Indifferent to Syrians and Ukrainians blood, Serbia in tightrope walking between East and West

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Russia’s Vladimir Putin (Reuters)

Indifferent to Syrians and Ukrainians blood, Serbia in tightrope walking between East and West

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Russia’s Vladimir Putin (Reuters)

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Russia’s Vladimir Putin (Reuters)

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Enab Baladi – Amal Rantisi

Clear features of the strong relations between Russia and Serbia have emerged since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, relations that are already close since the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has tried for years to maintain a strong relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and on a parallel path, he has tried to develop relations with the European Union, which his country seeks to join, and with the West more broadly.

After refusing to impose sanctions on Russia and facilitating air traffic for the Russians, Serbia began to take a position that angered the West, as the Serbian capital, Belgrade, witnessed rallies in support of the Russian war on Ukraine.

The Russian war on Ukraine was an occasion to bolster relations between Serbs and Russians that were previously reflected in countries such as Syria.

Diplomatic visits and economic talks took place between Serbia and the Syrian regime in late 2021. At that time, the Serbian Assistant Foreign Minister, Vladimir Maric, visited the Syrian capital, Damascus, and the two sides discussed cooperation in the energy, agriculture, and communications sectors.

​​Following the appointment of the Serbian ambassador in Damascus, the Serbian Danas newspaper in July 2021 addressed the issue of pleasing Russia through rapprochement with the Syrian regime.

The newspaper sheds light on the pressure of the EU, which Serbia seeks to join on the one hand, and its alliance with the Kremlin and the Middle East on the other hand.

Its position remains unclear amid questions raised during the Serbian delegation’s visit to Syria about the common interests between the two countries.

Serbian interests swing between East, West

EU officials repeatedly warn Serbia that it will have to keep up with the Union’s foreign policies if it wants to join with any move Belgrade takes toward its eastern alliances.

EU’s spokesman Peter Stano criticized Belgrade’s decision to appoint Radovan Stojanovic as Serbia’s ambassador to Syria, whose credentials were approved in August 2021. Stano said that this “contradicts the positions of the European Union countries that refuse to normalize relations with the Syrian regime and impose sanctions on it.”

Serbia created a “loophole” to facilitate flights for the Russians, known as the “Serbia back-door bid,” when Moscow tried to circumvent the sanctions imposed on Russia following the Ukraine invasion.

Through Serbia, the Russians took advantage of the flight gap to flee to Europe and circumvent a comprehensive ban imposed by the European Union on flights to and from Russia, The Guardian reported on 11 March.

The Air Serbia carrier, which is mostly state-owned, has doubled the number of direct flights from Moscow to Belgrade to 15 per week to meet rapidly growing demand after the European Union banned Russian planes and airlines from its airspace, according to the newspaper.

These facts put Belgrade under pressure from Western countries to change its position on Moscow, according to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, saying, “Serbia was the only country in Europe that refused to impose sanctions on Russia.”

He also expressed his displeasure with the reduction of flights after the pressure, asking, “Will those who lead the chase against Serbia regarding flights to the Russian capital be satisfied with that?”

Emine Dzheppar, First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, tweeted on her official account that “AirSerbia doubled direct flights to Moscow while EU airlines stopped flights to Russia and closed the airspace to the Russia airlines and private jets. Serbia is the only one in Europe with an open sky to Russia. Making money on Ukrainian blood is unworthy of an EU candidate country.”

Common interests: Russian influence in Balkans versus Serbian pressure on West

Vuk Vuksanovic, a researcher at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy and Ph.D. holder in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), told Enab Baladi that “for Russia, ties with Serbia are a bedrock for its presence in the Balkans, southeastern Europe, while Serbia views Russia as a way to increase its leverage and bargaining power with the West.”

The expert added that “this issue is related to the Kosovo dispute and the Serbian place in Western security architecture.”

Vuksanovic considered the partnership between the two sides opportunistic, as Russia knows that Serbia is using it only to get a better deal from the West, while Serbia never knows if Russia will sell it out in a grand bargain with the West.

Serbia does not recognize its former province Kosovo as a separate country, and the common border is only an “administrative” and temporary border, while more than 100 United Nations member states and 22 of the 27 European Union countries have recognized Kosovo since its independence in 2008.

The conflict in the former Yugoslavia between Serbian forces and Albanian Kosovar groups demanding independence resulted in the deaths of 13,000 people and ended after a Western bombing campaign that forced the Serb forces to retreat.

In 2013, Serbia and Kosovo committed themselves to dialogue under the EU cover to try to resolve the outstanding issues, and it made little progress. Some countries such as Bolivia, Spain, Syria, Ukraine, China, and Russia support Serbia’s position on Kosovo.

About Serbia’s risking its chances of joining the European Union through its rapprochement with Russia and before that with the Syrian regime, Vuksanovic says that in addition to the issue of Kosovo, there is also the problem of Europe’s decreased leverage over Serbia.

The European Union was unable to offer Serbia membership due to Europe’s own problem with Serbia, and in this strategic context, “Serbia believes that it can afford that type of policy,” said the expert.

“Historic rapprochement against American liberalism”

Researcher Vuk Vuksanovic believes that regimes like Bashar al-Assad’s attract sympathy within parts of the Serbian electorate for the simple reason that they find historical analogies with the Serbian fate from the 1990s, being the target of US unilateralism and liberal interventionism in reference to the NATO bombing of Serbia, when it was within the former Yugoslavia, to force Belgrade to withdraw from Kosovo in March 1999.

The fact that Syria did not recognize Kosovo plays a role in the Syrian-Serbian relationship, and there is a potential Serbian fear of religious extremism. However, the fact that Serbia dispatched an ambassador to Syria was motivated by the Serbian desire to please Russia, as well as Iran, as Serbia needs Iran to remain a non-recognizer of Kosovo.

