Brnabic: If forced to choose, Serbia would pick EU over Russia

Ana Brnabić during a parliamentary session. Belgrade, August 2016. [Koca Suleijmanovic/EPA]

The Serbian government, opposition and Kremlin have all reacted to a statement by Prime Minister Ana Brnabić that Serbia, if forced to choose between closer ties with Russia and membership of the Union, would choose the EU. EURACTIV.rs reports.

Analysts say that Brnabić is only stating what President Aleksandar Vučić thinks.

Serbia is not yet obligated to fully follow the EU’s foreign policy and has not introduced sanctions against Russia, which is providing support in the non-recognition of Kosovo, which may be an obstacle to the opening of Chapter 31 in Serbia’s EU accession negotiations.

According to the results of the last opinion poll conducted by the European Integration Office in December 2016, just under 50% of the Serbian population supports the country’s EU membership.

In an interview with Bloomberg, Brnabić said that she would continue the path started by her predecessor Vučić, to prepare the country for EU membership by 2020.

“The EU is a goal we are heading toward, that is clear,” said Brnabić, and added: “We have emotional ties to Russia, because of tradition, culture, religion. Many people in Serbia perceive Russia as our big brother and protector… Those sentiments cannot be overlooked, but our strategic path is the EU.”

In an interview with the BBC, Brnabić also said that Belgrade’s strategic objective was accession to the EU, whereas with Russia it had deeply rooted close and friendly relations, and added that Serbia was trying to maintain balance in a challenging time.

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First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dačić and Minister of Infrastructure Zorana Mihajlović attempted to dampen the public uproar caused by the prime minister, especially amongst the opposition right.

Dačić said that Serbia would not change its foreign policy and that the government had managed to persevere over the last five years in the face of pressure and stay on the European road, without ruining its relations with friends, primarily Russia and China.

Zorana Mihajlović said that EU membership and the introduction of European standards were Serbia’s “strategic course,” but added that the country would not give up on relations with important partners, such as Russia, China and the US. She further said that Serbia had “with its European policy so far, but also with the protection of its own interests… shown that with its good reputation and stability it can be the only country in Europe that has not imposed sanctions on Russia”.

Moscow also spoke out. Asked for a comment on the Serbian prime minister’s statement that, if forced to choose between Russia and the EU, Serbia would choose the EU, on 5 July, Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry, told Beta that Moscow sincerely wished that Belgrade did not have to face that choice.

“That is Serbia’s sovereign right. But we sincerely wish that no one faces either Ana (Brnabić) or anyone with the choice: either-or. It is optimal to be with both. That is useful and safe from the point of view of one’s interests,” said Zakharova, adding that there was one conclusion – the harmonisation of processes instead of divisions.

At the same time, political analyst Cvijetin Milivojević said that the prime minister had been made “a scapegoat” for having openly said what Vučić had indirectly announced. Milivojević added that now all the odium of the citizens and majority of parties would be focused on her, rather than on the actual author of those words.

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“It wasn’t Ana Brnabić who said that those are Aleksandar Vučić’s words. And it’s not the first time because when Vučić swore an oath in parliament on the constitution and the Miroslav Gospel, he mentioned an internal consensus on the status of Kosovo several times. That led to the conclusion that he wanted to do something the Serbian constitution did not allow and that may be a legally binding agreement with Kosovo as a requisite for the continuation of European integration,” Milivojević told Beta.

He also said that Vučić’s predecessors in the presidential office, primarily Boris Tadić, had known a day would come when Serbia would be faced with a choice between Russia, i.e. Kosovo, and the EU, but that they had respected the constitution and had not thought of making that choice.

The opposition reacted heatedly to Ana Brnabić’s statement, with the exception of the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina, whose vice president, Bojan Kostreš, described the prime minister’s statement that Serbia would choose the EU, as “encouraging”.

Kostreš, however, also said that this message from the prime minister “should in no way remain on the level of good wishes and desirable statements”.

Democratic Party of Serbia representatives say that the prime minister’s statement “has uncovered a policy of fulfilling the political and economic interests of the West,” while in the opinion of the Dveri movement, Brnabić’s task is not to lead Serbia into the EU, but rather to separate it from Russia’s influence, “so that Brussels can freely continue its colonial management in Serbia”.