Next Christmas in Belgrade? The EU’s Move into the Western Balkans


Christopher A. Hartwell

About Christopher A. Hartwell

Dr. Christopher A. Hartwell is President of CASE-Center for Social and Economic Research (CASE) in Warsaw, an Associate Professor at Kozminski University (also in Warsaw), a Visiting Professor at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), and a leading scholar on the evolution of economic institutions. Dr. Hartwell’s interests are in institutional development, especially the interplay between financial institutions and other political and economic institutions. He also has published on international trade and economic integration, with an emphasis on Eurasian integration and transition dynamics. Dr. Hartwell holds a PhD in Economics from the Warsaw School of Economics, a Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard, and a BA in Political Science and Economics from the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Two Roads Diverge: The Transition Experience of Poland and Ukraine (Cambridge University Press, 2016), as well as Institutional Barriers in the Transition to Market: Examining Performance and Divergence in Transition Economies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

Serbia took another large step towards accession to the European Union (EU) last week, opening two more chapters in its negotiations and reiterating its commitment to joining the EU in a timely fashion. As the largest economy in the region, Serbia has naturally been the focal point of EU efforts in the Western Balkans, with massive amounts of EU assistance and aid directed towards Belgrade. However, as our recent report for the European Parliament on Serbia’s recent foreign policies has showed, the increasing interest of Russia and China in the Balkans and especially in Serbia places Belgrade in a difficult position.  With so many suitors, it is likely that Serbia may attempt to revert to its historical type and play a balancing act between the West and the East, using the interest of outside powers to remain preeminent in the region. The danger, as in the past, is that Serbia’s short-term regional aspirations could derail its longer-term economic security.

The geographical position of Serbia, coupled with its long period of domination by Ottoman Turkey, has always made it reluctant historically to fully commit to either Europe or its fellow Slavs in Russia. Serbia’s persistent role as the largest economic and political power in the Balkans (as well as the first independent one) meant it has always played an oversized role in the region; however, its relative powerlessness vis a vis other European (and more distant) powers meant that all great powers were viewed with suspicion. Indeed, outside powers were only favored if they were aligned with Belgrade and had the ability to secure Serbia’s existence as the dominant power in the Balkans.


After the turbulent sanctions and wars of the 1990s, the EU looked to be the way in which Serbia could pursue this long-standing policy goal. As part of Serbia’s reintegration into the global economy, Serbia’s political elite came to a consensus on the desirability of accession to the European Union, making it a top priority for the Serbian policy agenda. This decision has been good for Belgrade, with tremendous amounts of money flowing from Brussels and EU Member States to Serbia: from 2000 to 2015, the EU has been the largest single supplier of official development aid to Serbia, with funding totaling over 4.08 billion euros (including both official European Union aid and aid from Member States delivered outside the EU framework). Similarly, the overwhelming majority of Serbia’s trade over the past twelve years has been with the European Union, with over 60 per cent of its exports (by value) going to the EU since 2005, while imports from the EU have also consistently been in the range from 55 to 59 per cent of all imports.

The resurgence of an aggressive and revanchist Russia, however, has given Serbia another beacon to focus on, one that it has been drawn to in the past. Russia has made no secret of its desire to derail European accession in countries it feels it has a claim to (Armenia, Moldova, and most famously, Ukraine falling into this category), and Serbia appears to be the next another country in this list. Highly visible actions such as sending Russia-branded planes to deliver aid to flood victims in 2014 or creating a “Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Centre” in Niš (suspected by NATO as being a base for spies) are meant to fly the Russian flag at low cost to Moscow. Russia has also been steadfastly behind Serbian intransigence regarding Kosovo, encouraging the Serbs to take the hardest line possible and offering diplomatic support against any reconciliation between Belgrade and Pristina. Some of this support has been repaid by Serbia during the Russian-directed crises in Ukraine, including the illegal Anschluss of Crimea and the covert invasion of the Donbas, as the Serbian government has been reluctant to criticize Russia and refused to follow the EU in imposing sanctions.

