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Serbia: A Return to the Non-Alignment Policy?

Antoine Granier is a College of Europe student specialising in Western-Balkan countries’ accession to the European Union, as well as the relations between the EU and Eastern Europe. In this telling article delineating Serbia’s ties with Russia, he suggests that Serbia’s failure to fully conform with the EU’s accession process serves a strategic geopolitical agenda.

The European Union (EU) candidate country Serbia is refusing to impose sanctions on Russia, even though the whole EU is calling for them.

Joseph Tyrrell, Muzeum Pamięci Sybiru. Białystok, Poland, 2020.

Indeed, Serbia has very strong relations with Moscow which is, in particular, a major ally in the fight against the official recognition of Kosovo since it has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. On the 25th of October 2019, Serbia signed a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), a trade bloc largely dominated by Russia.

So how should we interpret this non-compliance on the part of Serbia with regard to the EU accession process? Is it to be seen as a loss of influence of a unified Europe in favour of Russia? Does Moscow really have a great influence in this Balkan region? Or has Belgrade decided to re-use the non-alignment policy applied by the former Yugoslavia?

To answer these questions we must first take a closer look at Serbia’s relationship to its trade agreements. Firstly, as an EU spokesperson pointed out, Serbia can conclude trade agreements with any country it wants before joining the EU. However, when it becomes a full member, it will have to withdraw from all the trade pacts it has concluded, in order to comply with EU trade policy.

The impact of this pact on trade needs to be put into perspective on several levels. For a start, Serbia had already concluded separate trade agreements with Russia (2000), Belarus (2009) and Kazakhstan (2012). Consequently, Serbia, in concluding this free trade agreement with the EUAE, is only really engaging with Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. Secondly, in 2019, Russia, which is by far the leading country in this Eurasian bloc, actually represented only 11.4% of Serbian imports and 6.9.% of Serbian exports. In comparison, the European Union alone accounted for 64.6% of Serbian exports and 63% of Serbian imports in the same year.

The economic importance of this free trade treaty must therefore be put into perspective. As Florian Bieber, a historian specialising in the contemporary history of the Balkans, sums up, this treaty is much more political and symbolic than economic. It allows Moscow to flex its muscles a little and show itself to be more important in this region than it really is. However, Russia warns the EU that the Western Balkans should not be taken for granted and that different actors still have influence in the region at different levels. As for Serbia, it is building up additional tools to tip the accession negotiations more significantly in its favour.

Serbia’s choice not to apply European sanctions against Russia should not be seen as a change of course in Serbia’s foreign policy. On the contrary, it should be seen in the context of an older dynamic of friendship between Serbia and Russia: the former needs the latter for the non-recognition of Kosovo's independence, while the latter needs allies on issues such as the war in South Ossetia, for example, or on questions of violations of civil and fundamental freedoms in the post-Soviet space.[1] However, this policy of non-alignment will have to come to an end as soon as Serbia joins the EU. Indeed, as Maja Kocijancic, the spokeswoman of the European External Action Service (EEAS) for questions of neighbourhood and enlargement policies pointed out in 2019, it is essential for the States joining the EU to align themselves with the European Union's Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).

[1] Florent Marciacq, “The Western Balkans and the EU in Multilateral Organisations: Foreign Policy Coordination and Declaratory Alignment in the OSCE,” Journal of Regional Security 7, no. 2 (2012): 129.