EU Plays Hardball With Serbia Over Its Russia Ties

By Conor Gallagher

Much like Ankara, Belgrade has tried to stay above the fray in the conflict between NATO and Russia. While Serbia doesn’t share the same geographic significance and isn’t a member of NATO like Turkey, it is one of Russia’s strongest allies in Europe, and is now receiving the same pressure to choose a side.

Comments from European leaders describe how Serbia’s long-term goal of joining the EU is at risk due to its friendliness with Moscow.

In the more immediate term, Belgrade is facing an economic fallout from newly restricted energy supplies, and the move risks inflaming tensions between longtime adversaries Croatia and Serbia and within Bosnia where both countries support ethnonationalist parties.

The most recent round of EU sanctions prohibits the transport of Russian oil across Croatia to Serbia, one of the few European countries not to join the sanctions party against Moscow. From Euractiv:

Until recently, Serbia had hoped that Croatia’s pipeline operator JANAF would continue to ship Russian crude oil, brought to Croatia on oil tankers, to NIS, in line with an agreement signed in January. This came to an end with the latest sanctions agreement.

In Prague for the inaugural meeting of the European Political Community, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic told reporters that Croatia had “already boasted and taken credit for the full ban on Russian oil transport.”

Serbia has no outlets to the sea and will therefore be forced to pay much higher prices to import oil than they would have with its deal with Russia.

“Croatia does not create our foreign policy,” Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said. “It is created by our citizens, through their democratically elected representatives.”

The Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, meanwhile, said “Serbia cannot sit on two stools and expect progress on its European path while disrespecting sanctions against Russia.”

Serbia is in a tough spot as the EU is its top trading partner while Russia comes in second. 63% of Serbia’s overall trade in 2019 was done with the European Union. Russia and China rank respectively on second and third places but at considerably lower trade levels – ten times lower than trade between Serbia and the EU, but Serbia has relied on Russian gas and oil imports.

But Serbia in recent years has looked increasingly eastwards for trade – even signing a trade deal with the Russian-led Eurasian Union in 2019 despite threats from Brussels. Belgrade and Moscow also have strong military cooperation, and Russia supports Serbia internationally on issues such as Kosovo.

Serbia’s sole oil company is NIS, in which Russian Gazprom Neft and Gazprom together hold a majority stake. For natural gas, Serbia relies on the Turkstream pipeline that carries supplies from Russia to Turkey and onto Serbia via Bulgaria, but Turkstream is also under threat from sanctions and other means.

In May Serbia secured a new three-year deal with Gazprom for natural gas, and Belgrade is now working on a pipeline from Hungary that will transport Russian oil. From Al Jazeera:

Hungary and Serbia have agreed to build a pipeline to supply Serbia with Russia’s crude oil as European Union sanctions limit supplies via Croatia, the Hungarian government has announced.

Hungary has been critical of EU sanctions against Russia. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has said the sanctions have “failed as governments in Europe are collapsing ‘like dominoes’”.

Inside Serbia the public is overwhelmingly opposed to adopting sanctions on Russia.

Croatia leading the charge as the EU demands Belgrade turn away from Russia is causing alarm in Serbia. The Western media often explain that Serbia and Russia have close ties due to Orthodox Crhristianity being the major religion in both countries. What they always omit though is how both countries share a common recent history of being attacked by forces from the heart of Europe. From Diana Johnstone:

During World War II, German occupation had split [Yugoslavia] apart. Serbia, allied to France and Britain in World War I, was subject to a punishing occupation. Idyllic Slovenia was absorbed into the Third Reich, while Germany supported an independent Croatia, ruled by the fascist Ustasha party, which included most of Bosnia, scene of the bloodiest internal fighting. When the war ended, many Croatian Ustasha emigrated to Germany, the United States and Canada, never giving up the hope of reviving secessionist Croatian nationalism.

In Washington in the 1990s, members of Congress got their impressions of Yugoslavia from a single expert: 35-year-old Croatian-American Mira Baratta, assistant to Sen. Bob Dole (Republican presidential candidate in 1996). Baratta’s grandfather had been an important Ustasha officer in Bosnia and her father was active in the Croatian diaspora in California. Baratta won over not only Dole but virtually the whole Congress to the Croatian version of Yugoslav conflicts blaming everything on the Serbs.

Now leaders across the EU are saying that Serbia’s reluctance to support EU sanctions against Russia could threaten the country’s ambition to join the European Union. From the Serbian Monitor:

The head of European diplomacy, Josep Borrell, said that Serbia’s EU accession process will be ‘slowed down’ if Belgrade does not impose sanctions on Russia.

Borrell told N1 television that “the EU accession process requires alignment with its foreign policy”. “In the European Commission report, we see that Serbia, as well as Turkey, are wavering on the issue of alignment with EU foreign policy. The decline in alignment combined with close relations with the Putin regime means that there is no choice but to signal a decline in alignment within Chapter 31,” Borrell said. He also stated that ‘there is no deadline’ by which Serbia must introduce sanctions against Russia and added that Serbia ‘must follow EU foreign policy’.

