Serbia Caught between Two Chairs? Does Serbia Want to be Part of the Russian Sphere of Influence or Join the European Union?

Military Parade, Belgrade October 16 2014

A late-October survey has shown that 70 percent of the Serbian population favor close relations with Russia, while 50 percent support Serbia's accession to the European Union. Only 30 percent see a contradiction in this, declaring that they decidedly support close relations with Russia instead of joining the EU. Serbia is caught between two chairs, as was concluded by the research institute. This 'here-and-there' attitude of the people reflects the official statements of their leaders. The media-published opinion, reduced to the role of a government mouthpiece, does not offer any alternatives either. The course of Serbia's ruling coalition formed by the Serbian Progressive Party helmed by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić and the Socialistic Party of Serbia led by  Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić, lurches between incessant rhetoric in favor of the EU and actual reinforcement of Serbia's dependence on Russia. This is a result of vehement conflicts behind the scenes. In the authoritarian style of a populist leader, in an attempt to save the country from the chaos of bankruptcy[1], Vučić seeks advice and support from the West, i.e. the World Bank, IWF, EU and, above all, from the German Chancellor. He announces the modernization of the country, thus already undertaking the first steps which will jeopardize his popularity in due course. He is confronted by powerful adversaries: founder of the Serbian Progressive Party and current President Tomislav Nikolić as well as the Socialist coalition partner, who has the gainful role of a Russian interests' protector, attempting to thwart Vučić's policy plans.

In addition to weighty adversaries within the Government, there is also a weak and rather fragmented (due to the vanity of the ousted former President Boris Tadić) opposition in the Parliament. In the long term, the opposition that is currently regrouping outside the Parliament after failing in the last elections, could gain more importance. The national-conservative Democratic Party of Serbia which since the resignation of their longstanding leader Vojislav Koštunica has allied with the radical right-wing movement Dveri whom they have formulated their radical anti-European position with, demanding maximum rapprochement with Russia, might pass the 5 % threshold in the next parliamentary elections. They call for a public debate and a referendum on EU accession.

Homecoming of the Anti-European Proponent of a Greater Serbia

The return of Vojislav Šešelj to Belgrade could be even more unpleasant for Vučić and Nikolić. The Serbian Radical Party leader has been granted release to Serbia from ICTY custody until the pronouncement of judgment. The homecoming of this shrill, extremely vulgar and obscene anti-European ethno-nationalistic proponent of Greater Serbia will give his party – currently not represented in the Parliament – a significant boost. Šešelj's publicly expressed joy about the assassination of the "traitor" Zoran Đinđić who had initiated Serbia's turning away from Russia and rapprochement with Europe, has remained unchallenged. According to Šešelj, the list of traitors also includes Vučić and Nikolić, who had been his most loyal comrades for 15 years prior to breaking up with this radical nationalist and founding the pro-European Serbian Progressive Party in 2008. Even though Šešelj may be overestimating his influence in the Serbia of 2014, by publicizing details from their common Kampfzeit he will certainly put Vučić and Nikolić under pressure, which could provoke nationalistic gestures and strengthening of Russian influence.

By using the rhetoric of neutrality as a cover-up, Serbia pretends to stay out of the conflict between the United States and European Union on one side, and Russia on the other. In fact, Serbia prefers being in such a position. There is most probably no country in the world yearning more for the return of the Cold War than Serbia. By pursuing a policy of non-alignment, Serbian policy tries to live up to a successful chapter of Yugoslav policy when the country was sought-after and could benefit from its “in-between” position. Today, however, Serbia is negotiating its accession to the European Union and the Serbian leadership is unable to explain what is expected from this process other than money and investments. Will Serbia belong to the Russian sphere of influence and the block of ethno-nationally guided democracies or will it join the European Union, where its member states seek to preserve their national interests by transforming into a new form of intergovernmentalism and supranationalism?

Two events that occurred in October have demonstrated the state of the political leadership in Belgrade: the military parade in honor of the Russian President Putin on October 17 2014 and the cancellation of the first meeting of a Serbian and Albanian Prime Minister after almost 70 years due to the violent escalation at a football match between Serbia and Albania in Belgrade on October 14 2014.

