.
S

erbia remains the only candidate for European Union membership which has not yet imposed sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Belgrade is still trying to find a balance between Brussels and Moscow, although its room for political maneuvering is becoming rather narrow.

According to the Balkan nation’s President Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia is facing immense pressure to distance itself from Russia and openly side with the West. Although Serbia voted in favor of a recent United Nations resolution calling on Russia to halt its war on Ukraine and has supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity on several occasions, some reports suggest that Germany is demanding Belgrade abandon its neutral position vis-à-vis the Russian invasion of the Eastern European country. In other words, Berlin allegedly insists that Serbia must pick a side. 

A day after the war broke out, Serbia’s National Security Council expressed regret at the situation, acknowledging that both Russia and Ukraine have friendly relations with Serbia. Brussels, however, expects Belgrade to harmonize its foreign policy with that of the EU, which means that Serbia would soon have to join the Western sanctions regime. Such a move could have a very negative impact on Serbia’s country’s economy, particularly given that it is 89% dependent on Russian natural gas. 

“Serbia respects Ukraine’s territorial integrity and considers Russia’s military action against it to be wrong, but will not impose sanctions against Moscow”, Vucic said on February 25. 

According to Michael Siebert, director general of the European External Action Service, Serbia is not convinced that sanctions against Russia are the right answer at the moment. Does that mean that Belgrade could impose sanctions on Moscow in the future?

Serbia is scheduled to hold general elections on April 3, and the vast majority of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party voters have a strong pro-Russian sentiment. That is why the West will unlikely pressure Vucic to join anti-Russian sanctions until after the vote. But if Serbia “picks a side” after April 3, such a decision could affect the upcoming negotiations between Belgrade and Moscow on the price of Russian gas.

Serbia hopes to sign a long-term agreement for natural gas deliveries with Russia's state-owned energy giant Gazprom by May 15. However, if the country joins anti-Russian sanctions, it can hardly count on preferential rates from Russia. In November 2021, Gazprom agreed to continue selling Serbia gas at the price of $270 per 1,000 cubic meters until June 2022. This price is significantly lower than the current market one. Given that a large number of Western and Chinese plants are operating in Serbia, and their production is linked with cheap energy, it is not improbable that Brussels and Washington will allow Serbia to remain nominally neutral until a new gas deal with Russia is signed.

For now, Brussels tolerates Serbia being the only EU membership candidate that still has direct flights to Russia. However, Air-Serbia, which is mostly state-owned, was forced to reduce its operations from Belgrade to Russia after Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzheppar accused Serbia of “making money on Ukrainian blood”.

“They are not criticizing those that are members of NATO and that are partially in Europe, who have thirty times more flights than us, like Turkey,” Vucic reacted

Indeed, Turkish Airlines modified a large part of its schedule, increasing the number of flights to certain Russian cities – St. Petersburg, Kazan and Ekatarinburg. Moreover, Turkish officials openly stressed that they do not intend to impose sanctions on Russia, and even the EU’s Eastern Partnership members Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia refused to join the sanctions. Serbia, however, seems to be an easy target. Air Serbia has been facing with anonymous bomb threats almost on a daily basis, and Ukrainian General Staff members recently accused Russia of recruiting “Serbian militants” to fight in the Eastern European country, which is something that Belgrade strongly denied. 

“Serbia is committed to a peaceful solution to this conflict and will not allow its commitment to peace to be called into question in any way”, said Serbian Defense Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic, pointing out that participation of Serbian citizens in armed conflicts abroad is a serious crime punishable by several years in prison.

The country is still widely seen as a “Russian ally”, although in reality Serbia declared military neutrality in 2007 and has conducted far more military exercises with NATO countries than with Russia. Moreover, on March 15 Serbia for the first time joined the EU’s sanctions on the former President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych, who is believed to be a Russian citizen, as well as on leading members of the Ukrainian government from the period 2010-2014. Belgrade complied with that decision together with Montenegro, Albania, Northern Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Thus, Serbia seems to be slowly distancing itself from Moscow, although the country’s authorities would undoubtedly prefer to implement the “non-aligned” policy of the late Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito, who was successfully balancing between the West and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But a new Cold War has new rules, and borders of a new Iron Curtain will be very far from Serbia, which will leave the country deeply in the geopolitical zone of the European Union and the United States.

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’s Difficult Ukraine Balancing Act

Flags of Serbia waiving in front of SIV, also known as Palata Srbija, or Palace of Serbia. It is the headquarters of the Serbian government, and the office of various state administrations in Belgrade. Photo via Adobe Stock.

