“You cannot sit on two chairs at the same time, especially if they are that far apart.” Hoyt Brian Yee, then U.S. deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, had a stark message to Serbia back in 2017: Belgrade had to make a choice between the West and Russia. Five years down the line, Serbian foreign policy is still looking both ways. So far, even Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine has not caused Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to alter course.
On the one hand, Vucic professes a sincere commitment to bringing Serbia into the EU and promoting regional integration through initiatives such as Open Balkan, a platform Serbia shares with Albania and North Macedonia. On the other, Serbia resists pressure to join Western sanctions against Russia and sever its long-standing ties to the country. Flights from Moscow and Saint Petersburg land daily at Belgrade airport. The city brims with middle-class Russians taking advantage of Serbia’s visa-free regime and lax residence rules to move their businesses closer to the EU and avoid being mobilized and sent to the front in Ukraine. The Serbian-Russian connection appears as strong as ever. Yet at the same time, Serbia is winning plaudits in Brussels. “Serbia is well advanced on its EU path,” tweeted European Commis-sion President Ursula von der Leyen on a visit to Bel-grade on October 28, 2022.
Serbia’s Russian connection raises alarm across the region. The country’s neighbors in the former Yugoslavia fear the wars of the 1990s could come back with a vengeance. In their eyes, the Russian aggression against Ukraine emboldens Serbian revanchism and endangers the Western-backed territorial status quo across the Western Balkans.
The Kosovar government, for one, paints Serbia as a mere extension of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. When nationalist Serbs set up barricades in northern Kosovo and fired shots at the police in July–August 2022, Kosovar Prime Minister Albin Kurti said that the risk of a new conflict between Kosovo and Serbia had increased. Before the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, he said, the chances of a new war were low, but then the situation changed. “The first episode, a consequence of the fascist idea of panslavism that the Kremlin has, was Ukraine. If we have a second episode, for example in Transnistria, then the probabilities that a third war will develop in the Western Balkans [are] very high.” Kurti was hinting at Vucic’s repeated warning that Serbia would act to prevent a “pogrom” against Serbs in Kosovo. Although tensions have abated lately, thanks to the resolute mediation efforts of the EU, fears have not fizzled out. A fresh escalation in northern Kosovo, similar to the one witnessed in late December 2022, cannot be ruled out.
The threat Russia poses in the Western Balkans should not be exaggerated. Virulent nationalist rhetoric aside, Serbia is not beholden to the Kremlin but rather is hedging its bets, as it has done for a long time. Moreover, the United States and the EU are running out of patience, ramping up pressure on Vucic to come off the fence. In Belgrade, von der Leyen stressed that Serbia’s progress toward EU accession was contingent on the country’s alignment with the union’s foreign policy. However belatedly, the war in Ukraine may mean that Yee’s warning is finally heeded.
The Serbia-EU-Russia triangle
Serbia’s Janus-faced policy has deep roots and is reminiscent of Yugoslavia’s Cold War nonalignment stance. Serbia depends on the EU both economically and politically. The union is, by a long stretch, Belgrade’s leading trading and investment partner. Serbs can travel visa-free to the EU, where a vast diaspora has been living for decades. Vucic is seen more often in the company of von der Leyen, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, or French President Emmanuel Macron than with Putin. Serbia is also an EU accession front-runner in the Western Balkans. Belgrade embarked on EU membership talks in 2014, with only Montenegro doing so earlier. As of October 2022, Serbia had opened twenty-two out of thirty-five policy chapters, including the crucial dossiers on judicial reforms and on justice and home affairs.
Yet Serbia’s progress toward the EU is hardly a success. Accession negotiations are moving frustratingly slowly, and after eight years, just two chapters have been provisionally closed. By comparison, it took Croatia the same amount of time to complete full EU accession between 2005 and 2013. This lack of progress breeds frustration in Serbian society. A July 2022 survey by New Third Way, a research organization, found that 66 percent of Serbs felt closer to Moscow than to the West and that 40 percent favored an end to membership talks with the EU.
