Although it has been sitting on two chairs, so to speak, Serbia is now stuck between a rock and a hard place as it is becoming increasingly possible that the country will soon have to choose between Russia and the European Union.
The East/West foreign policy balance has been upset by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which then accelerated the EU and US demand to the official Belgrade to impose sanctions on Russia. At the same time, it cemented Moscow’s position that Serbia, as a “friendly nation”, should not take this step.
This is clear if we look at the latest statement by the spokeswoman for Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who made it clear what she thinks about the possibility of Serbia following the EU’s example. “We take note of the statements of Serbian politicians and acknowledge the pressure on them. We also take note of the statements of the Serbian side that Russia is their friend. Maybe we have different views on friendship. We always support our friends in difficult times,” Maria Zakharova said.
Russia, she added, understands that many countries that want to pursue an independent and balanced policy are under great pressure, primarily from the United States, and that they have to make compromises. “If, however, we are talking about those who claim to be our friends, it is impossible to understand their stance,” Zakharova added.
Only a day later, a message also came from the EU. German Ambassador to Serbia Thomas Schieb said he expected Serbia to impose sanctions on Russia in order to make faster progress toward the EU membership, underlining that the sanctions were also harming the countries which had imposed them and that they are a peaceful way to stop the war. “Right now, we need to condemn Russian aggression; the humanitarian situation is very difficult. It is about showing solidarity with Ukraine and sending out appropriate signals is very important. In this sense, Serbia has sent some out and we welcome them,” the German ambassador said.
What do these two messages really mean? Serbia’s official position and its relationship with Russia are quite particular as Serbia depends on Russian energy, but not only that – Serbia also counts on Russia’s political support regarding the Kosovo issue, which independence Serbia does not recognise. How should these statements be interpreted and what consequences could they have for Serbia? And will the EU or Russia continue with the current policy, bearing in mind that it would push Serbia to the other side?
Former British diplomat and researcher at the Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University, Timothy Less, told Blic daily that the situation for Serbia “is undoubtedly becoming increasingly difficult”. “For several years Serbia has successfully pursued a policy of international balancing. However, this creates problems now that its two main partners are actually at war,” Less added.
“Russia is obviously not happy with Serbia’s decision at the UN and thinks that if Serbia is really a friend then it should support it in its difficult time, as Russia supported Serbia in the 1990s,” he said.
“I interpret Zakharova’s comment about Serbia’s “true national interests” as a hidden threat. However, I don’t think Russia will do anything for now. The Russian policy clearly shows that Russia sees Serbia as a friend and understands the pressure Serbia is under. Russia’s essential interest is to stay close to Serbia to prevent it from joining NATO, and this remains unchanged,” Timothy Less says and adds that he also believes that Serbia will persist in its current position and that the EU cannot “afford” to remove the country from the EU accession process.
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