Guest of Honor Putin

In order for Putin to be able to make a side trip to Belgrade on his way to Milan for the Asia-Europe-Meeting summit set for October 17 2014, the 70th anniversary of Belgrade's liberation from the Nazi occupation on October 20 1944 was moved forward by three days. Back then, Belgrade was liberated by the units of the People's Liberation Army of Yugoslavia and the 3rd Ukrainian Front of the Red Army. In Belgrade of 2014 Putin could, as he would like it in the Ukraine, represent the Ukrainian Front. Other guests of honor, apart from many well-known nationalists and fresh returnees from the current Ukrainian front[2], also included Russian right-wing nationalist, anti-Semitic and homophobic motorcycle gang "Grey Wolves" whom Putin likes to join for occasional appearances dressed in black leather. Those Wolves served him very well during the annexation of Crimea and then in August 2014 in Sevastopol at a monumental show to celebrate the return of Crimea to Russia and to portray the enemy stereotype of Ukraine controlled by Kiev "fascists" in front of more than 100,000 spectators.[3]

Historically Significant Camouflage

Echoing these sentiments, Putin warned in Belgrade about the rebirth of fascism in Ukraine and in the West. This was quite to the taste of the Serbian President Nikolić who prefers clear distinctions between friend and foe, good and evil. He claims that Serbia, together with Russia, has always fought on the right side and has won all its wars honorably. This is only seemingly in contradiction to the fact that since the time when Nikolić was an aggressive nationalist and fighter for Greater Serbia in the war against the Croats, he has remained – as his former idol Šešelj – a widely recognized Chetnik leader, therefore, in the tradition of royalist nationalists and enemies of the Partisans – an anti-anti-fascist.  But, so is Putin. The remembrance of fascism serves him – as it does for a youth organization such as the "Grey Wolves" – as historically significant camouflage for his aggressive nationalism with the intention to force other countries under his sway under the pretext of protecting the Russian minority. The anti-anti-fascism of Putin and Nikolić is a celebration of brotherhood among those who share the same blood and belong to the Orthodox Church.

Putin, who endured the military parade with visible disinterest, did not come to Belgrade just to be praised for his contribution to peace and brotherhood. Namely, the pan-Slavic-Orthodox brotherhood also characterizes the Russian sphere of interest, pursuing three objectives: demonstrative support of the Russian policy concerning the European Union and the United States; obstruction of EU-accession, i.e. preserving Russian influence after the eventual accession and finally, securing Russian economic interest in order to expand the Russian control over an economically weak country.  

The parade represented a demonstration of Serbia's support of the Russian position, underlined by Serbian refusal to participate in the sanctions imposed by the EU against Russia. Russia's economic interests, in turn, aim at two things: securing the dominant and very profitable position of Russian gas and oil industry and its use for exercising political pressure and influence – today, but also upon Serbia's accession to the EU. Putin offered Serbia to increase its exports of agricultural products to Russia, replacing thus a small part of the EU exports which are barred due to Russia's counter-sanctions. This was intended as a provocation as even a significant increase of Serbian agriculture exports would not have any effect on the Russian demand due to rather low Serbian capacities.[4] However, a truly important strategic interest of Russia is represented by the control of the Serbian oil and gas industry and energy infrastructure, which eventually should be extended by the South Stream Gas Pipeline, yet to be very costly constructed from Russia through the Black Sea[5] or maybe much less expensive over a land corridor that still has to be conquered along the Black Sea to Transnistria and further through Bulgaria and Serbia to Hungary.[6] Namely, as energy supplier, Moscow has very sought-after goods to offer to the Balkans and to larger parts of East and Central Europe, which, due to absence of a global market and insufficient regional cooperation, can be sold at "political" prices and used for political blackmail when necessary. This is the position Russia seeks to expand and which are supported by leading political circles in Serbia who are prepared to pay any price in exchange for the UN Security Council member Russia's support concerning the Kosovo issue.

As the Declaration of Independence of the Republic of Kosovo loomed ahead, the Serbian Government – then led by the national-conservative Vojislav Koštunica, succeeded by the social-democratic President Boris Tadić – bypassing many laws and violating the 2008 Constitution, sold 59 percent of the Serbian oil and gas industry monopolist Naftna Industrija Srbije to Russia, under conditions extraordinary favorable for Russia.[7] On top of that, only managers acceptable to Moscow were to be assigned to lead the Serbian-owned remaining part of this industry. They are predominantly members of the Socialistic Party of Serbia, Slobodan Milošević's party, keeping its name and control over a large portion of the Serbian public sector and state enterprises ever since. One of these enterprises is also Srbijagas which, led by the handsomely rewarded Socialist politician (and member of the Serbian Parliament) Dušan Bajatović, has amassed a €1.2 billion debt, thus bringing the Serbian state one step closer to bankruptcy.

