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A two-faced Vucic: How the Serbian president is walking the tight rope between Russia and the West amidst a war

Five months into the war in Ukraine, Serbia remains the only European country to refuse to join anti-Russian sanctions, despite its formal condemnation of Russia's aggression. Compared to Bulgaria, for one, which has recently expelled as many as 70 Russian diplomats, Belgrade's policy may give off a pro-Kremlin whiff. However, Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic keeps balancing between Russia and the West, trying to squeeze as much political and economic gain out of this confrontation as possible. 

  • The gas trap

  • The Kremlin's accomplice in misinformation

  • No further rapprochement

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“We should stop calling this war local or regional. The entire West is waging war against the Russians through Ukraine; it's almost a global conflict. All we’re missing is a significant conflict in Asia,” Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic reasoned in an interview to TV Pink the other day. Vucic is badly-positioned to have a say in the resolution of tensions that have emerged from the war in Eastern Europe; however, Serbia is among the countries equally dependent on cooperation with Russia and the West.

Since the war broke out, Vucic has been visibly ill at ease and has been sending different signals to his eastern and western partners, presenting his steps as forced and emphasizing his desire to prioritize Serbian interests. Thus, he partially compensated for his reluctance to introduce anti-Russian sanctions by supporting several international resolutions condemning Moscow's actions. Certain observers expressed surprise that Serbia had not seized the opportunity to abstain when voting on Russia’s suspension from the UN Human Rights Council. However, Vucic may have feared that his Western partners may interpret it as “support for the aggressor”.

So he told the Russian audience that he had been pressured by the West while reassuring the West of his support for Ukraine's territorial integrity and his conviction that the Russian operation is a mistake. He also appealed to the need to put his own country first, reminding us that Serbia had, in turn, fallen prey to NATO aggression in 1999. As for sanctions, he questions their efficiency.

Vucic told the Russian audience that he had been pressured by the West while reassuring the West of his conviction that the Russian operation is a mistake

The gas trap

As an EU candidate country, Serbia has been faced with demands to align its foreign policy with the European position for years; however, it also has to deal with Moscow, which provides diplomatic support in the Kosovo issue and sets the price for natural gas. As we all know, this price results from a multitude of political factors, and the Serbian government wants to avoid excessive risks, considering their almost 100-percent dependency on Russian supplies and the lack of regional alternatives that could eliminate the need to cooperate with Gazprom. Besides, the latest contract, which Vucic negotiated with Kremlin in late May, was less profitable than its predecessor (with the new price per 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas set at ~$400 instead of $270), and the Serbian leader expects a harsh winter, while also bracing himself for the worst-case scenario of the armed conflict.

Following the election in April, when Vucic kept his presidential mandate and control over the parliament, the US and the EU expected Belgrade to distance itself from the Kremlin more decisively. However, no significant adjustments were made to its Russia policy. Meanwhile, Vucic is foot-dragging the creation of the new government, which traditionally features moderately pro-Russian (like Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin) and pro-Western figures. As observers believe, the lack of a new cabinet of ministers serves as a barrier to the much-anticipated reassessment of Serbia's relations with Russia. According to pro-government media, the new government may not be created until August. It appears that the Serbian leader is using all constitutional opportunities to postpone the introduction of anti-Russian sanctions, all the more so because the gas storage tanks aren’t full yet.

Although the Serbian authorities have promised to abstain from an embargo many times, their position is not set in stone. Vucic has announced that he will be opposed to anti-Russian sanctions until “Serbia is forced to act otherwise”. This statement was placed in the European integration context, in line with Serbia's strategic priority. Calls on Belgrade to align its policies with the EU’s stance have not included threats to block Serbia’s European path; however, the war in Ukraine, EU candidacy, and the issue of sanctions are traditionally addressed in bulk. In this regard, we cannot rule out the possibility that Serbia's European integration prospects may be endangered by its refusal to distance itself from Moscow.

The Kremlin's accomplice in misinformation

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Belgrade has not received a single Russian dignitary. Late in February, Serbia canceled the visit of Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolay Patrushev, and June saw the cancellation of the broadly announced visit of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov because Bulgaria, Montenegro, and North Macedonia refused to grant an overflying permit. Despite the disappointment expressed by the Serbian leaders, they were most likely relieved, not having to exchange niceties with him on camera against the backdrop of more and more frequent accusations of massive war crimes or provide him with an outlet for his signature anti-Western rhetoric.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Belgrade has not received a single Russian dignitary

Nevertheless, Vucic has been many a time caught red-handed endorsing Kremlin’s propaganda and misinformation, as Serbian pro-government media often lean towards a pro-Kremlin narrative when covering events in and around Ukraine. Thus, Informer, a tabloid with ties to public officials, was among the publications that place the headline “Ukraine attacks Russia” on its front page when the war began. This fake news was not debunked and remains available to readers. Serbian authorities have a long-standing tradition of helping the Kremlin to promote its information policy. In particular, Belgrade attempted to facilitate the operation of propagandist channel RT in Europe. The German-language television channel RT auf Deutsch (RT DE), which was launched late last year under a Serbian license, was quickly blocked, and the story ended in a scandal.

