U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, Hoyt Brian Yee, stated that Belgrade ‘’cannot sit on two chairs’’ at the 17th Serbian Economic Summit in Belgrade on 23 October, suggesting the country must choose between the West and Russia. According to the U.S. diplomat, countries that want to join the European Union ‘’must very clearly demonstrate this desire.’’ On 24 October, Yee repeated his words during a meeting with President Aleksandar Vucic, saying that ‘’Serbia is with one foot on a EU path, and another in a union with Russia.’’ The remarks invoked a whole series of fierce reactions.
Serbian Minister of Defence, Aleksandar Vulin, criticized the comments made by Yee, saying the statement of the diplomat was not ”made by a friend or a man respecting Serbia, our policy, and our right to make our own decisions.’’ Furthermore, he argued that Serbia chooses its own path regarding its foreign policies, regardless of what the ‘’great powers’’ want. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called Yee’s statements provocative and emphasized in a statement that the U.S. is ”unaware that many EU countries are involved in large-scale, mutually beneficial and productive cooperation with Russia.’’ According to the ministry, the U.S. should ”not impose on others hostile ideological stereotypes that undermine the foundations of international stability and cooperation on the Balkans and Europe in general.’’ Tanja Miscevic, Serbian chief negotiator in the EU accession talks, alleged the words of Yee were ‘’taken out of context’’, for Serbia’s foreign policy is clear [towards the EU].
Serbia: between a rock and a hard place
Serbia’s political strategic orientation seems to move between the West and Russia. The country is increasingly an important playground for geopolitics. On the one hand, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, former member of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, wants to join the European Union in 2025. This is a challenging task, however, as the country must meet the requirements of EU accession, such as a normalization of its relationships with Pristina and its binding to democratic principles as the rule of law, and freedom of speech and media. The latter cannot be taken for granted, as journalists and activists are increasingly under pressure, and politicians interfere with the rulings of courts, showing the weakness of Serbia’s judiciary system. The relations between Belgrade and Pristina are also insufficiently improved in order to become EU member.
On the other hand, President Vucic seeks to maintain good relations with its traditional ally Russia, mainly in military terms. Last week, Vucic and Russian Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu, attended a parade at a military airport just outside Belgrade, celebrating the liberation of the capital by Soviet troops in 1944. Part of the ceremonies was the formal hand over of six MiG-29 fighters jets to Serbia. The war planes were provided at no charge. Furthermore, government friendly media in Serbia often glorify Russia as an external friend and President Putin as ‘’Serbia’s saviour’’.
The recent rapprochement between the countries have worried the NATO and neighbouring countries Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. Moscow wants to prevent Serbia from joining NATO, afraid of losing its influence in the region. Official policy of Serbia’s government is to remain strategically determined in favour of EU integration, but to continue to develop friendly relations with Russia, China, India and the United Arab Emirates.’’ For the European Union, it is therefore important to strengthen her commitment to the region. The Union needs to offer better lives for the citizens of the Balkan states, otherwise they will be disappointed and move away from the West.