Serbia is key to stability in the Western Balkans, and tensions are growing in the traditionally problematic triangle comprising Bosnia, Serbia, and Croatia.
Serbia’s new government was appointed on Aug. 8, just days before U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited Belgrade. Serbian Prime Minister Alexandar Vucic recently started a new term in office with his previous government left largely intact, after media reported pressure coming from both the West and the East (in a word, Russia) over its formation. The announcement of Biden’s visit was soon followed by that of an upcoming visit this fall by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
Serbia’s balancing act between Washington and the European Union on one side and Russia on the other has gained visibility since late 2014. Russia lost ground when the South Stream project was put on hold and Russia’s economic problems started to become more obvious. The EU accession process was the West’s main tool to counterbalance Russian influence in Serbia. The EU funding attached to that process has become more important for Belgrade, especially with Russia’s economy weakening — Serbia needs investment. Solutions for increasing the country’s energy security evolved around European alternatives, as Russian-backed infrastructure projects failed.
But the EU has its own problems. The United States promised last year that it will help Serbia access natural gas from a new terminal in Croatia. Vucic travelled twice to the United States in 2015 to discuss ways to improve bilateral ties. American delegations have also arrived in Belgrade over the last year. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has been among the visitors, and discussions between the American and Serbian governments increased ahead of Biden’s August visit.
The symbolism of Biden offering “condolences to the families of those whose lives were lost during the wars of the nineties, including as a result of the NATO air campaign, in terms of responsibility” is important. While the United States can’t offer much to Serbia at the moment, and the scars of NATO bombings of Serbia remain unhealed, support for continuing Belgrade’s EU accession process remains the main tool of influence for the West. Serbia still faces economic problems but its international status has somewhat improved during the last two years: Its politics are stable, and due to government guarantees and cheap labor, it has started to attract foreign investment.
The government’s efforts to open as many EU accession chapters as possible during the last two years have brought in necessary reforms within the judiciary, and these have helped to improve the domestic business environment. Encouraging the EU accession discourse is actually proving along Serbia’s reformation process. Even though the EU faces its own internal problems, it still has mechanisms that help accession countries overcome economic problems, and which in the case of the Western Balkans encourage solutions to social and ethnic problems — solutions that are key for regional stability.
Meanwhile, rhetoric among neighboring countries Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia became more charged over the summer. Croatia and Serbia have been exchanging terse diplomatic messages over Croatia’s rehabilitation of some of the World War Two-era Croatian ultranationalist regime fighters as national heroes — Serbia sees them as terrorists and fascists. Croatia is an EU member state, so Serbia is particularly sensitive to the recent tensions. The incident can be viewed as a provocation that is testing Serbia’s willingness to continue on the European path. While the response that Belgrade got from the EU on the diplomatic row with Croatia reportedly disappointed Serbia, Vucic said that the work on the EU accession chapters will continue, while the “policy of silence” is preferred towards Croatia. This means Serbia will stop fueling the diplomatic conflict with its neighbor. Both the U.S. and the EU ambassadors to Serbia have lauded the government’s choice. Croatia held general elections on Sept. 11, shortly after the last coalition, formed only in November 2015, collapsed in June. Part of the rhetoric relating to Croatia’s history thus was simple electoral campaigning, even if, as portrayed by the local media, tensions between the two countries seem to have surged significantly.
In Bosnia, the anti-terrorist exercises organized on Aug. 25 by Serbia and the Republika Srpska – one of the two administrative entities of Bosnia, mostly inhabited by Serbs — have added to pre-elections quarrels in Bosnia (local elections are to be held in October) as well as to ethnic tensions ahead of the Bosnian Serb Referendum announced on Aug. 11 by the president of Republika Srpska Milorad Dodik, to be held on Sept. 25. The 1995 Dayton Agreement which ended the Bosnian war brought the Serb-held territories — now Republika Srpska (RS) — under Sarajevo’s loose control. Bosnia-Herzegovina’s central government comprises a rotating three-chair presidency, with a seat for each major ethnic group: Croatian, Bosniak and Serbian. But Republika Srpska has enjoyed from the outset a centralized de-facto state within Bosnia, one with its own parliament. Dodik has called for the republic to secede since 2014, since the de-facto Crimea split from Ukraine, but no referendum date was announced. Republika Srpska maintains good political and economic ties with Russia, and while it has good relations with Serbia, President Dodik has criticized Serbia’s EU accession process for over-accommodating the EU while balancing away from Russia.
But Serbia is important for EU security, both in the long and the short term. Serbia is the last non-EU country on the Balkan route for refugees and may also deal with an increase in their number, as the fall approaches. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on Aug. 26 that a stronger second fence needs to be built on the border with Serbia to keep immigrants from entering his country. As the EU negotiates an agreement with Turkey on limiting the numbers of people that cross into Europe, the Hungarian government called for a referendum on Oct. 2 that is meant to rally political support against the EU plan to resettle migrants among the bloc’s members. The refugee crisis adds to the socio-economic and stability problems of the Western Balkans, even if the flow of immigrants on this route has reduced during the last months.
On Aug. 29, during a meeting with foreign ambassadors in Belgrade (attended by all foreign ambassadors except the Croatian ambassador) Vucic said that “Serbia thinks that regional stability has been endangered for the first time in a more serious manner.” Outside pressures as well as internal socio-economic problems are contributing to a tense atmosphere. The evolution of the West-Russia balance remains a determinant factor of the regional stability, with the EU symbolism still the key element for these countries’ modernization and reform, but also for regional and European security.