Under the current conditions, it is possible to postulate a very fragile balance between the special position of Serbia in relation to Russia and its strategic course towards joining the European Union. This balance is influenced by both the international situation and the dynamics of the internal political struggle in Serbia. Only time will tell where this will lead, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
The Valdai Discussion Club recently held a special expert discussion on the situation in Serbia and the state of Russian-Serbian relations amid the current geopolitical conditions. This meeting expanded upon the Serbian issue in the expert activities of the Valdai Club, which we have addressed before.
Serbia today remains practically the only state in Europe (outside the post-Soviet space) that, to one degree or another, maintains a dialogue with Russia. At the moment, Serbia has not agreed to implement the West’s sanctions against Russia. Air transit is maintained between the two countries: the only direct regular flights between Russia and Europe outside the post-Soviet states and Turkey. Trade ties are developing and cultural and humanitarian cooperation remains at a high level.
This special position of Serbia towards Russia has its own objective reasons. One of them is the countries’ shared historical memory, as our perspectives resonate in several key respects. One of them is connected with the events of the recent past, with Russia’s support for Serbia and Serbian society during the conflicts of the 1990s, which had an especially serious impact on the country. During the events that followed, connected both with the dynamics around Kosovo and with other aspects, Russia was also firmly on the side of Serbia. Second, a large layer of common historical memory is associated with the perception of the much more distant past, both the events of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and the eras preceding them. Orthodox unity has played and continues to play an important role here. We note that this is also important because the current international situation shows us many examples of a rupture within the Orthodox world caused by geopolitical confrontation. In many other cases, our shared faith has faded into the background compared to ideological and political contradictions. In the case of Serbia, this, at least for the moment, has not happened.
As a result, we can conclude that in the context of Russian-Serbian relations, historical memory has a direct and undeniable political significance. It determines not only a certain consonance in the orientations of the societies of our two countries, but also direct interests in political approaches on the part of the authorities of the two states. Thus, the Russian-Serbian example can be considered a testament to the fact that historical memory is actually the very “soft power” that is much talked about in political theory, but which is usually difficult to apply to the analysis of a particular political practice.
However, it is quite natural in the current international situation that Serbia would maintain a special position towards Russia, which distinguishes it from all other European states outside the post-Soviet space and Turkey; consequently, it is now under severe pressure from the US and the EU. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has repeatedly spoken about this pressure in public. As a result of this pressure, in UN voting on resolutions against Russia in 2022-23, Serbia’s voice was also most often cast against Russia. Thus, the country symbolically stood in solidarity with other Western countries in their condemnation of Russia.
Thus, out of six resolutions adopted so far within the framework of the 11th emergency session of the UN General Assembly dedicated to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, Serbia voted “for” in five cases (resolutions ES-11/1, ES-11/2, ES -11/3, ES-11/4, ES 11/6), and abstained only on resolution ES-11/5, which called for Russia to pay reparations. Additionally, since the start of the current conflict, Serbia abstained on resolution 77/229 on human rights in Crimea, adopted within the framework of the ordinary annual session of the UN General Assembly. Thus, judging by the formal results of the vote, the official position of Serbia is not much different from the Western countries. However, the Serbian authorities in this case also publicly said that their position in the voting was due to severe pressure from the European Union and the United States.
Also, the Serbian authorities have explained that the West exerts pressure and the fact that they are encouraged to join the sanctions against Russia. The topic of possible Serbian sanctions against Russia is periodically voiced in the country, and not only at an informal level, but sometimes in statements by the country’s officials. So the current state of affairs may change.
Particular specificity in assessing the dynamics of the Serbian position on relations with Russia is given by the fact that both the authorities of the country and a significant part of Serbian society are set to promote the course towards the European integration of Serbia; towards its future entry into the European Union. At the same time, Serbia is trying to combine this strategic course with maintaining the special nature of relations with Russia. It was not easy to do this prior to the Ukrainian conflict; the Valdai Club wrote about this in 2021. Now, due to the specifics and extreme severity of the current geopolitical situation, it is becoming increasingly difficult to do this.
From a formal point of view, Serbia, as a candidate for EU membership, has the right to maintain a completely independent foreign policy until the moment of accession, and only after accession will its activities fall within the framework of the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU. In fact, it is clear that the EU takes an active interest in candidate countries unofficially following the provisions of the EU Common Foreign Policy even prior to accession, and now this position is becoming more and more rigid. It is obvious that in the current situation, Serbia’s special position on Russia can serve as a stumbling block to European integration. Whether it is completely sacrificed to the strategic course of EU accession because of this, or whether Serbia is able to maintain the current balance remains to be seen. However, it is also clear that Serbia will not be admitted to the European Union in the immediate future in any case. In our subjective opinion, it seems that Serbia will not be the next candidate country from the Western Balkans to join the European Union.
The Kosovo issue has also given the Serbian position certain nuances. The periodic escalation of the conflict between the authorities of Kosovo and the Serb community has, to this day, had a strong political and emotional impact on Serbia. It should be noted that Russia has always officially taken the side of Serbia in all aspects of the Kosovo conflict and continues to follow this policy. In our opinion, the possible entry of Serbian troops into Kosovo in the event of another escalation of the conflict (although permissible within the meaning of the relevant UN resolutions) will obviously put an end to the strategic course towards the European integration of Serbia. This, perhaps, can explain the restrained and balanced position of the Serbian leadership in relation to the recent bursts of escalation, as well as its attempts to resolve the conflict through diplomacy. Therefore, the situation in Kosovo, which is still far from being resolved, will continue to have a direct impact on both foreign and domestic policy in Serbia.
As a result, under the current conditions, it is possible to postulate a very fragile balance between the special position of Serbia in relation to Russia and its strategic course towards joining the European Union. This balance is influenced by both the international situation and the dynamics of the internal political struggle in Serbia. Only time will tell where this will lead.