.
I

f you can't beat them, join them” seems to be the main course of Serbia’s foreign policy. Surrounded by the European Union and NATO members, and quite aware that it cannot count on support from Russia—Belgrade’s strategic partner—the southeastern European nation seeks to improve political relations with the United States, the major foreign power operating in the Balkans. But will it succeed?

It is a well-known fact that Serbia and the U.S. hold diametrically opposed views when it comes to Kosovo, the Serbian breakaway province that unilaterally declared independence in 2008, and has been recognized as an independent state by most Western countries, although not by five EU members: Spain, Romania, Greece, Slovakia, and Cyprus. For Washington, the final status of Kosovo has been determined in 2008, while Belgrade still sees the territory as an integral part of Serbia. Moreover, according to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, 106 countries do not recognize Kosovo’s independence, and nine nations (Somalia, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Eswatini, Libya, Guinea, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Lucia, and Maldives) have recently withdrawn their recognition.

That, however, does not mean that the United States will change its Kosovo policy anytime soon, if at all. In early December, after the ethnic Albanian-dominated authorities in Pristina arrested a former Serb police officer named Dejan Pantic, the Serbs in northern Kosovo began to build barricades, demanding his immediate release. Even though Pantic was not released, on 29 December 2023 the Serbs removed their barricades after Belgrade reportedly got guarantees from the West that the Serb protesters’ demands would be met.

It is worth remembering that on 15 December 2022, U.S. Special Envoy for the Balkans Gabriel Escobar said the barricades in the north of Kosovo should be taken down by the people who put them up. That is exactly what happened. Thus, the United States has yet again demonstrated its successful soft power in the region. Quite aware of the dominant US role in the Balkans, Vucic hardly had any choice but to pressure the local Serbs to ease tensions. But in the coming months, he will likely have to make new unpopular decisions.

Recently, France and Germany have put forward a proposal to reach a deal on the status of Kosovo, but so far details are scant. Rumors are flying that it will be based on the Basic Treaty of 1972 between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, which suggests that Serbia would not have to recognize Kosovo explicitly, but it would have to accept its territorial integrity and sovereignty, and also not block Kosovo’s membership in international organizations, including the United Nations and the European Union. Given that Escobar has already spoken affirmatively about the French-German draft, it is almost certain that the U.S. will pressure Serbia to accept their proposal and de facto agree with secession of its own territory.

Moreover, Washington expects Serbia—a country heavily dependent on Russian natural gas—to diversify its energy sources. Belgrade has taken some steps in this direction by strengthening political and economic relations with energy-rich Azerbaijan. In addition, some reports suggest the United States plans to get more actively involved in the development of Serbia’s energy infrastructure, namely by building the Djerdap 3 hybrid pumped storage power plant in the east of the country. In August 2022, the U.S. construction giant Bechtel—a company that is building the Morava transportation corridor in central Serbia—had already discussed this issue with the Balkan nation’s energy officials.

More importantly, back in April 2022, then Serbian Mining and Energy Minister Zorana Mihajlovic discussed a potential strategic partnership between Belgrade and Washington with U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Christopher Hill.

“I believe it would be very useful for future cooperation to have a strategic partnership agreement between our two countries like the ones we already have with the Russian Federation, China, France, Italy, United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan, Hungary, and I think an agreement with the United States would create frameworks for further improvement of relations and the realization of joint projects,” she said following the meeting with Hill about diversification in the gas sector, construction of energy infrastructure, and the need for new energy capacities, as well as Serbian energy security.

It is not the first time that the two nations have discussed a potential strategic partnership. In October 2022, Hill stressed that such an agreement was possible in the future. Although on 5 January 2023, the American ambassador and Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic signed a memorandum of understanding that should improve the two countries’ bilateral relations and also lead to a better understanding between the Serbian and the American foreign affairs services, at this point it is not very probable that Belgrade and Washington will become strategic partners. More than two decades after the U.S.-dominated NATO bombing of Serbia, 50% of Serbs still see the United States as an enemy.

Therefore, unless Washington changes its approach regarding Serbia, and makes some concessions to the Balkan nation—be it in Kosovo or elsewhere—the U.S. is unlikely to win the hearts and minds of Serbs anytime soon.

About
Nikola Mikovic
:
Nikola Mikovic is a freelance journalist, researcher and analyst based in Serbia covering foreign policy in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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Serbia and the US: Long Road to Strategic Partnership

Belgrade, Serbia. Photo by Ljubomir Žarković via Unsplash.

