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Serbia Faces Stark Choice

A protest in Belgrade in support of Russia's military intervention in Ukraine, March 3, 2014.
Serbia is caught between Russia and the European Union following the Kremlin’s recent actions action in Ukraine. While Serbia continues to strive to become a member of the EU, “Mother Russia” is still widely perceived in Serbia as spiritual kin and traditional ally, mentor and protector.

Striking the middle course, by continuing membership talks with the EU while preserving close relations with Russia, appears to have been an effective policy for Belgrade. But the crisis in Ukraine, and particularly Russia’s role there, has posed a big challenge.

It now is faced with a stark choice over whether its support for Russia, which is annexing Crimea, compromises its refusal to give up its claim to all of Kosovo.

The dilemma recalls that of 2008, when Moscow’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia following the incursion of Russian troops in Georgia in 2008, which left Serbian leaders very uneasy, too. (Kosovo And South Ossetia More Different Than Similar)

At that time, after an interval of stunned silence, Belgrade reacted cautiously, while opposition parties staunchly supported the Russian move. Aleksandar Vucic, now Serbia’s prime minister but then the Secretary General of the nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), charged that Western behavior was hypocritical by insisting on the territorial integrity of Georgia while not respecting that of Serbia regarding Kosovo claims to independence. He argued that “we can recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and when the Americans and EU withdraw their recognition [of Kosovo], then we can withdraw ours, too”.

Meanwhile, Vucic, as prime minister, has radically changed his political tune. As the country’s most powerful politician, he champions the integration of Serbia into the EU. His government must support the territorial integrity of Ukraine or risk undermining Serbia’s own territorial integrity and its claim that Kosovo is still a part of Serbia proper. And Serbia must somehow avoid openly criticizing its traditional ally Russia, whose support it needs in the U.N. Security Council to block Kosovo’s admission to the United Nations.

So far, Serbia has tried to walk those diplomatic tightropes by avoiding any specific reference to the Crimea issue. For its part, Moscow claims that the Crimea issue, like those in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, is not comparable with the Kosovo case. (Why Is Crimea Different From Scotland Or Kosovo?)

Serbia is further bedeviled by the EU and US sanctions imposed against Russians in the Ukraine situation. Here, Vucic’s government has refused to go along with the EU. "We respect the territorial integrity of every nation, but we will not impose sanctions against Russia," Vucic said in an interview with the state-run RTS channel. “We will not be part of this because it would mean going against a country that has never introduced sanctions against Serbia, even when it was pounded with bombs and its territorial integrity was violated by other nations."

Serbia desperately wants to present its position on the Ukrainian crisis as neutral by refusing to take sides with the EU and US in supporting sanctions against its Russian ally, and at the same time trying to avoid supporting the secessionist movement in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Because of its EU candidacy, Serbia would normally be expected to harmonize its foreign policy with Brussels, although it appears that, for the time being, Brussels is expressing understanding for the complexities of the situation. A high ranking EU official recently told RFE/RL that Brussels will not push Serbia hard at this time, given its delicate position but that, over time, it will be expected to align its polices with the EU as part of its negotiations toward full membership.

The EU, by giving Belgrade some breathing room on this issue, is apparently trying to secure the implementation of the landmark Brussels agreement between Belgrade and Pristina signed a year ago and aimed at normalizing their relations. (Landmark Belgrade-Pristina Deal Faces Hurdles In Northern Kosovo)

That agreement was painstakingly pushed through by the EU commissioner for foreign policy Catherine Ashton. In an unusual move, she visited Belgrade on April 28, just a day after the new Serbian government was formed, as a clear sign of support for its European integration. However, there appear to be a lot of stumbling blocks down that road, because support for Serbia’s joining the EU has dropped to just about 50 percent, from almost 80 percent in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Milosevic. Add that to a waning enthusiasm in the EU for enlargement, particularly among euroskeptic and far right parties which made gains in the recent European Parliament elections.

While Serbia’s European path is probably irreversible, that does not mean Russia might not use its influence there as a springboard to other parts of the Balkans. Soon after Catherine Ashton visited, Russian Parliament Speaker Sergey Naryshkin visited Serbia. He expressed gratitude to Serbian officials for not siding with Western sanctions on Russia, stating that “Serbia’s determination to become a member of the European Union is understandable, because the Union is the most important trade partner of the Russian Federation, too.” This statement of support for Serbia’s accession is in line with widespread belief that Russia would not mind having allies within the EU, like Bulgaria, Cyprus or Serbia, to further its interests.

Whereas the EU is Serbia’s biggest trading partner as well as investor, at the same time, Serbia is almost 100 per cent dependent on Russian natural gas imports. Russia effectively controls Serbia’s energy sector following the takeover of its state petrol company. Although a construction of the South Stream gas pipeline--transporting Russian gas across the Balkans to the West--now is up in the air following the events in Ukraine, Serbia is eager to see the project completed, believing it would secure its gas supply as well as boost its overall economy. (EU Recommends Member States Renegotiate South Stream Pipeline)

Serbian officials repeatedly claim that Serbia is “the East of the West” and “the West of the East.” They hope to use their country’s unique geostrategic position to extract the most benefits possible. It recalls the Cold War era when Yugoslav leader Tito cleverly navigated between the liberal West and the socialist Soviet Union.

Playing both sides is an old strategic game, but is effective only if the player is as important as the former Yugoslavia was. Given the decreasing geostrategic importance of the Balkans as a whole, walking a diplomatic tightrope or trying to juggle positions may not be so much a farsighted strategy as a way of buying time to avoid making thorny decisions.

In that light, a comment in an interview for the domestic media by Serbia Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic might be instructive. Asked when Belgrade would begin aligning its foreign policy with that of the EU, he said, “Only when we become full members...That is, not so soon.”

Once a member, Serbia will have to align its foreign policy, including measures that now seem unpalatable or daunting. However, much sooner than that, Serbia faces a more formidable decision. A formal recognition of Kosovo probably will be a precondition for Serbia’s accession to the EU. If Serbia agrees to swallow that bitter pill, others might be much easier to digest.