Serbia’s EU ambition

by Cristian Florescu

In Serbia’s predominantly Russia-leaning public space, aligning with the bloc as an EU candidate country is not a popular political message ahead of the parliamentary, presidential, and Belgrade elections on 3 April, writes EURACTIV

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine took place amid Serbia’s election campaign. Since the start of the war, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has tried to cautiously balance between the West and East, prompting many in Brussels to warn that he cannot continue sitting on the fence.

Serbia, which has been negotiating for EU membership for eight years, is the only country in Europe besides Belarus that has not joined the EU sanctions against Russia.

While mass rallies of support for Ukraine were held across Europe, a massive protest in support of Russia took place in Belgrade, confirming Serbia’s traditional ties with Moscow.

Although the authorities in Belgrade continue to say Serbia will not join the EU sanctions, the latest developments in which Serbia chose for the first time a symbolic sanction against former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych suggest that Serbia will probably choose from the “menu” of the already adopted EU restrictive measures against Russia picking the ones that cause the least damage to its good relations with Moscow.

Since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Serbia has not adopted any of the EU’s related foreign policy positions or restrictive measures against Russia.

However, this month, Serbia aligned itself for the first time with an EU measure concerning the crisis in Ukraine. It related to 2014 and a decision by the EU Council to extend sanctions against Yanukovych and other representatives of the then Ukrainian leadership.

After the Euromaidan revolution and fall from power in 2014, Yanukovych fled to Russia, and according to media reports, he is now a Russian. The EU imposed sanctions on Yanukovych in 2014 for “misuse of state resources and human rights violations.”

The alignment with the EU restrictive measure against Yanukovych was kept low key. It was announced on the EU website on 12 March, but the Serbian public only found out about it after European Western Balkans reported the news three days later.

When the pro-government media carried this news, they did not say it was Serbia’s first alignment with the EU policy over Ukraine.

The news only became public after the Dutch embassy in Belgrade said it welcomed this decision. Serbia’s Prime Minister Ana Brnabić then stated that Serbia had joined in the condemnation but voiced hope that the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, would not blame Serbia for that. Last year, Vučić emphasised that the harmonisation of his country with the foreign policy was raised from 46% to 62%, which in his words, “fulfilled the promise” of Serbia.

According to the ISAC Fund, a think-tank based in Belgrade, from 1 January to 31 December 2021, the European Union issued 85 foreign policy declarations asking the candidate countries and partner countries to comply, and Serbia harmonised with 52 of them.

This percentage is an absolute low for a Western Balkans country. In comparison, Albania and Montenegro were fully aligned, with North Macedonia at 96% and Bosnia and Herzegovina at 70%.

Alignment with Borrell’s declaration was essential because Serbia’s attitude towards these documents is monitored in Brussels and included in the final percentage of Serbia’s compliance with EU foreign policy, which is necessary for progress towards EU membership.

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