- President Vučić refuses to follow suit in European Union sanctions against Russia.
- Putin looks to secure regional influence as NATO threatens continued eastward expansion.
- Vučić states Serbia is guided by its own political and economic interests.
Why are Vučić and Putin in Camaraderie?
Answer: Vučić refuses to deploy sanctions against the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin
As Vladimir Putin recognized the breakaway regions of Lugansk and Donetsk of Ukraine, European lawmakers were set on imposing historic sanctions against the Russian Federation. The move came after weeks of military buildup on the Russo-Ukrainian borders, which prompted Western leaders to be wary of the prospect of an invasion led by Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin. However, as the European Union deployed its first round of sanctions against Russia, a European-candidate state that did not follow the European decision to sanction Russia was Serbia.
Serbian President Aleksander Vučić has kept ties comfortably close with President Vladimir Putin over the past few years. Although Vučić has approximated himself towards Chinese President Xi Jinping for Chinese investment, Vučić still has considerations that mean staying close to the European Union and Russia. For Vučić, Russia has been an ally because of historical, cultural, and economic links between the two countries, and it would ultimately be problematic for Vučić to walk away from the relationship.
Vučić’s reluctance to employ sanctions against Putin and Russia is a clear indicator of the wary camaraderie that the Serbian President has with Putin. Though Vučić was more or less pressured by several domestic and economic considerations, the country is largely against sanctions regimes, and not sanctioning Russia was intended to preserve the relationship between the two states.
What is driving Putin?
Answer: Securing the Russian sphere of influence while pressing against the West.
One of the many things that have driven Putin to keep relations close with Serbia and other Balkan states is securing his influence in the region. For Putin, a situation in which ex-Yugoslav or ex-Soviet states join NATO would threaten Russia’s sphere of influence, which Putin has been vocal against. However, Putin sees the West as consistently threatening NATO expansion to secure his political influence, preventing this trend by keeping influence through economic and political means is one of his main concerns.
Putin is also driven by the use of the ‘Kosovo precedent’ in his explanation for the recognition of the Lugansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine. The precedent understands that territory can unilaterally declare independence if it suffers large-scale systematic violations of human rights from the state, as Kosovo Albanians did in Serbia in the 1990s, leading to their declaration of independence in 2008. The precedent is what Putin used when Russia recognized Crimea in 2014, as well as Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the Republic of Georgia during the intervention in 2008.
Putin has been critical of the West’s state recognition in instances of unilateral declarations of independence, as in the case of Kosovo. Doing the same thing for Donetsk and Lugansk is a way for Putin to press the West on what can be considered a breach of international law.
What is Driving Vučić?
Answer: Keeping both the European Union and Russia as allies despite the continuation of an economic war.
President Aleksandar Vučić is currently being driven by a wide variety of domestic and international considerations to keep his relationship close with President Vladimir Putin. Vučić, who was driven by his hopeful reelection (which he recently won) did not want to give the Serbian public any reason to vote out his Serbian Progressive Party, despite there being a lack of a serious opposition party.
In Serbia, a large percentage of the population is Pro-Russian and has favourable views of Putin and the Kremlin. This dynamic has to do with the political and historical ties Serbians feel toward the Russian Federation as they refused to impose sanctions against the Balkan country in the 1990s. Much of Serbia’s state-controlled media is also supportive of Russia, which also explains the close ties Serbs feel towards their Slavic ally.
Therefore keeping Russia close was a way for Vučić to protect himself before reelection, and maintain Serbia’s supply of Russian gas, which Serbia heavily relies on. Vučić putting himself at odds with Putin could threaten his gas supply, which mostly comes from Russian Gazprom.
Vučić also has decided it is imperative to keep the support of Russia in regards to the UN Resolution 1244 stating Kosovo, the breakoff territory of Serbia, is in fact Serbia. Putin supporting Vučić in this regard would prompt the veto of any resolution calling for the recognition of Kosovo. If Vučić were to put himself in a situation where he falls out with Putin, it is possible that a Russian veto on Kosovo’s statehood would not happen, creating a newly recognized state in eastern Europe.
Vučić and the Serbian population also have aspirations to join the European Union in the near future. However, the camaraderie between Vučić and Putin puts the Serbian President at odds with the Union and he, therefore, realises he must keep a balance between a pro-Europe stance and a pro-Russia stance. In the end, Vučić is driven by the fact that he must satisfy both parties to keep the status quo while the international community goes through historic European events.
What is Vučić Doing?
Answer: Not deploying sanctions against Russia, and securing Russian gas imports.
For Vučić, the question of what he has been doing also revolves around the question of what he has not been doing. While European and United States officials have announced sanctions against the Russian Federation and Vladimir Putin over the invasion of Ukraine, Vučić has decided to not follow suit in the retaliatory measures. Vučić instead justified his position to not implement sanctions by stating that “Serbia will be guided exclusively by the protection of its vital economic and political interests”.
Last November, Vučić, and Putin met in Sochi, Russia to sign a six-month gas agreement, ending on the eve of the Serbian elections. Due to Serbia’s dependence on Russian gas, Vučić’s extension of the gas indirectly helps him domestically and gives Putin a reason to count on his support. During the meeting, Vučić and Putin discussed the possibility of a long-term gas supply which can perhaps explain the lack of vocal denunciation from the Serbian President of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. If Vučić was to take the route of vocal opposition against Putin, relations between Russia and Serbia would have strained, degrading the trust between Belgrade and Moscow.
Vučić is also playing a balancing act between Russia and the European Union. While Vučić did not deploy sanctions against Russia, his delegation voted in favour of denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine and suspending Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. Vučić was said to be pressured by his European counterparts on the votes, as it would affect Serbian integration into the European Union.
However, as Serbia generally argues it must act in conformity with international law, and voting in favor of the UN resolutions was expected from Vučić. Had Vučić taken the choice to abstain from the two votes, it likely would have put Serbia further at odds with the European Union, making their accession to the Union less welcomed.
What does this mean for you?
Answer: Russian economy faces historic sanctions leaving behind global consequences.
For Serbia, as they were previously pressured by some European representatives to vote against Russia in the UNGA resolution condemning the Russian invasion, it is possible they will be pressured again, as new sanctions are being rolled out by the European Union. However, more recently, Serbia was exempt from European sanctions against Russian imports of gas, due to their high imports of Russian Gazprom. Serbia and its Balkan neighbours are more or less entirely dependent on Russian natural gas, which could put at stake the supply of energy in the region in the odd chance that Putin shut off the gas tap into Europe.
Sanctions have been disastrous for the Russian economy as the value of the Russian ruble has collapsed to a historic low. The West has essentially declared an economic war against Russia for the invasion of Ukraine, which is being felt around the country. However, as the economic war brings desperation to the Russian economy, the possibility of defaulting on their foreign debt remains a possibility that will only exacerbate the financial strain on the Russian population.
For the rest of the Balkans and in larger part, the rest of eastern Europe, many are holding their breath on the possibility of the Ukrainian crisis spreading.
As NATO has seen Bosnia and Herzegovina as a potential member of the organization, the Serbian entity of the Bosnian government may find it appropriate to secede from the country, and seek recognition as a state or rejoin Serbia. While still unclear how the Ukrainian crisis would affect the situation, it is possible that a strengthened European presence and a weakened Russia could deter such actions.
For the rest of eastern Europe, one of the most worrying scenarios is how far Putin will go and whether or not he will stop at Ukraine. However, as the crisis in Ukraine continues, the physical war orchestrated by Putin and the economic war by the West is going to cause problems for the entire global financial market, which will inevitably impact everyone, one way or another.