Serbia is balancing between Russia and the West: which side will it take?

Serbia is at the heart of a geopolitical struggle between the West and Russia. Due to Serbia’s refusal to accept sanctions against Russia, the European Union is putting further pressure on Serbia, according to European diplomats

From the moment that Russia began a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, the EU has made it clear that it expects the Western Balkan nations that aspire to join it to back its international policy, including the sanctions on Russia in response to its assault against a sovereign state in Europe.

Up to this point, Serbia has disregarded these calls, which has angered some EU member states. According to diplomatic sources in Brussels, this has put a halt to Serbia’s EU membership negotiations.

According to Orhan Draga, the founder of the International Security Institute in Belgrade, Serbia is dangerously edging closer to the group of authoritarian regimes, including those in Moscow and Tehran, and is therefore distancing itself from its Western allies. We will review this in detail in this article.

Serbia’s new ties with Azerbaijan

Serbia and Azerbaijan signed bilateral memorandums of understanding in November to deepen and enhance gas and power deals and expand their cooperation in the energy sector. The agreements could have significant effects on the European Union.

Ilham Aliyev, the president of Azerbaijan, is a valuable ally in the eyes of Brussels. He signed a strategic alliance with the EU in 2021 by pledging to double the gas supply to EU countries, with more to follow.

In the case of Serbia, president Aleksandar Vucic’s frequent justification for Serbia’s refusal to participate in the EU’s sanctions on Russia is eliminated by Azerbaijan’s energy agreement. Specifically, saying that Serbia will quickly run out of gas if he joins the anti-Russia sanctions is not sustainable anymore.

With Azerbaijan eliminating the energy threat, Belgrade will have no choice but to finally follow the EU’s example and join measures to penalize Russia for its cruel war against Ukraine once the connecting pipeline from Bulgaria to Serbia is finished in 2023.

On the other hand, Russian president Putin does not have complete confidence in Serbian leader Vucic. While neighboring Hungary, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, received a 25-year contract with favorable conditions, Moscow maintained compliance with Belgrad by keeping a tight lid on gas pricing.

Serbia has been refusing to join sanctions for too long, and it attracted the relocation of some Russians and their businesses into Serbia. Now, the rogue status of Serbia has seriously damaged the reputation of Europe’s opposition to Russian aggression.

Serbia’s ties with Iran

On December 4–5, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, the foreign minister of Iran, paid a visit to Serbia, continuing a series of encounters between the Serbian government and the Iranian one. What’s strange, it’s that the Iranian minister’s visit lacked any discernible agenda, and no contract was signed.

The chief of Iranian diplomacy, one of Moscow’s closest allies, visited Belgrade on the same day that the EU imposed more sanctions on Russia and halted the import of Russian oil into European territory. 

It will illustrate Serbia’s position on the new political, economic, and security framework that Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is resulting in for Europe. Iran helps Russia wage war against Ukraine, mainly by providing combat drones.

Russia’s influence in Serbia in light of the war in Ukraine

Analysts claim that Putin’s invasion has increased the stakes for governments in the Balkans. The situation in Serbia is precarious since Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is trying to balance EU efforts to isolate Moscow and Belgrad’s links to Russia, its energy supplies, and diplomatic support for its stance on Kosovo. 

By endorsing the UN resolution denouncing the invasion of Ukraine and refusing to recognize Russia’s annexations while also rejecting support for the EU sanctions, Vucic has balanced a fine line between pleasing Moscow and the West simultaneously. But Belgrad has angered the EU leaders by refusing to participate in the sanctions regime. In contrast to the EU’s demands for broad prohibitions on Russian energy, Vucic signed a three-year gas supply agreement with Moscow.

Traditionally, Russia gets more support from the Serbian far-right forces. But many Serbian nationalists were outraged by Putin’s use of Kosovo’s bid for independence to support the annexation referendums in Donbas and Crimea since they believed it validated Kosovo’s claims. 

Vucic has reacted by growing his distance from the Kremlin. Serbia imported most of its oil and gas from Russia and was pushed to pursue energy diversification. Vucic declared that Serbia would develop new refineries capable of processing crude from all over the world. It also signs new natural gas supplies, mentioned above Azerbaijan, and other countries in response to EU bans on Russian oil.

Russia’s goals in the Balkans

By backing its Serbian allies, Moscow tries to counterbalance the West’s influence in the Balkans. Since the Russian Empire formed political and religious ties with the Balkans, it has been a long-standing goal for Moscow. Russia positioned itself as a friend of the Orthodox Christian Slavs, particularly in Serbia, as the region was contested between the Catholic Western powers and the Islamic Ottoman empire.

