The East and West are engaged in a proxy war in Serbia, President Aleksandar Vucic has said, as Belgrade seeks to maintain its ambition to join the EU while keeping its relations with Russia and China.
Vucic’s remarks on Monday come a day after protesters at a rally in Belgrade against a gay pride march waved Russian flags and carried posters of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
“I cannot say that it [the protest] was a proxy attack because there were many ordinary people there … But whether there is a proxy conflict in Serbia … there is one, no doubt about that, East and West,” he said.
Serbia has been a candidate to join its single-biggest trade partner and investor, the European Union, since 2012. It is militarily neutral but maintains ties with NATO and has purchased weapons from its member states.
However, the Balkan nation is almost entirely dependent on Russian gas and has also bought weapons from Russia. China is a key investor, mainly in mining and infrastructure.
Although Serbia condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations, it refused to join sanctions against Moscow. Beijing and Moscow support Serbia’s opposition to the independence of Kosovo, Belgrade’s former southern province, over which it fought a 1998-99 war.
“We are trying to survive … with as few wounds and scars as possible,” said Vucic, a former nationalist who later embraced pro-European policies.
Before Serbia joins the EU, it must mend ties with Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008.
EU-sponsored talks have been slow and often marred by tensions, the latest of which erupted this summer over the issue of car number plates and identity documents for minority Serbs, mainly living in Kosovo’s north.
Independent Kosovo is recognised by the United States and all but five EU members but not by Belgrade and other states, including Serbia’s allies Russia and China.
Although Serbia and Kosovo agreed to settle the dispute over identification documents, authorities in Pristina said local Serbs must switch their car number plates from Serbian to Kosovo ones within two months of September 1.
Vucic said he did not believe authorities in Pristina wanted “a serious conversation or a serious dialogue”, but they believed they could impose their plans with support from the West.
“I trust that those countries which are … protecting the so-called independence of Kosovo … will convince the Pristina regime not to play [with] a conflict in the region, which is certainly full of problems,” he said.
The Serbian president said more talks and shuttle diplomacy by EU and US envoys aimed at resolving the car number plates issue are expected in the coming weeks.
Last week, Serbia’s Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin met Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow, highlighting Belgrade’s refusal to join Western sanctions against Russia over its war in Ukraine.
Lavrov during their meeting said, “Serbia is the only state in Europe that didn’t introduce sanctions and was not part of the anti-Russian hysteria”.