Natural Gas as Leverage

Srbijagas buys gas at a high price from an intermediary and then sells it underpriced to households and enterprises. Many cases could almost be regarded as corruption, with supplied enterprises failing to pay their gas bills and the state as their proprietor has then to take over their debts. Also, a large number of private households do not pay their electricity and gas bills.[8] The state-owned energy companies tolerate this refusal of payment. By doing so, in case of private households they help prevent energy poverty of a wider population[9]. On the other hand, such a "social energy policy" goes against every truth and clarity in regard to managing finances, democratic accountability, validity and enforceability of contracts and taking responsibility of households to use the energy efficiently. In contrast to that, the undeclared energy subsidies of Serbian companies lead to a situation in which  only few private persons benefit by receiving high salaries and through profit-sharing with the intermediary, while the state has to cover high losses. In addition, energy subsidies keep the productivity of many companies at a low level and hinder their modernization. The winners include many members of the Socialist Party who are employed by Srbijagas, often regardless of their actual qualifications. Bajatović is also member of the Board of the Russian-Serbian intermediary Yugorosgaz where he is paid an exorbitantly high salary. In this capacity, he has recently extended the contract of Yugorosgaz with Gazprom for another 10 years.[10]



Serbia Pays for Gas a Price Higher than the European Average

But the Serbian society is paying a heavy price not only for mismanagement, corruption and party patronage, as reflected by a constantly growing state deficit and a steadily declining reliance in the functioning of public institutions. It also pays an extremely high price for the Russian gas, which forces it into a growing dependency from Moscow. Since April 2014, Russia demands from Ukraine $485 per 1000 m3, even though a price of $385 had been previously agreed; Lithuania pays $370. Compared to these countries, all of whom have a very strained relationship with Russia, Serbia pays $485 – despite its fraternal alliance with Russia – well above the European average of about $380. This price is even increased by the involvement of an intermediary. Serbia has also never benefited from the currently sinking world market prices of oil and, consequently, of gas. Due to its low production capacities and one-sided orientation towards Russia, Serbia is highly dependent on Russian gas. In case of an extended Russian gas export ban, 60 to 80 percent of the gas distribution in Serbia would be at risk. The high gas bills led to ever-growing debts to gas supplier Gazprom which the heavily-indebted Serbia now tries to settle by transferring shares of state-owned enterprises. However, this debt reduction through privatization in favor of the Russian creditor has come to a halt at the moment, due to the assessment difficulties concerning the mostly ailing enterprises.[11] But the course of a constantly increasing economic dependency is clearly visible.

This dependence on Russian gas, its high cost and the openly corrupt management of the Serbian gas supply infrastructure have led to a short-lived public debate last year about the ruinous and, in terms of EU accession, counter-productive policies. The Serbian Minister of Mining and Energy at that time, Zorana Mihajlović of the Serbian Progressive Party, has brought the legality of the signed contracts with Russia and the high level of the gas price into question. She suggested renegotiations and criticized Socialist Party member Dušan Bajatović, a key figure of the Serbian gas industry, for ever-growing losses of Srbijagas. The result of this debate was obvious: upon intervention by President Nikolić and the Kremlin she became persona non grata in the energy policy. When soon after the March 2014 snap parliamentary elections the winner Aleksandar Vučić and the incumbent Prime Minister Ivica Dačić travelled to Moscow, they must have been clearly instructed: Zorana Mihajlović should no longer be in charge of the Ministry of Energy. Instead, Moscow requested a representative of the Socialists to be head of this Ministry which is of the utmost importance for their interests’ preservation. Consequently, in spite of holding the absolute majority, Vučić had to offer government participation to the Socialists, with Socialist Aleksandar Antić currently at the head of the Ministry of Energy. Dušan Bajatović remains a member of the Socialist Party parliamentary group, director of Srbijagas and board member of the intermediary Yugorosgaz.