January 23, 2023

“If you can't beat them, join them” seems to be the main course of Serbia’s foreign policy. Surrounded by EU and NATO members, and quite aware that it cannot count on support from Russia, Serbia seeks to improve political relations with the U.S., writes Nikola Mikovic.

I

f you can't beat them, join them” seems to be the main course of Serbia’s foreign policy. Surrounded by the European Union and NATO members, and quite aware that it cannot count on support from Russia—Belgrade’s strategic partner—the southeastern European nation seeks to improve political relations with the United States, the major foreign power operating in the Balkans. But will it succeed?

It is a well-known fact that Serbia and the U.S. hold diametrically opposed views when it comes to Kosovo, the Serbian breakaway province that unilaterally declared independence in 2008, and has been recognized as an independent state by most Western countries, although not by five EU members: Spain, Romania, Greece, Slovakia, and Cyprus. For Washington, the final status of Kosovo has been determined in 2008, while Belgrade still sees the territory as an integral part of Serbia. Moreover, according to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, 106 countries do not recognize Kosovo’s independence, and nine nations (Somalia, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Eswatini, Libya, Guinea, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Lucia, and Maldives) have recently withdrawn their recognition.

That, however, does not mean that the United States will change its Kosovo policy anytime soon, if at all. In early December, after the ethnic Albanian-dominated authorities in Pristina arrested a former Serb police officer named Dejan Pantic, the Serbs in northern Kosovo began to build barricades, demanding his immediate release. Even though Pantic was not released, on 29 December 2023 the Serbs removed their barricades after Belgrade reportedly got guarantees from the West that the Serb protesters’ demands would be met.

It is worth remembering that on 15 December 2022, U.S. Special Envoy for the Balkans Gabriel Escobar said the barricades in the north of Kosovo should be taken down by the people who put them up. That is exactly what happened. Thus, the United States has yet again demonstrated its successful soft power in the region. Quite aware of the dominant US role in the Balkans, Vucic hardly had any choice but to pressure the local Serbs to ease tensions. But in the coming months, he will likely have to make new unpopular decisions.

Recently, France and Germany have put forward a proposal to reach a deal on the status of Kosovo, but so far details are scant. Rumors are flying that it will be based on the Basic Treaty of 1972 between the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic, which suggests that Serbia would not have to recognize Kosovo explicitly, but it would have to accept its territorial integrity and sovereignty, and also not block Kosovo’s membership in international organizations, including the United Nations and the European Union. Given that Escobar has already spoken affirmatively about the French-German draft, it is almost certain that the U.S. will pressure Serbia to accept their proposal and de facto agree with secession of its own territory.

Moreover, Washington expects Serbia—a country heavily dependent on Russian natural gas—to diversify its energy sources. Belgrade has taken some steps in this direction by strengthening political and economic relations with energy-rich Azerbaijan. In addition, some reports suggest the United States plans to get more actively involved in the development of Serbia’s energy infrastructure, namely by building the Djerdap 3 hybrid pumped storage power plant in the east of the country. In August 2022, the U.S. construction giant Bechtel—a company that is building the Morava transportation corridor in central Serbia—had already discussed this issue with the Balkan nation’s energy officials.

More importantly, back in April 2022, then Serbian Mining and Energy Minister Zorana Mihajlovic discussed a potential strategic partnership between Belgrade and Washington with U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Christopher Hill.

“I believe it would be very useful for future cooperation to have a strategic partnership agreement between our two countries like the ones we already have with the Russian Federation, China, France, Italy, United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan, Hungary, and I think an agreement with the United States would create frameworks for further improvement of relations and the realization of joint projects,” she said following the meeting with Hill about diversification in the gas sector, construction of energy infrastructure, and the need for new energy capacities, as well as Serbian energy security.

It is not the first time that the two nations have discussed a potential strategic partnership. In October 2022, Hill stressed that such an agreement was possible in the future. Although on 5 January 2023, the American ambassador and Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic signed a memorandum of understanding that should improve the two countries’ bilateral relations and also lead to a better understanding between the Serbian and the American foreign affairs services, at this point it is not very probable that Belgrade and Washington will become strategic partners. More than two decades after the U.S.-dominated NATO bombing of Serbia, 50% of Serbs still see the United States as an enemy.

Therefore, unless Washington changes its approach regarding Serbia, and makes some concessions to the Balkan nation—be it in Kosovo or elsewhere—the U.S. is unlikely to win the hearts and minds of Serbs anytime soon.

About
Nikola Mikovic
:
Nikola Mikovic is a freelance journalist, researcher and analyst based in Serbia covering foreign policy in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.