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Serbia Faces Pressure in Presiding Over OSCE

OSCE flags in Vienna.

Serbia’s foreign minister, Ivica Dacic, looked forward with optimism to presiding over the first meeting of the OSCE’s permanent council in Vienna, noting that Serbia will preside in a year that the organization the 40th anniversary of the Helsinki Final Act or the Helsinki Accords.

He also noted that Serbia is now presiding over the organization, and is no longer a country to which peace missions are being sent.

The road ahead will not be easy, say analysts who talked to RFE/RL, because of frayed relations between the West and Russia over Ukraine, and Serbia will likely be pressured by both sides on that issue. Analysts think that Serbia will be pressured by the West to align itself more closely with the UN, while Russia may try to use Serbia’s presidency of the OSCE to achieve gains for itself.

The biggest challenge for Serbia at the beginning of 2015 will not be its administrative capability, but its policy of trying to maintain balance in its relations with the European Union and with Russia.

Whether Belgrade will be able to continue to pursue its balancing act will be a pressure point, said Florian Bieber, an expert on Southeastern Europe from the Graz University, asked whether the West will increase its pressure on Serbia, said:

“There will most certainly be increased pressure from the European Union on Serbia. Moreover… we can see that not only this government, but also the last one, harmonized their foreign and security policy with the EU stances very poorly. If we compare it with other countries that went through the integration process, Serbia is the least harmonized with the EU position, and now there is a chance to put that on the agenda,” Bieber added. He also said:

“It is not a condition for negotiations with the EU, but I believe that the EU--at least some of its bigger member countries--expects Serbia to align its stances a bit more with the stances of the Union.”

Serbia will preside over the OSCE at a time marked by a Cold War-like distance between the West and Russia, stemming from the Ukrainian crisis and sanctions on Russia from the EU and the US. Serbia has already received messages it should speed up the process of aligning its policies with those of the EU. Such messages will get even stronger, said Bojan Al Pinto Brkic from the Forum for International Relations of the European Movement in Serbia (EMinS):

“The OSCE is an organization with very clear… tasks in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. It is the organization that keeps moving towards the east and it currently has missions in all former republics of the Soviet Union. Looking at the foreign policy that Serbia is currently pursuing, and considering that as the OSCE Chair it will have to speak for all, I believe there will be many unexpected challenges, because Serbia will be expected to speak not only for the European Union, which is some ways dominates the OSCE, and Russia, who is very influential member, as well as some other influential members of this organization.” He continued:

“In that context, I would point outthat the United States is also a very influential member of the OSCE, and that US Vice President (Joseph) Biden had several telephone conversations with Prime Minister [Aleksandar) Vucic, and those conversations certainly were not simply protocol. Therefore, the United States also expects Serbia, as presiding over the OSCE--especially because of those specific relations with Russia-- to play a more active role in many aspects of engagement of the organization in the Central Asia and the Alliance of Independent States in general. Those are all issues Serbian foreign policy will have to consider.”

Both analysts agreed that Serbia will be pressured by both the West and Russia.

Brkic said he thinks that, although Russia lost its trump card of energy over Serbia when it canceled the South Stream project, Russia still has many ways to pressure Serbia. Those include such things as its Center for Emergency Situations, located within Serbia and joint military maneuvers of Russian and Serbian armed forces, as well as a long history of political and religious relations between Belgrade and Moscow.

Brkic said: “I believe that the presence of Russia in Serbia and attempts of the influence at influencing Serbia … will not decrease and Russia is actually counting on Serbia’s presidency over the OSCE as something that will benefit it.”

Regardless of Serbia’s historical attraction to Russia, Bieber said, he thinks the European Union is more attractive to Serbia, especially since Russia cancelled South Stream, because that ended Russia’s economic leverage. He said:

“That may make the decision of the Serbian Government to lean on the European Union easier. I do not know what else Russia can offer, aside from some investments, but that can also be offered by Dubai or China. In that sense, I do not see that Russia has a strong trump card it can use. On the other hand, I am certain the European Union does not expect something impossible from Serbia. It only expects it to be clearer in its foreign policy and to move closer to the position of Brussels.”

Dacic: Serbia will preside impartially

The day before the opening meeting in Vienna and the beginning of Serbia’s presidency, Dacic said, “The Ukrainian Crisis will be a dominant topic of Serbia’s presidency over the OSCE.”

Addressing heads of diplomatic missions and international organizations who had gathered at the New Year’s reception in Serbia, he acknowledged that “This will be a year of challenges for Serbian diplomacy.… As the OSCE presidency we will try to be a reliable partner and to contribute to resolving important issues for the stability and the security of the European region and elsewhere…. Through dedicated engagement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but also other Government ministries, we will try to constructively contribute to strengthening of all three[B5] dimensions of the OSCE and the work of the organization as a whole, especially in the context of the current crisis in Ukraine, which will, as we are well-aware, be a dominant topic on the OSCE agenda in this year.”

At the reception attended by ambassadors of the EU, Russia and the United States, Dacic stated that Serbia will preside impartially: “This is not the first time Serbia presides over an international organization, but it is certainly the most complex. We will do everything to ensure our actions are transparent, impartial and with positive results.”