The war in Ukraine has a significant spill over effect in the Balkans, exacerbating existing divisions, emphasizing different geopolitical positions of the countries in the region and reigniting long-standing tensions between pro-Russian and pro-Western factions in the area.
Serbia, a candidate country for EU membership that maintains strong ties with Russia, is in the most uncomfortable position. Belgrade has tried for years to balance its relations with both Russia and the EU. Still, the Russian aggression in Ukraine has isolated Belgrade in Europe, casting doubts on the capacity of the country to join the EU one day. While all European countries have immediately condemned the Russian aggression, Belgrade has kept silent for days. The reluctance of Belgrade emphasized the difficulties experienced by the political leadership in Serbia in openly criticizing Russia, which has been assisting Serbia in modernizing its army and covering the majority of Serbian needs for gas.
On the 25th of February, however, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic announced the official Serbian position about the Russian aggression, stating that the military actions of Moscow are “very wrong” and that Serbia respects Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Yet, Vucic said that Belgrade is refusing to impose sanctions against Russia. “Serbia will be guided solely by its interests in considering sanctions against any state including Russia”, and Belgrade “feels that it is not in its interest to impose sanctions on any state,” Vucic said. “Serbia respects the norms of the international law but also understands its interests,” Vucic underlined, an apparent reference to the Russian support to military neutrality of Serbia, and to the Serbian position in relation to Kosovo.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, still profoundly divided along ethnic lines, was also shaken by the Russian aggression as evident in the lack of unequivocal disapproval of Moscow’s actions. While the Bosnian Croat and the Bosniak members of the tripartite presidency, Zeljko Komsic and Sefik Dzaferovic, condemned the Russian invasion, the Bosnian Serb member of the presidency, Milorad Dodik, expressed just concern about the situation. As the three presidency members have opposite views on the situation, there was no discussion on sanctions in Sarajevo, despite EU pressures to follow the Union’s policy against Moscow.
The rest of the region, on the opposite, unified in a strong condemnation of the Russian aggression and in following the Western stance against Moscow, with practically no exception. NATO countries that are still not part of the EU, such as Albania and North Macedonia, also joined EU and Western sanctions and closed their airspace to Russian planes. Although shaken by a severe political crisis, even Montenegro announced it would follow the steps of Brussels and Washington.
Kosovo, which also decided to impose sanctions against Serbian-ally Russia, went even further, paving the way for new tensions with Belgrade. Pristina asked the US to establish a permanent military base in the country and to NATO to accelerate Kosovo’s memberships procedures. It also reiterated its call to all countries in the world to fully recognize it, causing new turbulences with Belgrade.
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.