EU concerns over Serbia’s Russia-West balancing act

Jul 14, 2016 12:00 AM

The European Parliament’s Rapporteur for Serbia, David McAllister, has warned Belgrade that its policy of maintaining close ties with Russia while at the same time actively seeking EU membership is untenable in the long term.

Russia and Serbia have a long history of cultural, religious, economic and military ties. The two regularly hold joint military exercises, with the next planned for September this year.

Serbia is one of the few European states that has not imposed sanctions on Russia following its annexation of Crimea. Belgrade’s insistence on maintaining close ties with both Moscow and the West has been seen by most EU officials as a serious obstacle to integrating with the union.

“The European Parliament sent a signal to Serbia through its [January] resolution that a dual approach to Russia could not be tolerated in the long run,” McAllister was quoted by news agency BETA as saying at a press conference in Belgrade on Thursday.

McAllister was in the Serbian capital to attend a regional conference on the EU’s Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy and the Western Balkans.

His comments come after the European Parliament agreed a resolution in January in which it described joint Serbia-Russia military exercises held during 2015 as “regrettable”.

McAllister also spoke about Serbia’s dependency on Russian energy and said Belgrade must do more to reduce gas and oil imports from Russia. He underlined that the EU wants to see Belgrade, along with other EU candidate states in the region, abiding by the union’s energy market rules.

"Jean-Claude Juncker and I have repeatedly stressed that all six Western Balkan countries must be involved in all strategic projects related to energy,” he said, according to BETA’s report.

The Serbian government insists it intends to maintain good relations with both Russia and the West, and Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic repeated that line during the same press conference, saying Belgrade would not impose sanctions on Russia.

“It could not be expected from Serbia to introduce sanctions on its friends”, said Dacic according to the partly state-owned Serbian daily newspaper Novosti.

He also said that Belgrade should not be forced to choose between the EU and Moscow.

Despite both side’s comments about Serbia’s relationship with Russia, McAllister was keen to underline that Belgrade had maintained good relations with the West. He noted that Serbia had held many more military exercises with its Western allies.

According to BETA’s report, he described Serbia as “dedicated and invested in good cooperation with NATO”, which benefited Belgrade, the military alliance itself and the region as a whole.

However, he was careful to state that EU membership does not depend on joining NATO. Many Serbs fiercely oppose joining the alliance after NATO bombed Serbia in 1999 in an attempt to end the Kosovo war.

Dacic was also keen to stress that Belgrade has worked hard to maintain good relations with the West and that joining the EU remains a key priority.

“Serbia’s strategic objective is full membership of the EU, which has been confirmed many times before,” he said.

McAllister underlined that while Britain’s pending divorce from the EU had caused some instability, it would not negatively impact Serbia’s EU membership or the enlargement process.

"The EU is faced with great uncertainties and challenges, we firmly believe that we should strengthen and not weaken the commitment to the enlargement process,” he said.

"Keep up your good work, go on the way that leads towards EU membership. It will not be easy, but there are a lot of people who support you. I'm sure you will, when it becomes necessary, adjust your foreign and security policy.”

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