A Russian video claiming Serbian volunteers are training to fight alongside Russian troops in Ukraine has sparked outrage in Serbia, exposing its complicated relationship with Moscow.
The Russian mercenary group “Wagner” made a video in Serbian to encourage recruitment for the war.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić reacted angrily to this news:
“Why would you from Wagner call someone from Serbia when you know it’s against our rules?”
Critics often accuse Serbia of prioritizing its long-standing friendship with Russia over its bid to join the EU. But what has happened in recent days in Belgrade shows that the picture is not so black and white
Alluding to less than rosy relations with Moscow, President Vučić said that Serbia was not only “neutral” regarding the war in Ukraine, but that he had not spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin for “many months”.
Serbs are prohibited from participating in conflicts abroad.
The number of Serbian recruits involved appears to be insignificant. Some did fight alongside Russian forces in Ukraine in 2014, but without any official support.
In fact, Serbian courts have convicted more than two dozen people for participating in “combat operations on foreign fronts.”
On Thursday, a Belgrade-based lawyer and anti-war groups filed criminal charges against the Russian ambassador as well as the head of Serbia’s State Security and Information Agency (BIA) for allegedly recruiting Serbs for Wagner’s group.
In Belgrade, where provocative murals are extremely common, last week an emblem of Wagner’s dead head appeared on a wall in the city center. It was signed by the People’s Patrols, a far-right organization that used to hold sparsely attended pro-Russian rallies.
None of the major political parties even hinted at supporting the invasion of Ukraine.
Indeed, Serbia consistently voted for UN resolutions condemning Russia’s aggression.
This week, President Vučić clearly expressed Belgrade’s position: “For us, Crimea is Ukraine, Donbas is Ukraine, and it will remain so.”
Last week, the US expressed concern to the Serbian leader about Wagner’s recruitment efforts, and US Ambassador Christopher Hill said this week that he was pleased to hear that President Vučić saw “the threat to peace and stability posed by Wagner potentially operating in Serbia.” .
But Mr. Vucic’s stance was not enough to impress the European Parliament, as Serbia has repeatedly refused to impose sanctions on Russia.
Members of the European Parliament for the second time adopted a resolution calling for the suspension of negotiations on EU membership until Serbia agrees to sanctions.
While the EU was not particularly enthusiastic about expanding the bloc at the expense of the countries of the Western Balkans, it made sense for Serbia to maintain friendly relations with Moscow.
It reminded Brussels that Belgrade had other options. Cheap gas supplies, Gazprom’s majority ownership of Serbian oil company NIS, and Russia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence were practical reasons to remain on good terms.
But the invasion of Ukraine changed the perception. Belgrade was not impressed when President Putin called Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence a justification for recognizing the independence of occupied eastern Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Brussels has belatedly realized that its restraint on the Western Balkans leaves Moscow room for intervention. Negotiations on the accession of Albania and North Macedonia were quickly unblocked – and Bosnia received candidate status.
So, if the Serbian president was waiting for the moment to make a decisive turn to the West, it might just come.
He warned of “very difficult” talks with EU and US special envoys and says he will appear before the Serbs at the weekend to tell them “what is needed and expected from Serbia on Kosovo and sanctions against Russia”.
Mr. Vučić has made similar remarks before, but he has never committed to seriously change the policy. But this week he reiterated that Serbia’s trajectory is toward the West.
“I know the EU is our way,” he told Bloomberg News. “There are no other ways.”