While almost all Balkan countries strongly condemned the Russian aggression against Ukraine (in many cases also imposing sanctions), Russia’s historical ally in the region and at the same time EU candidate country, Serbia, resisted increasing pressures to impose penalties against the Kremlin, hence, raising eyebrows in Brussels and beyond about the genuine will of Belgrade of joining the EU one day. However, there are also signals that Serbia – a traditional conduit between east and west – might distance itself more from Moscow soon.
Serbia’s foreign policy balancing attitude, successful in the previous years, continued during the war in Ukraine, notwithstanding the warnings coming from the EU, the biggest investor in Serbia. “Serbia is not convinced that sanctions are the right answer at the moment, (but) we are making it clear to Serbia what the price will be if the country is on the wrong side of the conflict,” Michael Siebert, director-general of the European External Action Service, said.
“We have a special attitude towards sanctions because we have suffered under serious sanctions. We don’t believe that policy will contribute to resolving the conflict but will punish ordinary people,” Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic indirectly replied. “Russia is the only one protecting Serbia, we have no one else,” former Foreign Minister and currently Head of the Serbian Parliament Ivica Dacic noted. “Serbia is on the European path. That is our strategic commitment, but Serbia will not rush into hostilities” with anyone, including Russia, “because someone else is asking us to,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said.
Vucic has been juggling the former Yugoslav republic’s desire to join the 27-member EU with Serbia’s political and cultural links with Russia. Belgrade is cherishing the Kremlin’s support for its refusal to recognize Kosovo, while the issue is Serbia’s most significant stumbling block in its EU admission negotiations. According to polls, Vucic’s Progressive Party (SNS), which has a sizeable pro-Russian base, is well ahead in the parliamentary election to be held in April. Vucic could easily win a second term in the presidential election, according to all polls.
According to a new Demostat poll, exactly half of respondents believe Serbia should remain neutral in the Ukraine conflict and reject pressure to join western sanctions, even if the country suffers as a result. Another 21% of respondents believe Serbia should “side with Russia,” while only 13% believe Serbia should “side with the European Union and Ukraine.”
There are no signs that Serbian policy towards Moscow will change until the elections, taking into account the strong dependence of Belgrade on Russian gas and the support Moscow enjoys in the Serbian electorate. However, while pressures are increasing from the EU and the US to force Belgrade to change its course, Serbia did make some surprising steps this month. The Balkan country was among more than 140 nations that condemned Russia’s invasion at the UN General Assembly by voting a resolution that reaffirmed “commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders.” The resolution also deplored “in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine” and asked Moscow to “immediately cease its use of force.”
At this stage, it is not clear if Belgrade will succeed in preserving its balanced and ambiguous foreign policy much longer, in particular after the 3rd of April elections, if the Russian aggression against Ukraine continues or become more violent. Furthermore, Serbia could be severely hit by an energy crisis by May. The Serbian energy giant Nis, indeed, is controlled by the Russian Gazprom. From May 15, the oil deliveries through the Janaf pipeline, from Croatia to Serbia, could be stopped due to European sanctions against Russian firms, leaving Belgrade without oil supplies.
Apart from Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina did not also impose sanctions against Russia because of the opposition of the Bosnian Serb leadership, which is very close to Moscow and Belgrade. EU, G7 ambassadors asked Sarajevo to impose sanctions against Russia at the end of March, with Bosnian Presidency Chairman Sefik Dzaferovic confirming he had already asked the Council of Ministers to meet the obligations and implement restrictive measures already implemented by the European Union.
Journalist based in the Balkans since 2005, he covers Central- and Eastern Europe for a wide range of media outlets, including the Italian national news agency ANSA, and the dailies La Stampa and Il Piccolo.