Headed for Brussels Without a Compass: Serbia’s Position Between Rapprochement With the EU and Russian Influence

Written by | Wednesday, February 24th, 2016

Sarah Wohlfeld (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik)

The Serbian foreign policy is traditionally pro-Russian oriented. The roots of this trend date back to the 19th century when the Slavic solidarity was being strengthened between nations with similar cultural and religious character (Cyrillic and Orthodoxy) in the context of the erosion of the Ottoman Empire. Serbia sees Russia as a traditional ally with whom it has a special relationship. This status of Russia in Serbia was further strengthened during the disputes over Kosovo, under which Russia has unequivocally stood behind Belgrade and has effectively blocked Kosovo’s membership in the UN to this date. In this context, we can then understand why Russian President Vladimir Putin took part in the military parade in Belgrade on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the defeat of the Nazi occupation forces in October 2014. There, Putin stood side by side with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, who is strongly pro-Russian.

However, the second direction of Belgrade’s foreign policy orientation is clearly pro-European. This line is based on the economic cooperation. The Serbian public has associated the prospect of EU membership with growing living standards and freedom of movement, with 55 percent of Serbs being in favor of Serbia joining the EU, according to a study commissioned by the European Commission. In Brussels, however, there are well-founded concerns about accepting Serbia in the EU. Serbia has been an official candidate for the EU membership since 2011 but the first official accession talks were opened only in December 2015. This is given by the fact that the current Serbian government has only now begun to actively cooperate with Brussels in the integration process. Serbian Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vu?i?, who is an ardent pro-European and moderate right-of-center leader, is spearheading the process of moving his country closer to the EU.

These two directions pursued by Belgrade – pro-European and pro-Russian – are at first glance only a continuation of Tito’s strategy from the times of former Yugoslavia. During the Cold War, he turned Yugoslavia into a kind of facilitator of the dialogue between East and West, thereby gaining benefits for his country. Current Serbian political leaders would like follow in Tito’s footsteps, to draw on his policy. In the official dialogue, they seek to profile the country as a neutral state standing between the Union and Russia. On the one hand, they oppose EU sanctions against Russia and do military exercises with the Russian military on its territory. On the other hand, they all of the sudden focus on the EU accession talks. Russia is neither blocking these talks and nor is it acting publically against them. However, Moscow is simultaneously increasing the intensity of pro-Kremlin propaganda on the Serbian territory. Brussels should therefore be extremely careful when courting Belgrade because the Balkans has historically been an explosive territory. Thus, the question is whether Serbia is not a Russian ‘Trojan horse’ that would decompose the EU from within and cause more problems than benefits.

(The study can be downloaded here: https://dgap.org/en/think-tank/publications/dgapanalyse-compact/headed-brussels-without-compass)

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