The dust still not settled from the wars that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia, the reconciliation process still not over among the former Yugoslav republics, still not buried all the victims and still not convicted all the war criminals, still not finally confirmed all the state borders and Kosovo still now recognised completely when Serbia decided to organise a military parade in which a central figure was Russia's President Vladimir Putin. All this against the backdrop of the first big war in Europe in the 21st century after Mr Putin broke the post-war agreements from the beginning of the last century by annexing the Crimea and is currently conducting a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine. As if to make the situation even more absurd, the formal reason for the demonstration of military power was marking the 70th anniversary from the liberation of Belgrade from the fascists and the centennial anniversary from the beginning of World War I - all of these controversial events in the Balkans that instead of getting the countries from the region closer are reminding them why they have been divided for decades.
Whatever the formal reasons, the military parade on October 16 in Belgrade was in honour of the Russian president who was welcomed as an emperor in the Serb capital. The way the event took place, how it was covered by Serb media and what messages the Serb state elite conveyed brings very seriously the question forward about Serbia's future in the EU.
An arranged marriage or marriage based upon love?
In the past three years, the Serb rulers have always stated that Serbia's EU membership is a strategic goal. Ever since Alexander Vucic took over the premiership earlier this year, the reforms expected of Serbia have been a top priority of his and a top issue for the Serb media. Even on election night Mr Vucic said that to him a goal number one was EU to open the first negotiation chapters this year and Serbia to be ready for membership in 2018. For the sake of this goal, a package of media laws has been proposed and approved, for the first time in years a Pride parade took place in Belgrade and a fiscal consolidation programme is underway in parallel to the search of investments. Although some of these measures can be found controversial in terms of whether they are in the right direction or are they what Serbia is expected to do, but in the past 8 months Alexander Vucic has created an image of himself of a true pro-European reformer who wants upon Serbia's image as a factor of instability and threat for the region to build an image of a state that is a factor of stability and a role model for the rest.
Against the backdrop of all these efforts, however, there has always been this thin red line of a split mind. When the war in Ukraine broke, the EU expected the candidate countries to take the Union's official position toward Russia and although it did not demand this officially, especially after the decision to impose sanctions, some Western Balkan countries did that but not Serbia. From the very beginning of its European agenda, Vucic has been reiterating that Serbia is on its way to the EU but this will not be to the expense of its friendship with Russia. It would have hardly been a huge problem if it were not for the war in Ukraine because then the argument of the historically close relations between former Soviet satellites and their centre would have made sense. But now, we are talking about a true civilisational divide which makes it geopolitically crucial who is on whose side and why.
Throughout the entire period of development of the conflict in Ukraine, the Serb government has been completely neutral - it has firmly refused to comment on the situation in Ukraine, while at the same time reiterating till one is sick that the EU is a strategic goal but Russia is a friend and that Serbia cannot and does not want to spoil its relations with Moscow. In order to make its position more reliable, Belgrade often quotes EU member states which, too, have maintained good relations with Russia. The question is, though, how crucial is the difference that Germany, France and UK, for instance, have serious business interests in Russia whereas all former communist countries are in a direct economic dependence on Russia? Whatever the answer, neither of these two groups ever makes such strong demonstrations of feelings toward Russia. Pragmatism or fear are prevailing.
With its decision to hold a military parade and specifically to invite President Vladimir Putin Serbia is sending a very different message - the economic dependence on Russia is perceived as assistance and rescue. Russia is being glorified as a mother, an elder sister who is always ready to help. EU is a strategic goal but Russia is love and friendship. Russia is always there, whereas the EU is absent which was very clearly stated by Serbia's Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic. On the eve of 16 October, during one of his frequent statements on the issue he said that President Obama, too, is always welcome "but would he come?". A British prime minister has not been in Serbia for more than 20 years, he added and again asked "would he come?", thus clearly pointing to the problem.
That is why, very reasonable is the question whether Serbia's accession in the EU would be an arranged marriage or a realised necessity stemming from the apprehension of the European values and therefore policies. It is true that many of the Central and Eastern European member states the "love" for Russia is coming back, especially where the accession process and EU membership have failed to create a well functioning rule of law and strong, independent of political influence institutions and where media are not free. The countries that succeeded in this seem completely integrated in the EU in the sense of having apprehended the European system of values as it is described in Article 2 of the Treaty. Their efforts, in the same time, are well awarded with powerful economic growth and good tempo of catching up with the average level of standard of living in the EU.
A tangible absence of the EU in Serbia
Not only that there is a lack of strong political presence at the highest European level in Serbia - prime ministers of influential member states, foreign ministers, the European Commission chief, the European Council president, but the EU is also not there with its own point of view in the Serbian discourse, with hardly noticeable exceptions. Throughout the entire day October 16th, the Serb state-owned TV was airing a special programme with live broadcasts from all the events involving the Russian president, accompanied by comments from the studio. The TV did not invite not a single commentator with a different, pro-European point of view. The main message of all the commentators was that Russia is better not only because of historic, cultural, ethnic and religious kinship but also because it does not put any conditionality to provide economic assistance.
