Can Serbia join the EU and avoid joining NATO, a military alliance which members are EU countries and that had been bombing Serbia in 1999 for 80 days running? Will Belgrade manage to protect its military sovereignty while being on the way to European integration, the way the other countries of the region are following? What advantages expect Serbia if it is finally granted the long-awaited EU membership and what hardships will the Russian-Serbian relations face in future? Director of the Belgrade-based Center for Geostrategic Studies Dragana Trifkovic answers these and other questions of EADaily.
The European Commission has adopted a strategy for Western Balkans that clearly states pre-conditions for Serbia’s joining the EU. Among other things, it is about synchronizing its foreign policy and security policy with the EU line, and, in this context, about the sanctions against Russia. At the same time, the document does not mention a possibility for Serbia to become a NATO member just like the other EU countries. Can Serbia join the EU without joining NATO? Is the West ready to make an exception for Serbia taking into account the memories of the 1999 NATO aggression against the former Yugoslavia?
As for Serbia and the pre-conditions it should meet to join the EU, so they are formulated in such way that they first of all give in the US interests in the Balkans. Actually, the process of the European integration is an ideal tool for the West to make Serbia reject its own sovereign and national interests in exchange for unknown privileges within the EU. It is under a big question mark if Serbia will finally join the EU even after it fulfils all the conditions. However, the key thing is why should Serbia join the European Union. The gold times of the union are in the past; we are witness to the economic and migration crises its members are fighting now. Besides, another fact is hitting the eye: the EU has no single policy, they cannot come to consensus on many issues. Until now, the West did not insist upon Serbia’s joining NATO. Let me try to explain why. It is well known that in 2015 Serbia put the cooperation with NATO on the highest possible level by signing an Individual Partnership Plan and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA, an international treaty that defines legal status of armed forces of one state (or military alliance) when they are in the territory of another state – EADaily). The decision was made, first of all, by the Serbian Progressive Party led by the president, and then prime minister of the country, Aleksandar Vucic. I must stress that the agreements were signed “in darkness and silence,” the public received very little information on them. Even now Aleksandar Vucic insists that the agreements with NATO were not signed in his presidential term, but under the previous leadership, although one can find the information on NATO website that Serbia moved forward in the cooperation with NATO in 2015, when the Serbian Progressive Party was ruling. By signing the IPAP, Serbia not only agreed for a military cooperation with NATO. The document prescribes introducing NATO standards in the Serbian army, establishing cooperation under these standards and settling domestic and economic issues, finding a solution to the human rights problem, carrying out economic reforms, implementing a strategy to work with the media, contributing to security through cooperation in science, defense policy and so on. IPAP is a comprehensive agreement that influences many sectors of society, not only defense and security. Its final goal is to direct Serbia into the Euro-Atlantic integration course and fix it in the Western sphere of influence.
For NATO, it was important to secure an opportunity to use the Serbian territory and infrastructure, as well as have a diplomatic immunity for its corps, and the agreements signed made it possible. The current position of Serbia is worse than the NATO membership, because now NATO enjoys all possible rights in the Serbian territory as if Serbia was a member, but, on the other hand, the alliance has no obligations to Belgrade. As far as the West is acting very pragmatically, now it does not insist upon Serbia joining NATO, as the alliance has already fulfilled its goals in the republic. The West’s priority is to cut cooperation between Belgrade and Moscow and make Serbia sign a general peace treaty with Pristina that will mean official recognition of Kosovo independence.
The Serbian people are traditionally oriented towards Russia, and the West sees a basis for extending the Russian influence in it. On the other hand, without Russia’s support, Serbia will not be able to protect any of its interests, so, cutting the Serbia-Russia ties would allow the West to put Serbia fully under the Euro-Atlantic influence. For Russia, this would mean losing the Balkans. Implementation of all US projects in the region, including independence of Kosovo, would be secured. Until the Russian-Serbian ties are strong, there is a threat that the developments could be positive for Serbia. So, now the West insists that the Serbian policy should be synchronized with the EU foreign policy, and it means imposing sanctions upon Russia, closing down the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in Nis and termination of the agreement on free trade between Serbia and Russia.
