Two years ago, the world entered a pandemic and a state of emergency, and today we are in a state of war. Just when we thought the pandemic was over, the world entered a new crisis. The crisis in Ukraine already has its consequences for the world economy, and it also has political consequences for the relations between the countries. The crisis will not bypass either the Western Balkans or Serbia, because Belgrade is expected to make a clear statement on the Russian invasion. President Vucic has already said that Serbia is under enormous pressure to impose sanctions on Russia, which could disrupt relations between Moscow and Belgrade, but also jeopardize Russia's gas supply to Serbia.
Serbia: walking on a tightrope between Russia and the West
At this moment, Serbia will not impose sanctions on Russia, although it is under pressure to do so, but President Vucic will certainly try to postpone the final decision at least until the elections. Serbia has built its foreign policy position of neutrality, but the room for maneuver for that is getting smaller. There are times in history when joining one side or the other can determine a country's movements in the long or medium term. Although it is not a member of NATO, Serbia is surrounded by NATO on all sides, while it has close cooperation with the Alliance. The Serbian position is further complicated by the issue of Kosovo, because if Serbia's position is that the territorial integrity and sovereignty of each state must be respected, then such an attitude must be applied to Ukraine as well. On the other hand, Russian officials used the issue of Kosovo as an excuse that Russia has the right to do the same thing that the West did before.
If Serbia joins the Western sanctions on Russia, that could additionally endanger the relations with Moscow, which have been on shaky feet for years. Although Russia is presented in Serbia as its best friend, in Russia itself Vucic has been described for years as a pro-Western man whom Putin does not trust. Because of the policy of sitting on two chairs in crises like this, Vucic loses credibility on both sides where no one trusts him and he is not a reliable partner. The biggest fear of the authorities in Belgrade from imposing sanctions on Russia is how it would reflect on the energy stability of the country, having in mind that Serbia is completely dependent on Russian gas. Another fear of the authorities is how such a decision would reflect on the mood of the pro-Russian part of the electorate a month before the elections. Because of these fears, President Vucic will try to postpone any decision as much as possible.
However, after hesitating initially to take a stand, Serbia eventually said it supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and then voted for the UN resolution condemning the Russian aggression.
On the other hand, Serbia is still trying to preserve its relations with Russia by not imposing sanctions on it.
Belgrade is one of the very few European cities where Russians can fly directly from Moscow. In that way, Russians exploit a Serbian backdoor loophole to avoid EU flights ban. Air Serbia has 15 direct flights per week from Moscow to Belgrade, which is twice the number of daily flights before the war. The latest news is that the West has put pressure on Belgrade to decrease the number of flights, putting it back to the number before the invasion.
The War in Ukraine may push the Western Balkans, once and for all, in the Western camp
Although Russia has no strategy for action in the Western Balkans other than boycotting the West, it is to be expected that the Russians will try to create a picture of political instability in the region through their proxies. Several rallies in support of Russia have been organized in Belgrade, backed by extreme right-wing groups suspected of being funded by Russians. However, such groups are marginal in the Serbian society, although a large number of citizens support Russian President Putin. Riots can be caused only by those who are paid for it, and such a thing can be expected in the Republika Srpska as well. That is why NATO has announced its increased presence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is marked by a political crisis fuelled by Republika Srpska’s independence drive. It is not realistic to expect that the Russians can change the political trends in the Western Balkans, as the countries in the region have signalled for years their desire to join the Western world through EU and, in some cases, NATO integration. Only Serbia remains an ally that Moscow can count on, but even that is more of an image being created than a political reality. Despite military and energy co-operation between Moscow and Belgrade, Serbia is most economically dependent on the West.
Ukraine recently signed an application seeking EU membership, which was accepted by the European Parliament, but in reality it is more of a symbolic message. Any decision on enlargement must be adopted unanimously by all member states.
The EU could make the strategic decision to let Ukraine bypass the que of Western Balkans countries that have been on the European path for a long time. Such a choice would call into question the entire accession process and the negotiations – some of them stalled for years – with the Western Balkans countries. Such an EU approach could jeopardize the Union's credibility in this part of Europe in the long run.
However, the EU does have an option to keep its credibility and speed up Ukraine’s accession (which is highly unlikely when the war is still raging and in the near future): it can take the strategic decision to allow the entire Western Balkans region to join it as soon as possible. This would be a geostrategic decision of the EU as it was when Romania and Bulgaria were admitted to the community although they were not up to the general standards of the EU – in fact, even now, 15 years later, the two countries still have a lot of catching up to do.
This, of course, should be preceded by a policy of alignment of the Western Balkan countries with EU foreign and security policy. Serbia has not imposed sanctions on Russia, but it is getting closer to that; if or when it will do it, Belgrade could compensate its drift away from Russia by forging a stronger alliance with the West. Serbia would certainly not impose sanctions on Russia without receiving a reward or a rescue parachute from the West. EU membership could be that parachute.
The most important thing is that the Serbian authorities recognize this moment as one that will determine the direction of the country in the years, if not decades to come. There is a genuine sympathy for Russia, but Serbia must look after its own interests in this case and recognize that it belongs to the Western value system in every sense. Geographically, culturally, and economically Serbia is mostly connected to the Western world already.
So it all boils down to two choices – either opting for the civilised world, and taking steps to defend the international order and international law, or siding with with an isolated country in which no one sees a partner anymore.