Serbian President Alexandar Vučić has deflected criticism from the EU on the worsening situation for rule of law and media freedom in his country, with the help of docile media which preferred to focus on an uneventful infrastructure project. EURACTIV takes a closer look.
Vučić was invited to physically visit Brussels on Monday (26 April), in sign of the importance of EU-Serbia relations at a time when other geopolitical players, including Russia and China, are investing heavily in bringing the region into their sphere of influence.
“On the accession negotiations, we need to be more dynamic. But this can only happen if there is more progress on reforms and on their implementation. I stressed to President Vučić that the European Union expects Serbia to deliver on the reform agenda, in particular on the rule of law and media freedom”, EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell told press after the meeting.
Serbian press focused on the issue of a project for a Belgrade-Skopje railway, which the EU says it is ready to support.
Infrastructure however was not at the heart of the discussions, a source told EURACTIV, adding that the Serbian side had obviously tried to skew the message.
A tweet by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen indeed mentions the railway project.
Glad to meet @predsednikrs. We discussed:
• Fight against #COVID19
• Economic recovery
• Accession process where we need to continue to see positive developments in Rule of Law
• Belgrade-Pristina dialogue
• Belgrade-North Macedonia railway which we are ready to support pic.twitter.com/Hi4i6Mol9V
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) April 26, 2021
The way diplomacy works, the sides put together an agenda, and sometimes one of the sides focuses on its own priority, as if other issues were irrelevant.
This is precisely what happened during Vučić’s visit, a source told EURACTIV, speaking on condition of anonymity.
It seems the narrative about the construction of a railway to the border with Macedonia may have been decoy. There is no news concerning the project, which is part of an EU Economic and investment plan for the Western Balkans dating from last October. The project is not approved yet, as it has not passed through all EU institutions.
Another source, who also wished to remain anonymous, said that enlargement commissioner, Hungary’s Oliver Varhelyi, was playing foul by praising Vučić in discrepancy with the rest of the college.
In particular, the source said that Varhelyi used the argument that the secretariat of the Venice commission (not an expert committee) has given a positive opinion on the planned constitutional changes in Serbia. This is expected to be spelled out in the next EU Serbia country report in the autumn.
“[Viktor] Orbán and Varhelyi are Vučić’s consiglieri in the EU […] in reality the constitutional changes are further diminishing the independence of the judiciary and further depleting democracy in Serbia”, the source said.
Serbia’s role in the Gazprom-favoured TurkStream-Balkan Stream project was not mentioned in the Commission’s communication. Here once again, the source said the message was that Vučić was “treating the EU as if stupid was its middle name”.
“Also, Vučić is promising to the EU to restructure Srbijagas, the company transporting and marketing Russian natural gas to Serbia and beyond. He will present this as his great fight against Putin. In reality, this is just fulfilling an obligation which Serbia, although a member of the Energy Community, neglected for many years”, the source said.
This would be another fudge, because in his words Moscow would not object because Gazprom has accepted in its dealings in the EU the Energy Community’s regulation.
“So, tristesse wherever you look, and Borrell and the others are playing along because they hope that Vučić will one day deliver something on Kosovo”, said the source.