The conflicting pressures on Serbia became apparent Nov. 20, when EU Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn met Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic and emphasized the importance of Serbia's alignment with EU foreign policy if Belgrade wanted to join the Continental bloc. In an interview with Serbian media, Hahn said that Brussels expects Belgrade to honor its commitments as a candidate country. That same day, a spokesperson for the Russian Foreign Ministry said that Moscow hopes that Belgrade will "remember the friendly nature of relations with Russia" when it decides whether to join the EU sanctions. Caught between Europe and Russia, the Serbian government tried to please both allies by saying that Belgrade considers EU accession a priority but making clear that Serbia would not apply economic sanctions against Russia.
Serbia's Permanent Balancing Act
Serbia's location in the Western Balkans has traditionally put Belgrade under the influence of its powerful neighbors, including Turkey, the Germanic world and Russia. A Serbian kingdom flourished in the Middle Ages, but the fall of Constantinople in 1453 started a process of Ottoman Turkish domination in the Balkans that led to the fall of Belgrade in 1521 and Ottoman expansion in Central Europe. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the Ottomans and the Hapsburg Empire competed for control of the Balkans. Serbian independence was internationally recognized in 1878, but it did not end the contest between foreign powers for domination of the region.
Serbia's relationship with Russia is complex. As a Christian and Western nation, Serbia feels it belongs in Europe. This identification with the West was partly a reaction to Ottoman rule, since Serbia traditionally saw the Hapsburg Empire as a counterweight to the Turks. However, as a Slavic and Orthodox country, Serbia also has a strong cultural bond with Russia. In the late 1870s, Serbia joined Russia in its war against Turkey. Similarly, the close alliance between the Kingdom of Serbia and the Russian Empire was one of the triggers of World War I.
Serbia's permanent balancing act became clear once again during the Cold War, when the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia refused to align with the Soviet Union but never fully broke with Moscow. At the same time, Yugoslav President Josip Tito sought to maintain cordial relations with the United States and Western Europe. His strategy was to play Moscow and the United States against each other in an effort to extract concessions from both. This strategy still largely shapes Serbia's relationship with Russia and the West.
In the 1990s, the collapse of Yugoslavia led to ethnic wars in the Western Balkans, which left Serbia increasingly isolated. Belgrade began its slow return to the international arena in the early 2000s, when Boris Tadic became Serbia's president after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic. During these years, Serbia improved its relations with NATO and applied for EU membership. Serbia formally became a EU candidate in 2012, and official membership negotiations began in January 2014.
However, Serbia also kept a close economic and political relationship with Russia. Belgrade and Moscow signed a free-trade agreement in 2000. In 2006, Gazprom and Serbian state-owned natural gas company Srbijagas began the first negotiations for the construction of the South Stream pipeline. Serbia is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas, and Russia is Serbia's third-largest source of imports and fourth-largest destination for exports. Moreover, in April 2013 Russia agreed to lend Serbia $500 million. Russia is also a key political ally for Serbia, because Moscow does not recognize Kosovo's independence and is one of Belgrade's main supporters in its claims over the rebel territory.
Serbia's complex foreign policy is not without risks, and the crisis in Ukraine is making Belgrade's balancing act increasingly difficult to maintain. On Nov. 16, German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed concern about Russia's influence in the Western Balkans, and mentioned Serbia as one of the places where Russia's presence is worrisome. Germany is concerned that Russia is using its cultural ties with Serbia (and, by extension, with the Serbian populations in Bosnia and Montenegro), as well as its economic ties with countries such as Hungary and Bulgaria, to deepen the political fragmentation in the European Union. This explains Brussels' renewed pressure on Belgrade to enact sanctions against Russia.
The Serbians are interested in preserving their accession negotiations with the European Union because European integration means investment, funding and access to European markets. But Belgrade also understands that the negotiations will take a long time, particularly in the context of growing nationalism in Europe and the "enlargement fatigue" that followed the bloc's enormous expansion in 2004-2007. The European Union has said that Serbia has to make significant improvement in areas from institutional transparency to fighting organized crime before it can join the bloc. A political settlement with Kosovo will also likely be a prerequisite for accession, even if formal recognition of its independence by Belgrade is unlikely. Belgrade understands that, from Russia's perspective, an alliance with Serbia is important but not fundamental. Serbia cannot completely break with Europe, because Russia is probably not willing to become Serbia's sole sponsor.
Belgrade will be able to maintain its balancing act between Russia and the West for a few more years. This means slowly implementing the reforms requested by Brussels without fully aligning with policies that could hurt Serbia's ties with Russia. Over time, this strategy will prove problematic, as the progress in Belgrade's negotiations with the European Union will lead to increasing conflicts of interest. For now, however, Serbia will be able to appease both Russia and the West.