According to opinion polls conducted by both Serbian and non-Serbian organizations, Russia’s campaign of dezinformatsiya and propaganda is having an impact. Calls for a renewal of a romantic “Slavic brotherhood” by Russia have also been answered by some Serbians, with evidence that of Serbian paramilitaries serving alongside Russian soldiers in their ongoing invasion of Ukraine. More broadly, Russia is perceived by Serbians as a major political and military power (by 70 and 79 per cent of respondents respectively), and 61 per cent of the populace believes that Russia’s influence on Serbian foreign policy is a good thing. Additionally, despite having a miniscule amount of funding devoted to Serbia, especially compared to the deluge of money from the EU (to date, only EUR 1.21 million has been pledged by Russia, in the form of loans, while 3.5 billion euros has been disbursed by the EU), Russia is still perceived by a quarter of the Serb population as giving Serbia the most aid of any donor. At the same time, support for EU accession has wavered, with the most recent poll from the Serbian Ministry of European Integration showing pro-EU sentiment of 49 per cent in June 2017 (up from 41 per cent a year prior).

One Belt One Road

Further complicating the EU’s diplomacy in Serbia is the arrival of a new player in the Balkans, China. Although Chinese influence in the Balkans is small, it is growing, spearheaded by projects in Serbia as part of its One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. While, like Russia, Chinese financing of projects is geared towards loans rather than grants (meaning the money must eventually be repaid), the Chinese approach appears to be financing infrastructure that the Serbian government actually desires rather than intangibles such as “rule of law.” Examples of this include the Pupin bridge, China’s largest investment in Europe (completed in 2014), and the somewhat-delayed but still-planned Belgrade-Budapest high-speed railway, a project envisioned to cost 1.1 billion euros, nearly a third of the planned Chinese investment of 3 billion euros in Serbia. Additionally, the Chinese have also pledged to upgrade existing infrastructure to create the European Motorway XI running from Romania to Montenegro, a project with a proposed price tag of nearly 900 million euros. While Chinese demands on Serbian foreign policy are far less than those of Russia, the entrance of China into the region gives another reason for Serbia to want to keep its options open.

Alas, such a balancing act cannot continue; as our report shows, Serbia may be able to hold out a bit longer, as its relations with the EU, the US, Russia, and China split along various lines, with each power interested in Serbia for its own ends. However, if Serbia is to join the EU, as it must bring its foreign policy in line with the other Member States, and that means a harder line on Russia and more scrutiny for China. Unfortunately, given its focus on regional issues, there is no guarantee that Serbia will ever come to a point where it will be wholly comfortable with such a stark choice (even if it does become an EU Member State), as full commitment to the EU may prove too courageous for the current roster of Serbian lawmakers. Given domestic constraints and public sentiment, EU accession may actually occur despite a majority of people being against it.

The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy. 


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Belarus Steps Up Liberalisation of Business


EU to Fund New Poland-Slovakia Gas Pipeline

slovakia-poland gas pipeline

Defending EU Values in Poland and Hungary

Eu hungary poland

Estonia Posts EU’s Highest Inflation Rate in November

Rising food and grocery store prices is estonia and cost of living concept. Man counting food and consumer goods money with pen, paper and calculator at home. Budget of disadvantaged and low income family.

Ukraine’s Finance Ministry Wants Urgent Tax Reform

ICT Given Huge Boost in Belarus

MINSK, BELARUS - AUGUST 15, 2016: Aerial view of the southwestern part of the Minsk with Palace of Sport and old and new other buildings. Minsk is the capital and largest city of Belarus.

China Eyes Moldovan Trade Agreement

CRICOVA MOLDOVA July 24 2017 :Underground wine cellar with collection of bottles in niches. Winery with 120 km of underground passages for wine storage

CEE Playing Catch Up on R&D Spending

science, r&d

Estonia Leading CEE Country in WEF Competitiveness Index

pharmaceutical factory woman worker operating production line at pharmacy industry manufacture factory

EU Triggers Article 7 Against Poland

CRACOW POLAND - JULY 23 2017: Another day in Cracow thousands of people protest against violation the constitutional law in Poland. Defense of the triad of division of power free election and independence of the highest court in Poland

Georgia’s Great Potential

The highland agriculture lands in Gudauri with the herd of sheep grazing here Georgia.

Bulgarian Capital Pulls Above Its Weight


CEE-Benefits and Disadvantages of Joining the Eurozone

forint zloty euro

Serbia Drafts New Competition Law

serbia belgrade flag

The Peculiar Growth of Poland

KRAKOW POLAND - JUNE 2017: logo of Galeria Krakowska shopping center.

