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

Belgrade, Serbia, July 22, 2017.Belgrade cityscape at sunset with national assembly, aerial view

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. 

About the author

Christopher A. Hartwell

Christopher A. Hartwell

Christopher A. Hartwell is Professor of Financial Systems Resilience at Bournemouth University (UK), Professor of International Management at Kozminski University (Poland), and fellow and former President of CASE-Center for Social and Economic Research in Warsaw. He is also the author of Two Roads Diverge: The Transition Experience of Poland and Ukraine (Cambridge University Press, 2016) and Institutional Barriers in the Transition to Market (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

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  • 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.