Andrew MacDowall in London -
Serbia is not attempting to balance EU ambitions with close ties with Russia, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic told bne, indicating he would toe the Western line when it comes to issues like halting the Russian-led South Stream gas pipeline.
Vucic, speaking to bne in London on October 29, strongly implied that Serbia would not progress with Gazprom’s controversial South Stream gas pipeline through the Balkans without EU consent, even though he admitted it might take eight years for Serbia to achieve EU membership. “[South Stream] is between the EU and Russia – if they agree on this, we’ll have it, we’ll provide the project,” Vucic said. “If they don’t have that agreement, we are not going to harm anyone, particularly not our European friends. We made a good contract with Russia, but we did not start any construction.”
Vucic was speaking after signing a deal with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to launch an initiative intended to improve Serbia’s business climate. Earlier, he had addressed a conference in Westminster, pledging to lower barriers to business and push forward reforms entailing thousands of job losses, and calling for British businesses to invest in Serbia.
But two weeks earlier, Vucic had welcomed Russian President Vladmir Putin to Belgrade with great fanfare, and reiterated that Serbia would not impose sanctions on Russia over the conflict in Ukraine. Vucic and Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic spoke of long ties between Serbia and Russia, and Putin’s visit was marked by Belgrade’s biggest military parade for almost 30 years, ostensibly held on the 70th anniversary of the city’s liberation by the Red Army.
Serbia is seeking to boost trade ties with Russia, despite coming under pressure from the EU to impose sanctions. “We are not balancing,” Vucic insisted to bne. “As I said in front of Vladimir Putin – not because I’m here [in the UK], our strategic goal, our strategic aim, is our EU path. And I do not lie to anyone, all the politicians from all over the world know that.”
South Stream would carry Russian gas to Central Europe via Bulgaria and Serbia, bypassing Ukraine – the traditional transit country for Russian gas exports to Europe but one Russia is trying to cut out of the trade. The EU has ruled that the pipeline in its current format breaks competition laws, and there have long been concerns that it would merely increase Europe’s energy dependence on Russia, rather than help diversify Europe’s energy imports as is Brussels’ stated goal.
South Stream had been progressing more quickly than EU- and US-backed rival pipeline projects, but the Ukraine crisis changed the equation. In August, Bulgaria reluctantly suspended work on the pipeline under substantial pressure from Brussels, having staunchly backed the project to the extent of redefining it as an “interconnector” rather than a “pipeline” in an almost comic attempt to circumvent EU legislation.
Serbia has also stood by South Stream, but on October 8 Vucic admitted that “it makes no sense” for the country to start work on the project. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was the same day a European Commission report on Serbia’s EU accession process suggested that progressing with construction might harm the country’s membership prospects.
Nonetheless, Vucic and Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic, who are seen by some as having long had a close relationship with the Kremlin, have both expressed hopes that South Stream can get back on track. Many in the region expect the project to restart if and when the Ukrainian crisis starts to fade – and a bitter winter with gas shutoffs could expose Europe’s lack of options.
Nonetheless, Serbia’s close relations with Russia may affect attitudes towards it, says James Ker-Lindsay, senior research fellow focusing on Southeast Europe at the London School of Economics. “While Russia may not want its immediate neighbours in the EU, it does help to have friendly countries in the club,” Ker-Lindsay says. “Moscow will therefore be keen to see Serbia advance along the accession path. But this is precisely what many EU members will be worried about. They will be asking themselves whether they will be letting in a Russian Trojan Horse. Unless relations between Russia and the EU improve during Serbia's accession process, Belgrade may find itself facing calls to prove its loyalty to the EU or face the possibility of having its membership blocked.”
Vucic was once an ultranationalist and was Slobodan Milosevic’s information minister during the Kosovo War in the late 1990s. On his visit to the UK, he faced strong questioning at the London School of Economics over allegations of authoritarianism and media control. Opponents claim that Vucic aspires to Putinesque rule in Serbia, with control of the media and muted dissent.
“No doubt that Vucic would like to take credit for Serbia's desired accession to the EU, because there's no other viable alternative for Serbia,” Srecko Sekeljic, a civil society activist, tells bne. “But it would be rational for them to doubt Vucic's dedication to embracing the EU policies and values. Vucic's major internal policies are aimed at keeping him in power for as long as possible. His actions consistently show that he’d like to be seen as the Serbian Putin.”
Sekeljic says Serbia’s history and recent polls point towards a desire for a strong leader, and indeed Vucic has an overwhelming parliamentary mandate. But Western diplomats have taken a generally relaxed stance to Serbia’s relationship with Russia, saying that they are confident the country is moving towards the West and its norms of liberal democracy.
Vucic’s message in London was that Serbia is a Western-facing country open to business and prepared to push through difficult reforms, including the privatisation of more than 500 companies and public sector cuts. “We hope that if we do our homework, we’ll be able to join the EU in 2020, it might be 2022,” Vucic told bne. “It’s not up to us, but we have to do everything [we can], not to get mercy from the EU, but to be proud people from a proud country that will enter the EU, and that’s why we are doing these reforms.”
bne IntelliNews - Erste Group Bank saw the continuing economic recovery across Central and Eastern Europe push its January-September financial results back into net profit of €764.2mn, the ... more
bne IntelliNews - The Council of the European Union (EU) has suspended for four months the asset ... more
Henry Kirby in London - Central and Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States’ (CEE/CIS) countries performed particularly well in the World ... more