Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February, Serbia has stood out from the European crowd in its response to the conflict. Despite mounting pressure from the West, the nation has repeatedly refused to impose any sanctions against Russia, and has continued to negotiate an advantageous gas deal with Vladimir Putin.
But at the same time, Serbia has voted in favour of multiple UN resolutions against Russia, opting to condemn the invasion and supporting the latter’s exclusion from the Human Rights Council. Throughout this conflict, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić has pulled off a balancing act of sorts, given that accession talks with the EU have not been stopped and Putin offered a cheap gas deal to Serbia in May.
However, following the United Nations General Assembly held recently, Serbia’s balancing act is hanging in the balance, and there’s little room for manoeuvre. First, Serbia had to explain its position on excluding Russia from the UN Security Council (UNSC). Vučić was clear on the issue: “They need a two-thirds majority. Serbia will not support this.” According to the Serbian President, to vote in favour would be a clear violation of international law, but it would also be ruinous for his country if Russia were excluded because of the country’s position on Kosovo.
To date, Russia has been a firm supporter of Serbia’s aspirations in Kosovo and has refused to recognise Kosovo as an independent state. But Putin has also used it for his own ends. In April he justified his actions in the Donbass by invoking the Kosovo example, just as he did in 2014 when he annexed Crimea. In both cases he argued that, if Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence is recognised by the international community, Crimea and the Donbass should be no different.
More scandalous than the decision not to vote in favour of excluding Russia from the UNSC was the deal signed by Nikola Selaković, Serbia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Sergey Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, on 23 September. The deal didn’t contain much in the way of substance, but it did promise to hold further talks in 2023-24.
To certain EU figures, the deal was a “scandal” that might be just a “signal for us to freeze the EU accession talks as entering the EU does not go through Moscow.” Vladimir Bilčík, MEP and the Parliament’s rapporteur for relations with Serbia, quickly followed up by tweeting that he “find[s] the news of planned consultations between Serbia & Russia a major blow to the accession process in the Western Balkans.” This marks the first time that high-profile EU representatives have openly mentioned the possibility of stalling the accession talks.
Selaković tried to mitigate the reputational blow by attempting to assure allies that the likes of defence policy was not and would not be discussed. Two days later, he promised that Serbia would not recognise the referenda results in Ukraine — somewhat to everyone’s surprise.
With these developments, Serbia is finding itself in an increasingly precarious position. The gulf between the EU and Russia is widening, and soon enough it may be forced to pick sides. And while there is no question that the EU would benefit from Serbia’s support (particularly due to its influence on other Western Balkan states like Bosnia or Montenegro), it cannot be seen to reward European countries that have been softer on Russia ahead of others. For now the whole continent hangs in the balance, and all eyes will be on Serbia to see what happens next.