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 choose sides: Serbia.
Belgrade is seen as Moscow’s final remaining buddy in Europe, because it determined to not be a part of the EU sanctions regime. Consequently, it has confronted heavy criticism and stress from EU officers who’ve made it clear that the nation, as an EU candidate state, is predicted to align its international coverage with the EU’s Widespread Overseas and Safety Coverage, together with by imposing sanctions on Russia.
The Serbian authorities has defended its place, saying it isn’t within the nation’s curiosity to decide on sides. But, within the present polarised geopolitical local weather, neutrality is changing into more and more untenable, as EU stress 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 into 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 isn’t aligning its international coverage with Brussels’s.
Slowing down the accession course of shouldn’t be in itself a sufficiently efficient risk, as Serbia is aware of that it’s going to not be allowed to hitch till it resolves its dispute with Kosovo, which declared independence from it in 2008.
The EU does produce other more practical choices to stress 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 predicted to get an excellent larger quantity between 2021 and 2027. If the EU decides to disclaim entry to those pre-accession funds or to cease investments, it will undoubtedly damage the Serbian economic system and growth.
However Serbia has a lot to lose, as effectively, if it does comply with EU’s lead in imposing sanctions on Moscow. The nation imports roughly 85 % of the gasoline it consumes from Russia; doing something that would convey gasoline flows right into a halt would have important penalties for its economic system and societal consolation.
By not imposing sanctions, Serbia has secured an settlement for a three-year uninterrupted provide of gasoline from Russia beneath preferential phrases.
This has allowed Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to reassure the Serbian inhabitants that it’s going to not endure this winter, as a lot of Europe is bracing itself for electrical energy shortages and eye-watering vitality payments. The contract has additionally put the nation ready to export pure gasoline 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 may very well be upended if relations between the 2 nations soured.
Moreover, Serbia has seen an inflow of Russian-owned companies transferring into the nation, principally 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 effectively – with the nation’s flag service 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 stop its worldwide recognition.
On the identical 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 completed beneath stress 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, reasonably than shared values – an method that appears to be well-liked with the Serbian inhabitants.
The EU’s warning that it might halt its accession negotiations might not have the anticipated sting, as an growing portion of the Serbian inhabitants is changing 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 beneath the 50 % threshold, but additionally those that oppose EU membership have gotten larger 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 changing into an EU member, which is more and more perceived as an EU euphemism for Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence.
On the identical time, public sympathies for Russia are historically excessive in Serbia resulting from historic, cultural, and spiritual ties between the 2 nations. So, if compelled to choose sides, may Serbia truly determine in opposition to the EU?
The reply to that could be a clear “no”. Whereas the overall inhabitants might not be, the Serbian authorities is absolutely conscious that the EU is by far the nation’s largest commerce accomplice, accounting for greater than 60 % of whole 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 stress 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 mentioned he’ll keep his present coverage till such a time when the “prices” to Serbia turn into larger than different issues and till Serbia must recognise a distinct actuality. This was seen as him getting ready each the Serbian public and worldwide companions for an inevitable and imminent shift in international coverage.
The Serbian authorities has mentioned it will be unable to purchase Russian oil as a result of 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 gasoline imports. All of it is a signal that Belgrade could also be succumbing not less than partially to EU stress.
Serbia’s pragmatic neutrality has up to now served it effectively. However as realpolitik takes precedence over tactical diplomacy, it’s probably it should distance itself from Russia earlier than lengthy.
The views expressed on this article are the writer’s personal and don’t essentially mirror Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.