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‘This game is up’: Serbia urged to take a stand on Ukraine’s war

“Ukraine attacks Russia!” and “Putin checkmates Ukraine,” have been among the many headlines run by Serbia’s pro-government tabloids in the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Putin is sending his army to unite Serbia and [Bosnia’s Republika] Srpska,” learn one other.

In Europe, Russia-friendly Serbia is within the minority, having kept away from slapping sanctions on Moscow.

The nation’s populist president, Aleksandar Vucic, has for years claimed to observe a “neutral” coverage, balancing ties amongst Moscow, Beijing, Brussels and Washington.

On February 25, the day after Russia launched its war, he mentioned Serbia has its “vital national and state interests and respects traditional friendships” as he rejected calls by Western nations to sanction Moscow.

“This is Serbia’s choice, to pursue an independent policy,” he instructed media final week.

Although Serbia backed a UN resolution in March demanding Russia to cease its offensive and “unconditionally withdraw” from Ukraine, officers within the West have decried Serbia for sitting on the fence.

“[Vucic is] surrounded in Europe by wholesale condemnation of Russia,” Tanya Domi, adjunct professor of International Public Affairs at Columbia University instructed Al Jazeera.

“He has been [playing this balancing act] for a long time … It’s interesting to see him play this game, but I think this game is up.”

Despite Belgrade’s sturdy ties with Moscow, the EU is by far Serbia’s largest donor, having offered greater than three billion euros ($3.17bn) within the final 20 years.

But Serbia is additionally dependent on Russian gasoline and depends on Moscow for assist within the Kosovo dispute, because it has veto energy on the UN. Serbia and Russia don’t recognise Kosovo’s independence, which was declared in 2008.

Vuk Vuksanovic, senior researcher on the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, instructed Al Jazeera the Serbian place is turning into “more precarious” by the hour.

“On the one hand, the Western alliances geographically encircle Serbia. The EU is Serbia’s primary economic partner. The Serbian regime needs a political blessing from the Western capitals to remain in power in the first place,” Vuksanovic mentioned.

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“On the opposite hand, Russia [is] Serbia’s backer within the Kosovo dispute, gasoline provider, and the preferred international nation in Serbia. The game of balancing simply grew to become extra harmful with the war in Ukraine.

“The issue is not whether Serbia will be threatened with the prospect of membership. Serbia knows that EU enlargement is not happening. However, terminating the accession talks even without a membership harms Serbia as it denies access to the Serbian economy. Not to mention the dangers of terminating a visa-free regime for Serbian citizens or pulling back of European investors.”

In March, a group of MEPs known as on the EU to freeze accession negotiations for Serbia – which had been seen as a frontrunner for membership by Brussels – till it distances itself from Russia.

Domi mentioned the bloc ought to undertake a firmer tone.

“The EU has not done a good job diplomatically … I think they have allowed Serbia to continue its ascension into illiberal, very right-wing governance, and that’s not the exception in the EU,” Domi mentioned.

“We have the example of Hungary, which is very similar to Serbia. They have one man running it and they have locked down the political space and that’s key for Vucic as well.”

‘Putin stabs Serbia in the back’

In late April, the pro-government tabloids drastically modified their opinion of Putin after he instructed the UN secretary-general in Moscow that Russia has the fitting to recognise the Donbas “republics”, following Kosovo’s instance.

Putin instructed Antonio Guterres that if the International Court of Justice recognised Kosovo’s proper to self-determination, then Donetsk and Luhansk in japanese Ukraine may additionally declare independence “since the precedent was set”.

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The tabloids shortly slammed his remarks with headlines studying: “Putin stabs Serbia in the back” and “Because of his war, Putin forgot about Serbs and Kosovo.”

In Serbia, the tabloids are seen as being consistent with the federal government’s place, so with this transfer, many understood that sanctions is likely to be coming.

But Vuksanovic mentioned there is no method to inform what the media’s shift means, as “everything is in the head of Aleksandar Vucic”.

“Serbia knows that Russia uses the Kosovo precedent as a trump card in territorial conflicts in post-Soviet space. Moreover, Serbian leadership equally fears that Russia and Putin might use their popularity in Serbian public opinion to undermine them politically,” he mentioned.

“The tabloid story is a method to curry favour with the West whereas dampening down a number of the pro-Russian sentiments at residence. We noticed one thing comparable when Vucic was attempting to get shut to [ex-United States President] Donald Trump in 2020, and the pro-government tabloids accused the Russian deep state of fomenting violent anti-lockdown protests in Belgrade.

“If [Vucic] does join sanctions, it is because he was cornered with no way out.”

Vucic: Serbia’s state of affairs modified for the more severe

Vucic mentioned on Friday that Serbia’s state of affairs “changed for the worse” after Putin’s feedback evaluating the Donbas to Kosovo, as Belgrade now faces “growing pressure” to recognise the independence of its former province.

“The West will call on Serbia to head quickly towards recognising Kosovo so that they can tell Putin that [the Donbas and Kosovo are] not the same issue,” Vucic mentioned, including that Serbia is paying a excessive worth for not imposing sanctions.

If Serbia does implement sanctions, it might be a strategic choice and “a big break” from Vucic’s place that he’s held from 2012, since he was initially elected, Domi mentioned.

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But it might be problematic for him domestically, “because the Serbian government and Vucic himself have cultivated this relationship … and Russia is in almost every poll, the most popular country among Serbs,” Domi mentioned.

Daniel Serwer, researcher at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, mentioned the difficulty “goes far past Ukraine, and is nearer to Serbia.

“Vucic’s idea of the ‘Serbian world’ is a threat to peace and stability in his own region,” Serwer mentioned.

“If Serbia joins the Western sanctions on Russia, that will be nice. But it is far more important that it drop its irredentist ambitions in Kosovo and get the Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina to drop their secessionist intentions.”

Vuksanovic mentioned that, finally, Vucic “can not pivot in direction of Russia due to geography and economics, and he nonetheless wants the West.

“However, one nation that income is China. Even earlier than the war, China has changed Russia as Serbia’s main associate outdoors the Western world.

“With the war in Ukraine, this process is vindicated and strengthened.  With all attention focused on Russia, Serbia and China feel that they can continue nourishing their partnership,” Vuksanovic mentioned.

Serbia has signed up for Chinese infrastructure tasks totalling to greater than $8bn which it can have to repay over the subsequent 20 years.

In late April, Serbia unveiled to the general public its new Chinese-made surface-to-air missiles and drones, in a public show of army clout that has grow to be common.

“Serbs use Russia and Russia uses Serbs for this Slavic brotherhood kind of discourse, but China is the new player on the block, and they’re not democratic at all,” mentioned Domi.

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