The Russian annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol in March 2014 has caused a stir down to the Balkans. By refusing to align itself with European sanctions against Moscow, Serbia keeps infuriating Brussels. Increasing pressure on the government won’t help, on the contrary.
Serbia’s support for Russia is no surprise
During its two-year honeymoon with Serbia, the EU was starry-eyed about Belgrade’s leaders. The concessions they made to Kosovo, which led to the “historic agreement” of April 2013, put them on a pedestal. The fact that the government, which the EU hailed for its “commitment, courage and vision”, was headed by a coalition of nationalist parties converted to Euro-pragmatism exacerbated this enthusiasm. It was as if Serbia had at last espoused European integration as overarching goal. And it certainly has. Within little time, the country has made tremendous progress towards the EU. But not at the expense of its relationship with Russia.
Serbia signed its stabilisation and association agreement with the EU in 2008, applied for EU membership in 2009, was granted candidate status in 2012 and formally started its membership negotiation process in January 2014. In the meantime, its relationship with Russia kept improving. The catalyst was the Kosovo issue in 2007. Moscow repeatedly backed Belgrade in the United Nations Security Council. It blocked a European resolution that would have established Kosovo’s independence under international supervision and later on, it insisted on placing the EULEX under the authority of the United Nations so as to guarantee its “status neutrality”. Belgrade also benefited from Moscow’s lobbying activities against the recognition of Kosovo, e.g. in the Arab world. To reciprocate this diplomatic support, Serbia refused to align itself around two hundreds of EU declarations criticising Russia in the OSCE between 2007 and 2013 and occasionally abstained in the United Nations General Assembly. Disavowing Russia on European sanctions in 2014 would considerably weaken Serbia’s international capacity to obstruct Kosovo’s independence –a perspective inacceptable for Serbia.
At the economic level, the relationship Belgrade and Moscow has also developed rapidly. Even if the EU remains Serbia’s main trading partner, main donator and main investor by far, the contributions of Russia cannot be neglected, especially in times of crisis. Moscow has granted over 1.5 billions of dollars of credits in the past 2 years, increased its investments and taken control of large parts of the country’s energy sector (e.g. the NIS oil and gas company). Belgrade remained associated to Russia’s South-stream project, despite the European Commission’s pressures, until it was dropped on 1 December 2014. Serbia’s ambivalence, in the context of the Crimean crisis, is also a means to maximise its economic prospects.
Serbia and Russia even gave a framework to their rapprochement. They concluded in 2009 a “strategic partnership” mainly focused on energy, which they upgraded in May 2013 to encompass political, economic and geostrategic goals. Their representatives met at an increasing number of occasions ever since. The first trip abroad Serbian President Nikolić made after his election in May 2012 was to Russia. He attended, as leader of his Progressive Party, the congress of Russia’s ruling party, United Russia. By refusing to align itself with European sanctions against Russia, Serbia, then, does not signal a change of direction. In the past few years, it consistently sought to improve its strategic relationship with both the EU and Russia. The margin of manoeuvre it had, however, considerably shrunk with the Ukrainian crisis.
Increasing pressure on Serbia won’t help
The EU has initiated three waves of sanctions against Russia in March, April and July 2014 in response to the annexation of Crimea and the destabilisation of the Donbas, and it has called all states engaged in European processes to align themselves. In Serbia’s case, the mechanism of coordination is provided in the Stabilisation and Association Agreement in the form of a political dialogue, which shall “contribute to the establishment of close links of solidarity” (art. 10). This political dialogue, more specifically, shall promote an “increasing convergence of positions […] on international issues” as well as “common views on security and stability in Europe” (art. 10b-d). The fulfillment of this objective is not optional –it informs the political acquis, which any would-be member should adopt before joining the EU. Hence the leverage the EU intends to have on Serbia’s foreign policy approach and the pressure it has exerted so far. The temptation even rises, especially in Germany, to condition the actual opening of Serbia’s membership negotiations with its alignment or to review the EU’s assistance scheme.
The EU’s attempts to tame Serbia’s friendship with Russia in the past few months have been vain. In July 2014, Serbian Prime Minister Vučić visited Moscow; in August, the Russian and Serbian Defense ministers met again; a few weeks after, it was the Foreign ministers’ turn to meet, followed on 15 October by the state visit of Vladimir Putin in Belgrade, where he received the highest decoration, the Order of the Republic of Serbia, and attended a military parade. Every meeting ended with handshakes, new agreements, new protocols, and new memorandums. In November 2014, Serbian President Nikolić stated in word what had been signaled in deeds, i.e. that Serbia, “today, these hours, these years, will certainly not impose sanctions on Russia”. Serbia would only behave as a full-fledge member state (i.e. align with all its approaches) after becoming one (and having the possibility to influence EU approaches).
Since the candidate status does not provide Serbia with the same rights as member states, the government’s claim is that Serbia shall not be held by the same obligations. This claim is a direct challenge to the EU’s transformative power. But it should not be discarded too rashly. In the past few years, the EU has consolidated its foreign policy; it increasingly speaks with one voice and acts with one hand. But not only. In international fora and in Brussels, it increasingly speaks on behalf of non-members, after minimalist consultations, and in the OSCE, it even expects alignees to relinquish their right to speak on their national capacity if they decide to join EU statements (until 2011, states like Serbia could align themselves while adding a short statement on their national capacity). This development has stirred frustrations among non-members. Political dialogue on issues particularly important to non-members has become monological, and foreign policy coordination, as a rule, a one-way process. Keeping Russia amongst its allies, in this context, is a means for Serbia to alleviate the asymmetry underlying its conditionality regime with the EU.
Serbia’s refusal to inflect its Russian approach finally has domestic roots, which the EU should not misjudge. The parties in the government it praised a few months ago have a history of nationalism and anti-westernism. Many Serbs, who voted for them, remain suspicious of European integration. Recent polls show that EU membership would be accepted by less than 50% of the population (against 65% in 2010) and that many more wish a rapprochement with Russia. Their Euro-skepticism, interestingly, is reinforced by the mixed signals sent from Brussels (e.g. the declaration of President Juncker about the absence of enlargement in the next five years or the downgrading of the DG enlargement). Standing up to the EU on the Crimean crisis allows the government to regain popularity by flexing muscles after showing readiness to compromise on Kosovo, and therewith to bridge the gap that was widening between the Euro-skepticism of its population and its own Euro-pragmatism.