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Serbia at the crossroads between the West and the East

For the last two decades, Serbia has been engaged in the European integration process with the ultimate goal of becoming a full-fledged member of the EU. Yet, what has complicated Serbia’s path and made its stand out from the rest of the region is the fact that a part of its territory declared independence from it in 2008, representing an issue which essentially hijacked Serbia’s foreign policy and defined its relationships with global and regional actors. For this reason, Serbia’s willingness to attempt to balance between the East and the West is a phenomenon that has accompanied its path towards the EU. What has drawn concern is that this phenomenon has become more prevalent in recent years, particularly as the number of foreign actors with whom Serbia has intensified relations has increased, while its international relations at the global scale have become more complicated.

As the coming years do not seem promising in terms of accelerating Serbia’s accession process to the EU, particularly as Serbia records no progress in comprehensive rule of law reforms, many have warned that further involvement by external actors in the country will be at the expense of the EU’s leverage and Serbia’s accession process. In this context, the activities of China, Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and the United Arab Emirates have an increased importance, particularly as these countries’ common denominator is their lack of emphasis on democratic institutions and rule of law standards. For this reason, this policy study tackles the question of whether, and to what extent, their values and methods of governance can spread to Serbia and thus hinder its accession process to the EU. Furthermore, this study also analyses the role of the United States in Serbia and its actions in response to these developments, not only as it is a country which has generally kept a significant level of interest in Serbia, but also as it has increasingly taken a role in the Belgrade-Priština dialogue and in limiting Serbia’s ties with China and Russia.

The issues analysed by this study are of grave importance at the moment, as Serbia is a country characterised by elements of “state capture”, as pointed out by the European Commission in 2018, and which is now also seen as a “hybrid regime”, as defined by Freedom House in 2020. Such ratings represent a major setback for Serbia, showing that it is prone to further democratic backsliding. Although this study does not argue that all foreign influence is damaging per see, it appears that Serbia is currently in a position in which it cannot afford to give any space to the kind of influences that could potentially further slow its EU accession process and negatively impact its existing system of governance.

Despite the urgency of the issues at stake, there is a lack of in-depth and comprehensive research to provide evidence-based analysis pointing at the nature and level of impact of the aforementioned foreign actors in Serbia. Recognising the practical and essential value of the EU integration process, the overall aim of this policy study is to support Serbia’s EU perspective by encouraging the rethinking of its existing positions vis-à-vis these various non-EU actors. For this reason, the purpose of this research is to analyse how the changing international environment is affecting Serbia’s EU accession process by looking at the involvement of non-EU actors from the perspectives of their political, economic, and social impacts.

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