The Russia-Ukraine War, which started on February 24, 2022 as a result of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, caused the European Union (EU) to impose sanctions on Russia. In this context, the Belgrade administration voted to adopt a resolution demanding the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine and calling for a “just and lasting” peace at the session of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on February 23, 2023. However, despite all this, Serbia refrains from imposing EU sanctions against Russia.
There is serious pressure on Serbia, which has been subjected to criticism since the beginning of the war due to its stance on this issue. The main reason behind Serbia’s non-implementation of EU sanctions is Russia’s influence on Serbs.
The situation in question is not limited to Serbs in Serbia. From the perspective of interstate relations, it is possible to say that Serbia’s dependence on Russian natural gas and Russia’s support for Serbia in the dispute between Kosovo and Serbia played a decisive role in this attitude. In this context, Russia maintains its influence over Serbia with its stance that opposes the recognition of Kosovo.
However, Russia shows its support for Serbia in the international arena on other important issues besides the Kosovo Issue. For example, Serbian President Alexander Vucic reminded the support given by Russian President Vladimir Putin to Serbia in the United Nations (UN) in February 2023. Here, it is mentioned that Russia vetoed the UN Security Council resolution condemning the Srebrenica Massacre as genocide in 2015.
It is stated that Serbia, which is between Russia and the EU, has followed a policy of balance between the two sides until today. However, with the recent developments, it is seen that the West has begun to dominate in terms of sanctions. Compared to Russia in the first months of 2023, it can be said that the EU is in more contact with Serbia. This is an important outcome of the EU’s role as a mediator in establishing a dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia. Thus, Western officials had the opportunity to remind more frequently that, in addition to efforts to improve relations with Kosovo for Serbia’s integration into the union should impose sanctions against Russia. A clear example of this is that Derek Chollet, Advisor to the United States of America (USA) Department of State, during his visit in Belgrade, while evaluating the relations between Kosovo and Serbia, stated that Serbia should impose sanctions on Russia.
In addition to all these, the European Parliament took a decision in January 2023 that for the progress of EU membership negotiations with Serbia, the country should align its foreign and security policy with that of the EU. On the other hand, it is known that the USA Ambassador to Serbia Christopher Hill, has repeatedly called on Serbia to impose sanctions on Russia both in February and March of 2023.
In response to these calls, Alexander Vucic stated that Serbia may have to impose sanctions on Russia and that Belgrade has already paid the price for not doing so. The data collected by the UN revealed that the crisis caused by the Russia-Ukraine War affected Serbia more than the Covid-19 epidemic and increased the number of poor people. The relevant data confirm Vucic’s statements.
It is seen that Russia responded in an understanding way to Vucic’s related statement. However, if sanctions are imposed on Russia, there will be a break in Serbia’s relations with Russia and the government will receive a great reaction in domestic politics and public opinion. In a public survey conducted by the Open Society Foundation and Datapraxis in 2022, approximately 63% of Serbs surveyed blamed the West for the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine War. It is predictable that Vucic, who is currently being protested in Serbia because of the dialogue with Kosovo, will face more severe criticism in the face of this situation.
Parallel to the opinion of the public, there is an important segment in the political environment that does not want the sanctions against Russia to be applied. Serbian Economy Minister Rade Basta requested from the government on 13 March 2023 to impose sanctions targeting the Moscow administration. On the other hand, the Leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic said that the SPS is not in favor of imposing sanctions; even the leader of the United Serbia Party (JS), of which Basta is a member, also stated that the party is against sanctions against anyone.
As a result, Vucic is torn between the EU and Russia on EU sanctions against Russia. Serbia’s non-implementation of EU sanctions creates significant economic problems in the country. Due to both the pressure of the West and the economic negativities, Vucic has recently expressed the possibility of imposing sanctions on Russia. In addition, Vucic also said in March 2023 that Serbia could not promise not to join the sanctions against Russia. However, looking at these statements, it can be said that Belgrade maintains its uncertainty on this issue. Because there is no consensus among policy makers as well as public opinion. Even looking at the latest developments, it is possible to argue that those who oppose EU sanctions are in the majority in Serbia.
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