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How Long Can Belgrade Remain Neutral in Ukrainian Crisis?

Serbia, Aleksandra Joksimovic, director of the Center for Foreign Policy in Belgrade, and Boris Varga, foreign policy analyst from Novi Sad

Can Belgrade maintain its neutral position on the Ukrainian crisis if Brussels requires Serbia, a candidate for membership in the UN, to impose sanctions on Russia and that Serbia fall in line with EU foreign policy?

Aleksandra Joksimovic, director of the Belgrade Center for Foreign Policy, and Boris Varga, foreign policy analyst from Novi Sad, discussed this question in the RFE/RL Balkan Service Radio program “The Bridge”.

They discussed whether Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s policy of “both Europe and Russia” is similar to former president Boris Tadic’s policy of “both Serbia and Kosovo”, about the pressures put on Belgrade both by Moscow and Brussels and about Serbia’s military cooperation with both Russia and NATO and Russian interests in Serbia.

This is the transcript of their discussion.

RFE/RL: Does Vucic’s policy of “both EU and Russia” remind you of Tadic’s policy of “both Serbia and Kosovo”.

Joksimovic: The circumstances of today’s world are much different than they were in Tadic’s time [2004-2012]. On the international political scene things are not the same now as they were six months ago. The crisis in Ukraine threatens to continue intensifying and the attitude toward the Ukrainian crisis and toward Russia has become a major political issue. As the crisis escalates, the attitude of the West toward Russia is becoming stricter and Brussels expects all of its partners to show solidarity and to react in the same way as the EU countries. Today, neutrality can no longer be neutrality; that is also some kind of a decision. Therefore, I am afraid that Serbia will have to come out with concrete positions very soon if she wants to continue uninterrupted negotiation process with the European Union.

Varga: I would not say it's exactly the same policy. I do not think Vucic’s government is conducting a similar policy to any government led by Boris Tadic.

RFE/RL: Is Belgrade under pressure lately?

Joksimovic: Pressures absolutely exist and from both sides. Pressures have existed since the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis. They first took place behind the scenes[B1] , but as the crisis escalated, both sides are trying to have as many possible allies as they can on their side. The local public is much more likely to talk about the pressures of the European Union, although it seems to me that the pressures from the Russian side are much stronger. The European Union uses diplomatic language, while Russia is constantly applying strong pressure behind closed doors. Russia wants Serbia to maintain a neutral stance, while the European Union expects some kind of solidarity from Belgrade.

Varga: I think that Russia does not exert direct pressure. She is aware that Serbia will one day become a part of the European Union and hopes that Serbia will be her player in the EU. Serbia is one of the most loyal countries to Russia when it comes to the South Stream gas pipeline construction and the only one that, when it comes to energy, is not sitting on two chairs at the same time. But when we talk about the pressures from Moscow to Belgrade, they are more related to the NATO pact.

For Russia, it is most important that Serbia joins NATO. We have seen a sharp reaction of Russian diplomacy to the request of Montenegro to become a member of that organization. Russia seeks to achieve strong ties with Serbia with different agreements – first with the trade agreement between the two countries signed in 2000, and then through the invitation that Serbia received last year to become an observer in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that brings together post-Soviet states. It's something that's been quite unnoticed by the public.

RFE/RL: Mrs. Joksimovic, how do you comment on the possibility that Russia counts on Serbia to be her key player in the EU in order to achieve her interests through Serbia?

Joksimovic: It is possible that Russia counts on such a scenario, but it doesn’t seem realistic to me. I say this because all the new EU member countries, namely those that joined the Union in 2004, are the biggest supporters of NATO, and they are heavily oriented toward Washington. They have much less sympathy for Russian attitudes than the older member states. With this in mind it is difficult to assume that Serbia as a new member could be a Russian player.

RFE/RL: At the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis, Brussels showed understanding for the neutral position of Serbia. However, it appears that the European Union is increasingly becoming impatient in its demands for Serbia to increase the level of compliance of its foreign policy with that of the EU. How do you comment on that?

Varga: Serbia is somehow bound to synchronize her policy with the policy of the European Union. However, the Ukrainian crisis concerned me because of one other thing, and that is that Russia could change its attitude toward Serbia, when it comes to its membership in the European Union. In fact, Russia is now developing a so-called Eurasian Union. This is one of the most important projects of President Putin. I'm afraid that, in this context, Balkan countries could also suffer the fate of Ukraine, and become a training ground for the power struggle between Russia and the West. It may sound unrealistic, but that scenario should be kept in mind.

