(Bloomberg) -- Three times a week at 6:30 a.m., Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic sits down for his Russian class. The aim, he says, is to be able to chat as fluently with Vladimir Putin as he does with western leaders in English.
The desire for language parity reflects the traditional geopolitical balancing act by Serbia, a country historically and culturally pulled both east and west. With European Union membership still years away, Vucic is fostering ties with Russia while courting money from China for industrial and infrastructure projects.
The tug-of-war between eastern and western powers is not a novelty in a strategic corner of the continent torn apart in the bloody conflicts of the 1990s. But with relations with Russia at their chilliest since the Cold War, there’s greater urgency for the EU to ensure Serbia and five other Balkan nations end up in the bloc’s fold and help pursue its expansion eastward.
EU leaders meet this week with their western Balkan counterparts in Bulgaria, which joined the bloc in 2007, to show they’re serious about their pledge to start taking in new members around 2025. The focus will be on talking up the next phase of the European project after former communist countries like Poland and Hungary clashed recently with Brussels over their control of the courts, media and other democratic institutions.
“If the western Balkans countries don’t adhere to democratic development, we risk instability in the region,” said Eduard Kukan, a special United Nation envoy to the Balkans in 1999 and 2000 and a former Slovak foreign minister. “We can’t afford to slow down the process. This could create opportunity for other players to step in.”
Russia asserts a strong pull from the days of Soviet influence, but China is the latest power seeking to build a footprint in the region. It has been making overtures to central and eastern European countries through the so-called 16+1 forum, which includes the Balkan states. A report on EU-China relations published by the European Council on Foreign Relations said “there is no doubt” that the program competes with EU funding and projects.
Serbia is the largest of the western Balkan nations seeking to join the EU –- the others are Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania, Montenegro, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Kosovo -- and they all have obstacles ahead.
Politically, Serbia needs to reconcile with Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008, and the Republic of Macedonia has to solve its decades-old name dispute with Greece. They have high jobless rates, regions lagging the poorest parts of the EU and struggles with corruption.
The EU is their top trading partner and by far the largest investor, though the incoming cash hasn’t trickled down to all of the region’s combined 18 million citizens and there’s disillusionment over whether membership will come.
“I am already planning for my big escape,” Djordje Radic, a 23-year-old language student, said over a glass of iced tea at a Belgrade café. “I want to go because this is taking so long and we do not know if Serbia will ever join the EU. I don’t have time for this. That’s not the future I am looking for.”
The risk is the vacuum that might be left. The old flame for Russia burns brightly in Christian Orthodox Serbia, intensified by the fact that the Moscow government is one of its key allies in refusing to recognize Kosovo as an independent state following the war there that ultimately led to the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic.
A former information minister to Milosevic, Vucic has met with Putin at least seven times since he became premier in 2014. It was Putin he called for advice when the latest ethnic tensions flared up in Kosovo in March.
Vucic, who is also a frequent visitor to Berlin, said in an interview last month that the EU needs an agreement on Kosovo to show it can maintain “stability and tranquility on the territory of Europe.”
As the EU dithers over further enlargement to the east, China is marching in financially. China’s investments into Serbia exceed $3 billion and are expected to more than double, according to the Construction Ministry in Belgrade.
“We do need to decide whether we go east or west,” said Boris Petrovic, a 25-year-old pianist sitting at a packed Italian-style cafe shop in downtown Belgrade. “I’d rather opt for Russia. They’ve helped us many times already.”
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