Although Serbian Socialists might be to the liking of Moscow, there have been serious tensions with Gazprom. Serbia's debt to Gazprom amounts to over $200 million. The reduction of indebtedness by selling state-owned enterprises' shares to Russia is not progressing. With a budget deficit of around 7.5 % the Serbian government has to cut salaries in the public sector, as well as pensions, and borrow every dinar in the international market with 10-year government bonds at an interest rate exceeding 7%. In addition, the country has recently begun importing electricity for expensive foreign currency, as the domestic lignite industry has been producing with limited capacity due to the damages caused by the May floods. Some of the coal mines in the Kolubara region are still under water and cannot be pumped out for the time being due to a corrupt procurement procedure. The fact that Moscow has increased the pressure in such a situation and reduced the gas supply by 28 % just before the winter represents a strong signal for the Belgrade leadership. Belgrade is treating the whole issue as a temporary problem somehow linked to the Ukrainian crisis.  What could this actually be about?

Relations with Albania

Why was the visit of the Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama scheduled for October 22 2014   cancelled? It should have been the first visit of an Albanian Prime Minister in 70 years.  The depth of the gulf that needs to be crossed is indicated by Rama's intention to meet with the Albanian minority in Serbia and to lay flowers at the Dimitrije Tucović monument. The leader of the early socialist movement in Serbia (1881-1914) participated in the 1912 Balkan War and wrote a paper about his experiences during the Serbian conquest of Kosovo entitled “Serbia and Albania. A Contribution to the Critique of the Conqueror Policy of the Serbian Bourgeoisie“ (1914). In it he refers to Serbian “attempted premeditated genocide" of Albanians in Kosovo. The Serbian military success sowed the seeds of future conflicts: “In the Balkan Wars, Serbia has not only doubled its territory, but also the number of its external enemies.“  Albania holds a similar position on the Balkans as Serbia, given that outside of its current political borders Albanians also live in Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Greece. The concept of a Greater Albania, pursuing the goal of unifying the Albanian population in the region, would cause an explosion in the Balkans. The same goes for Serbia, whose Greater Serbia policy has led to the 1990s war and genocide. A normalization of the relations between Serbia and the Republic of Kosovo has come to a halt and remains very fragile. Serbia is not recognizing the independence of Kosovo, using the Serb minority living there for the expansion of its political and social influence. Equally fragile is the relation to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Serbia is acting as a protector of the Serbs in the Republika Srpska, a Serb entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, mostly cleansed from the Bosniak population, which is increasingly sending signals of secession and annexation to a Greater Serbia. The rapprochement between Albania and Serbia is, therefore, of the utmost importance to the region and, according to the Copenhagen Criteria for new EU admissions, a condition for both Serbia's and Albania's path to EU membership.

But for the time being, Rama could not meet with the Albanian minority and visit the Dimitrije Tucović monument, nor could he open a new chapter of Serb-Albanian relations and cooperation in the Balkans with his Serbian counterpart. This is a result of a sequence of provocations, which first led to the abandonment of the Euro qualification match between Serbia and Albania on October 14 2014 in Belgrade and then to the cancellation of Rama's visit. 



Drones in the Football Stadium

There have been extreme tensions since the very beginning of the match. Albanian fans were not even allowed to attend. The Albanian team faced a fair Serbian team that behaved in sportsmanlike fashion until the very end, but also 30,000 Serbian spectators who started hampering and badgering them by booing and whistling during the Albanian national anthem, shouting “Kill, kill the Shqiptars“ – a pejorative term for Albanians in the Serbian language.  After almost 40 minutes of never-ending death curses, the referee stopped the game when fireworks were thrown onto the pitch. The match threatened to be abandoned. At that moment, a drone appeared over the football field transporting a banner with a Greater Albania map with the inscription “autochthonous“ underneath. The stadium exploded. The chants intoned: “Kill the Shqiptars, kill the Shqiptars! Kill the brothers of the Croats!“[12] A Serbian player removed the banner when the drone had reached the field, while a moment later an Albanian player grabbed it. Few dozen spectators invaded the field and attacked the Albanian players. When they attempted to bring themselves to safety by running through the players' tunnel, they were pelted with projectiles by the spectators and beaten by the Serbian security forces.  There is no information whatsoever that at any time a stadium announcer or a Serbian politician attending – say President Nikolić in the VIP lounge – has stood up against the hateful rowdiness of the Serbian hooligans. In the following days, the Serbian Prime Minister still claimed that the Serbian "Kill them"-chants were just normal hooliganism. This would happen in matches between FC Partisan and Red Star, too.[13] In the meantime, after some initial hesitation, the Serbian Government decided to cancel the visit of Edi Rama, alleging that only Albania bore responsibility for the incident because of their Greater Albania provocation. The drone was said to have been guided by Albanian hand. Arbitrary accused parties included Olsi Rama, brother of the Albanian Prime Minister, who has watched the game from the VIP lounge, and an Albanian cat burglar who had allegedly climbed a church tower in the vicinity of the stadium and launched the drone from there – unnoticed and unimpeded by a huge security apparatus set up prior to Putin's visit of around 4,000 Serbian policemen and security forces who were posted around and in the stadium. This official Serbian version is so implausible that it raises the question of who might have been interested in an escalation on the football field in order to interfere with the greater game of a new chapter between Serbia and Albania and cooperation in the Balkans. There is much evidence that with the abandoned match and the subsequent nationalist outbursts in Serbia and Albania the visit of Albanian Prime Minister was prevented by circles in Serbia that are both interested parties in this matter, as well as capable of acting in this way.

