Thursday

9th Apr 2020

Opinion

Don't leave Serbia to Russia and China

  • Serbia has undergone a remarkable transformation from the “reluctant Europeaniser” to “the best pupil in class” (Photo: George Groutas)

For a variety of good reasons, European leaders are focusing their attention on the war in Ukraine. At the same time, the Western Balkans, where Europe’s last war was staged, have fallen to the bottom of the European agenda, as have discussions on EU enlargement.

This neglect could result, yet again, in the destabilisation of the Western Balkans.

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  • European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, as one of his first actions in office, halted EU enlargement until at least 2020 (Photo: European People's Party)

China and especially Russia are keen to jump into the vacuum left behind by the EU - and their interests don’t necessarily align with those of the EU.

Serbia is particularly receptive to these efforts, given the country’s self-perception as a bridge between the east and the west. EU leaders need to ask themselves if they can afford to neglect Serbia for at least another five years.

And when asking this question, they should keep in mind that Serbia has undergone a remarkable transformation from the “reluctant Europeaniser” to “the best pupil in class,” as former Austrian chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer put it.

Crucial to this process has been the new centre-right government under Aleksander Vucic, formed in 2009 after Vucic and the current Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic split from the Serbian ultranationalists.

Vucic’s conservative, pro-European party has fought corruption, implemented harsh economic reforms and, above all, pushed for the normalising of relations with Kosovo. Today, you will find only pro-European parties in the Serbian parliament – unthinkable just a few years back.

Enlargement fatigue

Instead of rewarding Serbia’s efforts, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, as one of his first actions in office, halted EU enlargement until at least 2020.

Although, realistically speaking, Serbia’s accession to the EU before 2020 would have come as a surprise, Juncker has sent a clear message: EU enlargement - and the accession of Serbia, in particular - is not a high priority for the new commission.

The halt was arguably Juncker’s first major mistake in office. The EU now risks losing its strongest leverage - the conditionality of the EU-accession negotiations - over Serbia’s future development.

If the EU fails to wake up and demonstrate stronger commitment to the region, Serbia may begin looking for alternative paths.

Chinese island in the European ocean

One path could lead to Beijing. The Chinese government considers the Balkans a central node in its long-term strategy to speed up east-west trade and to ensure greater access to the western European market.

The Chinese Development Bank and other Chinese banks are concentrating on making large investments in Serbia’s weak infrastructure, one result of which is the China-Serbia friendship bridge that stretches across the Danube.

This new partnership between China and Serbia doesn’t stop at economic co-operation. It also includes close political partnership.

In 2014 alone, Belgrade signed 13 agreements and memoranda with Beijing regarding finance, infrastructure, telecommunications and transport. In 2009, the pair signed a strategic partnership agreement that ensured the territorial integrity of both countries and supported, de facto, Serbia’s stance on Kosovo vis-a-vis China’s separatist region.

Serbia went as far as agreeing not to join any international initiative or fora that criticises China’s human-rights policy. In 2010, Serbia even criticised the awarding of the Nobel Prize to the jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, a move that contrasts sharply with the EU’s stance on human-rights policies in China.

Free trade with Russia

A more natural alternative for Serbia - and one even more alarming, in light of the situation in Ukraine - is Russia.

There are many reasons: the two countries share historic and cultural ties, Russia supports Serbia’s position on Kosovo in the United Nations Security Council, and the pair maintain close economic cooperation, especially in the energy sector.

In 2013, Serbia and Russia signed a strategic partnership agreement that deepened economic and political cooperation, including coordination in international organisations. Serbia was the only EU-candidate country that failed to support the sanctions on Russia and that abstained from the UN statement condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Serbia is also the only country outside of the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to have signed a free-trade agreement with Russia, in 2009. In October 2014, the special relationship was again brought to the fore when Russian president Vladimir Putin attended the first Serbian military parade since 1986.

Indeed, if Russia wants to ramp up pressure on Europe, then the Balkans – Serbia in particular – will likely become a hotspot.

The Serbian energy sector is especially vulnerable to Russian interests, since Gazprom Neft and Lukoil hold the majority of shares in Serbia’s local oil monopoly Naftna Industrija Srbije and the state-owned Beopetrol.

It’s telling that following the cancellation of the long-awaited South Stream project – which had promised €2.5 billion in Russian investments – Vucic blamed the Ukrainian conflict and the clash between the great powers, instead of the Russian government, for Serbia’s economic loss.

EU and European leaders have long eyed the Russian-Serbian relationship with suspicion, but, as the political scientist Ivan Krastev points out, “none of the projects designed to make the region less dependent on Russia have been completed.”

European democracy

Problematic as the situation may appear, the EU remains Serbia’s largest investor and trading partner, dwarfing Chinese and Russian investment and trade.

For now, the EU’s conditionality is the strongest transformative force in the region. Serbia may be looking at possible partners to the east, but the country has shown no signs of leaving its European path.

The EU opened formal accession negotiations in January 2014, but since then, no accession chapters have been opened.

Given the alternative paths to China and Russia, the poor economic conditions in Serbia and growing concerns over the freedom of the Serbian media, what the country needs right now, in order to become a successful European democracy, is a positive signal from the EU.

Any further delay means giving up the strong hold of conditionality. The Serbian people need a clear sign that their future lies with the EU – and the opening of the accession chapters would be just that.

Henrik von Homeyer is a research assistant with the The Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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