As the war in Ukraine continues, most of Europe has united in an anti-Russian camp. However, there is one country that refuses to take sides: Serbia.

Belgrade is seen as Moscow’s last remaining friend in Europe, as it decided not to join the EU sanctions regime. As a result, it has faced heavy criticism and pressure from EU officials who have made it clear that, as a candidate country for membership of the EU, the country is expected to align its foreign policy with the EU’s common foreign and security policy, including by imposing sanctions on Russia.

The Serbian government has defended its position by saying that it is not in the nation’s interest to take sides. But in the current polarized geopolitical climate, neutrality is becoming increasingly untenable as pressure from the EU continues to mount.

Serbia applied for EU membership in 2009 and has been negotiating accession since 2014. It has opened 22 of the 35 negotiating chapters and has consistently reiterated that its top priority is to join the EU.

However, in October, Josep Borrell, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, confirmed that Serbia’s accession process to the EU is stagnating because it does not align its foreign policy with that of Brussels.

Delaying the accession process is not in itself a sufficiently effective threat, as Serbia knows that it will not be allowed to join until it resolves its dispute with Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008.

The EU has other more effective options to pressure Serbia into complying, which it has not used. Belgrade has received more than 1.5 billion euros ($1.5 billion) in pre-accession funds in the period 2014-2020 and is expected to receive an even larger amount between 2021 and 2027. If the EU decides to refuse access to these pre-accession funds, funds or to halt investments, it would undoubtedly harm the Serbian economy and development.

But Serbia also has a lot to lose if it follows the EU’s lead in imposing sanctions on Moscow. The country imports approx 85 percent of the gas it consumes from Russia; doing anything that could halt the flow of gas would have major consequences for the economy and social comfort.

By not imposing sanctions, Serbia has signed a three-year uninterrupted supply of gas from Russia under preferential terms.

This allowed Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to reassure the Serbian population that it will not suffer this winter as much of Europe braces for electricity shortages and skyrocketing energy bills. The contract has also enabled the country to export natural gas to neighboring countries at a profit.

Serbia also has a free trade agreement with Russia in effect since 2006 and a free trade agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union signed in 2019 that have opened up huge markets for Serbian exports, but could be disrupted if relations between the two countries soured.

In addition, Serbia has seen an influx of Russian companies to the country, mainly from the IT sector, with more than 1,000 such companies registered with the Chamber of Commerce and Industry since the start of the war in Ukraine. The aviation sector has also benefited: the country’s flag carrier, Air Serbia, remains the only European airline to maintain regular flights to Russian airports.

Last but not least, Serbia relies on Russia’s political support and influence in the UN and other international organizations to block Kosovo’s membership applications, which is part of Serbia’s efforts to prevent its international recognition.

At the same time, since the large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, Serbia has not always assisted its ally in international forums. In March it voted in favor of a UN resolution condemning Russian aggression against Ukraine and in October another resolution rejecting Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory.

Serbian UN diplomats also supported the suspension of Russia’s membership of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which Vucic says happened under pressure from the EU. All this testifies to the pragmatism of Serbian foreign policy: by being on the sidelines of the conflict between the EU and Russia, it has tried to make its living and eat it too. Indeed, in its dealings with the East and the West, Serbia has been guided by self-interest rather than shared values ​​– an approach that appears to be popular with the Serbian people.

The EU’s warning that accession negotiations may be halted may not have the expected impetus, as an increasing share of the Serbian population is becoming less enthusiastic about joining the EU anyway.

Recent polls show that not only has support for the EU in Serbia fallen below the 50% threshold, but so have those opposed to EU membership become greater in number than those who support it. The waning enthusiasm for the EU is largely due to the demand to normalize relations with Kosovo as a condition of becoming an EU member, which is increasingly seen as an EU euphemism for Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence.

At the same time, public sympathy for Russia is traditionally high in Serbia due to the historical, cultural and religious ties between the two countries. So, if Serbia is forced to take sides, can it really rule against the EU?

The answer to that is a clear ‘no’. While the general population may not be, the Serbian government is fully aware that the EU is by far the country’s largest trading partner, accounting for more than 60 percent of total trade in 2021. By comparison, trade with Russia is less than 5 percent of the total. Therefore, Serbia’s primary economic interests lie with the EU.

In response to mounting pressure from Brussels, the Serbian government’s determination to remain neutral in the rift between the EU and Russia is beginning to waver. In a recent media statement, President Vucic said he will maintain his current policy until the “costs” for Serbia become greater than other considerations and until Serbia has to recognize a different reality. This was seen as preparing both the Serbian public and international partners for an inevitable and imminent shift in foreign policy.

The Serbian government has said it cannot buy Russian oil because of EU sanctions that take effect in December. It also announced a 12 billion euros ($12.4 billion) investment plan to diversify its oil and gas imports. All this is a sign that Belgrade will at least partially succumb to pressure from the EU.

Serbia’s pragmatic neutrality has served it well so far. But since realpolitik takes precedence over tactical diplomacy, it will likely have to distance itself from Russia soon.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.



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