Is there a European Prospect for the Balkans?

The suggestion of Edi Rama visiting Belgrade was made at the Balkan summit held on August 22 2014 in Berlin with participation by government officials of all Balkan countries, upon the invitation by German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her message in Berlin: the entire Balkans has a European prospect. How fast the accession would be effected depends solely on the Balkan countries. They have to normalize their relations, undertake common infrastructure measures and intensify their trading. Loans from the European Investment Bank can be provided for the expansion of the cooperation in the Balkans and for the development of a common infrastructure. In the meantime, there have been talks about investments in the amount of €10 billion. It was indicated – but not clearly stated – that the accession of the Balkan countries might rather take place collectively. That is, not based on the 'regatta principle', but rather according to the 'principle of convoy'. The cancellation of Rama's visit would have also thwarted Merkel's Balkan initiative. Therefore she finally intervened as Rama's visit was about to be cancelled altogether. She appealed to both Prime Ministers to agree on a new date for the visit. It has now taken place on November 10 2014.


Regional Integration of Energy Supply as a Necessity

The conditions for a successful visit had deteriorated. Serbia aimed to present the abandoned match as a conspiracy and demonstration of a Greater Albania concept. Government officials underlined that Albania, a candidate country since June 2014, was still quite unprepared to begin the accession negotiations with the EU. Serbia clearly prefers the 'regatta principle' and would like to avoid the regional cooperative development as an accession criterion. Rama emphasizes the role of Albania as the protector of the Albanian minority in Serbia and demands – contrarily to the agreed protocol – for Serbia to recognize the independence of Kosovo. His statement at a joined press conference was not interpreted during the broadcast by Serbian television. President Nikolić refused to receive Rama. Apart from this, however, important issues of regional cooperation remained on the agenda of the talk with Vučić. These include the issue of regional integration of energy supply through an integrated infrastructure and a developed regional energy market. The new transmission line between Albania and Kosovo, expected to be put into operation in 2016, brings the Albanian energy system closer to Serbia and could represent a step towards an integrated infrastructure. Albania generates its electricity almost exclusively from hydroelectric plants and it has the potential to expand its renewable energy sources. In order to be able to better balance out the seasonal and daily fluctuations, it is necessary to have the possibility of feeding into a larger regional power grid. Albania and Serbia jointly form the corridor for the link between Greece and other EU countries. The negotiations about Serbia's accession to the preliminary stages of a regional electricity exchange are equally important. The electricity exchange has been envisaged in the Treaty on Europe's 8th Energy Region Community, which includes the Balkans, Bulgaria and Rumania, and as of recently Moldova and Ukraine, too. A completed liberalization of the regional electricity market, set for January 2015, is supposed to be marked with the launch of an operational regional auction office based in Montenegro.

In other words, there were important issues on the agenda of intergovernmental discussion between Serbia and Albania. The development of the regional energy community could be the most important contribution of the region to one of the largest projects of the European Union in the coming years: the European Energy Union. This potential contribution would justify the equal participation also for the Balkan countries which will not become EU members in the foreseeable future. On this side of the marathon run consisting of compliances with EU regulations, conditioned grants and progress reports, one could put to the test the non-hierarchical operation mode of the EU[14], which actually might eventually yield a comprehensive cooperation within the framework of EU membership. That is, provided that the Treaty on Regional Energy Community is adhered to and viable. For Serbia, this implies putting a halt to the construction of South Stream as long as the control over the pipeline and gas supply remains in the same hands. In particular, besides a drastic increase in energy efficiency, this means a diversification of Serbia's energy supply – which is precisely what Russia wants to prevent and what the protectors of its interests in the Serbian politics are trying to block.

