“This is Our Back Yard!” (III)

In the runup to Chancellor Scholz’ visit to Belgrade, tomorrow, Berlin increases pressure on Serbia to join EU sanctions against Russia.

BERLIN/BELGRADE (Own report) – The German government is intensifying pressure on Serbia to join the EU’s policy of sanctions against Russia. In the runup to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’ visit to Belgrade tomorrow, it has been reported that the Serbian government is faced with the choice of either joining the sanctions or endangering its candidacy for EU membership. For many years, Serbia has been pursuing a foreign policy oriented, on the one hand, on obtaining EU membership, while maintaining good relations with Russia and China, on the other. Its ties to Moscow, in particular, have a long tradition. Even though Belgrade had condemned Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in the UN General Assembly, it refuses to impose sanctions on Russia. Most recently, Moscow and Belgrade decided, instead, to expand their economic relations; Serbia especially wants to buy Russian gas at a reasonable price. At the beginning of the week, several NATO countries sabotaged Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s visit to Belgrade, by closing their airspace to his aircraft.

Foreign Policy on Several Pillars

For years Serbia has pursued a foreign policy based on cooperation with the most divers countries and power centers. On the one hand, it cooperates closely with the EU, to which it officially seeks to become a member. Its chances, however – beyond flowery promises, also repeatedly emanating from the German government –are seen as meager. On the other hand, Serbia is strongly oriented on Russia, with which it has traditionally maintained close ties and with which it also cooperates militarily.[1] The latter has not prevented Serbia from participating in NATO maneuvers from time to time. In 2020, Germany, for its part, launched a tentative cooperation with Serbia’s armed forces, that consisted, as a first step, in the acquisition of two armored Dingo ambulances, to be furnished by 2023 or 2024.[2] Serbia is also closely cooperating with China.[3] This foreign policy, based on reliance on several cooperation partners, proved its merit, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. Due to an EU export ban, Belgrade was first deprived of medical protective gear, and then of EU vaccines. It received its supplies mainly from China. (german-foreign-policy.com reported.[4])

Cooperation with Russia

Against this background of a multi-vectoral – as it is called – foreign policy, Serbia maintains its cooperation with Russia, in spite of the war in Ukraine. Serbia, which had voted in favor of the UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s intervention in that neighboring country, is, however, not prepared to join the West’s sanctions policies and embargo measures against Moscow. Belgrade can point to a large majority of the Serbian population that opposes such sanctions. On May 29, Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin agreed that Moscow would prolong its gas deliveries to Serbia for at least another three years – reportedly – at a very reasonable price. Vučić and Putin also discussed the expansion of mutually beneficial trade and economic cooperation.[5] Belgrade is thus ostentatiously going against EU efforts to isolate Russia, as hermetically as possible. In light of this opening, numerous wealthy Russian individuals and enterprises are relocating from various EU countries to Serbia, which furnishes Belgrade a particularly beneficial inflow of capital.[6]

Pressure and Threating E-Mails

Ever since the EU imposed its first sanctions, the Serbian government has been under massive pressure to join these measures. As early as March, during her visit to Belgrade, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock declared that whoever shares the “European values of peace, freedom, democracy and prosperity” cannot “be now standing on the sidelines.”[7] Belgrade must urgently impose sanctions on Russia. As President Vučić was received by Chancellor Olaf Scholz in early May, he was told “the EU and their membership candidates must stand shoulder to shoulder in this difficult situation.”[8] In Belgrade, it is said that one hears this sort of demands at each visit and in every round of talks with politicians from western countries. Prime Minister Ana Brnabić even attributes hundreds of bomb threats that paralyzed Belgrade on May 16, to opponents to Serbia’s Russia policy. On that day, several hundred threats arrived alleging that bombs had been planted in Serbia’s capital, at primary schools, at shopping malls, restaurants, bridges, and at a train station.[9] All of the threats proved to be fakes. According to Brnabić, the e-mails had been sent from several European countries. The action had been “well prepared and carefully planned,” said the Prime Minister.

Overflight Refused

Berlin will also use Chancellor Scholz’ visit tomorrow to apply pressure to Belgrade. Originally, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had planned to visit Serbia’s capital last Monday and Tuesday. Several EU politicians and diplomats had publicly opposed the visit. In an interview published on Sunday, Germany’s ambassador to Serbia, Thomas Schieb, demanded that, in addition to having condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Belgrade should “also take other EU positions,” meaning join the EU’s sanctions against Russia.[10] Already earlier, it had been reported in Belgrade that the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s visit was conditional upon the cancellation of Sergey Lavrov’s visit, which puts the Serbian government must now choose between the EU and Russia.[11] Lavrov, in fact, did not arrive in the Serbian capital. Bulgaria, North Macedonia; and Montenegro – NATO countries bordering on Serbia – had refused his aircraft permission for overflight of their respective territories. Serbia is completely surrounded by NATO countries, including Bosnia-Herzegovina with a pro-NATO majority. When they refuse overflight permission, that country is inaccessible to Russian government aircraft.

No Autonomy

Whereas Lavrov has officially protested the blockade imposed by the 3 NATO countries and noted that the western military pact, thus denies Serbia the possibility of exercising its autonomous foreign policy,[12] tomorrow, Olaf Scholz will again be trying to induce Vučić to join the EU’s sanctions against Russia. That the EU is unwilling to accept Serbia’s independent approach, had been made very clear last year by Latvian Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš. At the time, in reference to the Southeast European non-EU countries, including Serbia, Kariņš was quoted to have said: “This is our backyard.”[13]


[1] See also “Won’t Relinquish to Moscow”.

[2] Lambrecht in Serbien: „Frieden, Freiheit und territoriale Integrität“. bmvg.de 05.05.2022.

[3] See also Strategic Rivalry over Eastern and Southeastern Europe.

[4] See also Die Solidarität der EU and The EU's Vaccination Disaster.

[5] Adam Schrader: Serbia, Russia sign natural gas deal amid Ukraine war. upi.com 29.05.2022.

[6] Georgi Gotev: The Brief – Russia’s hub in the heart of Europe. euractiv.com 23.05.2022.

[7] Baerbock in Serbien: Gegenüber Russland Farbe bekennen. zeit.de 11.03.2022.

[8] Gute Beziehungen weiter ausbauen. bundesregierung.de 04.05.2022.

[9] Serbian officials blame bomb hoaxes that paralysed Belgrade on refusal to sanction Russia. intellinews.com 18.05.2022.

[10] Clare Nuttall: Lavrov’s Belgrade visit cancelled but the damage is already done. intellinews.com 07.06.2022.

[11] Germany Imposing Conditions on Serbia over Lavrov’s Visit. serbiandaily.com 03.06.2022.

[12] Serbiens Nachbarn verwehren Lawrow Flug nach Belgrad. n-tv.de 06.06.2022.

[13] Laurence Norman: EU's Balkan Expansion Plans Stall. wsj.com 06.10.2021. See also "This is Our Backyard!" and "This is our Backyard!" (II).