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Running with hare and hunting with hounds: Serbia’s delicate balancing act

August 2nd, 2016

By Irena Baboi – Research Assistant

Serbia was recently given the green light to begin talks on a unified trade regime with members of the Eurasian Union. Unsurprisingly, the European Union was not pleased with its candidate’s potential move towards the Russian-dominated economic bloc, and experts warned that Serbia has more to lose than gain if it were to go down that path. Add this to Belgrade’s regularly-held joint military exercises with Moscow, as well as the country’s refusal to impose sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea, and it is not difficult to understand why Brussels felt it necessary to send a signal that this dual approach will not be tolerated in the long run. However, even though Serbia has stated that membership of the European Union remains a key priority, its dependency on Russian energy means that the situation is unlikely to change; and until Europe offers Serbia a viable alternative, which would have to include financial aid to improve its energy infrastructure, the latter’s relationship with Russia will only continue to strengthen.

Serbia’s attempt to play on both teams is reminiscent of Ukraine’s employment of a similar strategy before the Russian intervention. Despite repeated warnings from the West and significant pressure from Russia, Kiev never fully committed to either one side or the other for more than a few years at a time. As a consequence, it went from being one of the most strategically important post-socialist states to becoming a source of structural weakness, instability, and even security threats. Serbia finds itself in a similarly strategic position at the moment: it is, arguably, the most important country of the Balkans, and the turn that its relationship with either side takes can have a significant impact on the region as a whole. As such, the European Union’s concerns and warnings are certainly justified, but without a viable alternative on offer, they are likely to ring hollow in Belgrade.

Serbia’s special relationship with Russia, like that of Ukraine, has often been attributed to a long-standing commitment based on Slavic and Orthodox affinities and solidarity on the part of both countries. Special relationships and cultural affinities, however, only go so far; in the long-term, it is material support that ultimately dictates a small country’s orientation and course of action. Much like Ukraine, Serbia is heavily reliant on Russian energy, as 80% of its gas imports come from Moscow; and with Russia charging Serbia considerably higher prices compared to Moldova and Ukraine for instance, it is a lack of choice rather than deep-rooted solidarity that forces Belgrade to tighten its economic partnership with Moscow. Moreover, a country that is dependent on external material support cannot be expected to trade in a “certainly” for a “maybe”; renouncing advantageous import-export deals and the energy needed to survive in exchange for a promise that is likely to not materialise for at least another decade is just too high a price to pay.

Belgrade also understands the advantage of having a powerful friend fighting its battles, especially when that powerful friend is the only one willing to do so. Standing almost alone but refusing to fully compromise on the Kosovo question, Serbia benefits from having a permanent member of the Security Council to take its side. This considerable advantage is not one to be taken lightly, therefore the country is very likely to continue with its balancing act in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, this means that Belgrade will remain trapped in a form of limbo: Russia’s support is essential for Belgrade’s survival, but it also represents yet another significant roadblock to eventual European integration.

Furthermore, Russian gas and international support always come with strings attached. In the last few years, Belgrade has only reluctantly gotten behind Russia’s decisions and action, particularly the latter’s recent conduct towards Ukraine and Turkey. Its position is often dictated by need rather than agreement, and need is a powerful decision-maker. As a consequence, until it becomes a full-fledged member of the European Union, Serbia will continue to find itself between a rock and a hard place: it cannot escape its dependency on Moscow, but the support Belgrade needs to supply in exchange only serves to undermine the country’s image, and even alienate it on the international stage.

Ukraine’s trajectory presents enlightening similarities with the case of Serbia; however, another important parallel needs to be made. In its pre-accession period, it can be argued that Bulgaria also attempted a similar balancing act and, even since having joined both NATO and the European Union, it continues to hold strong economic ties with Moscow. Bulgaria’s similar dependency on Russian gas means that Sofia has never been in a position to completely sever these ties, yet the close relationship between the two countries did not prove an overwhelming obstacle in its accession process. From this point of view, it is tempting to believe that the European Union’s reaction in the case of both Ukraine and Serbia is more an attempt to buy time rather than genuine anger at the close ties between the Slavic countries. The organisation is, arguably for good reasons, not ready to fully commit to Serbia, much as it was not ready to commit to Ukraine; particularly in light of Britain’s recent decision to leave, the Union simply cannot afford to take any more uncertainties on board.

