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Serbia’s sanctions standoff with the EU

Aleks Eror is a Serbian-born freelance journalist based between London and Belgrade. 

When German Chancellor Olaf Scholz traveled to Belgrade last week, he reiterated that, as a candidate country to the European Union, Serbia must adhere to the sanctions regime the bloc imposed against Russia over its war in Ukraine. 

Only two European countries are yet to impose meaningful sanctions against the Kremlin: Belarus and Serbia. And Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, whose country just signed a new three-year contract with Gazprom in May, rebuffed the chancellor’s demands, remaining steadfast in his refusal to take action against Moscow.  

This enduring standoff between Brussels and Belgrade has now led to calls for an end to Serbia’s long-stalled accession process. And should this happen, Serbia would deserve little sympathy — the moral argument for sanctions is indisputable. What is disputable, however, is how much damage Serbian sanctions are likely to cause Putin’s war machine, and what exactly the EU has to gain by pushing this issue. 

it’s easily arguable that the EU doesn’t need Serbia to impose sanctions. Overall, Serbia’s significance to the Russian economy is negligible, and halting purchases would be little more than a symbolic gesture that would hurt Belgrade more than Moscow. 

In 2020, Russia’s total export revenue is estimated to have been $330 billion. Its main export to Serbia is petroleum gas, which earned Russia $343 million that year — that’s just 0.1 percent of its total earnings. 

However, though the government’s position may be immoral, it is logical. Serbia’s almost wholly energy dependent on Russia, and although its economy is firmly oriented toward the EU, its functioning relies on Russian fossil fuels. A recent survey also suggests that 82.1 percent of Serbs oppose sanctions. So, not only would Vučić’s government anger its electorate, but spiking fuel prices could also wreak havoc upon their living standards. 

Additionally, Serbia relies on Moscow’s support in blocking the international recognition of Kosovo’s independence, which is the single most contentious issue in Serbian politics — in much the same way the EU membership debate poisoned British politics for decades before Brexit.

Serbia’s often depicted as an instinctively Russophilic nation, but the Kosovo issue is ultimately a far greater driver of anti-Western sentiment in the country than any other factor. And fearing they could lose Russia’s support by imposing sanctions, many don’t think it’s worth taking the risk. In fact, most would prefer to remain unaligned, like in Yugoslavia’s heyday. 

Along these lines, a recent study by Belgrade-based polling agency Demostat found that just 21 percent of voters believe Serbia should back Russia in the Ukraine crisis, whereas 50 percent support nonalignment, regardless of the cost. 

For Brussels, the uncomfortable truth here is that it simply hasn’t got a sufficiently large carrot it could feasibly offer Serbia to shift its position. Just 5.1 percent of voters are prepared to accept Kosovo’s independence in exchange for EU membership — which, according to polls by Ipsos, is something only a minority of Serbs desire anyway. Vučić’s government is acutely aware of this and would be justified in fearing a domestic political backlash more than any potential retaliation from the EU. 

Furthermore, Vučić must also consider the risk of revolt from within his own party. According to political analyst Dragomir Andjelkovic, the president “can effectively control the top of the party because those people have certain interests and will often adjust around those interests and [Vučić’s] will, but the lower levels cannot be easily controlled.” Adding that this “certainly wouldn’t be good for the stability of Serbian society and would affect the survival of the government.” 

And instability in Serbia wouldn’t just be bad for Vučić, it would be bad for the EU as well.  

The Serbian president comes under frequent criticism for his undemocratic rule, which his opponents claim is actively enabled by the EU. They assert that Brussels has traded in democracy for “stabilocracy” in Serbia, turning a blind eye to the leader’s authoritarianism because he has, at the very least, shown no appetite for a return to armed conflict in the Balkans, and acts as a security guarantee in a historically unstable region. 

Progressives in Serbia and across Europe might scoff at this justification, but the fact remains that there are many worse options than Vučić, and no feasible alternatives. Pro-Russian parties to his right won 16 more seats than Serbia’s moderate opposition in April’s election. And if we are to accept that politics is the art of what’s possible, then Vučić is clearly the most pro-EU option in Serbia that’s actually electable. 

That isn’t to say that Brussels should passively accept Belgrade’s inaction. 

The EU is Serbia’s primary source of development aid by a long shot, yet it receives very little gratitude in return, and would be justified in reducing the economic support it offers. It could also finally terminate Serbia’s never-ending accession process. With public opinion toward the bloc already so lukewarm, it arguably has little to lose, and some Serbs would even respect the honesty of such a decision. 

The Serbian electorate isn’t blinkered. It can see the very evident enlargement fatigue within the bloc, and few believe that there’s any genuine desire across the EU for their country to join the club. But what’s also evident is that, with its broken democracy, weak economy and widespread corruption, Serbia is nowhere near ready for EU membership — and might never be. 

Instead of clinging to a failed blueprint, new ideas are desperately needed. French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent proposals for a new “European political community” might be a good starting point. Not only could this bring the U.K. and Ukraine closer to the bloc, but a halfway solution would be more suitable for nations like Serbia that are an ill fit for the current EU model. 

The proposal may be thin on detail, but it’s already more realistic than the existing plan.

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