The Ukraine conflict and tensions with Kosovo: what prospects for Serbia in the European Union?

Belgrade’s path toward the European Union never appeared as troubled as during the last few years. In this perspective, new tensions with Kosovo, the strategic relation with Russia and the rejection to align with Western sanctions against Moscow for the invasion of Ukraine have contributed to increasing diplomatic tensions with Brussels, which once again appears to play double standards in a great number of contexts. In order to get a comprehensive picture of the situation, Opinio Juris has discussed these issues with a diplomatic representation of the Republic of Serbia in Europe.

Serbia is an EU-Candidate country, and this inevitably has an influence both on the bilateral diplomatic relations with European capital cities and on the foreign policy stance of the nation. In particular, being located in the so-called “Western Balkans”– a concept created by the European Union at the end of the 1990s – has a strong geopolitical significance at the regional level by virtue of the historical background of Serbia, which was first a Socialist Republic within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and then the theatre of one of the bloodiest wars of the last decades. At the moment, the access to the European Union results to be a priority for Serbia, despite the difficulties brought about by the war in Ukraine. Nonetheless, the issue has not been at the top of the agenda for a number of years until 2013, when Croatia was the last country to be the object of European enlargement. Despite this, the general geopolitical environment is undoubtedly playing a strong role on the way bilateral talks with European institutions are conducted, especially in terms of context and priorities on both sides. According to Serbia, the integration within the European Union would benefit the country more than the maintenance of the actual status-quo. This is particularly true from the economic point of view, since Serbia and the EU are already interconnected and the majority of foreign direct investments come from European member States. Along these lines, Serbian citizens would additionally have the advantage of the freedom of movement, which is a very attractive aspect also for students aspiring to European universities. On the other side, Serbia – which believes that the EU cannot consider itself completed without the Western Balkans – would undoubtedly contribute to the value of diversity, which is particular dear to the European Union.

Integration in the European Union: utopia or reality?

Becoming part of the European Union family clearly represents a strategic goal for Belgrade, which in that respects does not hide from hopes of a greater European integration of the whole Western Balkan region. Unlike 20 years ago, in fact, political dialogue has increased also with respect to single European countries and is now steady, with the goal of building up relations that would be beneficial for a possible EU adherence in the coming years. In this sense, there are many countries who are currently supporting Serbian membership in the European Union, starting from Italy, which has long advocated for a greater integration of Western Balkans within the EU. As a matter of fact, not only is Italy a neighbor for Serbia, but it has always been engaged in the region both politically and in terms of economic investments. Similarly, the same stance is adopted by the so-called “new member States”, meaning those countries who joined the European Union since 2004 (particularly Greece, Spain and Portugal). This is mainly attributable to the fact that they have previously experienced the process of integration and its benefits. Notwithstanding, less enthusiastic countries are also present among the EU member States. Skepticism is namely concentrated in the very Central and Northern part of Europe, including the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and France. In this last case, France is well-known for its hesitancy toward enlargement, and also Sweden – which on the contrary generally adopts a supportive attitude with respect to candidate countries – raised some concerns for our membership request, preferring to focus on political cohesion rather than on expansion. At the same time, there are no doubts of the challenges Serbia would have to face in the eventuality of the integration of the country within the EU. The criteria for accession, for instance, are becoming more and more a moving factor. Compared to two decades ago, there were countries in the process of joining the EU which had clear lists of conditions to meet in order to be granted the membership. Already in that case, it was evident that for some countries ( especially Bulgaria and Romania) adjusting to the EU requests required a harder effort than for other than joined in 2004 and later in 2013. The problem is that Serbia does not know anymore where the reaching point is. On top of the required criteria, indeed, a set of new issues has started to present, and the continuous addition of new conditions has become particularly difficult to manage. Serbia is therefore asking for certainties regarding the ending point of the line is, despite being entirely realistic and aware of the changes happening in the global geopolitical scenario.

Russia beyond energy dependence

From Serbia’s perspective, the relation with Russia is merely presented as a matter of national interest. Hence, in spite of what is “emotionally” of common belief, Belgrade puts its ties with Moscow in a very rational way,  especially for what concerns the energy issue. In fact, gas imports from Russia amount to approximately 96% of total impots, which clearly makes Serbia entirely dependent on Russia’s resources. Nonetheless, this does not mean that no efforts for diversifying energy supplies is being made: one of the main projects in that regard is in fact the implementation of the gas interconnection with Bulgaria, which is to be completed by October 2023. Similarly, an even stronger partnership with Azerbaijan has been accomplished in light of the country’s relevance for the European market after the war in Ukraine. Hence, a very good relation with Azerbaijan at all level existed even before February 24, 2022, but after the outbreak of the conflict the partnership with Baku has been implemented also on the gas and electricity front. It remains true, however, that while trying to diversify energy imports Serbia still remains heavily dependent of Russian gas. Against this background, the issue of Kosovo represents a further relevant question to understand Serbian-Russian relations. Indeed, Russia has been very supportive to Serbia when it comes to Kosovo, and it similarly remains one of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, which for Belgrade remains the main forum in which to defend its national position in that respect. In light of the abovementioned aspects are to be understood the emotions of Serbian nationals who support the country’s position toward Russia. As concerns the European Union, the Serbian delegation in charge with the negotiation of integration has never hidden such position toward Russia, which clearly strongly impacted on the whole enlargement discussion. However, if on the one side energy dependence may appear less relevant for the purpose of EU integration, on the other side a greater understanding of Serbian’s sensitivity toward the issue of Kosovo should definitely be taken into consideration. In this, Serbia’s expectations from the EU mainly concern a greater commitment as the nation’s traditional partner and hopes to find concrete solutions for the purpose of peace and stability in the region. Paradoxically, Serbia is receiving much more support from the United States, which are of course involved in the process but which understand the situation in a broader way.

