Ukraine and Russia are at war. What does that mean for the future of EU-Serbia relations?

In the last few weeks and days, the escalation of the situation in eastern Ukraine, and now throughout the country, has brought the whole world in anticipation of the next move of all parties involved in this conflict. After Putin recognised the independence of the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk on Monday night, the leaders of the EU demonstrated a united position: in almost identical words, the leaders of member states, as well as European institutions, strongly condemned Russia’s behaviour. As early as Tuesday, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz halted the approval process of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. The United States and Japan announced sanctions on Russia on the same day. On Wednesday morning, both the G7 and the EU also adopted a set of sanctions against Russia. The war officially started in Ukraine on Thursday morning. On the same day, the EU Council adopted another set of sanctions. Footage of the bombardment and endless convoys of cars and people desperately trying to escape from Kyiv and the rest of Ukraine have been headline news in the world’s media.

Serbia between the hammer and the anvil

With the emergence of the crisis, the attention of world powers, especially the EU, was directed to the Western Balkans, particularly Serbia. In their eyes, Serbia has the status of a country close to Russia despite simultaneously negotiating EU membership. A member of the European Parliament, Viola von Cramon, posted that “non-alignment with the whole of Europe on this will put Serbia in self-isolation” and that time of sitting on two chairs is over. Finally, on Friday night, at a press conference, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic announced the conclusions of the National Security Council that Serbia’s decision is not to sanction Russia, although it fully supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine and all other countries, and expresses regret for the occurrence of war. Furthermore, the President of Serbia stated that it is not in Serbia’s interest to impose sanctions on any country.

Even though Serbia has always formally supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including when the annexation of Crimea took place in 2014, it has never shown readiness to comply with EU declarations against Russia – a country which Serbia considers one of the key pillars of its foreign policy. This, in addition to non-compliance with the EU declarations against China, contributed to the fact that Serbia’s overall degree of alignment was only 61% as of August 2021, which is far below the average of other countries in the accession process, except Bosnia and Herzegovina. Furthermore, the fact that Serbia previously established a Strategic Partnership with Russia, participated in military exercises (together with Belarus) and bought weapons from Russia, and signed a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union only further entrenched the EU’s belief that the process of development of political and economic ties between Serbia and Russia has no end. At the same time, the EU remains Serbia’s largest trade partner and the biggest donor, all while being a community whose values ​​Serbia is attached to and in whose membership, at least declaratively, it sees itself in. Given that there is now a significant escalation of war and raising stakes, Serbia’s attempts to balance the two sides will almost certainly be questioned by its European partners.

Although a negotiating country has no formal obligation to fully align its foreign policy with that of the Union until it becomes a member, while being free to sign agreements with third countries and organisations until accession, it still has certain obligations in this area. Namely, back in 2008, Serbia signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) and agreed to work through political dialogue with the EU on “increasing convergence of positions of the parties on international issues, including the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy issues” (CFSP). This type of cooperation was further concretised during the opening of accession negotiations in 2014 when the EU stated in the Negotiating Framework that “Serbia will be required to progressively align its policies towards third countries, and its positions within international organisations with the policies and positions adopted by the EU and its Member States.” Accordingly, it is possible that Brussels will perceive Serbia’s unwillingness to impose sanctions against Russia as another argument in favour of the notion that it is not serious about its European path and that it is, in fact, a “Russian pawn”.

What has further diminished the chances that Serbia will meet EU expectations by imposing sanctions is that it is facing local, parliamentary, and presidential elections. Bearing in mind that the relations between Serbia and Russia have always played a significant role in the eyes of the citizens during the previous election campaigns, it is likely that this will be the case in the upcoming elections as well. The Russian president is the most popular foreign leader in Serbia, while 83% of Serbian citizens consider Russia a “friend”. Narrative of this kind was being built for many years with the help of the media, which, as the president himself admits, appear with a dominant pro-Russian attitude. Bearing in mind the existence of the strong narrative of Serbian-Russian friendship, and the fact that Russia continues to support Serbia’s territorial integrity, it was unrealistic to expect Serbian officials to turn their back on Russia amid the election campaign. Therefore, the timing did not work in favour of those who hoped that the current crisis could potentially be a historical turning point for Serbia’s foreign policy.

Newspapers in Serbia showing biased pro-Russian narrative in 2022

A moment of (possible) change

Immediately after the war broke out, it became clear that Europe would not be the same. In that context, it is legitimate to ask how this can affect the enlargement policy, i.e. the relations between Serbia and the EU. It can be assumed that the first impulse of many in the Union will be negative when it comes to Serbia’s decision not to impose sanctions on Russia. Nevertheless, the broader view of the geostrategic importance of further integration of the Western Balkans indicates the need to further strengthen the enlargement policy and its incentive mechanisms. It is no secret that the enlargement policy is a tool that should not only encourage the democratic transformation of the region but also strengthen the EU’s geostrategic position. The fact that the region is of “strategic importance” for the EU was reaffirmed at the last EU-Western Balkan Summit in Brdo in 2021. Given that the enlargement policy is at the moment failing to produce a transformational effect in the case of Serbia, thus also failing to strengthen the overall leverage of the EU, there is a possibility that the crisis on the “Eastern Front” will have a sobering effect on EU leaders when looking at the Western Balkans and Serbia. In other words, if the Union aims to strengthen its strategic autonomy, one of the possible consequences of the current crisis is that the issue of further enlargement will be raised on its agenda.

The staged accession model is one way to ensure further convergence between Serbia and the EU. The model’s basic premise is that leaving the enlargement in the “autopilot” mode is not a sustainable solution for predicting and preventing future crises. Keeping in mind Russia’s existing social, economic, and political capital in Serbia, this model enables the Union to be more actively involved in the race for the “hearts and minds” of the citizens of Serbia. In fact, implementing the mentioned model would enable the development of closer relations with Serbia through the gradual increase of institutional cooperation and financial assistance. This way, on the one hand, citizens would get to grasp tangible benefits even prior to full membership. On the other hand, the involvement of decision-makers from Serbia as observers in meetings focused on the development of foreign policy and other decisions of the Union can create a sense of joint ownership. At the same time, this would prevent avoidance of responsibility due to non-compliance with the positions of the Union when it comes to issues of geostrategic importance. Consequently, although the EU has reason to be dissatisfied with Serbia’s decision to continue balancing between the two sides, this should not necessarily be seen as an insurmountable obstacle on its path to membership, but rather as a chance to consider ideas that could strengthen both the enlargement policy and the EU’s geostrategic position.