Along with the EU’s perceived lack of commitment to enlargement, the Kosovo dispute is a key reason for these lukewarm public sentiments. Contrary to what the authorities in Belgrade say, it is clear that Serbia will not join the twenty-seven-strong bloc without recognizing Kosovo’s sovereignty, as the EU is loath to import an unresolved conflict akin to the one in Cyprus. Serbia’s membership negotiations kicked off only after a deal brokered in 2013 by then EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton committed Belgrade to normalize ties with Prishtina in exchange for greater rights for Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo. Yet the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo has long been at an impasse. Talks have been undermined by recurrent crises in the Serb-populated north of Kosovo, clashing interpretations of the original agreement, a Serbian campaign to convince states worldwide to de-recognize Kosovo, and an attempt in 2019–2020 by the administration of then U.S. president Donald Trump to override the EU and push an alternative deal based on a land swap.
Currently, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell is scrambling to relaunch the talks, with former Slovak foreign minister Miroslav Lajcák acting as a go-between, but it is an open question whether either Vucic or Kurti is serious about reaching a political settlement. Despite a tentative agreement on the loaded subject of Belgrade-issued car registrations, which triggered tensions in July–August 2022, both leaders seem to distrust the EU as much as they do one another.
This is where Russia enters the picture. Since Kosovo proclaimed independence in 2008, Moscow has stood by Belgrade’s side in preventing the new state from gaining wider acceptance by the international community. Although Russia lost some diplomatic leverage when Belgrade turned to the EU as a mediator in 2010, Russia’s permanent seat in the UN Security Council and ties to the Global South are of immense help to Serbia in isolating and pressuring Kosovo.
To be sure, the Russian approach has been unashamedly opportunistic, often at Serbia’s expense. Moscow has selectively invoked a Kosovo precedent to justify its own actions, recognizing as independent states Georgia’s breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in August 2008 and the so-called people’s republics in Ukraine’s Donbas region in February 2022. Yet Serbian public opinion appears unaffected by the contradictory messages coming from Moscow. As data from numerous polls suggest, a great majority of Serbs look at Russia as an ally and a desired partner, well ahead of the EU—not to mention the United States, which is faulted for taking Kosovo away from Serbia.
Serbia’s flirtation with Russia—and with China—goes hand in hand with an authoritarian turn in domestic politics. Since becoming prime minister in 2014, Vucic has amassed an extraordinary degree of power thanks to his control over the media, the public sector, and the security apparatus. The opposition is fragmented and eviscerated, with Vucic and his party winning yet another presidential and parliamentary election in April 2022. Anti-Western nationalism is rampant and dominates the public sphere, as in the 1990s.
Serbia’s democratic decline complicates relations with the EU, although the union’s leaders prefer to engage with, rather than shun, Vucic. At the same time, he has nurtured links to other strongmen, such as Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Arguably, Orbán’s Hungary presents an example for Serbia to emulate: a country that benefits mightily from EU membership, especially through lavish subsidies, while pursuing an illiberal political model at home and a multivector policy externally.
Serbia’s response to the war
On October 7, 2022, Belgrade awoke to the sight of billboards showing a portrait of a smirking Putin. The conservative movement Our People, whose name is a nod to Russia’s war in Ukraine and evokes Slavic brotherhood, was using the billboards to convey to Putin the well-wishes of his Serbian brethren on his seventieth birthday. Weeks earlier, on August 28, thousands of right-wing protesters had marched through Belgrade in protest against EuroPride, a pan-European LGBTQ event taking place in Serbia; they carried outsize images of Putin and General Dragoljub “Draža” Mihailovic, the controversial leader of the anticommunist Chetnik movement during World War II. Putin has been invited to join the Serbian nationalist pantheon, and his appeal goes well beyond the far-right fringe.