The Western actions in Yugoslavia were perceived as a symbol of Russia’s waning power, particularly the 1999 NATO bombardment of Kosovo, a Serbian territory at the time. Moscow saw NATO’s involvement in Serbia as a declaration that Russian interests would no longer be given significant consideration when making regional decisions. 

Moscow tried to oppose this development, rejecting the establishment of international war crimes tribunals for Serbian officials and preventing the UN from recognizing Kosovo’s 2008 proclamation of independence.

Under Putin’s rule, Russia has tried to restore its position as a significant player in European international affairs. The Balkans are crucial to Putin’s justifications for the return of “multipolarity” in international relations, as opposed to what he perceives as the U.S.-dominated unipolar system, according to EU security analyst Stanislav Secrieru.

Maintaining tight ties with the Balkan nations has been seen in Moscow as a strategy to prevent their membership in NATO and the EU and a way to project its naval strength in the Mediterranean. Before it joined the alliance in 2017, Montenegro, for instance, controlled the final non-NATO ports on the Adriatic Sea.

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Infographic: www.cfr.org

How does Russia spread its influence?

The main goal of Russia’s strategy is to develop asymmetrical ways to impede the Balkans’ integration into Western institutions while strengthening ties with Serbia. Mainly, Moscow aims to capitalize on regional divisions and escalate hostilities between ethnic and religious groups.

The Russian government uses state-controlled businesses, like the oil giant Gazprom and the state bank Sberbank, to invest in the region that it believes would increase its political influence. 

To enhance its influence, Moscow frequently directs its support through proxies and various non-governmental channels, including support for organizations like clubs, sports teams, religious institutions, media outlets, and veteran organizations. Developing this soft power provides the Kremlin with plausible deniability.

By preventing the UN from recognizing Kosovo’s independence, Moscow presents itself as a supporter of the territorial integrity of Serbia. As a result, Russia gets popular with the Serbs. So, the Serbian government is under pressure to keep good ties with Moscow. Serbia’s importance for Russian foreign policy was confirmed with Putin’s visit to Belgrade in 2019. 

As the two countries ‘ military connections have expanded, Serbia has increased its purchases of Russian weaponry, such as air defense systems, anti-tank weapons, and drones. They conduct cooperative military drills. 

Some American sources claim that a Russian-run humanitarian center in Nis, Serbia, is a front for intelligence operations all over the region. Unofficially, Russian citizens support and coordinate nationalist and paramilitary organizations, primarily through training camps for young Serbians.

Russia also has sway because of its connections to religion. A pan-Slavic culture antagonistic to the West is promoted by Russian Orthodox charitable organizations operating in Serbia, the largest of which is led by Russian billionaire and close Putin supporter Konstantin Malofeev.

The West’s reaction to Russia’s moves

Since the wars in the 1990s in the Balkans, Western nations have been actively involved in efforts to stabilize the region. 

The majority ethnic Albanian leadership of Kosovo then proclaimed independence in 2008. This action was endorsed by more than 100 nations but was opposed by Serbia and Russia. Aleksandar Vucic has secured Moscow’s diplomatic support to try to block international recognition for Kosovo.

Since Serbia rejected Kosovo’s aspiration for independence, the EU has tried to improve relations between Belgrade and Pristina. Although Serbia refuses to recognize Kosovo as a sovereign state and tensions are still high, those negotiations have made some administrative matters more acceptable. 

Separate, U.S.-mediated negotiations in 2020 resulted in the restoration of commercial and transit connections and the first steps toward a sustainable agreement. But the talks’ progress has stalled because of unresolved territorial disputes or opposition from member states. 

Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo

In the past year, tensions between Serbia and Kosovo have risen sharply. A recent dispute over the mutual recognition of license plates sparked barricades and international army reinforcements close to the Serbia-Kosovo border before a compromise was achieved through EU mediation. However, a threat is still there.

Vucic will need to make a strategic choice

Now, Vucic’s balancing policy will soon end because Azerbaijan will secure energy support from Serbia in addition to their support from the EU. Soon, Serbia will have to decide, and its president Vucic will have to do so. 

With energy resources secured, joining the West will be a much better choice for Vucic, rather than maintaining a solid relationship with Moscow, which is being more and more condemned in the international arena for its war in Ukraine, and more and more isolated and weaker.

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