Nadiya Savchenko: I Dream of a Great Ukraine

Panorama of the top part of the Andrew's Descent from Castle Hill in springtime in Kiev Ukraine.

Slovenia: An Optimistic, Export-Led Economy with First-World Problems

Big cranes in port of Koper in Slovenia

Prospering Czechia Still Needs a Bigger Workforce

prague emerging europe

Romanian Transport Infrastructure Failures Pile Up

Cernavoda Romania - June 20 2012: Construction works at the A2 highway connecting Romania's capital Bucharest to Constanta.

Jadranka Joksimović: Serbia Takes Its Candidacy of the EU Seriously


Euroscepticism in Serbia: An Image Problem?

CEE Lags in Business Connectivity

ANIS romanian ICT

EU: Consumption Still Driving Growth

Polish Shoppers in Hunt for Eggs

eggs in rack

Czech Land Prices Continue to Increase

farm land

LGBT in CEE — A New Acceptance Is Being Born From Migration

Romanian National Bank Hikes Interest Rates

BUCHAREST ROMANIA - MAY 25 2014: The National Bank of Romania (BNR) building palace designed by Albert Galleron and Cassien Bernard.

Ukraine’s Reputation for Cheap Labour May Not Ring True in the Long-term

Sunday Trading in Poland Under Renewed Threat

Hungary Seen as Riskiest Country in CEE


Georgian PM Reshapes and Reshuffles Cabinet

Giorgi Kvirikashvili

Polish Labour Market Deficits Are Impacting All

Construction site with crane and building. Construction site in western europe - in Poland.

Albania’s Election Apathy

tirana albania

Ukraine’s Anti-Corruption Boss Survives, For Now

Artem Sytnyk

European Volatility Makes Economic Development Slower for Ukraine

Kaczyński Defends PiS Record

Czech Republic Approves 2018 Budget

Ten czech crown coins money on black marble background

Georgia to Develop Rural Fibre-Optic Network

Young man working on his laptop connect to wireless internet in rural area. Internet connection allows people to work anywhere from laptop. Notebook and nature background. Wireless technology concept.

Measuring Growth of Societies with GDP Alone Shows an Incomplete Picture

Tech Giant Expands Romanian Operations

IMF Wants Banking Sector Reform in Western Balkans

croatia national bank

Can Armenia Keep a Foot in Both Camps?

European union armenia russia emerging europe

Young Georgians Make Their Mark at Emerging Europe-EBRD Event

maximilien lambertson at emergeing ebrd outlook on georgia

Czech PM Loses Confidence Vote

andrej Babiš

Could the West At Least Help Ukraine To Insure FDI Against Political Risks?

EconMin: Bulgaria — Number One Outsourcing Destination And an Island of Stability in Europe

Bulgaria and Romania Get EBRD SME Boost

Startup Diversity Teamwork Brainstorming Meeting Concept

e-Estonia: Believe the Hype

Central and Eastern European Consumers Are Joining the Global Trends for Change

After Its Significant Rise the Georgian Economy May Now Fall

Panorama of Tbilisi, Georgia in sunset rays. Vivid, saturated, splittoned image.

Larisa Manastirli: Where is Bulgaria After Ten Years in the EU?

Finalising the DCFTA is Expected to Bring Multiple Benefits to Ukraine

Under Promise, Over Deliver: Prospects for the EU’s Eastern Partnership in 2018

Eastern partnership

The GREAT London Food Scene

Bakery in London

NATO Opens New Moldova Office

NATO Moldova

Air Passenger Volumes Reach Record High in the Baltics


Continental Launch Largest Ever Lithuanian Greenfield Investment

kaunas lithuania

Ukraine’s Economic Recovery: Good, But Slow

ukraine money

EU Visa-Liberalisation Strengthens Georgia’s Pro-Western Path

georgia emerging europe eu

A Positive and Modern View of Entrepreneurship

Skiing in Emerging Europe

gudauri ski georgia

World Bank: Brexit Hides Greater Challenges to the European Union and the CEE Region

Poland: Is it Ready, and is it Time to Adopt the Euro?