That appeal is demonstrated by the popular response in Serbia to the war in Ukraine. The 2022 New Third Way poll found that 59 percent of Serbia’s citizens blame the West for the bloodshed, compared with 23 percent who fault Russia and 18 percent who believe that Moscow and Western powers share responsibility. According to another survey, conducted in June 2022 by the Center for Research, Transparency, and Accountability, a human rights organization, 72 percent of Serbians believe that Russia was forced to start the war because of NATO’s intentions to enlarge.
These attitudes do not exist in a vacuum. Russia benefits handsomely from favorable media coverage in Serbia. As a whole, popular TV stations and print outlets paint the war as a clash between Russia and the United States, rather than an act of aggression against a sovereign state. Their message is amplified by Kremlin-sponsored outlets, such as the Sputnik news agency’s Serbian service, which is soon to be complemented by an online Serbian-language TV news channel as part of the RT franchise. Russia is commonly portrayed as a victim of the West, much as Serbia was during the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s. To Serbian nationalists, the war in Ukraine is therefore payback for the West’s imperial arrogance and heavy-handedness. This view resonates strongly with the Kremlin elites’ deeply held conviction that the 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia showed NATO’s true colors as a vehicle of U.S. hegemony rather than a defensive alliance.
For his part, Vucic presents ties to Russia as a matter of necessity. In May 2022, Serbia concluded a new three-year supply contract with Russian energy giant Gazprom, securing deliveries through the winter of 2022–2023 at advantageous prices because of a formula linked to the price of crude oil rather than to the spot market: in early December 2022, Srbijagas charged just over €29 ($31) per megawatt-hour (MWh), compared with about €94 ($99) per MWh on the spot market.
Other Serbian officials have gone much further. In August 2022, Aleksandar Vulin, a longtime minister of the interior and defense, traveled to Moscow, where he met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and was decorated by the Russian Ministry of Defence. “Serbia led by President Aleksandar Vucic does not forget [the] centuries-old brotherhood [with Russia],” Vulin proudly announced. Then, on September 24, during the annual session of the UN General Assembly in New York, then Serbian foreign minister Nikola Selakovic signed a memorandum with Lavrov on coordinating their two countries’ foreign policies.
Serbia’s continued affair with Russia makes its neighbors fearful. This begins with Kosovo. Serbia’s writ runs into northern Kosovo thanks to Belgrade’s support for parallel institutions, a strong intelligence presence, and links to local organized crime and smuggling networks. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Milorad Dodik, who in November 2022 was elected president of Republika Srpska (RS), has been hollowing out Bosnian state-level institutions and threatening to pull the Serb-majority entity from the common state and declare its independence. Serbia also holds influence over parties in Montenegro and the Serbian Orthodox Church is the largest denomination in that country.
This web of formal and informal connections has given rise to talk of a Serbian world (Sprski svet)—by analogy with the Kremlin-backed Russian world (Russkii mir)—in which Serbia exerts influence beyond its borders. Many non-Serbs see this formula as a code word for irredentism and revanchism.
Belgrade’s regional influence is not a matter of political rhetoric only. Serbia has been upgrading its armed forces and procuring armaments. Nominally, such efforts are in line with the country’s professed policy of neutrality and simultaneous engagement with NATO, Russia, and China. In practice, Moscow appears to be the beneficiary. Russia and its ally Belarus have provided Serbia with advanced equipment, including MiG-29 fighter jets. Between 2014 and 2021, Serbia conducted joint exercises with Russia and other Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) members. Cooperation at the level of the security establishment is strong as well, given Serbian officials’ regular exchanges with the likes of Nikolai Patrushev, the all-powerful chief of Russia’s Security Council. So when Belgrade tabloids speculate that Serbia will regain Kosovo once the United States inevitably packs up and leaves, just as it left Afghanistan, their pronouncements are taken seriously elsewhere in the Western Balkans.
