Serbia is continuing to align itself with Russia and its Eastern allies, veering away from the EU and the rest of the Western world.
In January 2014, Serbia started its membership negotiations with the first accession chapters opened by the end of 2015. Despite this, the country’s actions have been anything but European, particularly in terms of its increasingly friendly and cooperative relationships with Russia.
In June, Serbian defense chief Aleksander Vulin boasted that Serbia were “no longer alone” should any Balkan war break out, following live-ammunition drills that took place between Serbian, Russian, and Belarusian troops.
“We have friends. That horrible moment in our history when we were alone, will never repeat again”, Vulin said in a statement, referring to Russia as their friends, and the 1999 US-led NATO bombing of Serbia.
Then just one month later it came to light that Serbia accused Romania of breaking the Convention concerning the Regime of Navigation on the Danube by not allowing the shipping of military vehicles by river through its country. Romania’s refusal was due to an EU embargo on the acquisition of Russian arms which was imposed after the annexation of Crimea.
Apparently Russia had “donated” 30 T-72 tanks and 30 BRDM-2 armoured combat vehicles to Serbia.
When questioned on the terms of the deal by BIRN they claimed it is “foreign secret data”and they have an obligation to Moscow to “keep it secret”.
August of this year, Serbia announced that come October it planned to join the Moscow-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) alongside Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan. It was then reported that the European Commission made it clear that Serbia would have to withdraw from all existing bilateral trade agreements before joining the bloc, including any made as a part of their membership with the EAEU.
This free-trade deal with Russia and its allies would give Serbia access to a market totaling 180 million people worth $5 trillion. Its accession to the EU however would gain them access to over 500 million consumers with a value of some €17 trillion.
But joining the EU comes at the price of aligning their policies with the EU’s, which means they would be expected to impose trade sanctions on Russia due to its action in the Ukraine, going against the terms of the EAEU membership.
On a state visit to Serbia in January 2019 where he got a heroes welcome, Putin said that the EU was forcing Serbia to make an “artificial choice’ between Moscow and the West.
During his visit, Aleksandar Vucic and Putin discussed a possible EU-brokered settlement between Serbia and Kosovo. Vucic then gifted the Russian leader with a puppy.
Both Serbia and Kosovo have been told to resolve their differences in order to resume EU membership talks. Negotiations between the two nations broke down in November 2018 after Kosovo imposed a 100% import tariff on Serbian imports. The tariff came as retaliation for Serbia’s undermining of Kosovo’s statehood and active lobbying against its membership in international organisations like UNESCO, INTERPOL etc.
Then in April, Serbian foriegn minister Ivica Dacic stated that “Serbia cannot defend its state interests without the assistance of the Russian Federation”. He added that Serbia would “not do anything without consulting Russia” and that “Russia is our biggest friend”.
These comments were in clear reference to the issue of Kosovo’s independence and in fact, Russia has campaigned tirelessly to keep Kosovo out of the United Nations since its declaration of independence in 2008.
Serbia’s pro-Russian actions have not gone unnoticed by existing members of the bloc. Earlier this year, French politicians sent a strong message that they do not look kindly on the idea of Serbia joining the EU in 2025. During a television debate “L’Emission Politique”, nine out of 12 MEP candidates voted against Serbia’s accession.
In addition to this, some 52 percent of French respondents in a recent YouGov survey said that they were against Serbia joining the EU. Undeveloped democracy and widespread corruption are just two of the reasons for Paris’ reluctance.
It seems that Moscow and Belgrade’s relationship is strengthening and deepening on a month by month basis, whilst its EU relationship is stalling. As tensions in the Western Balkans rise between Serbia and Kosovo, the former’s strengthening alliance with the muscle of Russia is a cause for concern, particularly for the latter which is backed by the US and most other Western States.