THE BLOG
11/25/2014 11:21 am ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Serbia's Future- EU Accession or A Closer Alliance with Russia

On November 6, 2014, the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) provisionally released Serbian ultranationalist and alleged war criminal Vojislav Seselj from prison. Despite suffering from metastasized colon cancer and the pressures of an inconclusive eleven-year long trial, Seselj's return to Serbia has been dramatic and highly controversial. Nine days after his release, Seselj's calls for solidarity with Putin's Russia and scathing criticisms of President Nikolic's involvement in EU membership negotiations drew 10,000 supporters to downtown Belgrade. Even more alarmingly, Seselj attacked the very foundations of Serbian democracy by claiming he would try to topple the government through extra-parliamentary demonstrations.

The continued appeal of Seselj's brand of far-right politics demonstrates that Serbia remains a bifurcated country, torn at the seams between pro-European and pro-Russian factions, and perpetually haunted by the harrowing legacies of nationalist extremism and civil war. Serbia's incoherent international identity and pernicious historical legacies also present major obstacles to its EU membership aspirations.

Serbia's Double Game- European Union vs. Russia

The underlying cause for current political divisions in Serbia lies in the historical but still unanswered "Serbian Question" of whether or not Serbia can be considered part of the Russian sphere of influence. While Milosevic maintained close diplomatic and security linkages with Yeltsin's Russia during the 1990s, Serbia since Milosevic's demise in 2000 has gradually but unevenly tilted towards the European Union. Boris Tadic, president of Serbia from 2004-2012, was regarded as a pro-EU president and Serbia's EU membership application in 2009 occurred under his watch. The 2012 election of Tomislav Nikolic, a former Serbian Radical Party member and long-time political ally of Seselj, caused some Western observers to predict that Serbia would pivot towards Russia. However, Nikolic, who split with Seselj over the EU membership issue in 2008, has continued to push for further Serbian integration with Europe.

While the thaw in relations between Serbia and Europe over the past decade is undeniable, Serbia has simultaneously maintained a close strategic partnership with Russia. Both countries share 70 extant bilateral trade agreements and Serbia's dependence on Russia is underscored by the Serbian Foreign Ministry's statement that a collapse in relations with Russia would be "economic suicide." Consequently, it is unsurprising that Nikolic has steadfastly resisted participation in EU sanctions against Russia over its belligerence in Ukraine despite EU pressure.

Russia and Serbia's shared opposition to the independence of Kosovo, was also reiterated in Putin's recent visit to Serbia. The Serbian military showed their appreciation for Russian solidarity by making Vladimir Putin a military parade guest of honor. Therefore, the vast majority of EU members' support for Kosovo independence and the EU's insistence on the handover of Serbian war criminals to the ICTY (an institution many Serbs regard as disproportionately prosecuting Serbs and downplaying the atrocities perpetrated by Croat and Bosnian nationalists), has ensured that Serbia's warm relations with Russia are a product of normative alignment as well as economic dependency.

How Serbia can join the EU

The many contradictions in Serbian foreign policy indicate that Serbia can once again be classified as a non-aligned actor as its international alignment patterns are laced with the inconsistencies and opportunism that characterized Tito's Yugoslavia during the Cold War. Given Russia's paucity of long-term allies in the international system, EU membership for Serbia would represent a major coup for European policymakers and a significant blow to Putin's ambitions of reasserting Russian power in Eastern Europe. Since the Russian economy has been weakened by sanctions, declining oil prices and rising inflation, this is an opportune moment for the EU and IMF to convince Serbia of the benefits of closer economic integration with Europe. I propose a two-pronged strategy for the EU and Serbia to pursue in order to facilitate the integration of Serbia into the European sphere of influence.

Firstly, the West should respect Serbia's right to military neutrality and in the short-to-medium-term, not push aggressively for Serbia to become a NATO member concurrently with EU membership. Lingering animosity over the sovereignty violations and extensive civilian casualties in NATO's 1999 intervention in Kosovo, the Kosovo independence question, and perceptions of bias in the ICTY's targeting of Serbian war criminals, have fuelled anti-Western sentiments and increased the co-optive power of radical anti-EU demagogues like Seselj. Only 20% of Serbians believe the United States has a positive role in the world and just 13% of Serbs support NATO membership. The integration of Serbia into NATO's arms codification system is a positive step but it occurred only one week after Serbia's first-ever joint military exercise with Russia. Serbia's unwillingness to move beyond observer status in the Russian-led security organization, the CSTO, further indicates its support for a neutral foreign policy. Therefore, the optimal approach for the West to pursue is the temporary detachment of EU economic integration efforts from its goals of security policy harmonization.

Secondly, the EU, OSCE and IMF should intensify negotiations with the Serbian government over institutional reform to revitalize the Serbian economy and overcome the chronic economic instability, which has plagued Serbia since Tito's debt-driven growth model began unraveling during the 1970s. The IMF's recent thaw in relations with Serbia by granting a $1.2 billion loan in exchange for Serbian government pledges to cut spending and the escalation of the privatization campaign is an important first step towards enhancing Serbia's economic competitiveness. Despite these improvements, Western institutions have generally pursued an economy-first approach in dealing with Serbia and have paid inadequate attention to political and institutional dimensions, such as the lack of fiscal transparency and judicial independence that are restricting progress.

Critically, the March 2014 elections handed Vucic a parliamentary majority, Serbia's first since the post-Milosevic transition to democracy, which will allow him to enact broad-based reforms without risk of external subversion. Since the political climate favors reform, the EU and OSCE should incentivize further corruption crackdowns like that against billionaire businessman Miroslav Miskovic in 2012. Curbing corruption at the business-level is essential to prevent a repetition of Tadic's politically motivated funding of inefficient state enterprises during the 2012 election campaign that caused Serbia to breach IMF targets.

While Serbia has made great strides towards integration in the EU, it still has a long way to go before it can achieve economic compliance with EU standards and shed the reputation of intolerance and radical nationalism, personified by Seselj, that has tarnished the country since Milosevic's ascension to power. Synthesizing economic reform with improvements in the rule of law and political transparency would rectify these challenges. However, sentiments of enlargement fatigue amongst the EU's largest member states and continued tensions over Kosovo will likely keep the Serbian Question open for years to come.