Serbia is once again the only Western Balkans candidate nation that did not comply with the recent EU Council resolutions on new economic sanctions against Russia related to undermining and threatening Ukraine’s territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence.
According to the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy and Security, Josep Borrell, the EU Council enacted five resolutions on restrictive measures related to Ukraine from 3 to 16 December – CFSP 2022/2369, 2022/2432, 2022/2477, 2022/2478, and 2022/2479.
All other Western Balkans EU candidate nations, including North Macedonia, Montenegro, Albania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, have agreed to the new EU Council resolutions.
According to Josep Borrell’s letter, these countries will guarantee that their national policies are consistent with the Council’s decisions, and the EU takes notice of and welcomes this commitment.
Serbia is the only EU candidate in Western Balkans that failed to comply with decisions
Serbia is the only Western Balkans EU candidate country yet to comply with six earlier judgments on restrictive measures against the Russian Federation, made in July, September, and November last year.
It did not comply with the July EU Council Decision on the use of special measures to combat terrorism, nor with the early December and June 2022 EU Council Decisions on regulatory standards in light of the situation in Iran.
According to EU lawmakers, the criminal war launched by Russia against Ukraine makes it more critical than ever for candidates and EU member states to adhere to the terms of the EU’s standards in foreign and security policies.
The Netherlands wants to stop visa-free travel for Serbs
Serbia’s attitude toward the Russia-Ukraine war and the EU response to Moscow’s aggression has prompted considerable condemnation in the European Union.
In a resolution passed in December, the lower house of the Dutch Parliament urged the government to ensure that if Serbia’s visa policy changes and its foreign policy is not sufficiently adjusted, “the visa-free regime for Serbia should be suspended through an emergency braking mechanism no later than March 2023.”
Serbia is balancing between Russia and the West
Serbia is at the heart of a geopolitical struggle between the West and Moscow. Due to Serbia’s refusal to accept Western economic sanctions against Russia, the European Union is putting further pressure on Serbia, according to European diplomats.
From the moment that Russia began an all-out war against Ukraine in February 2022, the EU has made it clear that it expects all Western Balkan nations that aspire to join the Union to support its international policy, including the sanctions on Russia in response to its assault against a sovereign European state.
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.
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.
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, for instance, with 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 and destabilize the situation in the region. 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 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.
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 needs to make a choice
Vucic’s balancing policy will soon end as Brussels becomes impatient, and Belgrad may suffer consequences on its EU integration path. Soon, Serbia will have to decide, as balancing will not be possible anymore.
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.