Georgian Wine Posts Record Results

Glass of wine at tasting area of annual city festival Tbilisoba with crowd of people around. Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia country

Slowly, Tech Brand Belarus Emerges

belarus tech

Trans Adriatic Pipeline Will Fuel Albanian Growth

Xanthi. Greece - July 30 2017: aerial view of construction of gas pipeline Trans Adriatic Pipeline - TAP in north Greece. The pipeline starts from the Caspian sea and reaches the coast of southern Italy

Serbia, Belarus and Ukraine Ranked Lowly by Wharton Business School

Kyiv Ukraine - April 172017: The postal square in Kiev on Podol the Dnipro river. view of the square from the river panorama

Chris Lowney — What Jesuit Spirituality Can Teach Us About Global Leadership

EU-CEE Is Still Growing at a Healthy Rate

Prague emerging europe

Azerbaijan Showcases ICT Potential

BAKU AZERBAIJAN - SEPTEMBER 25: People goes by the seafront of Baku on September 25 2016. Baku is a capital and largest city of Azerbaijan.

China Agrees to Build High-Tech Business Park in Serbia

BELGRADE SERBIA - SEPTEMBER 29 2016: View on the city center and the junction of Rivers Sava and Danube in Belgrade Serbia.

Stuck in Neutral: Georgia’s Constitutional Reforms

Tbilisi Parliament Georgia

Putin Urges Belarus to End Oil Transit Through Lithuania

Athens Greece - May 27 2016: Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers

The Problem With Central European City-States

Budapest Hungary - Panoramic skyline view of the famous Buda Castle Royal Palace with the Buda Hills and Matthias Church at background at sunset

Why Hungary’s New NGO Law Is Harmful for Business

Budapest, Hungary. Aerial view of the old city Budapest, Hungary with river and Parliament Building with cloudy blue sky

Latvia Urged Not to Increase Expenditure As Economy Grows

Riga, Latvia - August, 2010: Panorama view from Riga cathedral on old town of Riga, Latvia

All for One, and One for All


Croatian Salaries Are Growing in Line With Other CEE Countries

Dubrovnik Croatia emerging europe

EU Commissioner Launches Veiled Attack on Poland and Hungary

eu commission

Košice Business Matchmaking Event Brings in Hungarians

kosice, slovakia

Fiscal Policy Predictability in CEE — It’s Time for Change

Poland Is Set To Become a Large Economic Zone

Aerial view over the building materials processing factory. View from above.

UK Economic Growth Slows as Brexit Uncertainty Bites

flags of UK and EU combined over icons of London - Brexit concept

TV Still a Star for CME

New Political Crisis Hits Moldova


Will the New Five-day Visa-free Regime Encourage More Visitors to Belarus?

International Women’s Day — Let’s Take Action And Then Celebrate

A Risky Evaluation of Croatia’s Economy?

ZAGREB, CROATIA - JULY 17, 2017: Square Ban Josip Jelacic with tourists and trams on a summer day in Zagreb. City of Zagreb is the capital of Croatia.

Global Players Dash for Tempting CEE

dollar pound euro coin on euro background.

Assaults on the Judiciary: How CEE Governments Are Trying to Restrict Judicial Independence, and Why It’s Not Working… For Now

poland romania justice system

Albania’s Economy Not Benefiting From Largest Oil Reserves in Region

Brexit: Let’s Learn the Lesson and Hope a Better Europe Will Arise

Are Labour Shortages Driving Economic Growth?

IFC Invests 30 Million Euros in Ukrainian Packaging Firm

IMMER Ukrplastic

2018 Elections — Vital Decisions for Hungary’s Future

Victor Orban energing europe

Poland Fails to Spend Billions of Euros in EU Funds

euro banknotes

Emerging Europe to Record Positive Growth Across the Board in 2018

coins growth

The Global Outsourcing Industry — the Rise of the Phoenix

Investigations Into the Corrupt Ukrainian Fuel and Energy Sectors

Ukrainian money hryvnia. The national currency. Corruption in Ukraine

Investors in Poland Unfazed By Article 7

Warsaw EBRD annual meeting

Albania’s Economy Booms Despite Political Infighting

Panorama view to the city Tirana Albania

Estonia Leads Baltics in Cutting Sugar in Food and Drink

Women, to Tractors!