It does not mean that accession to NATO will not be set as a pre-condition, but this will happen only after Belgrade fulfills all basic requirements. If the West wants to completely humiliate Serbia, it would insist upon it. But it will be the problem of next regime that will come to replace Vucic, as it is highly probable that the West would oust him as soon as he fulfils the West’s claims.
During a recent visit paid by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to Belgrade the Serbian side once again reiterated its adherence to military neutrality. To what extent is Serbia a truly neutral country? We know that it develops military cooperation with Russia. Recently, it received MiG-29 jet fighters, there are also other contracts for buying weapons. If Serbia joins the EU, how will it influence the future of such cooperation?
The military cooperation of Serbia and Russia is at a much lower level than such cooperation of Serbia with NATO and the United States. In the Serbian media controlled by the state, the subject of the military cooperation with Russia is actively promoted and the issue of the cooperation of Belgrade with NATO and USA is hushed up, as more than 80% of the Serbian population opposes it. That is why all the agreements with NATO were signed without much fuss. If we have a look at real figures and leave the propaganda aside, it will be difficult to say the country is neutral. The Serbian government keeps citing a short article in the Resolution on Protection of Sovereignty, Territorial Integrity and Constitutional Order of Serbia that was passed by the parliament in 2007. The article says: “…the National Assembly hereby declares the neutral status of the Republic of Serbia towards effective military alliances until a referendum is called, at which the final decision on this issue will be made.” But documents like the Serbian National Security Strategy contain no statements on military neutrality. On the contrary, it says about the strategic choice towards cooperation with the EU and NATO: “Starting from the belief that the national security of the Republic of Serbia is closely linked to the security of the region of Southeast Europe and the continent as a whole, the Republic of Serbia will improve its relations with the EU and NATO members and partners on the basis of direct, close and long-term cooperation and common action.”
Strategic military documents, like the National Security Strategy, Defense Strategy, Military Doctrine, Law on Defense, Law on the Armed Forces have not been harmonized with the parliamentary resolution, on the contrary, they correspond with Serbia’s Euro-Atlantic choice. In order to take the positions of military neutrality, Serbia first of all needs to change the contents of the documents taking the position of balancing and non-alignment with military alliances. For it, it must secure support of global powers. I believe that Russia without any questions would ensure guarantees of Serbia’s military neutrality, but I also do believe that Western countries would never agree to it, as they want to control as big as possible territory. That is why they moved forward to the east after the USSR collapsed.
When speaking of the EU, we take into account that in its security policy is fully relies upon NATO. Serbia has already become part of HELBROC (the Balkan Battlegroup) that also hosts Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Cyprus, and Greece. This fact confirms that Serbia is not a neutral country. If it joins the EU (which is not guaranteed), the process of European integration will need synchronization of its security policy with the EU that will automatically mean disruption of the cooperation with Russia in the field, including cooperation in population protection (the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in Nis).
During his visit, Sergey Lavrov stressed that Russia supports Serbia’s multivector policy and does not make conditions regarding the process of choosing partners for cooperation. Do you think that support of the Serbian leadership by the Russian side is unconditional? Are there any “red lines” crossing which Serbia would automatically deteriorate its relations with Russia? As we know, in case of Montenegro the “red line” was introduction of anti-Russian sanctions and joining NATO preceded by a ridiculous hoax story on Russia’s intervention in the elections.
Russia truly is not imposing itself in the international relations and blackmails nobody by any pre-conditions, contrary to the US telling us that Serbia must choose between East and West, that it cannot play a double-game. If one looks at our relations from the Russian point of view, Russia is thankful to Serbia for not imposing the anti-Russian sanctions, but I see no merit in it, because there is no single reason why Serbia should do it. It would be similar to suicide.
I will not elaborate on our historical and spiritual bonds, I will speak in terms of real politics: Russia protects Serbian interests in the global arena often more rigorously than Serbia does. Thanks to Russia, the plan for Kosovo independence was not adopted; a British resolution drafted with the aim to proclaim Serbs the culprits of the genocide was rejected. It would be a great unappreciation if it imposed sanctions upon a friendly country that protects our interests. I must say, the path Serbia is moving now is very thin; one wrong step will be enough to make it find itself not only on the anti-Russian, but on the Serbian side.
