**This article was first published on EURACTIV Bulgaria
Given Belgrade’s loyalty to Moscow, it came as quite a surprise that Serbia supported a United Nations resolution on Wednesday (2 March) asking Russia to “immediately” withdraw from Ukraine.
The UN General Assembly adopted a Resolution on the Aggression against Ukraine with an overwhelming majority. In the days leading up to the vote, there was much uncertainty over Serbia’s position, which has chosen not to align itself with EU sanctions against Russia. But when push came to shove, Belgrade voted to condemn Moscow’s aggression.
Western representatives in Serbia welcomed the Serbian vote but, according to credible sources, EU ambassadors had previously informed the Belgrade authorities that the UN vote would strongly impact the future of the country’s European integration.
Previously, the EU looked another way when Serbia, an EU candidate country since 2012, misaligned with the common EU position on foreign affairs issues. This leniency, however, appears to have changed in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine.
“The text does not mention any sanctions, but it is certainly essential on our part to condemn the collapse of the territorial integrity of any UN member state,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić stated.
He thanked the international community’s representatives “who had been patient” in listening to him, particularly European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
The vote was indeed surprising. Despite taking declarative steps on Serbia’s EU accession path, Vučić has developed friendly relations with Russia and China.
Media outlets associated with Serbia’s ruling party have pushed a positive narrative around Russia, glorifying Vladimir Putin as the conflict continues to rage.
Similarly, Vučić’s commitment to China and Belgrade’s cooperation with Beijing have been portrayed as signs of progress, prosperity, and social development.
But the Ukrainian crisis has put the authorities’ backs against the wall. Vučić had initially supported Ukraine’s sovereignty yet refused to join sanctions against Russia. This was most likely due to Serbia’s dependence on Russia for gas supply and Moscow’s support in not recognising Kosovo’s independence.
“Serbia unfailingly respects international legal norms because that is the best way to protect the country and its interests… Whatever anyone may want, Serbia looks after its national interests but also respects its traditional friendships,” Vučić said last week in typically cryptic comments.
Serbia remains the only country in the Western Balkans that has not fully condemned Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. This week, Bosnia and Herzegovina joined a package of sanctions, although its decision had been initially blocked by Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the country’s tripartite presidency.
More than ever, it is evident that Russia’s biggest supporter in Europe is Serbia, especially given that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has recently shown some realpolitik skills and toned down his sympathies for Putin.
Over the past ten days, the EU has made continuous efforts to tell Serbia that, as an EU candidate, it is expected to align its position with the bloc’s Common Foreign and Security Policy, which includes joining the current sanctions against Russia.
Serbian Parliament Speaker Ivica Dačić said on Wednesday it was not in Serbia’s interest to take sides on the issue. However, Serbia was expected to side with the European Union, according to him.
Serbia has a track record of staying on the sidelines – especially when it comes to questions relating to the common stance towards Russia and China.
According to the European Commission’s report, the degree of Serbia’s harmonisation with the EU Foreign Policy is at 56%, convincingly the lowest in the Western Balkans.
Presidential, parliamentary, and also local elections in Belgrade are set for 3 April. Choosing between the West and East – or a clash with the EU or Russia – in the middle of his re-election campaign is no easy task for Vučić.
Aligning with the EU would be unacceptable to many Serbs with the anti-Western sentiment dating back to the 1999 NATO bombing of the country, which is still deeply ingrained in the memories of many voters.
At the moment, Serbia’s mainstream media has shown very little criticism of Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. On the contrary, the Russian strongman – and his friendship with his Serbian counterpart – is celebrated rather than condemned.
Looking further east
Different surveys have found that four out of 10 Serbians believed China was the largest foreign donor to Serbia, while only 17.6% thought it was the EU.
Swapping Berlin and Paris for Beijing, Vučić came up with an ace up his sleeve for the coming elections – and this time, his ace might be coming from China.
After meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping in early February, Vučić highlighted the announcement of a free trade agreement between the two countries while failing to elaborate on details.
The increased presence of China in Serbia is one of the hallmarks of Vučić’s rule. The pandemic and all the praise for “Brother Xi” that came from Vučić further boosted China’s influence and popular perception in Serbia.
The analysis published by the Serbian think-thank Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP) in January warned that these narratives hide a reality of a complete collapse of the rule of law in Serbia.
“This degradation manifests itself in the non-existent transparency surrounding transactions with the Chinese, the decline in environmental and labour standards, and the domain of security, as technology supplied by Huawei is intrusive of citizens’ privacy,” the analysis concluded.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/ Alice Taylor]