Serbia’s careful balancing act on Ukraine

A majority of Serbs now support EU membership, according to a new poll. [Grace Blue/Flickr]

Serbia strives to maintain a neutral stance on the Ukrainian crisis, refusing both to take part in sanctions against its Russian ally, and to support the secessionist movement in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. EURACTIV Serbia reports.

For the time being, even though Serbia is an EU candidate country, that position is being met with a certain amount of understanding by both Brussels and Moscow.

Soon after the inauguration of the new Serbian cabinet in late April, senior EU officials and the speaker of the Russian parliament visited Serbia. One of the questions that inevitably came out was Serbia’s position on the Ukrainian crisis.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Brussels has demonstrated its appreciation of Serbia’s delicate position in light of its close relations with Russia, but with the reminder that an EU candidate country is expected to support European Union policies.

During their recent visits to Belgrade, EU officials did not insist too much, at least publicly, on that matter, and EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle briefly said that the EU respected the position of Serbia as a sovereign country with regards to this issue.

The visits, first by EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton on 28 April, just a day after the forming of the new Serbian government, and then by Füle on 5 May, are primarily interpreted as a sign of support to the new cabinet in the implementation of reforms and an ambitious European integration plan, including the continuation of the dialogue with Pristina, which the EU considers especially important.

Kosovo and Crimea

In formal terms, for Serbia, Kosovo is the central issue related to Ukraine. Because of Kosovo, Serbia has an interest in supporting Ukraine and opposing the secession of Crimea, but that puts it in a contrary position to Russia, which annexed Crimea, but opposes the independence of Kosovo and backs Serbia in the UN Security Council.

Both Russia and the West, each for their own reasons, claim that Kosovo and Crimea are not the same story. More suitable for Serbia is the Russian view, according to which Kosovo has no right to secede from Serbia, as opposed to the European one, which does not recognise the secession of Crimea, but recognises it in Kosovo’s case.

On the other hand, Serbia as an EU candidate country, is faced with the challenge of having to choose sides, for example, whether it belongs in Europe only geographically, or stands unreservedly by the policy of the EU, the alliance it wishes to join.

For now, Belgrade is striving to keep a neutral position. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vu?i? said after his meeting with Štefan Füle on Monday that Serbia supported the territorial integrity of every country, including Ukraine, but added that it did not want to introduce sanctions against Russia.

“We support the territorial integrity of every country, including Ukraine. But, let’s put it this way, I asked that Serbia, for the sake of traditional ties… maintain its position and not introduce sanctions against Russia,” said Vu?i? at a joint news conference with the EU enlargement commissioner.

After a meeting of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers on 6 May, Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Da?i? said that Serbia’s foreign policy activities would in the coming period be focused foremost on its EU membership, with the simultaneous development of relations with traditional friends.

A faithful friend of Russia

On the margins of the conference in Vienna, Da?i? spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, to whom he conveyed the message that Serbia would remain a faithful friend to Russia and would not change its positions.

“We have again confirmed our positions. Once again I wish to say on Serbia’s behalf that Serbia will never work against Russia, that it is a question of morality, and that Serbia and Russia will continue their mutual projects,” said Da?i?.

One of those projects is the construction of the South Stream natural gas pipeline, which was a conversation topic between Serbian President Tomislav Nikoli?, as his office reported, and Russian Parliament Speaker Sergey Naryshkin, who visited Serbia on 5 and 6 May.

Nikoli? “expressed interest in intensifying works on the construction of the South Stream gas pipeline, stressing that it is a project that will ensure our country’s long-term energy stability and create preconditions for conspicuous progress of the Serbian economy,” reads the statement from the president’s office.

The speaker of the Duma told Nikoli? that Russia found “Serbia’s determination to become a member of the European Union understandable, because the Union is the most important trade partner of the Russian Federation, too.”

Nikolic said that “Russia properly understands the position” of Serbia regarding the crisis in Ukraine, and “voiced regret over the escalation of the crisis.”

During his visit to Belgrade, Naryshkin thanked the Serbian public for its stance on the Ukrainian crisis and added that he expected no unpleasant surprises in relations with Serbia concerning that issue.

“We are grateful that Serbia did not support the anti-Russian resolution in the U.N. and that its representatives in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe did not support the anti-Russian decision that stripped Russian deputies of the right to attend,” said Naryshkin.

However, the members of the Serbian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe voted differently on 10 April during the passing of a resolution stripping the Russian delegation of the right to vote, which led to a debate in Serbia. The seven-member Serbian delegation had three votes “for,” three “against” and one abstainee.

Serbian deputies did not take part in the 27 March vote in the UN General Assembly on a resolution on Ukraine’s territorial integrity, which proclaimed Crimea’s joining Russia invalid.

Serbia not feeling effects of Ukrainian crisis yet

Economists say that Serbia is not feeling any direct consequences of the Ukrainian crisis yet, but that it could feel them if the crisis continued, while National Bank of Serbia Governor Jorgovanka Tabakovi? said those consequences were already being felt when it came to dollar payments.

“We are already having problems with payment, if it is made in dollars. We are taking a risk if the destination is Russia, with which we have highly developed relations and which is one of our most important foreign trade partners, along with Germany and Italy,” said Tabakovi? in a lecture on Monday on the influence of international financial institutions on Serbia’s monetary policy.

Economists Miladin Kova?evi? and Mahmut Bušatlija said that Serbia was not feeling any direct effects of the crisis Ukraine yet, but added that it probably would.

“If it continues, the crisis in Ukraine will undoubtedly affect the economies of both the EU and Russia, which are our main partners in foreign trade, where we now have a pretty good growth of exports. That growth may slow down, as a result of which our economy will suffer in the future,” Kova?evi?, deputy director of the Statistical Office of Serbia, told reporters.

Bušatlija said that Serbia would feel the crisis in Ukraine, where, as he put it, a civil war is going on, in the near future, especially if it fails to secure the necessary natural gas supplies for winter by September.

“The Ukrainian crisis will primarily be felt [in Serbia] this winter, if we are not ready to make [the underground gas storage facility] Banatski Dvor operative and fill it up to the top,” he told journalists. 

Bušatlija underscored that Ukraine was one of the most important links in the so-called energy security of Central Europe, Southeast Europe and Italy.

Serbia – along with 5 other Western Balkans countries – was identified as a potential candidate for EU membership during the Thessaloniki European Council summit in 2003.

In 2008, a European partnership for Serbia was adopted, setting out priorities for the country's membership application, and in 2009 Serbia formally applied. In March 2012 Serbia was granted EU candidate status. In September 2013 a Stabilisation and Association Agreement between the EU and Serbia entered into force.

The European Council decided in June 2013 to open accession negotiations with Serbia.

On 21 January 2014, the 1st Intergovernmental Conference took place, signaling the formal start of Serbia's accession negotiations.

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