By Kavya Verma
There is evidence favoring the theory that these overtures being made to Serbia are being done in part to counter Russian influence in the EU’s neighborhood, and to legitimize the Vucic administration in exchange for Vucic and Serbia controlling the flow of migrants into neighboring EU member states. Russian influence in Serbia is not a new phenomenon or one that came about due to its twentieth century history: it is extensive and can be traced back as early as 1870. In Serbia at the time, political overtures and support of the geographically distant Russia were seen as safer than bowing down to the Austro-Hungarians. This historic factor was just the beginning. Serbia and Russia’s relationship has progressed further since then, with Serbian dependency on Russian natural resources and pro-Russia attitudes among Serbian elites. A shared history of Orthodox Christianity allows for a shared cultural heritage that unites both countries, leaving room for many soft power initiatives between the two. Furthermore, another very real risk is Russian-led misinformation campaigns in Serbia. Freedom House puts Serbia at having an internet penetration rate of 65.3%, and the Kremlin remains committed to ensuring that a country of such strategic interest with fundamentally common values not be lost to the EU. Because of this and the Kremlin’s commitment to advancing its soft power initiatives in Serbia, it is posing a threat to both the EU’s neighborhood and EU member states sympathetic to Russia. The EU currently lies at a crossroads when it comes to Serbian accession. Either it can be the external actor that initiates democratization, or it can risk letting Serbia fall back to its historic influencer and become a gateway for Russian influence into the EU. An even greater threat from the advancement of Russian initiatives in the EU is Russia’s use of frozen conflicts and capitalizing on ethnic tensions to prevent the Western Balkans from meeting the criteria for accession into the EU. Furthermore, with support for the accession of Western Balkan states into the EU waning, it has become necessary for EU leadership to counteract both a blatant lack of support by member states for Serbian accession, as well as chaos-causing overtures by Moscow to Serbia. A greater risk posed by Russian support of frozen conflicts is the reignition of ethnic tensions in the Balkans. Not only might this cause another humanitarian crisis, but it will also run the risk of blocking key energy supply routes from Russia to the rest of Europe, and worsen EU sentiments on the accession and integration of Serbia and the rest of the Western Balkans into the EU.
In the 1990’s, Vucic served as Information Minister to Slobodan Milosevic. His job included countering media sources opposed to the Milosevic regime and essentially denying freedom of the press and the existence of other political parties. However, since joining the team of “Reformed ultra-nationalists” in the post-Milosevic era, Vucic has taken steps that, albeit risky or unlikely, to help have set the tone for what normalized relations with Kosovo would look like. While there is still more that can be done, the 2013 deal between Kosovo and Serbia recognizing that Serbs located in Kosovo’s north would have to follow Kosovo’s laws was a milestone. While not even close to fully normalized relations with Kosovo, this move was an example of Serbia firmly aligning itself with the EU as a counterbalance to Russia, just as many years ago it had used an alliance with Russia as a counterweight to its western neighbors.
Additionally, it appears that every decision made by Serbian leaders is a balancing act between its citizens who feel a historic connection with Europe and those who feel the same deep connection to Russia. As can be witnessed in Serbia’s response to the annexation of Crimea, the country’s neutral response to this violation of national sovereignty can be attributed to a population torn between historic identities and cultures. Ultimately, overtures by EU leadership to a population contending with issues of identity, energy dependency, and a lack of support for Serbian accession to the EU among the EU’s own citizens is required to prevent Serbia from pivoting more towards Russian interests rather than those of the European Union.