Trade with Russia is tax-free while the exchange with the EU is restricted. The behaviour of the Serb state leadership was also very telling about the Serb political mindset. In the speeches of President Tomislav Nikolic and Prime Minister Vucic it was clearly underscored that Serbia would never join the sanctions on Russia, but nothing was mentioned at all about why these sanctions have been imposed in the first place. The commentators invited by the RTS failed to mentioned that too. President Nikolic said the EU should take into account that Serbia cannot impose sanctions because Serbia is the country that suffered the most from sanctions. However, he did not recall why were sanctions imposed on Serbia. Moreover, Mr Nikolic specifically thanked the Russian president for his support for Serbia's territorial integrity in terms of Kosovo, after which he said dubiously that the aim of the military parade was to show that the Serb army is ready to defend "what's ours".
During his meeting with Putin, Prime Minster Vucic aired awe, adoration and personal triumph simultaneously. He thanked the Russian president for respecting Serbia's sovereign right to choose the European path as if it depended on Moscow and not on the democratically elected government of a sovereign state. This strikingly reminds of the Ukrainian case whose future seemed dependent not on the Ukrainian people's sovereign right but on the Kremlin's will. In the same way stands the question with Moldova which was recently warned by Vladimir Putin not to sign the free trade agreement with the EU.
All this against the backdrop of Chapter 35 of the negotiations with Serbia which will be dedicated on swallowing Kosovo's independence as opposed to Russia's permanent support for the "Serb territorial integrity".
Should Serbia make a choice?
The EU is not only a single market, as the European leaders love to say. This is a community of shared values and a civilisational choice. In Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty it is stipulated that every European country that respects the values as stated in Article 2 and is committed to promoting them can apply for EU membership. There is no contradiction in principle when a country shares these values and in the same time has business relations with Russia. There is a contradiction, though, when love and friendship are involved and when a demonstration is being made like the one in Belgrade on 16 October. The prime minister and the president said then that Russia had nothing against Serbia's European path, but President Putin said nothing on this issue.
EU does not have a clear position on how to respond in such a situation. During his hearing in the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee, the commissioner-designate for enlargement negotiations Johannes Hahn, who will also be responsible for the Union's policy toward Russia, had no answer to this question which emerged clearly against the backdrop of his good performance in front of the MEPs and his clear positions about the future of enlargement and the Union's Eastern policy. He only said that this issue needs to be discussed in the EU. The Union is in a very difficult situation because Serbia has demonstrated clearly with the parade in Belgrade that it has a choice. According to some analysts, in this way Belgrade has raised the bets in its negotiations with the EU. On the other hand, this could be also viewed as raising the bets in front of Russia. The fact that both interpretations are equally possible shows that Serbia has not yet made up its mind.
This demonstration could also be a cry for help. EU announced its intention to create an entirely new policy toward Russia. This should involve Serbia despite the fact that the country is on the first step of the accession process. Federica Mogherini, the EU high representative-designate for foreign affairs announced during her own hearing in the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament that Russia was trying to convince the Union's eastern partners that the European integration is a bad choice. The EU should begin to work intensely on convincing them that this is not true. The same should apply to Serbia as well but with much more efforts because at this stage Ukraine's or any other country's from the Eastern Partnership membership is impossible whereas the beginning of the negotiations has already been announced with Serbia.
Johannes Hahn committed to visit all the countries in the region and that is good. Serbia, however, should be on his calendar every month. The European Parliament, too, should be more inclusive toward Serbia and the Skupstina (the Serb parliament) with frequent exchanges of delegations, debates on European issues - economic, integration, foreign policy ones. For the period 2007-2013 the EU allocated to Serbia more than one billion and 300 million euros from its pre-accession funds. Federica Mogherini was talking about increasing investments in transport connectivity among the Western Balkan countries. In other words, the EU should enhance its presence in Serbia and the region at large, especially in the direction to change its image - from a fussy Union that puts very high demands and passively awaits them to be fulfilled, watching with disregard the failures it should turn into a pro-active, flexible partner to the countries in the region. The failures in meeting some of the demands should not be met with shrugging off and the distant position "Whenever you are ready" but a way should be sought how the EU can help these failures to be avoided or overcome.
The key is in the word partnership. Conscience that the EU should change its approach has demonstrated Ms Mogherini in her capacity as Italian foreign minister and chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Council in the second semester of this year during the Croatia Forum in Dubrovnik. Then she admitted, as a reaction to the Ivica Dacic's statement, that the EU indeed behaves too paternalistically. There should no longer be a talk simply about accession but about integration and consolidation, she said.
And why not the EU try to become Serbia's best friend? After all, what do the best friends do? They wish the best for you. EU wants to consist of and to surround itself by stable states with rule of law, which believe in the European system of values and invest efforts to promote them around the world because it brings peace and prosperity. This is precisely why the EU received the Nobel Peace Prize. The EU can and should fight not only for Serbia's hand but also for its heart because it is important to Serbia. Why not all prime ministers or presidents of the EU member states go to Belgrade? Why not organise a sort of a European Council in the Serb capital involving Serbia as well? They should tell the Serbs that they are important to the EU because they really are. Too soon did the European leaders closed the chapter of the Yugoslav wars and decided that this issue is forever buried. It is not. And the fact that even a football game cannot take place without problems is a proof that the EU has not finished its job on the Balkans yet. It has not even started it.