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Between Russia and the European Union: Serbia’s balancing act is failing

As the war rages on in Ukraine, most of Europe is united in an anti-Russian camp. However, there was one country that refused to take sides: Serbia.

Belgrade is seen as Moscow’s last remaining friend in Europe, as it has decided not to join the EU sanctions regime. As a result, it faced heavy criticism and pressure from EU officials who made it clear that, as a candidate state for the EU, the country was expected to align its foreign policy with the EU’s common foreign and security policy, including through imposing sanctions on Russia.

The Serbian government defended its position, saying that it was not in the interest of the nation to take any side. However, in the current polarized geopolitical climate, neutrality is becoming increasingly unacceptable, with EU pressure continuing to mount.

Serbia applied for EU membership in 2009 and has been holding accession talks since 2014. It has opened 22 of the 35 chapters of the negotiations, and has consistently reiterated that its top priority is to become a member of the EU.

However, in October, Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Certain The process of Serbia’s accession to the European Union is stalled because it does not bring its foreign policy in line with that of Brussels.

Slowing down the accession process is not in itself an effective enough threat, as Serbia knows it will not be allowed to join until it resolves its dispute with Kosovo, from which it declared independence in 2008.

The EU has other, more effective options for pressuring Serbia into compliance that it has not used. Belgrade received more than €1.5 billion ($1.5 billion) in pre-accession funds in the 2014-2020 period, and is expected to receive an even larger amount between 2021 and 2027. If the EU decides to deny access to these pre-accession funds, it will halt the investments. , it will undoubtedly harm the Serbian economy and development.

But Serbia has a lot to lose if it follows the European Union’s lead in imposing sanctions on Moscow. The country imports approx 85 percent of the gas you consume from Russia. Doing anything that could cause the gas to stop flowing would have disastrous consequences for its economy and the comfort of society.

By not imposing sanctions, Serbia secured an agreement to supply gas to Russia for three years on preferential terms.

That has allowed Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to reassure the Serbian population that he will not suffer this winter, as much of Europe braces for electricity shortages and eye-watering energy bills. The contract also put the country in a position to export natural gas to its neighbors at a profit.

Serbia also has a free trade agreement with Russia in effect since 2006 and a free trade agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union signed in 2019, which opened wide markets for Serbian exports, but could be upended if relations between the two countries sour.

Moreover, Serbia has seen an influx of Russian-owned companies into the country, mostly from the information technology sector, with more than 1,000 such companies registered with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry since the start of the war in Ukraine. The aviation sector has also benefited – with Air Serbia, the country’s national carrier, remaining the only European airline maintaining regular flights to Russian airports.

Last but not least, Serbia relies on Russia’s political support and influence in the United Nations and other international organizations to block Kosovo’s applications for membership, which is part of Serbian efforts to block its international recognition.

At the same time, since Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, Serbia has not always taken the side of its ally in international forums. In March, she voted for a UN resolution condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine, and in October, for another resolution rejecting Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian lands.

Serbian diplomats at the United Nations also supported Russia’s suspension from the United Nations Human Rights Council, which Vucic stated was done under pressure from the European Union. All this testifies to the pragmatism of Serbian foreign policy: standing on the sidelines of the conflict between the EU and Russia, it tried to get its cake and eat it too. Indeed, in its dealings with East and West, Serbia has been guided by self-interest, rather than shared values—an approach that seems to be popular with the Serb population.

The EU’s warning that it might halt accession negotiations may not have the expected sting, as a growing part of the Serb population has become less enthusiastic about joining the EU anyway.

Recent polls show that not only support for the EU in Serbia has fallen below the 50 percent threshold, but also those who oppose EU membership become in number greater than those who support it. Declining enthusiasm for the EU is due in large part to the demand for normalization of relations with Kosovo as a condition of becoming an EU member, which is increasingly seen as an EU euphemism for Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence.

At the same time, public sympathy for Russia is traditionally high in Serbia due to the historical, cultural and religious ties between the two countries. So, if forced to take sides, could Serbia actually decide against the EU?

The answer to that is a clear “no”. While the general population may not be, the Serbian government is keenly aware that the European Union is by far the country’s largest trading partner, accounting for more than 60 percent of total trade in 2021. In comparison, trade with Russia is less than 5 percent. percent of the total. Thus, the primary economic interests of Serbia lie with the European Union.

In response to mounting pressure from Brussels, the Serbian government’s resolve to maintain its neutrality over the EU-Russia row is beginning to waver. In a recent media statement, President Vucic said he would maintain his current policy until such time that the “costs” to Serbia become greater than other considerations and until Serbia needs to acknowledge a different reality. This was seen as preparing both the Serbian public and international partners for an inevitable and imminent foreign policy shift.

The Serbian government said it would not be able to buy Russian oil due to European Union sanctions that take effect in December. It also announced a 12 billion euro ($12.4 billion) investment plan to diversify its oil and gas imports. All of this suggests that Belgrade may be at least partially under EU pressure.

Serbia’s pragmatic neutrality has so far served it well. But if realpolitik takes priority over tactical diplomacy, it will likely have to distance itself from Russia soon.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.

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