Why will Serbia not join the EU sanctions against Belarus?

On May 23, Belarusian fighter jets hijacked a civilian Ryanair flight from Athens, Greece, to Vilnius, Lithuania, under the pretext of a bomb threat, to arrest dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, critic of the Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko.

The EU has responded in the form of political condemnation and economic sanctions, as Belarusian planes are banned from EU airspace and EU planes must not fly over Belarusian airspace. The EU even promised new economic sanctions.

EU measures put Serbia, a candidate for EU membership, in a difficult position.

As a candidate for membership, Serbia is expected to adhere to EU foreign policy statements and restrictive measures. However, Serbia is unlikely to adhere to EU measures against Belarus for both international and domestic reasons.

While Belgrade prided itself on good relations with Minsk, the EU’s feud with the Lukashenko regime would inevitably reach Serbia.

Vladimír Bilčík, European Parliament rapporteur on Serbia, expressed hope that candidates for EU membership will support EU measures against Belarus.

Minsk-Belgrade flights were canceled from May 29 to June 30 due to the EU ban. So far, the Belgrade government has not taken a decision, stating that the decision will be taken upon receipt of a formal request from the EU.

The most powerful man in Serbia, President Aleksandar Vučić is reluctant to act against Belarus.

Vučić said that “an extremely bad act has been carried out in Belarus”, but he also added that in the hunt for Edward Snowden, the plane of Bolivian President Evo Morales was hijacked, indicating a Western double standard .

In August 2020, Serbia surprised the West by adhering to the EU declaration which considered the presidential elections in Belarus that year “neither free nor fair”.

The decision was greeted with enthusiasm by the EU and the United States.

Serbia has not, however, joined the expanded list of entities and individuals in Belarus targeted by EU sanctions. In September 2020, faced with pressure from the EU over the contested elections in Belarus, Serbia withdrew from the traditional trilateral military exercise with Russia and Belarus, which was to be hosted by the latter.

To maintain a balanced image, Serbia canceled all its military exercises for six months, including with NATO.

Belgrade’s prior alignment with EU measures against Belarus did not prevent good diplomatic relations with Minsk.

Since Serbia started membership talks with the EU in January 2014, it has obeyed all EU restrictive measures against Minsk until April 2019.

This did not prevent Lukashenko from visiting Belgrade in 2014.

This time, for reasons of foreign and internal policy, Serbia will not be able to side with the EU.

First, the reason Serbia was able to join the EU in its condemnation of Belarus was that at the time its relations with Russia were on a downward spiral as Serbia pivoted towards the United States during the presidency of Donald Trump. In addition, Russia and Putin were unhappy that Lukashenko reduced the risks for Belgrade.

Now, however, Serbia fears pressure from the Biden administration on Kosovo, forcing Belgrade to fall back on Moscow in search of a diplomatic protector.

At the same time, Putin in pushing back the West took Lukashenko under his protection, despite disagreements with the Belarusian leader, making Belgrade unlikely to interfere with the Moscow protege.

Brussels / Belgrade becomes icy

Second, Serbia’s relations with the EU are precarious at the moment.

The EU is starting to take note of the Serbian decline in the rule of law, prompting angry reactions from President Vučić.

Relations with the EU on Kosovo are also precarious, as one of the five EU member states that do not recognize independent Kosovo, Greece, is said to consider recognizing Kosovo, which could weaken Serbia’s diplomatic position. in the Kosovo dispute.

While the conviction of Minsk would buy points for Vučić in Brussels, with the current tensions with Brussels over domestic transgressions and Kosovo, Vučić is unlikely to go against the main support of Kosovo, Russia and the United States. Belarus, an unrecognizable independent Kosovo.

Belgrade derives some bilateral benefits from its collaboration with Minsk. Economic ties are not dynamic. At the end of 2019, Belarus was Serbia’s 34th partner in terms of exports and 37th in terms of imports.

In 2019, Serbia signed a free trade agreement with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), replacing bilateral free trade agreements that Serbia had previously signed with Russia and Belarus. In 2015, Serbia and Belarus signed a memorandum on military cooperation. In 2021, Belarus donated four Russian-made MiG-29 aircraft to Serbia, and four more in 2019.

While the EU remains Serbia’s most important and most important economic partner, overtaking the EAEU, Serbian leaders have little incentive to give up collaboration with Lukashenko, as the prospect of Serbian membership to the EU is distant.

National factors, including public opinion and lobby actors, also play an important role.

In April 1999, during the NATO bombing, as a sign of solidarity with Serbia, Lukashenko went to Belgrade. Condemning Lukashenko could be costly nationally, especially among voters in the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), where solidarity with post-Soviet leaders like Lukashenko is expected to be high.

There are also powerful veto players.

The key is Bogojub Karić, a Serbian oligarch with deep business interests with the Lukashenko regime. It was recently revealed that the Lukashenko government allocated $ 1 billion [€820m] real estate projects in Minsk to companies owned by Karić. Bogoljub’s brother Dragomir is the leader of the parliamentary friendship group with Belarus in the Serbian parliament. As the Karić family is part of the ruling coalition, it can be expected to be an influential element in shaping policy towards Belarus.

Under these circumstances, it is highly unlikely that Serbia will join the EU sanctions against Belarus unless Moscow turns its back on Lukashenko.

Instead, just like in his refusal to introduce sanctions against Russia against Ukraine, the Serbian leadership will kick the box.

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