National Interest as an Excuse

Serbia fancies itself as a country sought after by both Russia and the EU. One almost proudly proclaims that the country – in conformity with its own position on the issue of Kosovo – supports the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the Ukraine, but refrains from criticizing Russia and refuses to impose sanctions against the latter.[15] This was declared to be a matter of national interest, since neither the pan-Slavic brotherhood nor the Serbian-Russian commerce should be jeopardized. This trading was said to be simply too important for the economically weak Serbia. In reality, for a long time it has had nowhere near the alleged significance. The expectations in regard to the Free Trade Agreement concluded between Milošević's Serbia and Russia in August 2000 have been of a rather ideological nature from the get-go. The objective was not to enhance trading, but to stabilize Milošević's position with a political success, after he had to withdraw his troops from Kosovo in June 1999. Namely, the vast majority of exportable products from Serbia were not exempt from Russian import duty at that time. This is still the case today for a rather important range of products with a higher added value. Further-processed dairy products and, particularly, the Fiat 500 automobile produced in Kragujevac have not been exempt from duty to this day. Serbian imports from Russia in 2014 are projected to be €1.7 billion, which amounts to approximately 12 percent of all imports, whereas Serbia exports only €800 million-worth of goods to Russia which makes up 7.3 percent of the total export from Serbia. On the other hand, over 60 percent of Serbian exports go to European Union countries. Export revenue of €800 million is a lot of money for Serbia. But the country is giving away around the same amount to Russia by paying high priced gas, collecting low taxes on oil exploitation and lack of transit revenues of Russian gas through the promised South Stream pipeline. The “national interest“ is in fact only an argument put forward as a pretext hiding the actively pursued submission to Russian interests by parts of the Serbian political leadership. As it seems, not even the superiorly acting Prime Minister Vučić has the assertiveness to deal with Russian interests' governors within the government coalition, in order to withstand a conflict with Russia – as was occasionally attempted by himself and member of the Serbian Progressive Party close to him in matters concerning energy policies.

What Prime Minister Vučić needs is mainly economic success that will enable him to prevent the bankruptcy of his country without having to make too many social cuts. It is necessary, above all, to put an end to the Serbian mismanagement which has annulled every so-called "painful adjustment" thus far, so that the implementation of austerity programs does not burden people without any prospect of improvement. But for that he would need private investments from abroad and/or long-term, low-interest loans for public infrastructure projects. As for the interest of private investors in legal and procedural security, fair tendering, low level of corruption, etc, Serbia is way back in international rankings. Hence, the country is mainly attractive for investments in the low-wage sector, where approximately 400,000 people work for ca. €1 per hour, which makes around 25 percent of the private sector workforce[16]. This area, generating incomes under the official poverty line, also includes around 2/5 of the 25,000 jobs set up by German investors. In this situation, the European Union should provide loans for Serbia and other Balkan countries to expand their underdeveloped transport and energy infrastructure, which could affect both: a reduction of the mass unemployment exceeding 20 percent in the Balkan countries and an economic enhancement through regional cooperation.

EU Accession Policy

The encouragement of the European prospect of the Balkans has been made in accordance with the new accession policy of the EU, which attaches much greater weight to the economic development of the candidate countries than in the past. Within the  European Semester, an instrument for coordination of fiscal and structural reform policies of member states, the European Commission has recently began to provide economic recommendations for accession countries. These new EU requirements regarding the economic development of an accession country reflect the discussion about the absorptive capacity of the EU as well as a public debate about factual and feared poverty migration in the context of EU fundamental freedoms. European Semester's integration in the accession process signalizes that the European Union will not approve another accession of countries undeveloped in terms of economy and, moreover, rule of law, as this was the case of Bulgaria and Romania, or Croatia for that matter.

Expansion of the infrastructure should enable regional development as a precondition for the accession of Balkan countries. This path marked out by the German Chancellor in August 2014 at the Balkan conference represents a strategic approach in EU's accession policy. Focusing on the “Balkans Big Bang“[17], i.e. a concurrent or in any case timely admission of all Balkan countries still outside the EU, represents a great challenge.  It requires a rapid dissolution of blockades such as the dispute between Greece and Macedonia about the latter's name and particularly the recognition of an independent Kosovo by five member states: Spain, Slovakia, Romania, Greece and Cyprus. With this new strategic approach Serbia would lose the incentive of expecting advantages from its allegedly neutral, but in fact pro-Russian position in comparison to other accession candidates whose leadership – like in Montenegro – or whose leadership and the population – like in Albania and Kosovo – are in reality much more pro-European than Serbia.

