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BELGRADE — This time even Aleksandar Vučić is struggling to win on both counts.
For years, the Serbian president has tried to maintain warm relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia while cultivating ties with the European Union, which his country wishes to join, and with the West more broadly.
But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has placed Vučić in an acute dilemma and has already put the Balkan country at odds with the EU, US and other powers as it refuses to impose sanctions. in Moscow.
In response to Putin’s war, Vučić attempted to take his balancing act to a new level. He said he “supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine” and his government backed the UN resolution deploring Russia’s aggression. But he rejected calls to toe the EU line on sanctions, citing Russia’s refusal to impose such measures on Serbia during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Even if Vučić, who is running for re-election next month, now wanted to turn decisively to the West, it would be difficult to do so, in large part because of the policies he pursued. Serbia is heavily dependent on Russian energy. And Moscow enjoys strong support among parts of the Serbian population, fueled by rampant pro-Putin propaganda pedaled for years by tabloid media loyal to Vučić.
That support was on full display on Friday night, when thousands of demonstrators – some of them waving Russian flags and carrying photos of Putin – marched through central Belgrade to show their support for Moscow.
The rally was in stark contrast to mass protests across Europe condemning Russia’s war on Ukraine. And Belgrade is also out of step with the EU on the economic front. As the bloc severed ties with Russia and closed its skies to flights from the country, Air Serbia stepped up service to Moscow.
“Vučić finds himself in a difficult and unpleasant situation, which is largely his own fault,” said Aleksandra Tomanić, executive director of the European Fund for the Balkans, an NGO which works to strengthen democracy and foster European integration in the region.
Relations between Serbia and Russia have been close since the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Russia opposed the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 over Belgrade’s crackdown on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
Putin complained bitterly about the NATO bombing, which did not receive the approval of the UN Security Council, while citing it in an attempt to justify his invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow has also been a powerful and vocal ally of Belgrade in rejecting Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia and preventing Kosovo from joining international organizations.
Putin has visited Serbia several times and has been warmly welcomed as a friend of the country by both political leaders and broad sections of the population.
In November last year, Vučić visited Putin in the Russian city of Sochi and the two presidents reached what the Serbian leader hailed as an “incredible” gas deal, keeping prices the same. and increasing supply even as the rest of the Balkan region faces an electricity crisis.
As fellow Slavs and Orthodox Christians, many Russians and Serbs see themselves as traditional and culturally close allies. Some analysts have argued that the two countries are not as natural political partners, but the narrative has nevertheless taken hold among large swaths of the Serbian population, in part because it is being pushed by political leaders.
“The popularity of Putin and Russia has reached surreal levels among the Serbian public. Every politician is afraid that if he does something that is considered anti-Russian, it will anger a significant portion of his constituents,” said Vuk Vuksanović, an analyst at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy think tank.
A survey published last year showed that Russia was by far the most popular choice when Serbs were asked which power they should rely on most for their national security. The same poll, conducted for the research organization Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group, also showed that two-thirds of Serbs had a “very positive” opinion of Putin.
In this context, any major break with Moscow could trigger unrest just as Serbia faces parliamentary and presidential elections on April 3.
“It would literally suffice for the Russian ambassador to issue a statement accusing the Serbian government of betraying Serbian-Russian friendship in favor of those who bombed Serbia and took Kosovo, and unimaginable political chaos would ensue,” he said. predicted Vuksanović.
Serbia’s refusal to impose sanctions on Russia also raises uncomfortable questions for the EU.
The bloc has made it clear that it expects candidates for membership to follow EU foreign policy. A European Parliament resolution condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine singled out Serbia for its criticism of sanctions.
The resolution, adopted by an overwhelming majority last week, “strongly regrets Serbia’s non-alignment with EU sanctions against Russia, which undermines its EU accession process”.
But analysts and pro-democracy activists have long complained that the EU has been too soft on Vučić regarding both his attitude towards Russia and his authoritarian tendencies at home. They accused the bloc of being too willing to look the other way as long as it stuck to an EU-backed dialogue on Kosovo.
“The EU also bears a great responsibility. For 10 years they naively believed that as long as there were positive developments regarding Kosovo, everything else was less important and purely domestic politics,” Tomanić said.