Russia’s Embrace Sows ‘Total Confusion’ for Serbia’s EU Hopes

(Bloomberg) -- As the European Union tries to resolve differences over Kosovo and welcome new members from the former Yugoslavia, one hopeful may have a tougher issue to overcome.

Serbia, the largest of the six Balkan countries the bloc says could join from 2025, is being forced to choose between the benefits of the world’s No. 1 trading alliance and loyalty to its biggest ally: Russia. As well as Orthodox Christianity and the Cyrillic alphabet, the two Slavic nations share a refusal to recognize Kosovo, which broke away two decades ago with help from a NATO bombing campaign. It’s a bond that’s forged deeper diplomatic, economic and defense ties.

That presents a problem for the EU, which has fallen out with Russia more recently over issues from the annexation of Crimea to election meddling. Complaints from Lithuania -- which joined the bloc in 2004 having once been an unwilling part of the Soviet Union -- that Serbia’s foreign policy is deviating rather than aligning with the bloc, underscore the tricky path to membership. Ukraine has shown the pitfalls of the kind of balancing act Serbia is targeting.

“What’s disturbing to us is the level of non-alignment” on foreign policy, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius, whose country has a veto over any new members, said last week in an interview. While five years ago, Serbia’s foreign policy adhered almost completely to the EU’s, now it does by less than half, he said. “There must be motivation and an indication that a country is ready to pursue the same policy.”

Russia’s Embrace Sows ‘Total Confusion’ for Serbia’s EU Hopes

While Serbia has long shared a close cultural attachment to Russia, relations strengthened after wartime President Slobodan Milosevic’s Socialist Party returned to power in 2008, the year Kosovo declared independence. Since then, the Kremlin has taken over Serbia’s biggest oil company, provided tanks and used Mig-29 fighter jets and held joint military exercises near the EU’s Baltic border. In return, Russia vows to block international recognition of Kosovo as a sovereign state.

“Contacts between Moscow and Belgrade, including those at the top level, are fairly intensive,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said last month. “We believe the Kosovo issue can only be resolved on terms that are acceptable to Serbia.”

President Aleksandar Vucic, who’s visited Vladimir Putin a dozen times since first becoming prime minister in 2012, has pledged to never back sanctions on Russia over the conflict in Ukraine. That’s put Lithuania and other EU border states on alert. Since snatching Crimea, Russia also stands accused of staging cyber attacks, organizing a failed coup in Montenegro and poisoning a former Russian spy living in the U.K.

‘Total Confusion’

“The situation has created total confusion for a country that’s declared EU membership as its geo-strategic goal,” said Bosko Jaksic, a foreign-policy analyst in Belgrade.

More than half of Serbs back EU entry, while less than a quarter oppose it. But picking sides is proving difficult for the government. Prime Minister Ana Brnabic sparked a storm of criticism last year by saying Serbia would pick the EU over Russia if forced to choose. Integration Minister Jadranka Joksimovic says Serbia’s on-the-fence stance persists.

“Things have become more complicated, not only in Europe but globally," Joksimovic told Bloomberg. “In assessing each and every foreign policy stance during the alignment process with the EU, Serbia starts from the interests of its own citizens."

Serbia will eventually understand the pitfalls of its balancing act, said Vassela Tcherneva, an analyst with the European Council on Foreign Relations. The EU dwarfs Russia as Serbia’s top trading partner and investor and can offer assistance on economic, immigration, border and infrastructure issues.

“The fact that Serbia didn’t side with the EU on Russian sanctions was actually quite striking," she said. “Serbia shouldn’t be picking and choosing when it pleases whether it wants to be real about its European aspirations.”

That’s particularly the case as the EU wrangles with issues from deeper economic integration to refugees. Granting entry to a new member that opposes sanctions on Russia would complicate things further, according to Linkevicius.

“More imbalances will hardly strengthen the EU and its unity,” he said. “Everyone must respect the same principles, follow the same values and try to align their policies.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.