Serbia on its Way to a 'Guided Democracy'

But even if the regional economic development should take a good course, the question remains unanswered as to the development of democracy. Aleksandar Vučić and a number of his closest associates are currently the only members of the Serbian Government who truly seek rapprochement with the European Union, even if in their hearts they do reject the liberalism of the Western political culture and cannot forgive the EU and USA for bombing Serbia in order to salvage the Kosovo Albanians. As patriots, they are convinced that Serbia could only be saved by becoming a member of the European Union. But Vučić has no allies; he has marginalized the pro-European opposition. What can he do in such circumstances against his opponents in his parliamentary group, parliament and government, in the administration and state-owned enterprises and against a mass movement of over 400,000 party members who do not want him to carry out reforms, but rather give them jobs in the public sector: he can only do it as an authoritarian leader who seeks – by bypassing the division of powers and institutions – the direct support of his people. Taking also into account the substantial restriction of media pluralism and freedom of the press, a type of authoritarian guided democracy is emerging in Serbia which is currently also exercised within the EU in Hungary and outside the EU particularly by Putin in Russia. This brand of authoritarianism[18] has been increasingly openly propagated by the Russian-controlled media which have intensified their presence as of late: the TV channel Russia Today in English, which  has been active for quite some time now, will start broadcasting a  Serbian radio program by spring 2015; in addition, there is also a cultural centre in Niš, in Southern Serbia, where a Russian-Serbian humanitarian centre is located that is possibly utilized by the Russian secret service, as well as the Serbian language online-magazine Ruska Reč/Russian Word which is published in the Politika daily as a monthly supplement. A visit by Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Russian Security Council in summer 2013 has ultimately led to the establishment of several other Russian-Serbian cultural organizations and pro-Russian web sites in Serbian language. One of his proposals also included Russian funding of the erection of a monument in honor of the last Tsar Nikolai II, which was just recently inaugurated by the Russian Patriarch Kirill in the presence of the entire Serbian leadership, as a clear sign of expansion of the Russian sphere of interest.

Freedom of the Media in Serbia

As of recently, the European Union has been paying more attention to the issue of freedom of the media in Serbia and other Balkan countries. But, apart from the English Euronews TV, it is not actively involved in the Balkans. The United States, however, have taken up the media challenge with Russia and particularly with the Qatar-financed Al Jazeera Balkans. As of October, CNN has launched N1 TV in the regional languages, broadcasting from Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo, respectively – i.e. the locations where Al Jazeera Balkans is present, as well. The competition of foreign-funded channels is about diversity of opinion, but primarily about the confrontation between a western-oriented and liberal culture, taking a stand for the primacy of individual civil and human rights, and competing models, advocating the dominance of the collective in addition to their Orthodox-theological reservations against the concept of human rights.

European Union and its member states must be aware of the fact that economic stabilization and development of the Balkans do not instantly guarantee that the acceding countries would support a western-oriented and liberal democracy model, which has developed in the European Union from an old ethno-national model into a cosmopolitan democratic model  of a 'voluntary union'. Serbia and the entire Balkans still have a very long way to go in this respect. It remains uncertain whether the EU will find resources and time for the media and cultural confrontation. In the conflict with Russia, the EU enlargement policy might come under increasing pressure of geostrategic interests and – in order to secure the Western influence – it may have to rather opt for a rapid accession of Serbia, without improved regional cooperation, without economic recovery and without democratization in the sense of a post-national European Union. In that case, Serbia would join the EU as a country which, according to its internal political make-up, still belongs to the Russian sphere of interest and the prevailing ethno-nationalism within it. And the consensus on European Union’s values – which is today fragile as it is – might suffer serious damages.

Translation: Altra Linuga, Belgrade

Proofreading English: Milan Bogdanović

The text in its original language can be found here.

[1] See Can Serbia Avoid Debt Crisis?, a study by Miroslav Prokopijević commissioned by the Heinrich Böll Foundation

[2]  The annexation of Crimea also saw the participation of Serbian fighters who call themselves Chetniks.

[4] Russia annually imports €30 billion worth of agricultural products; Serbia's export of these goods to Russia amounts to slightly over €200 million, i.e. less than 1 percent of the total.

