Today, it’s not a secret that Serbia is Russia’s only foothold in the Balkans. The other former Yugoslav republics have long gone under the EU’s control. This is why Russia is so worried about Serbia’s pro-western steps. Recently, Vice Speaker of the Russian State Duma Sergey Zheleznyak said that the Kremlin will be forced to revise its attitude towards Serbia if it joins the EU. And even though Zheleznyak explained that the Russians will do this only to protect their economic interests, one thing is clear – Russia is against Serbia’s European integration.
Just like years ago, the Russians regard Serbia’s wish to join the EU and to get closer to NATO as a blunder that will damage Serbian-Russian economic and political relations. The Serbs know this but they still are trying to keep a foot in both camps. Serbian Prime Minister Alexander Vucic is confident that by 2020 is country will join the EU and will be a close partner for NATO and just like Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic is sure that this will not spoil Serbia’s relations with Russia. The Serbs have both political and economic motives for acting like this.
In Mar 2012, 17 years after NATO bombardments, Serbia was proclaimed to be a candidate for EU membership. For this purpose, the Serbs have to harmonize their laws with the European legislation. They perfectly know that this will shatter their internal stability and will loosen their ties with the Russians as one of the EU’s requirements is rapprochement with Kosovo. In fact, this means that the Serbs will have to recognize this Serbian region as an independent state.
This is one of the key preconditions of Germany. The Germans are not going to approve Serbia’s EU membership until Kosovo is recognized as a UN member. As a result, the Serbs are already negotiating with the Kosovans but they will hardly agree to sacrifice Kosovo for EU membership as for them Kosovo is the same as Crimea is for Ukraine.
If this happens, Vucic may see the end of his political career and instability inside his country. But this is the last thing the Europeans care for. Nor do they and Vucic care for the reluctance of most of the Serbs to be part of the EU and to be close to NATO. Despite this attitude, Vucic is steadily moving towards NATO. Last Sept, he signed an agreement with the NATO NSPO in the field of logistics.
This deal has given NATO troops free access to Serbian military facilities and to data on the Serbian army. Despite a wave of protests, the Serbian president ratified the agreement under the pretext that it is a guarantee of Serbia’s security in the north of Kosovo. We could hardly imagine such a thing some few years ago. So, we can see that the Serbs are yielding to western pressure and may one day review their relations with the Russians.
Today, Serbia and Russia are still friends and strategic trade partners. Russia is still the only supplier of gas to Serbia. Since 2009, the countries have enjoyed a visa-free regime and in Mar 2016, even contrary to its European integration plans, Serbia refused to join the anti-Russian sanctions. The Russians are grateful to them for this but they cannot but notice that their friendship is growing weaker. The problem here is that under current conditions, the Russians cannot be active in the Balkans unlike the Europeans, who are already offering the Serbs cheap loans and improved relations with neighbors.
For example, quite recently Croatia stopped blocking the talks on Serbia’s EU membership. The Croats would hardly do this without Europe’s pressure. The Serbs may also yield to it one day, especially as there are few Serbian politicians who can really do something to prevent this. Even Vojislav Seselj and his Serbian Radical Party will hardly be able to do anything.
So, Serbia’s marriage to Europe is a decided thing. If no shocks occur, the Serbs will join the EU. For the EU their country is a crucial element in its anti-Russian strategy. But for the Serbs this will end in years of political instability, poverty and loss of national values.
Yuri Pavlovets, specially for EADaily