At the end of February, shortly after the war in Ukraine began, the president of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, solemnly appeared on television and said that he had “aged 10 years in the last four days” due to the pressure for his country – almost the the only one in Europe that refuses to join the sanctions – align itself with the rest of the West against the invasion. Three months after that “these days are a nightmare for me and I’m glad people don’t see it”, Vucic must be losing another decade.
The visit to the Balkan country of the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, scheduled for this Monday and Tuesday, has become “exceptionally complicated” due to Western retaliation for the war, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic admitted on Sunday. Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Montenegro do not give the Russian plane permission to fly over their airspace, according to the Serbian daily Danas. Belgrade has condemned the Russian aggression at the UN, but refuses to support the sanctions, in an act of political juggling like the one it successfully applied last year, by buying covid vaccines from both Western powers and Russia and China. . The visit next Friday of the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is also now in the wings.
The president, a pragmatic populist re-elected last April with an absolute majority, recently exemplified his game of various bands in just 48 hours. On the 5th, he euphorically announced that he had agreed by telephone with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to extend the purchase of natural gas from Russia at a reduced price for three years. “It is by far the best deal in Europe,” he stressed. Two days later, at his swearing-in ceremony, he made it clear to Parliament that Serbia must “be firm on the European path” and that it is “not politically neutral” because it aspires to join the EU.
Before the invasion, Serbia enjoyed good relations with Ukraine, one of around 100 UN countries that does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, declared unilaterally in 2008. But its historical, political and economic ties with Russia are much stronger. . The main one: the veto guarantee for Kosovo’s entry into the UN, which means Moscow’s permanent seat on the Security Council.
Serbia is also the fourth country in the world most dependent on Russian gas (almost completely), its main electricity companies are majority owned by Russian companies and a significant part of its population feels linked to a country with which it shares the alphabet (Cyrillic) and the majority religion (Orthodox Christianity), and with which he fought in the two world wars. In Belgrade, in fact, the pro-Russian demonstrations for the war have attracted more people than the pro-Ukrainian ones, T-shirts with Putin’s face are sold in newsstands and you can see advertisements for the national oil company NIS, controlled by Russia’s Gazprom, with the linked Serbian and Russian flags and the word zajedno (together).
Join EL PAÍS to follow all the news and read without limits.
But Belgrade is also the Balkan capital with the most advanced EU accession negotiations, however much they are going at a snail’s pace, depending on a prior agreement with Kosovo and enlargement today generates little enthusiasm in the EU. Last month, the head of community diplomacy, Josep Borrell, issued a clear wake-up call: “Maintaining close ties with the Putin regime is no longer compatible with building a common future with the EU.” Two months earlier, nine MEPs from the liberal group Renew Europe, including the former Balearic president José Ramón Bauzá, had asked the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and Borrell for the temporary cessation of the entry dialogue and the delivery of funds to Belgrade until it “aligns its declarations, policies and values” with those of the EU. The Union, which in practice values the stability provided by Vucic more than the complaints of democratic erosion, is by far the main donor to Serbia (3,170 million euros in the last two decades).
Vuk Vuksanovic, Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Policy in Belgrade and Associate at LSE IDEAS, a thinktank of international politics of the London School of Economics, considers that the Serbian leadership is at a crossroads that “it does not know how to solve”. “It’s the same dilemma as always, but monumentally enhanced by the war in Ukraine,” he explains over the phone. According to the president, foreign direct investment has suffered due to the refusal to impose sanctions and “seven American producers and actors” have rejected filming in the country. The expert believes, however, that Serbia is coming out of the cross pressures well: “It wins points by presenting itself as the guardian of stability in the area” and “will not be disgusted” by Western initiatives to reduce its energy dependence on Russia, a concern that the invasion has exacerbated.
The memory of the NATO bombing
Memory also weighs on the Serbian position: NATO, which arms Ukraine these days and accumulates troops in bordering countries, is the organization that bombed Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia in 1999, in an operation without the endorsement of the UN Security Council. aimed at preventing the ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians.
As with Lavrov’s visit, the downside of tightrope walking is that it sometimes plays tricks. As the invasion of Ukraine began, Serbian tabloids, which (all) support the government, chose headlines like “Ukraine attacks Russia!” or “Putin’s checkmate to Ukraine.” Two months later they were “Putin stabs Serbia in the back” or “Putin forgets the Serbs and Kosovo”. This 180-degree turn is explained by the fact that, between some headlines and others, the Russian president had struck the most sensitive national chord by defending before the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, the recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Lugansk (the provinces pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine) on the grounds that the UN International Court of Justice concluded in 2010 that Kosovo’s declaration of independence did not violate international law. Precisely respect for the principle of territorial integrity – to which Serbia attaches great importance for Kosovo – was central in Belgrade’s yes to the UN resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, about which it had reservations.
“We are not interested in the East or the West. We are only interested in Serbia”, summarized last March Ivica Dacic, outgoing president of Parliament and former prime minister. “We have no problem saying that we support the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but we ask what about the territorial integrity of Serbia, which was so brutally crushed with the recognition of Kosovo’s independence,” he added.
Like when a sentence is heard clearly when the crowd suddenly falls silent, Serbia’s loneliness has been further exposed by the momentum that the war has generated in other European countries, such as traditionally neutral Sweden and Finland (which have asked to enter in NATO despite Russian threats) or Denmark, which approved last Wednesday in a referendum to put an end to 30 years of absence from European defense. It is also out of place in the non-EU part of the Balkans. Albania, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo are taking advantage of the war to underline their pro-Western orientation, and if Bosnia does not join the sanctions it is because its Serbian entity, the Republika Srpska, vetoes it.
It is difficult to gauge how much of Vucic’s recent electoral victory, already in the midst of the war, was an endorsement of the commitment to neutrality, given his prewar popularity, its control of the media and patronage networks, and relatively good economic indicators. He has been president since 2017 and was prime minister for the previous three years.
He has not yet formed a government and Vuksanovic can think of no other reason than the crossroads of sanctions. Last Tuesday, at the swearing-in of office, Vucic seemed to hint at a change in strategy: “Forming a new government is essential because of the situation we are in, which is very difficult. We will have to deal with new sanctions and things that could harm us, so we will ask our European partners for help.” He will have to find the formula to, in Vuksanovic’s words, “please the Europeans without angering Moscow.”
Exclusive content for subscribers
read without limits