Tug of war contest between boys and girls. Two groups of children of different sex pulling opposite ends of rope. Concept of gender equality among kids, team sports. Vector illustration for banner

Outsourcing Sector Driving CEE Office & Graduate Demand

wroclaw office

Cabinet Reshuffle In Poland Sees Controversial Ministers Axed

PiS Uses Media Control to Bring Poland to Heel

Jaroslaw kaczynski pis emerging europe

Romanian Inflation Hits Four-Year High

supermarket, prices, inflation

The Polish Government’s Mid-Term Report: Must Do Better

Front of finance ministry in Warsaw Poland with a fountain framing the entrance. Could be used for images about Euro currency problems

Emerging Europe Makes Some Progress on Closing Gender Gap

world economic forum gender gap report

Partnership is the Key to CEE-Indian Business

After 25 Years of Restructuring, the Romanian Power Sector Is at a Crossroad

WEF: Emerging Europe Ready for the Future

robotic machine tool in industrial manufacture plant,Smart factory industry 4.0 concept.

Only a United Opposition Can Defeat Poland’s Ruling Law and Justice Party

Classical building of Polish parliament. Warsaw in Poland.

Europe Needs To Be More Proactive In Embracing Armenia

Poland’s New PM Defends Attacks on Justice System

warsaw supreme court

Bulgaria’s Bitcoin Mystery

bitcoin bulgaria

Europe at Odds over OPAL and Nord Stream 2

OECD: Tightening Labour Markets Sustain Growth in Emerging Europe

workers, employment

The End of Poland’s Shale Gas Eldorado

Polish Convenience Store Sector Booms

Poland Needs to Cling to the Eurozone

zloty euro emerging europe

Estonia: Europe’s Little Technological Giant

Bucharest’s Stock Exchange Reports Growth; Eyes Emerging Market Status

bucharest stock exchange

When Neutrality Isn’t an Option

President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Putin

Belarus Refinery Boss Upbeat Despite Challenges

oil refinery

Hungary and Israel: the Collision of Past and Present

Budapest synagoge

Albania’s Construction Sector Supports the Country’s Growth

SARANDA, ALBANIA - MAY 18: View of the city Saranda, most important tourist attraction of the Albanian Riviera on May 18, 2017 in Saranda, Albania.

Hungary’s Solar Dreamer

hand sun and blue sky with copyspace showing freedom or solar power concept

Belarus Foreign Minister Hails Success of Visa-Free Travel Programme

Great noble deer surrounded by herd.Portrait of a deer, while looking at you.Adult deer with big beautiful horns on snowy field on forest background.

Romanian President Appoints Country’s First Female PM

viorica dancila prime minister of romania

We, the Post-Communist Generation, Have the Skills to Rid of the Past And Create Our Own Future

Bulgarian PM Sets Out Priorities at EPP Group Debate

Prague Czech Republic - February 15 2016: The Prime Ministers of Bulgaria Boyko Borissov is speaking during a press conference after meeting of The Visegrad Group (V4) in Prague Czech Republic.

CEE Boosted by Positive Tourism Trends Across the Region

cruise ship in Kotor Bay Montenegro. Aerial view panorama. Kotor bay Montenegro.

Slovakia: Growth Continues But Problems Remain

Chinese Electric Car Maker Seeks Emerging Europe Base

zhi dou d2

Poland’s Capital Saturation Lower Than the Czech Republic’s

deloitte fdi poland

Lech Wałęsa: Hard Options Can Force Nations to Get Down to Work

CEE: Innovate or Get Eaten


The Voice of European Business Must Be Heard Loud and Clear by Brexit Negotiators

Baltic States to Launch Combined Capital Market

capital markets
  1. True financially joining EU makes sense but on the other side if you read articles about Serbia published in the West they are quite hostile. West does not want to acknowledge million or so Serbs killed in WW2 by Croats and Bosniaks. In every dispute West sided against Serbia. West took out big chunk of Serbia and gave it to Albania (Kosovo is practically part of Albania) while not allowing the same for Serbs in Croatia or Bosnia. West did not jail anybody for ethnically cleansing Croatia while they jailed hundreds of Serbs. In the west there are defiantly double standards and Serbia is not treated fairly. That is the fact. Why would anyone run to the union where you are not equal. Serbia is just asking from the West to be treated as others.

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