In order to please Iran, Belgrade needed to compensate for the fact that in late 2020 it designated Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah, as a terrorist organization, in order to please the administration of former US President Donald Trump, Vuksanovic added.

Until now, the old ties that linked Belgrade and Damascus are still solid in one way or another.

In 1967, the former Yugoslav president, Josip Broz Tito, severed ties with Israel in solidarity with Egypt and Syria over the Six-Day War, and Yugoslav government companies had a history of implementing projects in Syria.

Economic cooperation, is it an interest or to please Russia?

The Serbian side discussed with the Syrian regime “bilateral relations between the two countries and ways to develop them in all fields” when the Serbian Assistant Foreign Minister, Vladimir Maric, visited Damascus in December 2021.

The pro-regime al-Watan newspaper reported that Iyad al-Khatib, Syrian Minister of Communications and Technology, called on Serbian companies interested in the telecommunications sector to work with the Syrian Telecom Company in digital transformation projects and the programming sector.

In addition to signing a cooperation agreement in the agricultural sector between the two countries, according to Syrian Minister of Agriculture Mohammed Hassan Qatna.

Vuksanovic explained to Enab Baladi that while there may be some bilateral cooperation between the Syrian regime and Serbia, it is doubtful how much Serbia or Syria can benefit.

He assured that Syria is in need of post-war reconstruction, and it is not clear to what extent a middle-income economy like Serbia can help, particularly as most big Yugoslav state-owned companies that did work in Yugoslavia no longer exist.

Serbia’s EU bid is over: five reasons why

New Eastern Europe magazine reported in 2020 why Serbia’s EU bid is over, detailing five reasons why, as following:

​​Serbia received full candidate status for membership of the European Union in 2013. Since then, the country has made modest efforts to tackle its deeply-rooted democratic shortcomings. As of 2020, Serbia’s situation looks frightfully bleak. The current government in Belgrade, effectively under the tight control of President Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), has transformed the domestic state of affairs to a point where EU membership is no longer in the country’s political or economic interest. Five key issues point in this direction.

First, the state-led public crusade against the EU. Serbia’s clear lack of progress toward integration has only encouraged many member states to become more skeptical of enlargement. The EU’s ongoing identity crisis has motivated countries like France and the Netherlands to seek a slower approach to accession for candidates from the Western Balkans. Subsequently, membership has lost its appeal and support among Serbian citizens. President Vučić has made sure to take advantage of this feeling among the public. This is clear regarding the management of COVID-19, with the leader encouraging a narrative of victimization and bitterness against Brussels. It is therefore not surprising that EU enthusiasm in the country has dropped, and only half of Serbians would vote in favor of joining the EU. At the same time, 40 percent of the population already believe that China is the country’s biggest aid donor.

Second, the elephant in the room: Kosovo. The ongoing conflict over Serbia’s former province, which declared independence in 2008, remains a major problem for the government in Belgrade. In the context of the current EU-brokered diplomatic dialogue between the two countries, Serbia will not give up its demands over Kosovo. Far from conceding to international hopes for mutual recognition and the normalization of relations, Serbia’s cause is bound to remain its most important political issue. Both Serbia and Kosovo find themselves on the road to EU accession, and in 2013 they even pledged to not hinder each other’s integration process. Even though Serbia’s progress towards EU membership is conditional upon its improvement of relations with Pristina, its claims regarding Kosovo will continue to take precedence over any potential prospects for accession.

Third, the country’s visible rejection of EU values. In Serbia, the rule of law, the independence of the media, the running of free and fair elections, and the preservation of civil liberties are all under severe political pressure. There are few signs that this will improve anytime soon. Vučić has tightened his grip over domestic institutions, and the SNS is well-entrenched in all parts of the state apparatus. Activity in Serbia’s National Assembly is likewise tightly controlled by the SNS, whose parliamentary majority (188 out of 250 seats with no real opposition) remains effectively uncontested. As things currently stand, Serbia’s deterioration in terms of rights and freedoms is hardly compatible with EU criteria, which demand democracy, human rights, and the rule of law as prerequisites for membership.

Fourth, the emergence of new friends and foes. For some years now, the Serbian president has very publicly stepped up Serbia’s relations with new actors like China, which recently pledged large infrastructural investments and a considerable inflow of capital into the national economy. This, alongside its traditional friendship with Russia, has placed Serbia in a privileged spot between East and West. Increasing assistance from Beijing and a strong political backing from Moscow—two allies that will not demand domestic compliance with human rights standards in return for support—provide Belgrade with a wide array of alignment options often detached from Brussels. In the meantime, the EU, in hopes of maximizing its political leverage, remains a reliable provider of funds for Serbia.

Fifth, the political realization that the status quo is well worth preserving. While Belgrade continues to convey the illusion that the country is committed to working toward EU membership, thus benefiting from Brussels’ funding, Vučić and his government advance on their campaign to capture the state. Serbia can additionally flirt with Russia and China and use this as a bargaining chip with the EU. At the same time, the current diplomatic impasse over Kosovo works to Serbia’s advantage. As long as Serbia does not soften its demands, Kosovo’s own accession to the EU will remain frozen.

Researcher Vuksanovic believes that whether or not Serbia would make a shift and join EU sanctions against Russia depends on the amount of pressure it suffers from the West. 

He also confirmed that the West remains Serbia’s primary economic partner, and the Serbian regime needs a political blessing from the West to remain in power, adding that if the threat is powerful enough, the Serbian government may very well be forced to join EU sanctions against Russia. However, even if that happens, it will only happen after the incumbent government wins April 2022 re-election.

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