The piece was originally published in Novi magazin no. 472, on 14 May 2020

One of the questions that has been preoccupying researchers in our field for years is when Serbia will be forced to decide between the European Union (EU), or, what we colloquially call the “West” and Russia. This issue really came to the fore following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the introduction of sanctions in response from the EU. The relationship between Belgrade and Moscow is observed within Chapter 31 (foreign, security and defense policy) of Serbia’s EU membership negotiations. From the point of view of the interests of the Union and the individual members, this relationship was assessed as unfavorable to the extent that six years since the beginning of the negotiations, the so-called screening report has not been published. (It is an open secret that Belgrade and Brussels have reached a “gentleman’s agreement” that the content and conclusions of the screening – comprehensive analysis of Serbia’s foreign policy positions in relation to those of the EU – are not published, so that mutual relations would not be further damaged.)

The possibility for Belgrade to give up its close relationship with Moscow, “turn” to the West and harmonize its foreign policy with that led by the EU, has long been a useful card in the hands of the President of Serbia. As the “Kosovo issue” remained unresolved, and then internationalized once again by looking for a solution outside the EU framework; and then, as EU enlargement has been reduced to the unconvincing notion of a “European perspective”, there is little incentive, or pressure, for and on Belgrade to abandon this policy. What was at first called the “balancing act” has meanwhile been rather banalized – every, even the smallest act of friendship which expresses the depth of Serbia’s intentions towards the EU, must be accompanied by an act of similar or the same intensity towards Russia. (Maybe that’s why Russian armed forces team in Serbia, deployed without any urgent need taking into account the capacities of our army, must be waved goodbye with civilian and military decorations.) Moscow does not trust Vučić, says Bosko Jakšić often, and is probably right; Putin does not trust anyone. Hence the flattery.

However, with the coronavirus pandemic, Serbia’s decision maker(s) faced another problem: how to explain the relationship with China to the West. The “steel friendship” with Beijing is also a policy of continuity; what Tadić started in 2009, Vučić continued and significantly expanded. As an unnamed diplomat told Dimitar Bechev in Brussels, “we overestimated Russia and underestimated China”. That Serbia’s relationship with China will be in the center of attention became clear from questions asked by researchers a few years ago; the growth in volume of Chinese loans and investments in the region inevitably led to this. When outgoing Enlargement Commissioner Hahn called these loans and investments a “Trojan horse,” many were surprised; it was, however, an announcement of an evolution in EU’s approach. The alarm went off after Vučić’s performance on the evening of March 15, when he dramatically announced that “European solidarity is a fairy tale”, reacting to (at that moment) the negative response from Brussels about the urgent export of medical equipment. (In the meantime, it was clarified how Belgrade could have applied for a permit and would most likely have obtained one; but it nevertheless took the Union almost a month to rectify this policy, which had done much damage to its prestige in the Western Balkans.) Vučić’s statement resonated all over; it was uttered at a time when the modern world is facing an unprecedented threat; and the West, above all the United States, suspects (and even accuses) China of having significantly contributed to the pandemic by initially suppressing information and thus not allowing the world public to know the real scale of the problem. After that, China did engage in “mask diplomacy” providing significant assistance to a number of countries in “flattening the curve”; but the damage in the relationship has already been done. There are more and more voices that the EU should reconsider its relationship with Beijing – hence Borrell’s recent statement on Brussels being “naïve”. The United States is now reconsidering to “exclude” Chinese products and suppliers in certain branches of the economy, while there are warnings from London that “nothing will be the same”: “we will have to ask difficult questions about how this happened and whether it could have been stopped earlier,” said Foreign Minister Dominic Raab.

A direct request to reconsider relations with Beijing, in the context of a broader EU policy, would be a serious blow to Belgrade. For several reasons: China is one source of loans and investments for Serbia that insists less on transparency; it is a leader in innovations with whom it is easier and faster to reach agreements on the introduction of new technologies, with less possibility of civil oversight; a world power whose support is needed or desirable in the context of a number of problems in international relations and, finally, the country of origin of the largest number of tourists in the world. When we say loans and investments, we mean road and rail routes that the EU is not interested in because they do not fit into its priority transport networks; factories and systems that employ thousands, and which allegedly no one else wanted (Smederevo, Bor); innovation, we mean 5G and AI; international problems, Kosovo, UNESCO and what not; and tourists – the growth of visits to Belgrade was evident even before the pandemic. It could even be speculated that by further intensifying cooperation with China, Belgrade intends to respond to the effects of the expected global recession. At the same time, in the past ten years, China, its companies, business people and citizens in general, have adapted well to the realities of life and work in Serbia; worsening relations would inevitably affect them as well.

Also, it must be said that China has significantly helped Serbia in suppressing the pandemic (epidemic) on its territory. It is not only tons of protective equipment, but also help in establishing laboratories that have enabled, after initial problems and criticism, testing 5-6,000 people a day. Chinese experts shared their experiences; influenced that patients with milder symptoms should be placed in temporary hospitals and not stay in conditions of home (self) isolation; advised which hospitals are suitable for patient accommodation and which are not (so the Military Medical Academy, because of its central air conditioning system, has been crossed out as a possible option).

Statements made by the Serbian leadership were met with the suspicion by the EU, which can be seen from the text of the Zagreb Declaration from last week. That is why the President of Serbia tried to control the damage; a meeting was organized with the ambassadors of the member states, he sent an op-ed to the “US News and World Report” in which he says that “Serbia is committed to the West” and then billboards sponsored by “Ekspres” (government-leaning weekly) appeared across Belgrade, on which Serbia thanks Europe – and Norway; we assume as a counterpart to the earlier, “Informer’s” dedicated to “brother Xi”. Earlier, the Prime Minister took care of harsher tones, reproaching Carl Bildt for spreading “fake news” – by pointing out that Vučić did not personally receive the help whose transport was financed by the EU (unlike the first plane that arrived from Shanghai a week earlier). In the meantime, Brussels has done and offered a lot, but with a delay, from which Beijing profited.

For a long time now (too long, some will say) the return of policy of conditionality has been discussed. With much more determination, the democratic regimes in Belgrade were pressured to fulfill their promises – normalize relations with neighbors, promote dealing with the past and, most importantly, deliver indicted for war crimes and genocide. The return of this policy is one of Belgrade’s biggest fears. How could it look in practice? For example, no new opening of chapters until the normalization of relations with Kosovo is achieved, that is, the harmonization of foreign policy with the EU in a percentage higher than the existing one (57% according to the ISAC fund). Additional pressure would be placed on very specific requirements regarding the rule of law and the separation of powers. Access to European funds is suspended for all but civil society (and higher education). Leading this “new policy” would certainly be Germany, whose position would be strengthened if Joe Biden wins the US presidential election.

But this policy is based on several assumptions: the imminent end of the pandemic and a comprehensive plan for the European economy to emerge from the expected crisis; consensus between France and Germany; the sincerity of European partners when it comes to enlargement policy. It is not without risk for pro-democratic forces either; hybrid regimes (as assessed by “Freedom House”) show no signs of weakening. Faced with such a choice, Vucic may try to tie the country even more to China and Russia, which would – again – arouse Washington’s suspicion, and really make Serbia the scene of a struggle between the interests of the great powers, at a much greater intensity. (Becoming a “proxy” on the other hand is among our community’s greatest fears.) Belgrade’s room for maneuver would be narrowed, because in these new, post-corona circumstances, China and Russia cannot be expected to gain new allies within the EU. Here, as in many other things, everything will be clearer in the fall.