Serbia pauses plans to give passports to Russians amid EU reaction

Serbia has suspended plans to ease the rules for obtaining citizenship by Russian nationals and other foreigners who have lived in the country for only one year, as the EU has warned that it may suspend the visa-free regime for the Balkan country.

Belgrad’s decision was reported by the FT.

The bill, proposed by the government in Belgrade in April, stipulates that one year of temporary residence will be enough for foreign citizens working in local companies or self-employed persons to obtain a Serbian passport. Currently, foreigners must live in Serbia for at least five years before applying for citizenship.

But the European Commission has warned that it is monitoring Belgrade’s visa-free regime “to prevent and mitigate possible risks to EU security.”

“If the granting of citizenship under the investor citizenship schemes is considered to pose an increased risk to the internal security and public policy of the Member States, the visa-free regime may be suspended,” the European Commission said in an emailed statement.

Over the past year, Brussels has tried in vain to pressure Belgrade to adopt a sanctions regime against Russia, ban direct flights from the country and step up measures against Russian companies and individuals trying to avoid Western travel bans and asset freezes.

An adviser to the Serbian government said that the bill to simplify the rules for obtaining citizenship was “only a proposal” that “was not adopted.”

The aim of the broader reform, which also included simplifying registration rules for foreigners, was to attract highly skilled workers to boost Serbia’s economy and support its depleted population.

News of the likely legislative changes in Serbia have been spreading on Russian-language social media over the past few weeks, and a new wave of emigrants has been preparing to move to Serbia in the hope that they will soon be able to move to other European countries.

Observers believe that the Serbian government is likely to withdraw the proposal due to pressure from the EU. “Usually, when the European Commission gives a negative opinion, it becomes difficult for Serbia to push the law forward,” said Jelena Djankic, co-director of the Observatory for Global Citizenship, an Italian-based think tank. “Otherwise, Serbs will lose visa-free access to Europe, and it took a lot of effort to get this visa liberalization in 2009,” she added.

Instead, according to Djankic, the government will likely try to extend residence permits for approximately 200,000 Russians who have arrived in the country since February 2022.

Earlier, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic recently stated that the Serbian economy would benefit from the influx of thousands of skilled and educated Russians who fled their country after its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

EU criticized Serbia over non-adherence to sanctions against Russia

Serbia’s membership in the EU can only proceed if Belgrad complies with the European sanctions placed on Russia, according to a report on Serbia from the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Serbia’s adherence to the EU’s foreign policy, the continuation of its domestic reforms, particularly in the areas of judicial independence and media freedom, and the continuation of the dialogue with Kosovo are crucial for the country’s accession process, according to Vladimir Bilcik, the rapporteur for Serbia in the European Parliament.

Serbia’s balance between the EU and Russia

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. 

Since 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.

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 situation in Serbia has been 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.

Russia’s goals in the Balkans

Traditionally, Russia gets more support from the Serbian far-right forces. 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 to make a strategic choice

Vucic’s balancing policy ends with the normalization of relations with Kosovo under the EU mediation and further European integration. 

For Serbia, joining the EU will be a much better strategic choice than maintaining a solid relationship with Moscow, which has been severely condemned in the international arena and sanctioned for its war in Ukraine, and has become isolated and weaker.

Read also: Dangerous relationship between Serbian far-right and Russia

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