[5] The pipeline must be routed ca. 900 km in length and up to 2000 m in depth. For comparison: The Nord Stream through the Baltic Sea covers a distance of 1200 km at the depth of 40 – 210 m. On the land route of the South Stream Pipeline, construction works have already been ceremoniously launched both in Bulgaria and Serbia. Following an intervention by the EU, the works have been stopped. Russia has not even begun to construct the pipeline under the Black Sea. Meanwhile, there are rumours (pro-government Serbian Večernje Novosti daily, Oct. 2014) that the construction of the pipeline through the Black Sea would increase the initial cost estimates by 40 percent. In this case, one acts as if the far less expensive land route had been the basis for calculations all along. Is this an announcement of conquering the land for the corridor or a cancellation of the pipeline project?

[6] South Stream is primarily a project of the Russian state-owned Gazprom which holds 50 percent of shares. But it is also a project of large European energy corporations from Italy, France and Germany, receiving prominent political support in those countries. As is the case with the Nord Stream Pipeline, its Supervisory Board is chaired by a former German Social Democrat. In case of the South-Stream it is Henning Voscherau. See

[7] Two exceptionally unfavourable agreements for Serbia stand out in this case: Gazprom Neft, the part of Serbian oil industry taken over by Russia has the obligation to pay only 3 percent tax on the exploitation of Serbian oil reserve to the Serbian Treasury. In Russia, Gazprom is paying 22 percent, some countries are even requesting 30 percent. For Serbia, this means an annual loss of €150-200 million. The partial sale of Srbijagas implied the promise that through the commissioning of the South Stream revenue from the transit Serbia would secure an annual profit of €200-300 million. The start-up was scheduled for 2013, at the latest. Should it occur at all, it is now set for late 2016.

[8] It is estimated that 20 to 30 percent of the electricity bills are not being paid, although the current electricity monopolist Elektroprivreda Srbije (EPS) charges the lowest electricity price in Europe – 5.35 euro cent/kWh excluding VAT for households and 5.09 euro cent/kWh for the industry. For comparison: within the EU, Bulgaria has the lowest price with approximately  8 euro cent/kWh and Denmark the highest with 33 euro cent/kWh. In Germany, the price is around 28 euro cent.

[9] See: Helena Stadtmüller, “Understanding the Link Between Energy Efficiency and Energy Poverty in Serbia”

[10] The European Energy Community Secretariat initiated an infringement procedure against both companies as they have repeatedly failed to meet the deadline to separate gas supply and gas transport companies and thus ensure a non-discriminatory access to third parties. See: Energy Community Secretariat: Annual Implementation Report August 2014, 155. Following the same argument, the Secretariat also initiated a procedure against the bilateral agreement between Serbia and Gazprom regarding the South Stream construction.

[11] Serbian Minister of Mining and Energy has for some time now been negotiating the sale of the state-owned enterprise Petrohemija shares. With this purchase Russia would round off its control of the oil, gas and petrol market. Russian companies already own a part of the petrol retail network in Serbia.

[12] Deutsche Welle interview with Edi Rama:; further evidence in the bulletin of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia: The international press coverage of the "incident" was incomplete and in line with the Serbian authorities' assessment. Here is a list of facts that usually left out:

[13] As a result, UEFA seems to share this view. The Albanian Football Association was penalized with a technical defeat, as its squad had refused to continue the game. However, the three points from this victory have been withdrawn from Serbia due to lack of security precautions. The home team will have an advantage in goal difference as the match was registered 3-0 for Serbia. For a critique of the unilateral UEFA decision, which does not address the widespread problem of hooliganism, see Ben Denison, “Putting politics on the pitch: UEFA’s failed response to Serbia-Albania“ (The Balkanist October 24, 2014)

[14] This was valid until the introduction of the euro; its crisis has shifted the fundamental equality of member states to an asymmetric relationship of debtor and creditor countries.

[15] It was announced on November 3 2014 that two members of parliament (and of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party) did not even care to maintain the semblance of neutrality when they travelled to observe the illegal elections in Eastern Ukraine as members of a Russian delegation.

[16] Trade unions argue that more than half of these 400,000 workers get even less than the minimum wage.

[17] The “Big Bang“ accession of all Balkan countries together, following the example of the EU enlargement in 2004, when 10 new members were admitted at the same time, is actually the recommended "scenario" of Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group: The Unfulfilled Promise: Completing the Balkan Enlargement. Policy Paper May 2014 ( The other scenarios depict more or less a status quo.

[18] On authoritarianism in the Balkan countries see also the study by Danijela Dolenec: Democratic Institutions and Authoritarian Rule in Southeast Europe. Colchester 2013.