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Serbia pressured by both East and West

The site where Serbia started the construction in November 2013 of their section of Russia's South Stream pipeline, near the village of Sajkas, June 11, 2014
The site where Serbia started the construction in November 2013 of their section of Russia's South Stream pipeline, near the village of Sajkas, June 11, 2014

Pressure by the west on Belgrade to fully align its stance towards Russia with their policy has not reached boiling point. However, if the conflict between Moscow and western capitals continues to escalate, Serbia will find itself between the rock of the West and hard place of Moscow.

For some time, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, recognizing his countries cultural and economic ties to Russia and, at the same time, its hopes to be integrated into the European Union, has maintained a policy of “both EU and Russia.” He has added that he was almost certain that the policy will not endanger Serbia’s hopes to join the EU. In one statement about the situation, he said:

“Our answer is that Serbia respects norms of the international public law, it acts responsibly and most often aligns its decisions with those of the European Union. We have come out with a normal stance, and because of the situation regarding Kosovo and Metohija[B1] and respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, considering, of course, Crimea as a part of it. But Serbia cannot impose sanctions against Russia, not only because of historical and traditional reasons, but also for economic ones.”

Vucic has repeated this stance several times, and was voicing it even before the crash of the Malaysian airplane. Because of that, he said he was unpleasantly surprised by a statement by the US Ambassador to Serbia, Michael Kirby. Kirby questioned why Serbia, in recognizing the territorial integrity every UN member state, “never added a sentence in which they include Ukraine and its whole territory.”

An immediate apology from the US Embassy for Kirby’s statement, which it called “erroneous comments” does not change much, said Bodo Weber, senior associate of the Council for Democratization Policy from Berlin. He said that even those who are clueless about diplomatic games would see that the error was not accidental.

“One can only conclude that was intentional mistake aimed at increasing pressure against Belgrade, but it still does not go so far as to demand that Belgrade join sanctions against Russia.”

The European Union has not yet unduly pressured Serbia to join sanctions against Russia, but if the conflict escalates and the US and the EU sanctions against Russia become stronger, they may. Weber stresses though, that if the dispute becomes stronger, it can be expected that the EU, with support from Washington, will demand that Belgrade fully align its policy toward Russia, including sanctions.

Pressure from Russia

Pressure comes, not only from the West, but also from Russia. That can be seen in a recent statement of Konstantin Kosachev, head of the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation. He said that, if Serbia joins Western sanctions against Russia, consequences for Serbia will be absolutely predictable.

Asked if this is a threatening statement, Weber said:

“I do think the statement is threatening. The more the European Union pressures Russia…, the more the pressure of Russia on its allies, potential allies and former allies, increases. So, in the context of increased pressure from one side, we automatically have counter-pressure from the other side."

Weber also said that Russia might impose economic sanctions against Serbia if it joined sanctions against Moscow:

“We are, of course, talking only hypothetically, about a scenario of an extreme escalation of crisis between the West and Russia, which is now not the case and probably will not happen. If it did, I could imagine suspension of an agreement on free trade [between Russia and Serbia] and a possible attempt to increase of gas prices, or even suspension of gas delivery by Russia. I repeat, this is possible only in the case of a full escalation of the crisis between the West and Russia. If that happens, I do not think the EU or the US will enter such a conflict without previously planning for expected countermeasures by Russia.”

Weber said he does not foresee true economic war between the EU and Russia, and said that the EU had been very careful with sanctions against Russia, because it is not easy to reach consensus in the European Union on the harshest response to Moscow. He added that the latest set of sanctions would not have been imposed if the Malaysian airliner was not shot down. On the other hand, Weber believes Russia would also greatly suffer if it decided to reduce shipments of gas or increase the prices as a countermeasure to the whole European Union. In the case of extreme escalation, it would be possible for Moscow to penalize individual members of the EU in such a manner, such as the Baltic countries, but Weber doubts Serbia would be first in line for sanctions.

Burden of energy dependence

Commenting on Vucic’s arguments to justify stance, Weber says:

“There is a realistic component in Vucic’s careful policy, and there is truly a burden of its economic, energy dependence on Russia. That is the hurdle in Serbia’s path toward the European Union, especially in this conflict situation between the EU and Russia. On the other hand, aside from some short-term steps of the Government and Mister Vucic, I do not see any medium-term or long-term strategy – at least it is not publically recognizable – on how to end that dependence. I think that for Belgrade, focused on European integration, and with the EU recognizing the need for diversification of sources of gas and oil, it would be much better for Serbia, considering the high level of dependence from Russia, if it focused on diversification of gas supply. In that sense, I would say they might start thinking about other gas supply projects, about the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline. That would ensure getting gas from different sources.”

He said that, from the perspective of the European integration, and Serbia’s declared desire for EU membership as its number one priority, Serbia should recognize the objections of the European Commission against its gas supply agreement with Moscow instead of putting its head in the sand when it comes to the ‘South Stream’ pipeline and leaving the problem in the hands of the EU and Russia. Serbia, instead, should act to ensure different sources of supply, because that would make it less susceptible to economic blackmail.