RFE/RL: Will Russia ask Serbia to cooperate with the Eurasian Union, considering that the Eurasian Communication Center has been recently opened in Belgrade.

Joksimovic: It is geographically an almost impossible mission. If Serbia allows herself to be found between the hammer and the anvil of the great powers-- that would be the least favorable situation a small country such as Serbia could find itself in.

RFE/RL: When trying to explain why they cannot impose sanctions on Russia, the Serbian government always mentions the construction of the South Stream pipeline, noting that they are not willing to throw away millions of dollars just to prove loyalty to the EU. Is energy the only reason or is there a dominant pro-Russian influence in Serbia?

Varga: Of course there is. Let’s not forget that the leaders of the Progressive Radical Party are former radicals that once advocated that the former Yugoslavia join the Union of Russia and Belarus. The same electorate that voted for the radicals is voting for them now. In this electorate the Russian influence is still very strong. Opinion polls show that many people in Serbia believe that Russia is helping Serbia the most financially and in every other way, although the data show that investment in Serbia from the European Union and Germany goes beyond what comes from Russia.

Serbia's relations to the West are burdened by many things--the NATO intervention and the bombing of Serbia and the Western support of Kosovo independence. All this goes in favor of Russia. I would say that Serbia is among those former socialist countries where Russian influence is the strongest. I don’t know any country except Belarus--of course, I am excluding Russia-- where Putin is so popular as in Serbia, especially in Novi Sad. He is awarded the title of honorary citizen. Of course it was all populism, but we do not know where all this may take us. Let's hope that realistic and pragmatic policies will overcome the myth of Russia, but we must be aware that Russia continues to be a strong card in Serbian politics.

Joksimovic: The pro-Russian mood is certainly there, and of course every politician has to take that into account. But Serbia's economic situation is extremely difficult and the government should be fully preoccupied with the economic recovery. And without economic support of the European Union, without donations or investment, Serbia cannot survive economically. Therefore, I am afraid that Serbia has no alternative to the European road. If Belgrade begins to wrestle with any dilemma about the European way, Serbia will continue to sink economically.

I'd also like to say something about the South Stream gas pipeline. The realization of this project depends the least on Serbia. The implementation of this project depends only on the relationship between Brussels and Moscow. Without the green light of the EU this project will remain on paper.

RFE/RL: For how long will Serbia be able to balance between the two sides?

Varga: I think it is possible and that Serbia will get a chance to lead such politics next year when they start presiding over the OSCE. As a chair country, Serbia can behave neutrally. It's a chance for Serbia to gain the reputation as a neutral mediator. However, the question is whether the political parties and government officials will be able to abstain and not provoke the West with how much Russia means to them and not to invite politicians like Belarus president [Alexander] Lukashenka for an official visit.

Joksimovic: Chairing the Organization for Security and Cooperation will be a big challenge for Serbia. It will be very difficult to keep that balance, taking into account the influence and power of certain members of the OSCE. We must bear in mind that even Switzerland, which chaired the OSCE this year, faced many complaints arising from its neutral position regarding the Ukrainian crisis.

RFE/RL: Do you believe that Brussels could issue an ultimatum to Serbia to impose sanctions on Russia?

Joksimovic: Ultimatum is a hard word. Brussels can show its displeasure in many different ways. Serbia is waiting for further conditions that she has to fulfill in order to join the EU. Brussels has direct control over these negotiations, so it can easily affect the course of the European integration of Serbia without any ultimatums. We are nearing the point where the world will again be black and white, when there will be no gray areas and when the great powers will act in accordance with the logic-- if you're not with us, you're against us. Serbia should not wait for this to happen. It has to make some serious decisions before that and in accordance with its interests.

RFE/RL: And to conclude, will Serbia be able to sit on two chairs for a long time?

Varga: Everything depends on the development of the Ukrainian crisis. If the crisis is short, then Serbia will be able to sit on two chairs for some time. I think that in that case neither the European Union nor Russia will put any pressure on Serbia. However, if the Ukrainian crisis lasts longer, Serbia will have to pick a side. Ukraine has had a policy of sitting on two chairs for more than 20 years, which almost led to the collapse of the state. In a long-term perspective it is certainly dangerous to sit on two chairs.

Joksimovic: In the case of de-escalation of the current relationship between Russia and the West, Serbia would have time for a break. However, due to the fact that the Ukrainian crisis so far developed into the worst possible scenarios, I am afraid that it is unrealistic to expect that such things will not happen in the future, which will leave Serbia less ability to remain undecided.