Serbia Must Be Clear It Chooses EU Over Russia, Mihajlovic Says

(Bloomberg) -- Serbia’s government mustn’t send conflicting signals about its strategic goal of joining the European Union rather than aligning with Russia, Deputy Premier Zorana Mihajlovic said in a thinly veiled rebuke of her party’s ruling partners.

“We who lead Serbia should more clearly say so, to avoid the situations which in the morning we want to be in the EU, and in the afternoon side with Russia,” Mihajlovic, a member of President Aleksandar Vucic’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party, said in an interview with Blic newspaper published on Monday.

She spoke after some members of the cabinet praised Serbia’s traditional ties with Russia, which objects to the EU’s expansion into former communist Europe. Serbia is trying to prepare itself for joining the world’s largest trading bloc by around 2025, although some political forces in the country of 7 million people are trying to put the brakes on accession.

Serbia’s ties with international alliances have been the topic of intense debate in the country as the EU and Russia vie for influence in the Balkans. Some politicians in the ruling alliance have raised concern that they would steer the country toward Moscow’s orbit, while Prime Minister Ana Brnabic last year sparked a storm of criticism when she said that the government would choose the EU over Russia if forced to pick sides.

Head, Heart

Vucic is engaging in a delicate act of balancing those ties while steering Serbia toward the model promised by the EU: higher living standards, visa-free work and travel throughout Europe and barrier-free trade. Mihajlovic said it was the rational path.

“You lead politics with your head, not from the heart," Mihajlovic said. "Russia will always be in the heart, but the mind says ‘Europe and the West’.”

The main hurdle on Serbia’s EU path is the requirement to normalize relations with Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence in 2008. Russia’s backing for Serbia’s refusal to recognize the secession remains a motive for some politicians, including part of the opposition, to keep the Kremlin as a close ally.

“A frozen conflict in Kosovo would freeze Serbia, and it wouldn’t be able to develop. Serbia wants a compromise for Kosovo,” Mihajlovic said. Finding a solution for the decades-old dispute over the territory, which culminated in a 1998-99 war “wouldn’t be to buy a ticket for faster accession, but it would be because the issue of Kosovo should be solved for the sake of the future of this country.”

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