Vucic himself is known to make weird statements that are poorly grounded in evidence. Thus, the Serbian leader warned in the aforementioned interview for TV Pink that the world would allegedly become hell if world leaders turned a deaf ear to the proposals of Russian president Vladimir Putin. “I know what’s in store for us. Once Putin is done with Siversk, Artemivsk, Bakhmut, and Soledar and moves on to the second line, Sloviansk - Kramatorsk - Avdiivka, he will make a proposal. If they don't accept it, and they don't intend to (quite logically), we will find ourselves in hell,” Vucic insisted. You can hear the quote in the original here, starting from 1:49:00.

Resonating with Russian propaganda statements about “radioactive ash”, the Serbian president's word quickly spread across Russian media and pro-Kremlin publications in the Balkans. Some of the users debating the issue online were surprised that Vucic was so well-informed: “The Serb has a good grasp of the situation. He named all the locations, placing them along the right lines.” What’s more surprising, however, is that Vucic, who normally abstains from delving into the particulars of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, chose to comment on the situation in the war zone, confidently forecasting a certain horrible outcome and fueling the atmosphere of fear in the Balkans without sharing what he presumably knows about Putin's plan. Curiously, the interviewer never asked for those details in all two hours of the conversation despite trying to look meticulous and tough. In all likelihood, Vucic lied, but in that context, his statements make him complicit in the Kremlin's campaign of misinformation and intimidation.

Serbia is one of the few countries where the Russian invasion of Ukraine was met with rallies in support of Moscow’s policy and where graffitis depicting Putin and the Z sign, understood unambiguously as the symbol of Russia's “special operation”, often emerge. As surveys show, it was during Vucic's tenure that Serbia opened its doors to Russian influence and the spread of the pro-Kremlin sentiment in the region. Dozens of pro-Russian organizations with murky financing schemes sprung up to promote a conservative agenda, a positive image of Vladimir Putin, a skewed concept of democracy, and a demonic interpretation of the West.

No further rapprochement

None of the above perturbs Vucic, who is best at leveraging the Russia-loving sentiment of his voters. By contrast, he now has the opportunity to prove to the West that he has an “alternative path”. Although the Serbian government has no intention to forgo its attempts to join the EU, which accounts for almost two-thirds of the nation's trade and investment, or deepen its integration with the Kremlin-run EAEU, the Serbs are trying to use the Russian factor and duplicitous signals to ease the pressure from the West. Primarily, this concerns the Kosovo issue: Vucic would like to postpone recognizing the separatist province with a 90-percent Albanian population, which is an inevitable condition of integrating with the EU.

The Kremlin will work hard to maintain a “strategic partnership” with a country that remains a stronghold for Russian influence in the Balkans with their smoldering conflicts and integration ambitions – especially considering the protracted military conflict in Ukraine. Although events like Lavrov’s called-off visit to Belgrade attest to a limited range of the Russian influence tools, the very fact of Serbia remaining an “ally” and blocking the creation of a united anti-Kremlin front in Europe has an immense propaganda value.

Belgrade has shown tolerance to Moscow's foreign policy ambitions for years. Even after the annexation of Crimea, the Serbian government, short of recognizing the peninsula as part of Russia, continued to expand its military ties to Russia and further security cooperation. The countries held joint maneuvers twice a year, and Belgrade welcomed Russia’s gifts of military equipment. However, their further rapprochement is most likely off the table, with anti-Russian voices more and more resonant among the Serbian political elite.

If hostilities persist, Belgrade will have to reassess its relations with Moscow to secure its ties with major financial donors and security guarantors in the Balkans. A protracted armed conflict will result in Russia’s long-term isolation, colossal damage to its economy, and the weakening of its international stance, automatically making it an undesirable, toxic partner. Before the war, Russia ranked fourth among Serbia's foreign economic relations with a mutual trade volume of $2.5 billion: below Germany, Italy, and China but a little ahead of Hungary and Romania. The volume of Russian investments in Serbia is estimated at $3 billion. In the next few years, these indicators will evidently decrease, and Russia won’t be able to afford ambitious projects in the Balkans for a long while.

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