“Ukraine attacks Russia!” and “Putin checkmates Ukraine,” were among the headlines run by Serbia’s pro-government tabloids at the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Putin is sending his army to unite Serbia and [Bosnia’s Republika] Srpska,” read another.
In Europe, Russia-friendly Serbia is in the minority, having refrained from slapping sanctions on Moscow.
The country’s populist president, Aleksandar Vucic, has for years claimed to follow a “neutral” policy, balancing ties among Moscow, Beijing, Brussels and Washington.
On February 25, the day after Russia launched its war, he said Serbia has its “vital national and state interests and respects traditional friendships” as he rejected calls by Western nations to sanction Moscow.
“This is Serbia’s choice, to pursue an independent policy,” he told media last week.
Although Serbia backed a UN resolution in March demanding Russia to stop its offensive and “unconditionally withdraw” from Ukraine, officials in the West have decried Serbia for sitting on the fence.
“[Vucic is] surrounded in Europe by wholesale condemnation of Russia,” Tanya Domi, adjunct professor of International Public Affairs at Columbia University told Al Jazeera.
“He has been [playing this balancing act] for a long time … It’s interesting to see him play this game, but I think this game is up.”
Despite Belgrade’s strong ties with Moscow, the EU is by far Serbia’s largest donor, having provided more than three billion euros ($3.17bn) in the last two decades.
But Serbia is also dependent on Russian gas and relies on Moscow for support in the Kosovo dispute, as it has veto power at the UN. Serbia and Russia do not recognise Kosovo’s independence, which was declared in 2008.
Vuk Vuksanovic, senior researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, told Al Jazeera the Serbian position is becoming “more precarious” by the hour.
“On the one hand, the Western alliances geographically encircle Serbia. The EU is Serbia’s primary economic partner. The Serbian regime needs a political blessing from the Western capitals to remain in power in the first place,” Vuksanovic said.
“On the other hand, Russia [is] Serbia’s backer in the Kosovo dispute, gas supplier, and the most popular foreign country in Serbia. The game of balancing just became more dangerous with the war in Ukraine.
“The issue is not whether Serbia will be threatened with the prospect of membership. Serbia knows that EU enlargement is not happening. However, terminating the accession talks even without a membership harms Serbia as it denies access to the Serbian economy. Not to mention the dangers of terminating a visa-free regime for Serbian citizens or pulling back of European investors.”
In March, a group of MEPs called on the EU to freeze accession negotiations for Serbia – which had been viewed as a frontrunner for membership by Brussels – until it distances itself from Russia.
Domi said the bloc should adopt a firmer tone.
“The EU has not done a good job diplomatically … I think they have allowed Serbia to continue its ascension into illiberal, very right-wing governance, and that’s not the exception in the EU,” Domi said.
“We have the example of Hungary, which is very similar to Serbia. They have one man running it and they have locked down the political space and that’s key for Vucic as well.”
‘Putin stabs Serbia in the back’
In late April, the pro-government tabloids drastically changed their opinion of Putin after he told the UN secretary-general in Moscow that Russia has the right to recognise the Donbas “republics”, following Kosovo’s example.
Putin told Antonio Guterres that if the International Court of Justice recognised Kosovo’s right to self-determination, then Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine could also declare independence “since the precedent was set”.
The tabloids quickly slammed his remarks with headlines reading: “Putin stabs Serbia in the back” and “Because of his war, Putin forgot about Serbs and Kosovo.”
In Serbia, the tabloids are viewed as being in line with the government’s position, so with this move, many understood that sanctions might be coming.
But Vuksanovic said there is no way to tell what the media’s shift means, as “everything is in the head of Aleksandar Vucic”.
“Serbia knows that Russia uses the Kosovo precedent as a trump card in territorial conflicts in post-Soviet space. Moreover, Serbian leadership equally fears that Russia and Putin might use their popularity in Serbian public opinion to undermine them politically,” he said.
“The tabloid story is a way to curry favour with the West while dampening down some of the pro-Russian sentiments at home. We saw something similar when Vucic was trying to get close to [ex-United States President] Donald Trump in 2020, and the pro-government tabloids accused the Russian deep state of fomenting violent anti-lockdown protests in Belgrade.
“If [Vucic] does join sanctions, it is because he was cornered with no way out.”
Vucic: Serbia’s situation changed for the worse
Vucic said on Friday that Serbia’s situation “changed for the worse” after Putin’s comments comparing the Donbas to Kosovo, as Belgrade now faces “growing pressure” to recognise the independence of its former province.
“The West will call on Serbia to head quickly towards recognising Kosovo so that they can tell Putin that [the Donbas and Kosovo are] not the same issue,” Vucic said, adding that Serbia is paying a high price for not imposing sanctions.
If Serbia does implement sanctions, it would be a strategic decision and “a big break” from Vucic’s position that he’s held from 2012, since he was initially elected, Domi said.
But it would be problematic for him domestically, “because the Serbian government and Vucic himself have cultivated this relationship … and Russia is in almost every poll, the most popular country among Serbs,” Domi said.
Daniel Serwer, researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, said the issue “goes far beyond Ukraine, and is closer to Serbia.
“Vucic’s idea of the ‘Serbian world’ is a threat to peace and stability in his own region,” Serwer said.
“If Serbia joins the Western sanctions on Russia, that will be nice. But it is far more important that it drop its irredentist ambitions in Kosovo and get the Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina to drop their secessionist intentions.”
Vuksanovic said that, ultimately, Vucic “cannot pivot towards Russia because of geography and economics, and he still needs the West.
“However, one country that profits is China. Even before the war, China has replaced Russia as Serbia’s primary partner outside the Western world.
“With the war in Ukraine, this process is vindicated and strengthened. With all attention focused on Russia, Serbia and China feel that they can continue nourishing their partnership,” Vuksanovic said.
Serbia has signed up for Chinese infrastructure projects totalling to more than $8bn which it will have to repay over the next two decades.
In late April, Serbia unveiled to the public its new Chinese-made surface-to-air missiles and drones, in a public display of military clout that has become regular.
“Serbs use Russia and Russia uses Serbs for this Slavic brotherhood kind of discourse, but China is the new player on the block, and they’re not democratic at all,” said Domi.