True to its habit of stirring up discord to undermine the West, Russian diplomacy has been hard at work to exploit anxieties caused by the Ukraine war. In March 2022, the Russian ambassador in Sarajevo, Igor Kalabukhov, stated that it was for Bosnia and Herzegovina to decide whether or not to join NATO but that if it did, Russia would be free to respond to this “threat.” He warned that a putative entry into the Atlantic alliance would force Sarajevo to take a side in the West’s military-political confrontation with Moscow.
Russia intervened in an escalation in northern Kosovo in July–August 2022 as well. As local Serbs built barricades in response to decisions by Prishtina to force drivers with Serbian-issued license plates to change them for Kosovar ones and to issue Kosovar entry and exit documents for Serbian ID holders, the Russian ambassador to Serbia, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, blamed the EU and the United States for the crisis.
On September 26, the ambassador joined Serbian Defense Minister Nebojša Stefanovic and Chief of Staff Milan Mojsilovic to inspect a Serbian army base in direct proximity to Kosovo’s border. As ever, context matters: the visit came after weeks of media speculation about a possible Serbian military intervention in northern Kosovo to prevent what Vucic described as a concerted plan to cleanse Kosovo of Serbs. Naturally, the Serbian military and political leadership had publicly ruled out an invasion. Yet troops at the border, including the unit inspected by the Russian ambassador, were put on high alert. In the longer term, Russia is in a position to throw a wrench into the works of the EU effort to restart talks between Belgrade and Prishtina, too. Moscow is sure to oppose any agreement in the UN Security Council and bar Kosovo from joining the UN and has a lot of scope to continue playing a spoiler role.
The same applies to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Dodik met Putin in Moscow on September 20, 2022, to secure the Russian leader’s endorsement ahead of the October Bosnian general election. Having won the RS presidency, Dodik could revive plans to repatriate powers away from Sarajevo and set up a parallel judicial council. In early January 2023, RS awarded Putin (in absentia) a medal of honor. Even though Russia did not veto the extension of the EU-led peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, EUFOR, at the UN Security Council in November, the Kremlin retains that option in the future. Either way, Moscow holds substantial diplomatic and political leverage over the fragmented country.
Moscow’s political influence is checked by economic trends caused by the Ukraine conflict, however. While the region is not particularly vulnerable to a cut-off of natural gas supplies—the six Western Balkan countries consume a meager 4 billion cubic meters (141 billion cubic feet) of gas annually—it is exposed to the secondary effects of the conflict. High gas prices in Europe also drive up the cost of electricity, increasing the burden on households and cash-strapped governments under pressure to provide social safety nets. Recessions in Germany and the other core EU countries will have negative fallout throughout the Western Balkans, where growth depends on exports to or financial flows from Western Europe.
The World Bank expects a slowdown of growth in the Western Balkans from 2022 onward, putting an end to the post-coronavirus boom in 2021. At worst, there might be a repeat of the early 2010s, when the eurozone crisis spilled over into the region. Economic stagnation will have deeper and longer-lasting consequences than Russian propaganda or interference in day-to-day politics in the Western Balkans and will mean that these countries will look not only to the EU but also to others, including China, Turkey, and the Gulf states, for assistance.
No second front
Despite Russia’s disruptive moves, it faces an uphill task to fulfill its geopolitical agenda in the Western Balkans. Three obstacles for the Kremlin stand out.
First, the scenario of a full-blown Russian military intervention in the Western Balkans remains far-fetched. As during the 1998–1999 Kosovo War, Russia lacks the military capacity to wage expeditionary warfare in the former Yugoslavia. Its forces left Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo as far back as 2003. At present, Ukraine is draining all Russian resources and keeping the Kremlin busy. For that reason, any putative operation in Southeastern Europe would have to involve Serbia not just in a supporting role but as a chief protagonist.