EU Vice-President Margaritis Schinas recently told Euronews that “many leaders are looking around and they expect everybody to share the communality of the project in these difficult moments, and in particular those who aspire to be with us”.

The European Union and the US are questioning Serbia’s commitment to join the EU after Belgrade signed an agreement with Moscow pledging long-term “consultations” on foreign policy matters amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.

US Ambassador to Serbia Christopher R Hill said “further alignment with Russia is a step in the wrong direction and contrary to Serbia’s stated European aspirations”.

“The United States believes that no country should be expanding cooperation with Russia while it continues its war of aggression against Ukraine,” Hill said in a statement to The Associated Press.

Additionally Brussels offered a pointed rebuke to Belgrade on October 12 when the EU Commission advised member states to grant Bosnia and Herzegovina candidate status, but criticized Serbia for not aligning with the bloc on Russia sanctions. From the EU Observer:

The commission’s report noted that “Serbia did not align with the EU restrictive measures against Russia”, and its “alignment rate” on council decisions and declarations by the EU’s foreign affairs chief dropped from 64 percent in 2020 to 45 percent in 2022.

The EU executive also said in its report that as “a matter of priority”, Serbia needs to fulfill its commitment to align with EU sanctions.

The commission also said Serbia needs to robustly tackle all forms of “disinformation.”

In other words, Brussels is demanding Serbia cut ties with Russia and join the bloc in committing economic suicide or else.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    ‘Now leaders across the EU are saying that Serbia’s reluctance to support EU sanctions against Russia could threaten the country’s ambition to join the European Union.’

    I’m sure that those EU leaders consider that a threat but if I was Serbia, I would consider that a bonus. More and more, the EU is acting like a mafia organization.

    Excellent post by the way.

    1. digi_owl

      Basically the threat is a “dog whistle” to the Serbia’s cosmopolitan PMCs to get started on a color revolution…

    2. WillD

      Totally agree. Serbia can see quite clearly what membership of the EU would be like. It would have to surrender its sovereignty and bend its knee to EU dictates.

  2. hk

    Another useful analogue: both Croatian and Ukrainian ultranationalists during WW2 weren’t only openly pro-Nazi, but also Catholic. Cardinals Stepinac and Slipyj are both highly regarded among their populations despite their questionable relationship with the Nazis. (Not fair to call either “sympathetic” to the Nazis, but both seem to have preferred them over Serbs, Russians, or communitists.)

    1. digi_owl

      Because communists were anti-religion, thanks to Marx’s offhand remark about it being the opium of the people. And Serbs and Russians are orthodox, not Catholic.

      And Nazis were to some degree traditionalists, or at least gave traditions lip service.

      1. hk

        In Ukraine, things were a bit worse: Tsars decided that there is no such thing as Uniates–if you act Orthodox, but are loyal to the Pope, then you are traitors. This was, incidentally, how the Uniate Church survived mainly in Habsburg domains (Galicia). Once USSR took possession of Western Ukraine, the Tsarist practice continued with vengeance, thanks to events if WW2: the Orthodox Church gained a fair bit of cred with the Soviet authorities b/c of the help it provided in galvanizing patriotism. The Uniates, otoh, really made themselves visible as “traitors” by cooperating with Banderites. Thus, the analogue with Croatia: Ustashe, who were not merely ultranationalists actively cooperating with the Nazis but also proclaimed themselves a friend and protector of the Croatian Catholic Church, whose leadership was already generally of nationalist or even ultranationalist persuasion anyways.

      2. Soredemos

        It wasn’t an offhand remark, it was part of a longer section making a very specific critique. Most people just see the excerpt and ‘know’ what he’s saying.

        What he was actually saying was first a praise of religion as a thing that comforts people who need it, and then criticism because people seek comfort in it and then do nothing to better their conditions. They convince themselves that the scales will ultimately be supernaturally balanced so they just have to suck it up and endure suffering now and wait for the afterlife. Don’t try and make a heaven on earth and instead wait for literal heaven. It not only engenders passivity, it elevates passivity into a virtue (“turn the other cheek”).

        Marx was making similar critiques as Nietzsche would make make later with his ‘slave morality’ stuff, only coming from very different parts of the political spectrum.

    2. V86

      This is not fully correct. Viktor Novak, Croatian and subsequently Yugoslav historian detailed in his book Magnum Crimen, how the Catholic church effectively manufactured the Ustasha movement and fed Croat nationalism, whose members included Catholic clerics, responsible for some of the most heinous crimes in Ustasha concentration camps. The Ustasha resembled the Nazis in form and method, but their origin and inspiration is quite different.

  3. Bart Hansen

    From Diana Johnstone: “Baratta won over not only Dole but virtually the whole Congress to the Croatian version of Yugoslav conflicts blaming everything on the Serbs.”

    Rings a bell? Wm Browder did the same with Congress by convincing them to pass the odious Magnitsky Act in honor of his accountant whom he threw under the bus.

    1. digi_owl

      Good point and thanks for the reminder.

