On May 23, Belarus fighter jets diverted a Ryanair civilian flight from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania under a pretence of the bomb threat, to arrest a dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, a critic of Belarus strongman president Alexander Lukashenko.
The EU has responded in the form of political condemnation and economic sanctions, as Belarus planes are banned from the EU air space and the EU planes are not to fly over the Belarus airspace. The EU has even promised new economic sanctions.
The EU measures put Serbia, an EU membership candidate, in a tough spot.
As a membership candidate, Serbia is expected to join foreign policy declarations and restrictive measures of the EU. However, Serbia is unlikely to join the EU measures against Belarus for both international and domestic reasons.
As Belgrade prides itself on good relations with Minsk, the EU’s row with the Lukashenko regime was inevitably going to reach Serbia.
Vladimír Bilčík, European Parliament rapporteur on Serbia, expressed the expectation that EU membership candidates will back EU measures against Belarus.
The Minsk-Belgrade flights have been cancelled from 29 May to 30 June as a result of the EU ban. So far, the Belgrade government has not made a decision, stating that the decision will be made upon receiving a formal request from the EU.
Serbia’s most powerful man, president Aleksandar Vučić is showing hesitancy to act against Belarus.
Vučić stated that “an extremely bad act was perpetrated in Belarus”, but he also added that in the hunt for Edward Snowden, the plane of Bolivian president Evo Morales was diverted, as an indication of Western double standards.
In August 2020, Serbia surprised the West when it joined the EU declaration that deemed presidential elections in Belarus that years as “neither free nor fair”.
The decision was met with enthusiasm by the EU and the US.
Serbia did not join the extended list of entities and individuals in Belarus targeted by the EU sanctions, though. In September 2020, faced with the EU pressure over the contested elections in Belarus, Serbia pulled back from the traditional trilateral military exercise with Russia and Belarus, planned to be hosted by the latter.
To maintain an image of balance, Serbia cancelled all of its military exercises for six months, including with Nato.
Belgrade’s prior alignment with the EU’s measures against Belarus did not prevent good diplomatic relations with Minsk.
Since Serbia began its accession talks with the EU in January 2014 it obeyed all EU’s restrictive measures against Minsk until April 2019.
That did not prevent Lukashenko from visiting Belgrade in 2014.
This time, for both foreign policy and domestic reasons, Serbia will not be able to go alongside the EU.
Firstly, the reason why Serbia could join the EU in its condemnation of Belarus was that back then its ties with Russia were on a downward spiral as Serbia was pivoting towards the US during Donald Trump’s presidency. Moreover, Russia and Putin were displeased with Lukashenko lowering the risks for Belgrade.
Now, however, Serbia fears pressures from Biden Administration on Kosovo, forcing Belgrade to pivot back towards Moscow in search of a diplomatic protector.
At the same time, Putin to push back against the West took Lukashenko under his protection, despite past disagreements with the Belarus leader, making it unlikely that Belgrade will interfere with Moscow’s protégé.
Brussels/Belgrade gets frosty
Secondly, Serbian relations with the EU are uneasy at this moment.
The EU is beginning to take note of the Serbian decline in the rule of law, prompting angry reactions from president Vučić.
The relations with the EU on Kosovo are also shaky, as one out of five EU member states who do not recognise independent Kosovo, Greece, is rumoured to consider recognition of Kosovo, potentially weakening Serbian diplomatic position in Kosovo dispute.
While condemnation of Minsk would buy Vučić some points in Brussels, with current tensions with Brussels on domestic transgressions and Kosovo, it is unlikely Vučić will go against the main backer on Kosovo, Russia, and Belarus, a non-recogniser of independent Kosovo.
There are some bilateral benefits that Belgrade draws from working with Minsk. The economic ties are not dynamic. In late 2019, Belarus was the 34th largest partner of Serbia in terms of exports and 37th in terms of imports.
In 2019, Serbia signed a free trade agreement with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) replacing bilateral free trade agreements Serbia previously signed with Russia and Belarus. In 2015, Serbia and Belarus signed a memorandum on military cooperation. In 2021, Belarus donated four Russian-made MiG-29 jets to Serbia, and four more in 2019.
While the EU remains the largest and most important economic partner of Serbia outweighing EAEU, the Serbian leadership has very little incentive to give up collaboration with the likes of Lukashenko, as the prospect of Serbian EU membership are distant.
Domestic factors, including public opinion and lobby players, play a powerful role too.
In April 1999, during the Nato bombing, in a show of solidarity with Serbia, Lukashenko visited Belgrade. Condemning Lukashenko might be domestically costly, particularly among voters of the ruling, Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), where solidarity towards post-Soviet leaders like Lukashenko is expected to be high.
There are also powerful veto players.
The key is Bogojub Karić, a Serbian oligarch with deep business interests with Lukashenko’s regime. It has recently been disclosed that the Lukashenko government allocated $1bn [€820m] real-estate projects in Minsk to companies owned by Karić. Bogoljub’s brother, Dragomir is the head of parliamentary friendship group with Belarus in the Serbian parliament. As the Karić family is part of the ruling coalition, it can be expected that they will be an influential constituent in shaping policy towards Belarus.
Under those circumstances, it is highly unlikely that Serbia will join the EU sanctions against Belarus unless Moscow turns its back on Lukashenko.
Instead, just like in its refusal to introduce sanctions against Russia on Ukraine, the Serbian leadership will be kicking the can down the road.
Source: EU Observer