It is plain to everyone in Belgrade, apart from the most deranged propagandists, that such a gamble would generate enormous risks for both the country and Vucic personally, as he would be squandering his relationship with the West and would face harrowing economic sanctions. A gamble would not deliver much, either. NATO and the EU have reinforced their presence in the region to project stability and deter hostile actions. Since February 2022, both EUFOR and EULEX, the EU-run rule-of-law mission in Kosovo, have received reinforcements. KFOR, NATO’s peacekeeping contingent in Kosovo, has declared its readiness to scale up its numbers, too. These deployments, backed by EU and NATO members as well as U.S. forces in Europe, create a major disincentive for Vucic to take undue risks.
Second, Serbia is not a full-fledged Russian ally. Rather than siding with Russia without any reservations, Belgrade is hedging its bets in international forums. Since March 2022, Serbian diplomacy has supported several UN General Assembly resolutions condemning the Russian aggression against Ukraine. On October 13, Serbia joined another 143 countries in condemning Russia’s September annexation of the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia. Without voicing it publicly, the Serbian leadership has been wary of Russia’s reference to a Kosovo precedent to justify the redrawing of borders, as that undermines Belgrade’s own claim against what it considers a breakaway province.
On a practical level, Vucic is courting other powerful states and leaders and not relying exclusively on Putin. Serbia is procuring Chinese surface-to-air missiles. Long-standing plans for the purchase of Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicle were on the agenda during Erdogan’s September 2022 visit to Belgrade. Serbia has likewise signaled its interest in alternative gas supplies. Vucic attended the inauguration of works for a floating liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal off the Greek coast near the port city of Alexandroupolis on May 9, 2022, as well as the launch of the Greece–Bulgaria interconnector pipeline on October 1. Once its current three-year deal with Gazprom expires, Serbia will be negotiating imports with Azerbaijan and LNG producers, to be delivered through another interconnector across the border with Bulgaria. Moreover, the visa-free access that Russians have to Serbia means that the country also provides an escape route and, in some cases, a safe haven for political opponents of Putin.
Third, Serbia has come under considerable pressure to impose sanctions on Russia. U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Christopher Hill arrived in Belgrade in late March 2022 explicitly with a mission to talk Vucic into joining the Western coalition. Hill has been vocal in local media, stressing the fact that Serbia has no reasons to support an attack against a sovereign country. Speaking to the national broadcaster RTS on Octo-ber 19, Hill said Serbia had to think hard about where its interests lie and recognize they lie with the West.
The EU is doing its share, too. In early October, the EU imposed a full embargo on seaborne Russian crude oil, starting in December. That move cut supplies to Serbia, which depends on the Adria pipeline, linked to terminals on Croatia’s Adriatic coast. The same month, the European Commission’s regular report on Serbia’s progress toward EU membership highlighted nonalignment with sanctions as a chief obstacle to Belgrade’s ambitions to make headway in the accession talks. At the same time, Serbia has faced criticism from the commission over the liberal visa regime it applies to citizens of third countries, which allows Serbia to be used as a conduit for illegal migration to the EU. The Serbian government has also reintroduced visas for Burundians and Tunisians in order not to have its own nationals’ visa-free access to the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone removed. It is not inconceivable that the EU could use the same leverage to demand the termination of Serbia’s visa-free regime with Russia, too.
Taken together, these factors narrow the wiggle room for Vucic. He was able to defer the decision on joining sanctions on Russia by delaying the formation of a new cabinet after the April 2022 elections. Constitutionally, it is the government, rather than the head of state, that has the power to impose sanctions. But with Prime Minister Ana Brnabic’s new administration having been endorsed by the Serbian parliament and given the pressure from the EU and the United States, Serbia could be expected to accommodate at least some of the West’s demands. The removal of Vulin and the Russia-connected technology minister Nenad Popovic from the cabinet and the return of pro-Western figures such as Tanja Mišcevic, who is in charge of EU negotiations, are interpreted as signs of a potential shift.
