6 min read — Analysis | Serbia | Russia | Policy
A Walk on Thin Ice: Serbia’s Balancing Act Between Russia and the EU
By Aleksander Dragic
January 12, 2023 | 13:20
Within the first months of the Ukrainian war we have witnessed countries aligning themselves with either side, in one way or another. Although in the beginning a bit lethargic, the EU reacted by imposing heavy sanctions on Russia and sending Ukraine the aid it could. Since then, many countries have imposed their own kinds of measures or sanctions towards Russia and its ruling elite.
With ‘traditionally’ neutral countries such as Switzerland, Sweden and Finland taking certain actions such as joining EU-led sanctions and some even going as far as requesting to join NATO, why is it that Serbia hasn’t taken any stance in the conflict?
Serbia’s Neutrality: The first tip of the scale
Serbia’s constitution adopted in 2006 stating that Serbia shall not take part in any military alliances may be one of the reasons for this ‘neutral’ stance. However, this is unlikely the case. Both Switzerland and Austria, because they are not members of any military alliance (nor have any aspirations to join any) have had no problem in joining the EU-led sanctions and openly taking Ukraine’s side. How can we then understand Serbia’s reluctancy towards taking any firm stance in this conflict?
Long story short, from possessing EU candidate status since March 2012 to receiving various developmental funds from the Union combined with direct EU investments: Serbia is tied to the EU in several ways. Additionally, Serbia shares around 2/3 of its border with EU countries, making most of its trade (imports and exports) EU-oriented. And with all other candidate countries in the Balkans (Montenegro, North Macedonia, Albania) having no problem imposing EU-led sanctions on Russia, it makes one wonder why Serbia hasn’t done so as well.
Serbia’s Neutrality: The other tip of the scale
One of the main reasons for which Serbia is not imposing any sanctions on Russia is because Serbia needs Russian support in the UN Security Council to veto any attempt from Kosovo to join the UN (a partially recognized state which Serbia still considers its own). Talks between Serbia and Kosovo have been intensively held since the Brussels Agreement in 2013. However, for Kosovo, gaining a seat at the UN could mean increasing its standing against Serbia in the ongoing dialogue in the Belgian capital. Thus, having Russia’s veto in the UN Security Council allows for Serbia to leverage Kosovo’s UN membership in the negotiations. Sanctioning or directly taking a stance against Russia would thus negatively affect Serbia’s national interest regarding the Kosovar question.
Moreover, sanctioning Russia would not only cause Serbia to lose critical support that Russia would offer as a permanent member of the UN security council, but would also prove contrary to Serbian public opinion which possesses a particularly positive opinion of Russia—mostly because of the role it played in Serbia’s war for independence from the Ottoman, and to some extent Austrian occupations. Similarly, Russia paid a big price when it stood alongside Serbia in World War I: an alliance which culminated in the fall of its Empire. In the last few decades, political parties in Serbia have tried to nurture the good relations that both countries had before their communist period, which in turn shaped people’s perception of Russia as akin to a brotherly nation. All in all, while not directly linked, historical factors may be argued to have played a significant role in shaping Belgrade’s foreign policy stance regarding the Ukrainian war.
Thus, two conflicting perspectives arise. On the one hand, we have the obvious economic benefits Serbia receives from the EU’s pre-accession funds; and on the other, a more traditional approach that Russia is trying to preserve and present to Serbia by supporting its sovereignty and playing on the positive feeling that Serbians have towards Russia. Torn by EU economic dependency on one tip of the scale and Russia’s UN veto on the other, Serbia is trying not to stir any of the sides in the hopes it can pass unscathed.
The Thin Ice and its Implications
For now, Serbia has managed to ‘please’ both sides to a certain extent. It has voted in favour of condemning Russia in the UN and has supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity, refusing to recognise the breakaway regions of the Donbass and Crimea. In opposition, it hasn’t introduced any Russian sanctions and continues to have flights to Russia via its national AirSerbia airline.
Serbia did, however, introduce certain sanctions towards Belarus over its involvement in the Ukrainian war. As contradictory as it seems, Serbia is sanctioning a country which is still not directly involved in the conflict while refusing to sanction the country that is most responsible for the war. This is a prime example of a ‘walk on thin ice’ or a ‘walk on thin wire’ as people would say in Serbia (‘шетња по танком леду’). Belgrade is attempting to prove to the EU that it stands by its principles and beliefs while at the same time trying to keep the leverage it has on Russia’s veto powers in the UN. In a way, Serbia is aiming to protect its national interests by remaining loyal to both sides (or rather, by not angering anyone).
Notwithstanding, many remain oblivious to the fact that Serbia currently serves as a safe haven for numerous Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians fleeing westward. What’s more, many of these émigrés have joined together in protest against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, countering the already-existent pro-Russian protests also held in Serbia since the beginning of the war. This new wave of people arriving from regions involved in the conflict has turned Serbia into a new refuge for Russians and Belarusians who oppose their states’ policies but do not react for fear of possible reprisals from their respective governments. Having taken advantage of Serbia’s unique neutrality in the conflict, the possibility for Russians, Belarus, and Ukrainians to live together without fear of discrimination has arisen.
Another matter which lacks enough attention is that there have been some indications of Serbian weapons being sold to Ukraine even before the current war. Most recently, a Ukrainian plane crash that was carrying Serbian weapons has opened up a question concerning which side Serbia really supports in the conflict.
Whether the outcome of Serbia’s ‘forced’ neutrality has a positive or a negative effect remains to be determined.
In the worst-case scenario, Serbia may be left isolated and without help from either side of the conflict. It could lose its leverage in the Kosovo dialogue if Russia places Serbia on its ‘enemy countries’ list. On the other hand, disappointing the EU and losing all funding from the Union with the possibility of endangering its visa-free regime could spell disaster for a country that is so dependent on EU funds.
In the case that Serbia’s neutrality yields fruit, Serbia could find itself in a very comfortable position. It would preserve good relations with both the EU and Russia, maintaining the flow of EU funds and a visa-free regime while reaping the benefits of cheap Russian gas and support in the UN security council.
Interestingly, this is something that Serbia—as part of Yugoslavia—enjoyed during the Cold War, refraining from joining NATO or the so-called Soviet bloc and Warsaw Pact. This enabled Yugoslavia to place itself in a unique position as a desirable partner for both the western and the eastern blocs which in turn achieved particularly positive effects on its development.
It’s hard to say what kind of repercussions Serbia’s neutrality will have in the coming months of the conflict. There is a possibility that its neutrality will simply be interpreted as a kind of reluctance or indecisiveness, risking to ruin its relations with other countries involved in the current war.
Nevertheless, we must recall that each country has its own unique circumstances and complications. Because of this, it might not be wise to ridicule a country’s stance before understanding what led it to its path and what consequences taking a side would mean for its national interests and prosperity. In the Serbian case, its neutrality might turn out to be something positive for many Russians and Belarusians as the country provides a refuge from their governments’ further mobilisations or vendetta where they may feel more welcomed and less discriminated against as opposed to their reception in other European countries.