The bloc needs to incentivise Belgrade to abandon its longstanding ally
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine intensifies, Serbia continues to stick out in its response to the crisis. While the Serbian government voted to support the UN resolution condemning the Russian invasion, the country has not aligned with EU sanctions on Russia. Maintaining this balancing act will be difficult for the government in Belgrade.
Serbia’s position reflects its political and economic interests. Russia has historically been one of Serbia’s most reliable allies — most notably, it refused to authorise NATO intervention in 1999 and has not recognised Serbia’s breakaway province Kosovo as an independent state. Sanctioning Russia would mean that Serbia could no longer count on Russia’s support.
Second, in November 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić reached a deal which pegged the price of Russian gas for Serbia at a quarter of European prices at the time. This deal is set to expire in summer – and cutting ties with Russia would lead to a difficult winter for Serbia.
Third, there are domestic reasons as to why President Vučić is unwilling to impose sanctions at this point. A non-trivial number of Serbs supports Russia – reflected in multiple pro-Russian protests which took place across Belgrade over the last few weeks. Mr Vučić is facing presidential, parliamentary, and local elections on 3 April, and aligning with the EU on sanctions would lose him votes.
The pressure on Serbia is mounting, with some members of the EU Parliament calling for a suspension in membership talks. Following the elections that Mr Vučič is expected to win, he may have some political space to introduce new measures against Russia, and we can expect further pressure from Washington and Brussels.
So far, Vučić has agreed to reduce flights from Belgrade to Moscow following an outcry that Russians were using Serbia as a gateway to the EU. And, according to the European Western Balkans portal, on 12 March Serbia also aligned with the EU’s prolonged restrictive measures against Ukraine’s pro-Russian former president, Viktor Yanukovych.
If Brussels wants to get serious action from Serbia, it needs to change its perception of what is in its interest. The EU has, thus far, focused on threatening Serbia with ending accession talks and/or cutting grants and loans. But threatening to end the accession process is unlikely to significantly change Belgrade’s position as Serbia does not currently believe it will join the bloc any time soon. While the threats to cut off financial aid potentially have more bite, Belgrade will have to weigh that against the benefits it has from cooperating with Russia.
It may, therefore, be better for the EU to provide positive incentives to Serbia – potentially by making accession a foreseeable outcome or by offering financial incentives which outweigh what Serbia currently gets from Russia. Neither seems likely at this point. Without a change in EU and US policy, the most likely outcome is that Serbia will adopt a far weaker programme of sanctions than the rest of the EU, leaving it stranded between Russia and the West.