Between Russia and the EU: Serbia’s balancing act is wavering

Belgrade’s neutral position on the war in Ukraine is becoming increasingly untenable.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic in Sochi, Russia November 25, 2021. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with his Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic in Sochi, Russia on November 25, 2021 [File: Sputnik via Reuters/Mikhail Klimentyev]

As the war in Ukraine rages on, most of Europe has united in an anti-Russia camp. However, there has been one country that has been refusing to pick sides: Serbia.

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

The Serbian government has defended its position, saying it is not in the nation’s interest to choose sides. Yet, in the current polarised geopolitical climate, neutrality is becoming increasingly untenable, as EU pressure continues to mount.

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

However, in October, Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, affirmed that Serbia’s EU accession process is stalling because it is not aligning its foreign policy with Brussels’s.

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

The EU does have other more effective options to pressure Serbia into compliance which it hasn’t used. Belgrade has received more than 1.5 billion euro ($1.5bn) in pre-accession funds in the 2014-2020 period, and is expected to get an even greater amount between 2021 and 2027. If the EU decides to deny access to these pre-accession funds or to stop investments, it would undoubtedly hurt the Serbian economy and development.

But Serbia has much to lose, as well, if it does follow EU’s lead in imposing sanctions on Moscow. The country imports roughly 85 percent of the gas it consumes from Russia; doing anything that could bring gas flows into a halt would have significant consequences for its economy and societal comfort.

By not imposing sanctions, Serbia has secured an agreement for a three-year uninterrupted supply of gas from Russia under preferential terms.

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

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

Furthermore, Serbia has seen an influx of Russian-owned businesses moving into the country, mostly from the IT sector, with more than 1,000 such companies being registered with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry since the war in Ukraine started. The aviation sector has benefitted, as well – with the country’s flag carrier Air Serbia remaining the only European airline to maintain regular flights to Russian airports.

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

At the same time, since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Serbia has not always stood by its ally at international forums. In March, it voted for a UN resolution condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine and in October, for another one rejecting the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory.

Serbian UN diplomats also backed suspending Russia’s membership in the United Nations Human Rights Council, which Vucic stated was done under pressure from the EU. All of this demonstrates the pragmatism of Serbian foreign policy: By standing on the sidelines of the EU-Russia conflict, it has tried to have its cake and eat it too. Indeed, in its dealings with the East and West, Serbia has been guided by self-interest, rather than shared values – an approach that seems to be popular with the Serbian population.

The EU’s warning that it may halt its accession negotiations may not have the expected sting, as an increasing portion of the Serbian population is becoming less eager about joining the EU anyway.

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

At the same time, public sympathies for Russia are traditionally high in Serbia due to historical, cultural, and religious ties between the two countries. So, if forced to pick 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 fully aware that the EU is by far the country’s largest trade partner, accounting for more than 60 percent of total trade in 2021. In comparison, trade with Russia is less than 5 percent of the total. Hence, Serbia’s primary economic interests lie with the EU.

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

The Serbian government has said it will not be able to buy Russian oil due to the EU sanctions that come into effect in December. It has also announced a 12-billion-euro ($12.4bn) investment plan to diversify its oil and gas imports. All of this is a sign that Belgrade may be succumbing at least partially to EU pressure.

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

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.