The war in Ukraine and the sanctions enigma

Until the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the conditions to access the European Union also included the need for Serbia to increasingly but gradually start to choose sides, with a view to culminate in a foreign policy alignment to the European Union objectives. However, at present this tendency is even stronger. Hence, the European Union openly asked Serbia to take a stand, which opens for new problems in understanding the partner with which Brussels is dealing. As a matter of facts, for Serbia is not a matter of choosing a side, as the country expressed the desire of becoming part of the EU and is perfectly aware of what comes with that choice. A clear example is the war in Ukraine: Serbia clearly condemned the aggression, the breach of international law and the violation of Kiev’s territorial integrity; no referendum in the occupied territories has been recognized, and humanitarian aid has been sent to Ukraine. However, Serbia decided not to align with sanctions not only by virtue of the relation with Russia, but also because the country knows very well what it means to be sanctioned. The EU and the US sanctioned Serbia for more than 10 years, and the impact on people is very-well known, as well as the fact that sanctions hardly affect those high-level personalities that are intended to be hit. In general, for Serbia sanctions are not meant to be an effective instrument. As moving targets of the European Union have been previously mentioned, this is a further condition that has been added by Brussels which was not in Serbia’s negotiation process, and which did not represent an element do be discussed at that stage of accession. The reality is that Serbia will not move forward until it would change its stance on sanctions.

Living tensions with Kosovo

A similar discourse can be made with regards to the issue of Kosovo. In this perspective, Serbia admires that the whole world is protecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but frustration is widespread in the country as its own territorial integrity has not been cherished in the same way of the Ukrainian one. For Serbia, Kosovo is the issue of the respect of international law and territorial integrity, therefore the situation appears very difficult. At the EU level, only 5 countries did not recognize Kosovo’s independence, and very often Serbia has the feeling that the position of the European Union is not as neutral as it would be supposed to. That also affects the people’s sentiments toward the EU and the emotional turn to Russia, which on the other side is generally supportive toward Serbia.

Foreign policy priorities in a multipolar world

Although Serbia is aware that the world has significantly changed during the last years, there is a widespread belief that also a small country as Serbia can have good relations with great powers avoiding to be locked only in its own continent. In this sense, it is no secret that the EU has long been too Eurocentric: a clear example is the expectation of Brussels that all countries would have unquestionably aligned to sanctions against Russia for the invasion of Ukraine. This came with no surprise from Serbia, which is trying to avoid the building of a mere regional presence in favour of a more open relations with all the powers dominating the emerging multipolar international context. For many years, Serbia’s foreign policy was designed in such a way that the primary strategic goal remained the EU. However, this does not mean that it cannot build good relations with countries in Latin America, in Africa or in Asia, many of them being traditional allies of Belgrade. The world, in fact, does not work only in the way Europe intended to: in this, Ukraine is a huge wake-up call for Europe.

The refugee crisis and the Balkan route

Since 2015, the refugee crisis has represented a major challenge not only for European countries, but also for Serbia. The country is in fact part of the so-called Western Balkans route, with millions people transiting through its territory of which only few thousands decided to stay. During the first wave of the crisis in 2015-2016, a mechanism of coordination with the countries on the Western Balkan side was established by the European Union, irrespective of the fact that Serbia is not part of the European Union. North Macedonia as well as Albania and Bosnia were part of the mechanism too, even though they did not have even remotely the number of transiting migrants as Serbia. This proved to be extremely beneficial of Serbia as it enhanced its  cooperation with FRONTEX, which is deployed at the border with EU-member States, and at present an extension of the agreement has been negotiated, which will enable FRONTEX to be deployed also at the border with non-EU member States, especially Bosnia and North Macedonia. Within this context, a major drawback for Serbia is the denial of access to EURODAC database despite multiple requests. In Serbia’s perspective, that would have enabled a wider sharing of the country’s migration registration data with the EU, as well as the possible creation of a common database.

A new honeymoon with the United States?

The relations with the United States represent a further key element to understand Serbia’s foreign policy approach. Washington and Belgrade have always had very good dialogue and cooperation, with the exception of the period 1990 – 2000. Going back to the world wars, a specific episode is a case in point of such positive relations: in fact, after the first world war President W. Wilson gave a speech in the Congress about allies in the European continent emphasizing on the essential role of Serbia, and in the honour of their special ties the Serbian flag was waived. This is particularly indicative, as only in other few occasions a foreign flag has been waived in the US Congress. Also after the Second World War, Serbia and the United States were able to maintain good relations in spite of the fact that Serbia was included under the communist sphere. Nonetheless, the conflict in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s and the subsequent events in Kosovo changed the situation. It is only since a few years that Serbia is seeing the reinvigoration of the bilateral relations with the United States, which is perceived in a very positive manner also by virtue of a constructive re-involvement in the region and in Kosovo. This appears to be a positive trend also to honour the good relations Belgrade had with Washington until the 1990s, and in this sense diplomacy played a key role. In fact, the current US Ambassador is extremely expert on the Western Balkan region, which (after some more bureaucratic diplomatic missions) has been particularly appreciated by Serbia.