected to align its foreign policy with the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, including the imposition of sanctions on Russia.
The Serbian government has defended its position, saying it is not in the country’s interest to choose sides. However, in the current polarized geopolitical environment, neutrality becomes increasingly untenable, as EU pressure continues to mount.
Serbia applied for EU membership in 2009 and has been involved in accession negotiations since 2014. It has opened 22 of its 35 negotiating chapters and it repeatedly reiterates that its top priority The country’s first step is to become an EU member.
In October, however, Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy, confirm that Serbia’s EU accession process is stalling because it does not align its foreign policy with that of Brussels.
Slowing accession in itself is not an effective enough threat, as Serbia knows it will not be allowed to join until its dispute with Kosovo, which has declared independence from Serbia in 2008.
The EU has other more effective options to pressure Serbia to comply, which it has not used. Belgrade received more than 1.5 billion euros ($1.5 billion) in pre-accession funding between 2014-2020 and is expected to receive even larger amounts between 2021 until 2027. If the EU decides to deny access to the funds before joining this fund or to stop investing, it will certainly harm the economy and development of Serbia.
But Serbia also has a lot to lose if it follows the EU’s lead in imposing sanctions on Moscow. The whole country imports about 85 percent the amount of gas it consumes from Russia; Doing anything that would stop the flow of gas would have significant consequences for the economy and the well-being of society.
By not imposing sanctions, Serbia has reached an agreement to supply gas continuously for 3 years from Russia on favorable terms.
This has allowed Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to reassure Serbians that they will not suffer this winter, as much of Europe is bracing for power shortages and steep energy bills. The contract also puts the country in a position to export natural gas to neighboring countries for profit.
Serbia also has a free trade agreement with Russia that has been in effect since 2006 and a free trade agreement with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union signed in 2019, which has opened up a wide market. large for Serbian exports, but could be turned upside down if relations between the two countries sour.
Furthermore, Serbia has seen a wave of Russian-owned businesses move to the country, mainly from the IT sector, with more than 1,000 such companies registered with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. since the war in Ukraine began. The aviation sector also benefits – national carrier Air Serbia remains the only European airline to maintain regular flights to Russian airports.
Last but not least, Serbia relies on Russia’s political support and influence in the United Nations and other international organizations to block Kosovo’s applications for membership, which is partly in Serbia’s attempt to prevent its international recognition.
At the same time, since Russia launched an all-out invasion of Ukraine, Serbia has not always sided with its ally in international forums. In March, it voted for a UN resolution condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and in October, for another resolution rejecting Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory.
United Nations Serbian diplomats also support the suspension of Russia’s membership in the UN Human Rights Council, which Vucic claims was done under EU pressure. All of this demonstrates the pragmatism of Serbia’s foreign policy: By staying on the sidelines of the EU-Russia conflict, the country has been trying to grab its slice and eat its own. Indeed, in dealings with the East and the West, Serbia has been guided by personal interests, rather than shared values – an approach that seems to be popular with the Serbs.
The EU’s warning that it might halt accession talks may not have the desired effect, as a growing part of Serbia’s population is becoming less eager to join anyway. enter the EU.
Recent polls show not only support for the EU in Serbia falling below the 50% threshold, but also those opposed to EU membership. becoming a larger number of its supporters. The decline in enthusiasm for the EU is largely due to the demand for normalization of relations with Kosovo as a condition of EU membership, which is increasingly seen as EU rhetoric for Serbia’s public recognition of the EU. receive the independence of Kosovo.
At the same time, public sympathy for Russia is traditionally high in Serbia due to the historical, cultural and religious ties between the two countries. So, if forced to choose sides, will Serbia really decide against the EU?
The answer to that is clearly “no”. While the general population may not be, the Serbian government is fully aware that the EU is by far its largest trading partner, accounting for more than 60% of total trade by 2021. While Meanwhile, trade with Russia accounts for less than 5% of total trade. Total. Therefore, Serbia’s main economic interest lies in the EU.
In response to growing pressure from Brussels, the Serbian government’s resolve to maintain neutrality over the rift between the EU and Russia is beginning to waver. In a recent statement in the media, President Vucic said he would maintain his current policy until the “cost” for Serbia outweighs other considerations and until when Serbia needs to realize a different reality. This is considered as he prepares both the Serbian public and international partners for an inevitable and imminent change in foreign policy.
The Serbian government says it will not be able to buy Russian oil due to EU sanctions that take effect in December. The country has also announced a 12 billion euro ($12.4 billion) investment plan to diversify diversifying oil and gas import activities. All of this is a sign that Belgrade can at least partially succumb to EU pressure.
Serbia’s pragmatic neutrality has so far served it well. But as pragmatic politics takes precedence over tactical diplomacy, it is likely that it will soon have to move away from Russia.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.