      As i recall, it seemed just as much a show of force by Xi as an actual meaningful delivery.

      This because the way they did it demonstrated that China now has just as much the capacity to airlift an army to a conflict as say USA.

      1. KD

        China has built a new cultural center in Belgrade at the site of its former embassy that was bombed in a NATO air strike in 1999.

        During a recent reporting trip to Serbia, I reported on where the construction of the center stands now and the symbolic role it could play for China in the Balkans.

        The Details: Despite not being officially opened yet, the center appears to be in full swing.

        Staff come and go regularly and the Chamber of Chinese Companies, which is part of the complex, opened this spring. The center is slated to be one of the largest in all of Europe and will house classrooms, a Confucius Institute, exhibitions, office space for Chinese and Serbian companies, and also accommodation for diplomats and other visiting delegations.

        But beyond its practical functions, it holds deep symbolic value.

        The 1999 bombing of the embassy by NATO and the perceived tragedy and humiliation suffered at the hands of the West serves as a basis for Belgrade and Beijing’s ties.

        The emphasis on the center is also a sign that after years of pouring billions worth of investment and loans into Serbia that China is looking to expand its cultural footprint, too.

        “We should look at [the center] as not only a hub for China’s presence in Serbia, but also as a hub with the potential to spread the influence of Chinese companies and culture across the Balkans,” Stefan Vladisavljev, an expert on Beijing’s role in the Balkans and program director at Foundation BFPE, a Belgrade-based think tank, told me.

  4. voislav

    The situation is more complicated than this. Serbia’s EU talks have been stalled since about 2012 because Serbia has made no progress in critical areas, like judiciary, corruption and media. All national media is controlled by Serbian president Vucic and his allies, the only exceptions are a cable provider SBB which runs its own media arm (N1 and Nova regional networks) and several smaller newspapers.

    Behind the scenes, there is a ongoing power struggle between Vucic and his own party. Elections earlier in the year showed that Vucic’s party has much worse rating than him personally, so he is working on ditching the party in favour of some nebulous “national movement”. His party (SNS) has been mired in a number of corruption scandals since the beginning of the year, allegedly due to EU pressure on Vucic to “clean the house”. Scandals have hit some influential members of the party, so the long-time party members are now feeling betrayed by Vucic and his family, especially since Vucic, as a part of house-claning, brought in some new faces into the party for last election, for example the new Mayor of Belgrade Aleksandar Sapic.

    Most prominently, Miroslav Dodik, leader of the Serbian entity in Bosnia and long time ally of Vucic, has been thrown overboard. In fact, some of Vucic’s closest allies have been caught in Bosnia purchasing votes for the opposition parties in the recent elections. Rumors are that Dodik’s removal has been requested by the EU as a price for allowing leniency on Russia sanctions, meaning sanctions will be officially announced but slow/incomplete implementation will be tolerated by the EU.

    So Vucic put himself in a difficult situation, he has to make some very unpopular decisions with regards to Russia, complicated by a large influx of Russians and Russian money into Serbia since the beginning of the war. At the same time, out of personal hubris he started dismantling his own power base and alienating his own party. He is deeply involved with local organized crime, some of these act as his perosnal security detail. These are extremely pro-Russian, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he is unable to impose sanctions on Russia due to concerns for his own life.

    Looming over everything is also the question of Kosovo, which is being pushed again by France and Germany, primarily by Macron, who seems to see this as an opportunity to establish himself as the EU leader, now that Merkel has been replaced by largely ineffective Scholz.

    1. hk

      Thanks. Fascinating that there’s almost always some domestic angle to foreign policy issues in every country.

    2. DigitalSheep

      Serbia needs to make a progress in the judiciary not because of the EU joining, but because of itself. EU doesn’t care about that, it is only an excuse.

      Regarding Dodik, ties between Vucic and Dodik were unclear. Dodik itself is much more politically mature (and older) than Vucic, and EU and collective West have brought him to power and put there for almost 2 decades (supporting him financially through their usual suspects IMF/WB). If they wanted him removed, they would and could have done it a long time ago.

      Regarding Bosnian recent elections, they were rigged big time by the Dodik and even high representative Schmidt supported him directly saying there were only ‘minor irregularities’ which turned to be total lie.

    3. trapped in Europe

      Serbia’s EU talks have been stalled since about 2012 because Serbia has made no progress in critical areas, like judiciary, corruption and media.

      Has Romania made more progress in these areas? I think we all know that Serbia can make all the progress in the world but will never get accepted into the EU unless it cuts its ties with Russia.

      Apart from that thanks for your informative post.

  5. Rip Van Winkle

    Attention all Archdukes – make sure you have a competent chauffeur and please shave your mustaches!

    Yves, appreciated your insights on the recent Gonzalo Roundtable.

    The next Roundtable sort on went off the rails when the topic of bricks (not to be confused with BRICS) came up.

  6. Yes!

    Serbia is again the victim. Never responsible for any wars throughout history, never comitted any wrongdoings whatsoever, a completely innocent rabbit in the headlights of Western elites. Yes.

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