The case of Bulgaria also shows that membership of NATO and the European Union on the one hand and continued dependency on Russian energy on the other are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Although their relationship is arguably significantly weaker since Bulgaria joined the two organisations, the ties with Moscow have never been completely cut. The reality is that Russia relies on the gas market and trade opportunities that these countries represent; and in light of recent tensions and growing isolation, as well as the increasing effects of the economic sanctions, Moscow cannot afford to lose more friends in the world.

Fortunately for Russia, it looks highly likely that they will not have to, at least for the time being. Many Serbs are still fiercely opposed to their country joining NATO, and with very little advance on the Kosovo front and increasingly less involvement from the West, membership of the European Union also seems a distant prospect. Unfortunately for Serbia, however, this comes at a time when they need it the most: growing uncertainties both in the region and in the world mean that the country is becoming increasingly vulnerable; European integration has never felt more urgent.

The arguments presented above could easily explain the West’s seemingly different approach to Serbia’s accession path towards membership; but with long-standing tensions over Kosovo’s status being detrimental enough to Serbia’s accession process, buying time would not need another excuse. In these circumstances, the more likely scenario is that, in an international world where tensions are higher than they have been in a long time, choosing a side has become an imperative rather than an option; and being a member of the European Union that continues to depend on Russian energy is no longer seen as an acceptable possibility.

It follows, then, that to escape this limbo Serbia would need to be willing to compromise more, particularly on the Kosovo issue, but also convince a distrustful population that closer ties with NATO are the best way forward for their country. These are significant challenges in themselves, and only real commitment on both sides will bring the accession process back to a faster-moving speed. In turn, Belgrade’s recent actions should act as a signal: they should reiterate the need for Western actors to take concrete and consistent steps in order to ensure effective political and economic transformation in the region, and prevent a deepening of economic ties with Russia translating itself into stronger political influence.

Unfortunately, however, the May 2015 Eastern Partnership summit showed that the West plans to play a distant and increasingly disengaged role in their relationships with all countries on the path towards membership of European institutions in the foreseeable future. Although the summit focused on a different set of countries, the message for the candidates from the Balkan region was loud and clear: until 2020 at least, regardless of current tensions and efforts, the European Union promises no meaningful action in furthering the prospective members’ future integration. It also offers no clear strategy as to how real progress in these countries is to be achieved, and leaves them needing to take advantage of what is immediately offered, often at a long-term cost.

The “best of both worlds” approach certainly has its appeal and even short-term benefits, but the case of Ukraine shows it can prove counter-productive in the long run. Whether it was used as an excuse to stall for time or whether tensions have become high enough to have made choosing a side imperative, the effect was the same: Ukraine remained vulnerable to security threats, and its territorial integrity suffered as a consequence. A Crimea-type military intervention is, of course, far from likely in the case of Serbia, as there is no Russian-speaking population to provide Moscow with that opportunity, but the political influence that Russia has the power of exerting on the country could have damaging effects in the long-term. Without a more concrete goal to work towards, however, Serbia will be forced to continue walking the tight rope between the West and the East for the foreseeable future, and the consequences of this are only likely to worsen.

About Irena Baboi

Irena Baboi is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, researching the future of European Union involvement in the Western Balkans. She also obtained both of her previous degrees from the same university, having completed an MA in Politics and Central and East European Studies and an MSc in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. Irena’s previous work experience includes internships with AKE Intelligence Group in London, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and United Nations Information Centre in her hometown of Bucharest, Romania, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support, freelance writing and editing for Oxford University Press. She has also been a volunteer with the British Red Cross since 2013. Irena’s research interests include human rights, peacebuilding and statebuilding, conflict prevention, management and resolution, transitional justice, and post-conflict development.