EU hopeful Serbia in quandary over Ukraine

The Ukraine crisis has strengthened some alliances and severed others. But things are not so clear for Serbia, which finds itself in a tug-of-war between the European Union and its historical ally Russia.

AFP| Updated: Jun 20, 2014, 14:04 PM IST

Belgrade: The Ukraine crisis has strengthened some alliances and severed others. But things are not so clear for Serbia, which finds itself in a tug-of-war between the European Union and its historical ally Russia.

Since the crisis broke out in November, the Balkans country has been walking a fine line between respect for its obligations toward Brussels as an aspiring EU member, and maintaining good ties with Moscow.

But analysts say its neutral position is increasingly under threat and the country at some point will have to clearly pick a side.

In particular, Brussels has sought to pressure Serbia to support sanctions against Russia in response to its annexation of Crimea, a measure that Belgrade would like to be exempted from to avoid offending its traditional ally.

"It is out of the question to impose sanctions against Russia," Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic said recently. "Everyone knows that I love Russia, but that doesn`t mean we have to unite with Russia," he said, reflecting his country`s quandary.

Russia is a one of Serbia`s key economic and political allies. It has supported Belgrade, which opened membership talks with EU in January, in a series of sensitive international issues such as the independence of the former Serbian province of Kosovo in 2008. Russia, like Belgrade, still does not recognise Kosovo`s independence.

As well as providing political support to Serbia, the two countries have deep economic ties that Belgrade would be loathe to lose.

The Russian state-owned oil and gas giant Gazprom holds a majority 51-percent stake in the Serbian oil company NIS.

Since last year, Russia has granted Serbia loans in the amount of $1.3 billion (960 million euros) for reconstruction of its railways and dealing with a huge budget gap.

But these ties are increasingly under strain as countries opposed to Russia`s actions in Ukraine attempt to isolate Moscow from its allies.

"The intention of the United States is now to oust Russia from the Balkans," said Predrag Simic, a professor of international relations at Belgrade University.

"Serbia`s neutral position will soon face serious problems," he added.

Simic pointed to the EU`s intervention in a $45 billion Russian pipeline that is to pass through Serbia as just one part of the West`s campaign to wrest Balkan countries away from Moscow`s influence.

Work on the South Stream pipeline, which will bypass Ukraine and deliver gas to Europe, was suspended in neighbouring Bulgaria earlier this month following protests from Brussels and the US.

Both had raised objections to the selection of a consortium led by Stroytransgaz -- a Russian company subject to US sanctions -- to work on the project.

The EU had also suggested that the selection process may have broken the bloc`s rules.

Serbia initially said it too would suspend work on the pipeline but later reversed its position with Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic saying the South Stream project "is going on as planned."

The incident clearly illustrated Serbia`s dilemma as it seeks to protect its interests while looking Westwards.In a visit to Belgrade on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said there were "no changes in the (joint) projects of Russia and Serbia."

Lavrov also voiced Moscow`s "respect" for Serbia`s EU accession talks. But analysts suggest this support may not be as forthcoming as it seems.

"We are witnessing mounting pressure from Russia, which hopes to block Serbia`s European integration," political analyst Jelena Milic told AFP.

Milic pointed to the flurry of visits to Belgrade from top Russian officials since the crisis in Ukraine began as proof of Moscow`s effort to drive a wedge between Serbia and the EU.

Serbia`s neutral stance has also come under strain from elsewhere.

On the eve of Lavrov`s visit to Belgrade, US Vice President Joe Biden urged Serbia to be "on the side of its European partners" as concerns the Ukrainian crisis.

Although Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic pledged this week that his country was calling for dialogue to resolve the Ukraine crisis, its position is increasingly becoming untenable.

"Serbia is trying to keep equally close relations with both Moscow and with Brussels, but I don`t think it could last for long," said political analyst Sasa Popov.

"What is certain is that if Serbia wants to make progress towards EU membership, it will have to chose a side."