Under pressure from the EU to come clean following controversial statements from a member of his government, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić stated Friday (22 August) that his country had no intention of profiting from the Russian embargo on imported Western food. EurActiv Sebia reports.
Speaking to the press in Belgrade, Vučić said his government had no intention to encourage exports to Russia, after Brussels urged the EU hopeful not to exploit the Kremlin's ban on Western food imports.
Vučić confirmed that his government had received an official warning calling on Serbia to refrain from boosting exports to Russia, as a matter of solidarity with the bloc.
As an EU candidate country, Serbia is expected to align with EU foreign policy, especially in the cases of restrictive measures imposed on third countries. Serbia, a historic ally to Russia, however has officially said it would not align with the EU sanctions on Moscow, following the annexation of Crimea and the destabilisation of Eastern Ukraine.
Brussels reacted positively to the statements by Vučić. Peter Stano, spokesperson for Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle, stated:
"We welcome the attention the Serbian government pays to this issue and we appreciate the constructive approach as announced by the Prime Minister Vučić."
Asked if Brussels would put further pressure on Belgrade to align with the EU sanctions, Stano quoted Füle as saying that Brussels expected Belgrade to align fully with EU policies by the time of its accession. In fact, the accession negotiations of Serbia have only started.
Stano reiterated the conclusions of the meeting of EU ministers of foreign affairs from 15 August, which stated that "in order to ensure the unity of the international community and to uphold international law, the European Union expects third and candidate countries to refrain from measures which are aimed at exploiting new trading opportunities arising from the introduction of these [Russian] measures [banning imports of certain EU products]".
He also stressed that this has been subsequently communicated not only to Serbia, but “to all partner countries concerned”.
Although Belgrade wants to increase its presence on the Russian market, which was the occasion for a visit by the Serbian agriculture minister to Moscow on 21 August, Serbian officials say that no special measures are being taken, nor will be taken, to achieve that goal. They add that Serbia can meet only a small fraction of Russian market demands.
Serbia and Russia signed a free trade agreement in 2000, but Serbia failed to profit much from this arrangement because of Russia's strict import criteria and Serbia's small production capacities.
This kind of cooperation also experienced some problems over the quality of Serbian products. Trade Minister Rasim Ljajić visited Moscow in June, following the discovery of spoiled and repackaged meat from third countries, which arrived from Serbia.
Russian Agriculture Minister Nikolai Fyodorov said on the occasion that in 2013, trade in agriculture between Serbia and Russia was worth US$270 (€203 million). Russia exported to Serbia mostly cigarettes, tobacco, and cooking oil worth $57 million (€43 million), while Serbia exported meat, fruit and vegetables to Russia.
Belgrade also said it will not allow the re-exportation of European products from Serbia to Russia.
On 22 August, Vučić warned all exporters to not even think of repackaging foreign goods for the purpose of exporting them to Russia as local products, saying they may well "end up in prison," and to instead increase production and calculate how much they can earn in 24 months, not 24 hours.
In a rhetorical question Vučić asked whether Serbia was the one to sell tanks to Ukraine when the clashes started as some EU countries did, or whether Serbia was selling warships to Russia, as France does.
"No, it was not us," he said, and added: "I don't understand what urging solidarity with EU countries means. Solidarity in what? We were not consulted when sanctions against Russia were introduced, nor when Russia responded by imposing counter-sanctions. Is it possible that we, who had no part in any of that, are now considered to be responsible by both sides?"
Vučić also said that the international community should not expect Serbia to neglect its development and interests over a conflict it is not involved in in any way.
He added that two days ago, he was handed a recommendation by Oscar Benedict, deputy head of the EU Delegation in Serbia, advising Serbia to refrain from introducing new measures for boosting exports to the Russian market and thus making up for Russia's ban on the import of such goods from the EU.
Vučić emphasized that Serbia will protect its interests, that it has nothing to do with the conflict in Ukraine, and that it pursues a policy of peace.
"At the same time, Serbia will not introduce sanctions against the Russian Federation, and this is a policy I personally presented," the Serbian Prime Minister added.
Diplomatic sources in Brussels told BETA agency that "the EU is somewhat taken aback and angry with all candidate countries, being of the opinion that refraining from taking the position of European exporters in Russia is also a matter of solidarity and common values".
List of exporters expanding
Serbian Agriculture Minister Snežana Bogosavljević Bošković met on 21 August in Moscow with Russian officials to discuss increasing the export of Serbian agriculture products to Russia. A day earlier representatives of the third strongest food retailer in Russia visited Belgrade.
After the meeting in Moscow, Russian Agriculture Minister Fyodorov said that next week Russia will grant the right to three new dairy producers in Serbia to ship their products to the Russian market, and that deliveries can begin in two to three weeks.
He added that "companies ready to export pork to Russia can obtain Russian permits within two weeks at the latest".
According to Fyodorov, Serbia was asked to compile a list of new exporters of dairy and meat products.
On 22 August, Snežana Bogosavljević Bošković told the RTS [Serbian radio and television] public service that there is no reason for anyone to feel threatened by the visit of the Serbian delegation to Russia and a possible successful ending of the negotiations with the Russian partners.
According to Bošković, Serbia is seeking a market for its products and ways to invest in and develop its agriculture sector faster.
She added that Serbian products account for some 0.2% of all food products Russia is importing, and that if Serbia uses all its capacities fully, the share would reach only 0.4% or 0.5% of the Russian market.
On 20 August, representatives of the Dixy food retailer, the third largest in Russia, visited Belgrade, where they discussed an increase in the import to Russia of Serbian fruit and vegetables with Serbian officials and producers.
The EU sent a diplomatic note to Belgrade, recommending that the Serbian government refrain from any new measures encouraging exports to Russia, in order to make up for missing EU exports. The document was given to Vučić by Oscar Benedict, deputy head of the EU Delegation in Serbia on August 19 during their visit to Obrenovac, the town that was heavily hit by floods, in May.
The information appeared in the Serbian press on 21 August, the same day that agriculture minister Snežana Bogosavljević-Bošković stated in the Večernje Novosti that under these new circumstances, exports to Russia had become a “unique chance” which her country should exploit, only if it is capable to meet the high Russian sanitary standards.