Serbia, caught between Europe and Russia, could move one step closer to normalizing relations with Kosovo
Russia’s Balkan ally Serbia is facing mounting Western pressure to normalize relations with its former province, Kosovo, and warnings of any rejection of a proposed European Union reconciliation agreement could jeopardize Belgrade’s path toward European Union membership.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is set to initiate a public campaign on the merits of reconciliation with Kosovo. European Union (EU) and U.S. diplomats have applied pressure of late, issuing warnings that Belgrade must accept the plan advanced by the EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue to normalize relations with Kosovo.
The EU sponsored plan, first reported by Serbian media, does not require Serbia to fully recognize Kosovo as an independent nation. Instead, Serbia must stop blocking Kosovo’s membership in international organizations such as the Council of Europe or NATO. Serbia’s continued intransigence would threaten Serbia’s hopes of joining the EU and receiving greater amounts of Western investment.
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“The EU proposal was submitted to the Parties as basis to work on in order to achieve progress in moving the Dialogue on normalization of their relations forward and get us from the permanent crisis management as we have seen since last summer with incidents, escalations and confrontations, to a more sustainable process of normalization,” Peter Stano, lead spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy at the European Commission, told G3 Box News Digital.
However, the EU proposal has not been made public since the diplomatic efforts are ongoing, and its longstanding policy not to comment on alleged leaks or media reports claiming to have seen or published the document, Spano added.
The U.S. is fully on board with the EU proposal. “The proposal offers tremendous opportunities for Kosovo and Serbia on their EU paths and economic development. During recent meetings in Pristina and Belgrade, we reiterated the urgency of swift progress to avoid the risk of further escalation and to raise the Dialogue above the cycle of constant crises,” a State Department spokesperson told G3 Box News Digital.
Despite the positive news, Western officials fear that Russia, preoccupied with the invasion of Ukraine, may use the opportunity to scuttle any plan and meddle in a region where Moscow exerts significant cultural and political sway. Russia wields its soft power in support of its Slavic and Orthodox Christian allies in Serbia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to keep the Balkan region divided and prevent it from comfortably integrating into institutions such as NATO and the EU. Moscow supports anti-Western and often corrupt officials in Serbia and across the Balkans who disrupt the good governance measures that need to be implemented in order to join the EU. From Putin’s perspective, causing trouble in the Balkans is an easy and cheap way to drive a wedge in Europe.
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At its disposal, Russia utilizes its energy resources and extensive intelligence networks in the region to push propaganda, conduct cyber espionage and fund sympathetic political parties. Belgrade also imports nearly a quarter of its oil from Russia and signed a three-year gas deal with Russia, flouting Europe’s pivot away from Russian energy.
Although the EU is Serbia’s largest donor, Russia uses its influence to curry favor with like-minded political actors, media figures and citizens in Serbia to promote its anti-Western and anti-U.S. worldview in a vulnerable corner of Europe. Serbian society is also partially receptive to Russian narratives particularly on Ukraine. A poll conducted across the territory of the former Yugoslavia shortly after the invasion on Feb. 24 showed that a majority of Serbs blamed the U.S. and NATO for the war and not Russia.
“This support is, at least in part, caused by Russia’s attitude towards Kosovo, but also by the general disappointment in the West – illustrated by a decreasing amount of people who believe that Serbia should join the EU,” Helena Ivanov, associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, told G3 Box News Digital.
While Europe has shown remarkable unity in both rhetorical and material support of Ukraine since Russia’s invasion, Serbia has been a bit of a thorn in European solidarity and even increased cooperation with Russia. Moscow and Belgrade signed an agreement in October 2022 to consult on foreign policy matters. Aligning national foreign policy with EU foreign policy is a requirement for membership, so the agreement with Russia could prove highly problematic for Serbia’s EU membership aspirations.
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The European Union and NATO would like to see a resolution to the conflict, but President Vucic is an enigmatic figure who likes to play both sides of the divide. While Serbia is an EU aspirant, Vucic regularly talks up Serbia’s ties to Russia and his personal connection with Putin for domestic political purposes. Like Putin, Vucic often invokes the trauma of the 1990s to reinforce a grievance narrative that Serbia was a victim of western overreach.
Russia’s war in Ukraine, while solidifying European unity not seen since the days of the Cold War, has upended Vucic’s pragmatic attempt to play off both sides. Serbia joined U.N. resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the referendums annexing territory in the eastern Donbas region, and voted to boot Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Although Vucic has shifted against Russia in some ways, Serbia is still one of the few nations that was reluctant to join sanctions targeting Russia following the invasion. Additionally, while almost all nations in Europe shut their airspace to Russian flights, Serbia has kept their airspace open. Further compounding the balancing act Vucic finds himself in, the Serbian military trains with both NATO and Russia.
“Thus far, President Vucic has successfully maintained this balancing act, however, the space for this balancing act continues to narrow down as EU and U.S. representatives keep pressuring Serbia to align itself with the West,” Ivanov said.
The territorial dispute between Serbia and Kosovo following the 1999 war is unresolved and is a roadblock to further European integration. Kosovo was a former province of Serbia and was once integrated within the nation of Yugoslavia. NATO led a bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999, which comprised Serbia and Montenegro, to defend Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians against violence from Belgrade. Nearly a decade later, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and Serbia thus far refuses to recognize their independence.
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NATO’s intervention, which Russia opposed at the time, remains a bitter point of contention with the West and is often used by Putin to justify their paranoia about NATO encroachment into historic Russian territory. The lingering resentment over what Russia perceived as a flagrant violation of international law by NATO and the refusal to acknowledge Russia’s interests continues to play a major role in the narrative over the war in Ukraine.
“In Serbia, where officials frequently play the victim card, Russia is therefore portrayed as righteous as it was on the side of the victims rather than what they perceive as NATO ‘perpetrators.’ As such, the anti-NATO card resonates with many Serbs throughout the region, from Serbia to Bosnia and Herzegovina”, Leon Hartwell, non-resident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told G3 Box News Digital.
The EU is often criticized for not taking a harder stance against Serbia and its both-sides posture toward Russia. However, observers note that the EU’s recent pressure campaign might finally lead to Serbia changing its behavior and moving closer toward the West.
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