Bound to Russia: Serbia’s disruptive neutrality

The deepening relationship between Belgrade and Moscow has long created unease across the Balkans. By refusing to condemn Russia’s war on Ukraine, Serbia has proven once again that it is a liability to the EU and NATO.

People drive cars and wave Russian and Serbian flags during a rally in support of Russia in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, March 13, 2022. Despite formally seeking EU membership, Serbia has refused to introduce international sanctions against its ally Russia. EU officials have repeatedly warned Serbia that it will have to align itself with the bloc’s foreign policies if it wants to join. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)
People drive cars and wave Russian and Serbian flags during a rally in support of Russia in Belgrade, Serbia, Sunday, March 13, 2022
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Serbia is unwilling or unable to take a firm stand against Russia’s war on Ukraine. As a candidate for EU membership, Serbia claims that it respects Ukraine’s sovereignty – but it stops at that. In the new geopolitical reality the war has created, it is unclear whether Belgrade will turn fully towards Europe and the West or continue to side with Russia, making it a liability to the European project and to NATO.

Serbia’s National Security Council met on 25 February to discuss domestic security following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The council expressed regret at the situation, acknowledging that both sides have been friendly to Serbia. And it emphasised the importance of international law. However, the council was at pains to avoid naming Russia as the aggressor. Taken in isolation, the council’s conclusions would leave the reader to guess who is killing Ukrainians. The conclusions, which were signed by President Aleksandar Vucic, stress that Serbia would not join the European Union in imposing sanctions on Russia. Serbia and Belarus are now the only European countries that have refused to do so. Nonetheless, Serbia voted in favour of a recent UN resolution calling on Russia to halt its war on Ukraine.

When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Serbia – already an EU candidate at that point – acted in the same way. It refused to recognise Russia’s aggression or to impose sanctions on the country, while explaining that it respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine as a friendly country that had not recognised Kosovo’s independence.

In the past few years, Serbia has maintained a façade of neutrality amid the growing rivalry between the West and Russia. Serbia sometimes tries to play the sides off against each other to enhance its bargaining power on issues such as the European security architecture, energy security, and the dispute over Kosovo’s status. By signing a Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU, Serbia agreed to align its foreign and security policy with that of the union. But the country remains politically bound to Russia, as it needs the Kremlin’s diplomatic support on Kosovo (not least to block related concessions at the United Nations) and relies on cheap supplies of Russian gas and military equipment. As a recent ECFR poll showed, 54 per cent of Serbian citizens see Russia as an ally, and 95 per cent view it as either an ally or a necessary partner. While the EU remains the largest provider of financial assistance to Serbia, only 11 per cent of Serbian citizens regard the EU as an ally.

For its part, Russia sees the Balkans as a theatre in which it is easy to create instability that reduces the influence of NATO and the West more broadly. Moscow views Kosovo as a bargaining chip in its relationship with the West. Indeed, President Vladimir Putin has even tried to justify his war on Ukraine with reference to the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia in 1999.

Serbia’s close relationship with Russia has aided the spread of Russian influence in the Balkans. Since 2016, Serbia has hosted a Russian military base disguised as a humanitarian centre – a facility that military experts warn is used as an operations centre for the Kremlin’s spies. In 2020 the Russian Ministry of Defence opened a liaison office in Serbia in an attempt to strengthen military ties with a traditional ally in the Balkans. Serbia allowed this to happen despite the fact that it is already part of NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme. The deepening relationship between Belgrade and Moscow creates considerable unease among Serbia’s neighbours, particularly Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Montenegro.

Russia sees the Balkans as a theatre in which it is easy to create instability that reduces the influence of NATO and the West more broadly

Serbia’s supposed neutrality has also had other negative implications in the region. Following protests at the Serbia-Kosovo border in September 2021, Vucic visited the area with the Russian ambassador to Serbia while mobilising nearby army units and ordering fighter jets to enter Kosovo’s airspace. Kosovo views the protests – which relate to reciprocal recognition of vehicle number plates – as an issue of sovereignty. Meanwhile, Vucic regards northern Kosovo as a no-go-area for the country’s institutions, to the extent that he has threatened to use force to protect Serbs in the north of Kosovo. Such statements indicate that he will be, at best, little help in efforts to integrate Balkans countries into the West.

Equally, the growth of Serbian and Russian influence in Montenegro through the Democratic Front political alliance has hampered that country’s efforts at such integration. The leaders of the Democratic Front allegedly participated in a Kremlin-orchestrated a coup attempt in Montenegro in 2016, hoping to prevent the country from becoming a member of NATO. Montenegro joined NATO in 2017, but the Democratic Front continues to be the most significant threat to the country’s ambitions of EU accession. For instance, the party recently blocked a parliamentary vote on the establishment of the new, pro-Western minority government.

Far-right groups in Serbia have organised protests to call on Vucic not to succumb to international pressure by imposing sanctions on Russia. Vucic should resist this call. In light of its recent past, Serbia needs to show its support for fundamental rights and freedoms under international law. Given that Putin’s war on Ukraine is a matter that goes beyond the usual foreign policy choices, this could be Vucic’s Zeitenwende. He could start by breaking ranks with his pro-Russian coalition partner, the Socialist Party, and allowing free and independent media and democratic forces to flourish in Serbia. Serbian voters could help push their country towards the EU in the way that Ukrainians recently have – through protests and support for civil society organisations.

By refusing to condemn Russia’s war on Ukraine, Serbia has yet again proven that it is a liability to the EU and NATO. Russia could use this opening to create further instability in the Balkans and reduce Western influence there. It is high time that the EU and the United States took a harder line on Serbia’s geopolitical trajectory, given that this could become a dangerous model for other countries in the region.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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