On the other hand, the Russian leadership comprehends that there is great difference between the political elite and the people, and that political steps taken by the Serbian government often do not correspond with the people’s will. During a recent visit by EU Commissioner Johannes Hahn, we heard for the first time Vucic’s words that imposing sanctions against Russia must be a “subject for political discussion.” Until that moment, he reiterated that Serbia would never introduce sanctions against Russia. But now we are witness to how the Serbian Progressive Party fulfilled nothing of its pre-election promises. Introducing sanctions against Russia under an EU request would certainly damage the Serbia-Russia relations and be on the way of Serbia’s striving for preserving its territorial integrity. Had Belgrade decided to join NATO (future governments may probably resort to it), t would have been a culmination of self-destruction and self-humiliation. Such a step would be met with an extremely negative response from Russia, as it is no secret that it is the main goal of NATO.
Serbia finds itself in a deadlock, because it is in the hands of a political elite having no understanding of state and national interests. The power does not belong to the people, the elites obey to the West. So, Russia’s support of the Serbian leadership is a two-edged sword. The Serbian public asks why Russia supports the Serbian Progressive Party that in reality pursues a policy of giving away the national interests. I am afraid, thus, Russia is losing its authority among common people who are the bearers of the Serbian pro-Russian attitudes.
President Aleksandar Vucic in his speeches to the Serbian audience says that if Serbia does not sign the legally binding agreement with Pristina, the way to the EU and for direct European investments will be closed for it. At the same time, in case it signs the agreement it will have German guarantees of the joining the EU in 2025, Vucic announced after his meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Doesn’t it look like a direct blackmail or at least an option of the carrot-and-stick approach that the West has been applying to Serbia for years?
It does not look like, it is a direct blackmail from the EU, and Germany has a decisive voice in it. First, all the agreements signed with Pristina by the Aleksandar Vucic government contradict the Serbian constitution and law, as well as the international law and UN Security Council Resolution 1244. So, it is not about coercion, but the fact that the government on its own will signs agreements in violation of the law, because it has undertaken certain commitments to the Western partners. The steps taken by the Serbian authorities until now mostly supported establishment of the so-called independent Kosovo. Signing a comprehensive peace treaty would mean legalizing the independent Kosovo. Although the Serbian authorities keep saying that they will never recognize Kosovo, signing this document would mean such recognition. The Serbian government is urged not to say “we recognize the independence of Kosovo,” but to sign a paper that Serbia does not oppose its accession to international organizations. It is inconceivable that the West, in violation of the international law and Serbian constitution, does not stop pressing Belgrade, urging that it agrees to separation of its territory and legalizes separatism. In the long run, such actions will bear no positive results to the West itself.
As for Germany’s guarantees that Serbia will join the EU in 2025, it hardly can be taken seriously. EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn said that Serbia must normalize the relations with Pristina; by that he meant that a comprehensive peace treaty is to be signed, but at the same time, 2025 is “a framework date, not a guarantee.” So, this is not a play on words, which is used by Brussels showing disrespect to its partners. As for Aleksandar Vucic’s statements that Serbia would be left without investments, it is nonsense. We know that the economic situation in the EU is unstable, and such countries like Spain, Italy, and Greece cannot overcome the current account deficit. These countries have felt benefit from joining the EU, because some time ago they had access to European funds with substantial reserves. Today, there is no such funds today even for developed members of the EU, let alone Serbia. On the other hand, Belgrade pursues a disastrous economic policy giving advantages to foreign investors. It results in destroying the national economy. Practically, Serbia finances foreign investors from the state budget. They are given privileges in the form of subsidies for communal fees, financial aid for creating workplaces. The conditions that foreign companies offer to the staff are rather unprofitable. Serbia will not be able to develop until it relies upon national resources and development of the national economy. Stories on how foreign investors would be developing the country are more than unrealistic. In Serbia, they are looking for cheap workforce and opportunity to get excess profit.
The worst thing in it that the EU has nothing that it can use for blackmailing Serbia, as it offers nothing serious. For some unknown reasons, the Serbian government is ready to give away everything for getting nothing. If the EU closes the way for us to join it, it will probably render a service to us.