Some off-the-cuff statements by senior Serbian officials hint that a change of course may be in the works. Former foreign minister Selakovic said that Russia would show understanding and would not carry out reprisals if Serbia were forced to adopt sanctions. In response, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko flew into Belgrade and publicly warned the government that any U-turn would be tantamount to “political suicide.” If he decides to change tack, Vucic will probably outsource the decision to Brnabic and new Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, the leader of the Serbian Socialist Party, who is considered to be closer to Moscow than the president is. Serbia has already taken some minor steps to align with the EU: it joined sanctions against Belarus and against Ukraine’s former president Viktor Yanukovych, and it has not taken part in any military exercises with Russia or the CSTO since February 2022.
Dodik certainly depends on Russian support to a greater degree than Vucic does. But even he has not put all his eggs in Moscow’s basket. One reason that Dodik has not come under EU sanctions for disrupting central-state institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the veto exercised by Orbán. Since the start of the war, Dodik has carefully avoided a head-on collision with the West. In March, he addressed the European Parliament, a move intended to allay fears in Brussels that he would move forward with his secessionist plans. The setbacks Russia has suffered in Ukraine since have probably made Dodik even more risk averse—not to mention the fact that Vucic is unlikely to swiftly recognize a breakaway RS and risk a clash with the West. Still, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s dysfunctional politics will continue to present Russia with opportunities to rock the boat.
The war in Ukraine has shed light on unresolved political issues and lasting fissures in the Western Balkans. Yet the region is not at risk of a direct assault by Russia. Much more concerning is Moscow’s capacity to exploit indigenous problems and fan the flames of conflict. The economic effects of the war should not be underestimated, either. Serbia remains the hub of Russian influence in the region, but the EU and the United States have not exhausted their leverage. While Vucic will not burn bridges with the Kremlin, Serbia and Russia may drift apart.
In response to this situation, the EU has some cards to play. First, it should ramp up its economic assistance to the Western Balkans. The €9 billion ($10.6 billion) post-coronavirus recovery package promised to the region in October 2020 for the period 2021–2027 can buy Brussels influence at a time when growth is set to slow. But it has to be coupled with a smart strategic communications campaign targeted at societies that have grown cynical and are vulnerable to all manner of disinformation. The same goes for recent initiatives such as the €1 billion ($1.1 billion) in assistance to tackle the energy crisis in the Western Balkans, unveiled by von der Leyen in early November 2022. The EU should also double down on its effort to spur economic integration in the area, notably through the Common Regional Market scheme pushed by the Brussels-sponsored Berlin process. Alignment with the union’s green transition agenda should be a central priority—and be supported financially by European funds as well as aid from international financial institutions, coordinated by the European Commission.
A deal on Kosovo, brokered by the European External Action Service as well as France and Germany, which have already produced a blueprint, would likewise go a long way in changing the region for the better. It would remove the most serious hurdle for both Belgrade and Prishtina on the path to EU membership. Kosovo would be able to integrate into NATO once the five nonrecognizers—Cyprus, Greece, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain—follow Serbia’s example and accept Kosovo’s sovereignty. A settlement would deprive Russia of a major lever, although the Kremlin would surely try to use the outcome in its favor.
Progress in the Balkan countries’ membership talks with the EU would also have a beneficial impact. If Montenegro were to join the bloc toward the end of the 2020s, this would send a strong signal that the union is serious about the promise of accession it made back in 2003. In the short run, Kosovo’s EU membership application, submitted in December 2022, along with the prospect of lifting visas for Kosovar citizens traveling to the EU from January 1, 2024, could play a positive role, too. Of course, progress in the accession path should be contingent on reforms in the economy and, more importantly, gains in the areas of the rule of law and democratic accountability in the candidate countries. The responsibility is shared by the EU and the region’s political elites.