March 20, 2022

Serbia is in a difficult situation, balancing its economic reliance on Russia against pressure from the EU—which it wishes to join—to take part in sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, writes Diplomatic Courier Correspondent Nikola Mikovic.

S

erbia remains the only candidate for European Union membership which has not yet imposed sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Belgrade is still trying to find a balance between Brussels and Moscow, although its room for political maneuvering is becoming rather narrow.

According to the Balkan nation’s President Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia is facing immense pressure to distance itself from Russia and openly side with the West. Although Serbia voted in favor of a recent United Nations resolution calling on Russia to halt its war on Ukraine and has supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity on several occasions, some reports suggest that Germany is demanding Belgrade abandon its neutral position vis-à-vis the Russian invasion of the Eastern European country. In other words, Berlin allegedly insists that Serbia must pick a side. 

A day after the war broke out, Serbia’s National Security Council expressed regret at the situation, acknowledging that both Russia and Ukraine have friendly relations with Serbia. Brussels, however, expects Belgrade to harmonize its foreign policy with that of the EU, which means that Serbia would soon have to join the Western sanctions regime. Such a move could have a very negative impact on Serbia’s country’s economy, particularly given that it is 89% dependent on Russian natural gas. 

“Serbia respects Ukraine’s territorial integrity and considers Russia’s military action against it to be wrong, but will not impose sanctions against Moscow”, Vucic said on February 25. 

According to Michael Siebert, director general of the European External Action Service, Serbia is not convinced that sanctions against Russia are the right answer at the moment. Does that mean that Belgrade could impose sanctions on Moscow in the future?

Serbia is scheduled to hold general elections on April 3, and the vast majority of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party voters have a strong pro-Russian sentiment. That is why the West will unlikely pressure Vucic to join anti-Russian sanctions until after the vote. But if Serbia “picks a side” after April 3, such a decision could affect the upcoming negotiations between Belgrade and Moscow on the price of Russian gas.

Serbia hopes to sign a long-term agreement for natural gas deliveries with Russia's state-owned energy giant Gazprom by May 15. However, if the country joins anti-Russian sanctions, it can hardly count on preferential rates from Russia. In November 2021, Gazprom agreed to continue selling Serbia gas at the price of $270 per 1,000 cubic meters until June 2022. This price is significantly lower than the current market one. Given that a large number of Western and Chinese plants are operating in Serbia, and their production is linked with cheap energy, it is not improbable that Brussels and Washington will allow Serbia to remain nominally neutral until a new gas deal with Russia is signed.

For now, Brussels tolerates Serbia being the only EU membership candidate that still has direct flights to Russia. However, Air-Serbia, which is mostly state-owned, was forced to reduce its operations from Belgrade to Russia after Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzheppar accused Serbia of “making money on Ukrainian blood”.

“They are not criticizing those that are members of NATO and that are partially in Europe, who have thirty times more flights than us, like Turkey,” Vucic reacted

Indeed, Turkish Airlines modified a large part of its schedule, increasing the number of flights to certain Russian cities – St. Petersburg, Kazan and Ekatarinburg. Moreover, Turkish officials openly stressed that they do not intend to impose sanctions on Russia, and even the EU’s Eastern Partnership members Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia refused to join the sanctions. Serbia, however, seems to be an easy target. Air Serbia has been facing with anonymous bomb threats almost on a daily basis, and Ukrainian General Staff members recently accused Russia of recruiting “Serbian militants” to fight in the Eastern European country, which is something that Belgrade strongly denied. 

“Serbia is committed to a peaceful solution to this conflict and will not allow its commitment to peace to be called into question in any way”, said Serbian Defense Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic, pointing out that participation of Serbian citizens in armed conflicts abroad is a serious crime punishable by several years in prison.

The country is still widely seen as a “Russian ally”, although in reality Serbia declared military neutrality in 2007 and has conducted far more military exercises with NATO countries than with Russia. Moreover, on March 15 Serbia for the first time joined the EU’s sanctions on the former President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych, who is believed to be a Russian citizen, as well as on leading members of the Ukrainian government from the period 2010-2014. Belgrade complied with that decision together with Montenegro, Albania, Northern Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Thus, Serbia seems to be slowly distancing itself from Moscow, although the country’s authorities would undoubtedly prefer to implement the “non-aligned” policy of the late Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito, who was successfully balancing between the West and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But a new Cold War has new rules, and borders of a new Iron Curtain will be very far from Serbia, which will leave the country deeply in the geopolitical zone of the European Union and the United States.

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.