With the future of Ukraine teetering in the balance—and worries over Belarus entering the war in Ukraine once again gaining steam—there also appear to be quiet efforts to offer more carrots to Serbia in order to encourage the current government to lean toward the EU and away from Russia.
In short, while the push to force Serbia to recognize Kosovo as an independent state has continued, rhetoric has been somewhat softer of late and examples of the benefits of joining the West have become more evident.
Perhaps the latest example is a EUR 600 mln “handout,” as it has been noted in the Western press, which is slated as part of a EUR 2.2 bln in financing to rebuild the 230-kilometer Belgrade-Nis railway link. This latest cash injection follows EUR 165 mln in funds also from the EU for energy support.
Yet while energy support is critical for Serbia, the railway link symbolizes long-term cooperation, with the Belgrade-Nis revamp seen as a key connecting railway not only the Balkans and the EU, but also for Turkey, as cited by Centraleuropoeantimes.com.
The European Investment Bank has already green-lighted a loan of EUR 1.1 bln for reconstruction, although the remainder is to be reportedly financed by Serbia.
Of note is that this influx of cash is not lost on Serbian observers contacted by Serbia Monthly, with a Brussels insider stating that “the French-German plan for Kosovo has angered many Serbs, and I do not mean only the far right.”
The source, who requested full anonymity, added that forcing the “Kosovo independence game” could come at a steep cost for the West, and perhaps cooler heads are beginning to prevail.
“There has been a remarkably blunt effort to force [Serbian President Aleksandar] Vucic into agreeing to French-German demands—but very little effort has been made to placate Serbia or even Vucic’s opposition,” the source said.
“The Americans do seem to understand that if Vucic suddenly declared that Serbia recognizes Kosovo that this could backfire—and anyway, this kind of talk is unrealistic without upside for Serbia.”
The source noted that such talk of immediate Kosovo is unrealistic for the simple fact that Vucic is not a dictator “although some press in the West seem to think this is the case.”
Vucic has to face opposition from other parties, but also from within his own party, the source added, and the West has for years been quick to criticize, yet slow to consider Serbian interests.
“The American seem to understand that first, Vucic is actually sincere with regard to his belief that Serbs in North Kosovo need real protection—and the Kosovo Albanian police helped this argument with an unfortunate shooting incident [early in the year],” he said.
The source was referring to an incident in North Kosovo in which two ethnic Serbs were shot by Kosovo police. This followed the jailing of an ethnic Serb, Dejan Pantic, who was a former police officer in Kosovo prior to local protests over license plate re-registration demands by the Kosovo government.
Against this background both the US and the EU have pushed for Serbia to fall in line with Western political goals, which have included the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state and also joining EU sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the Kosovo government has levelled thus far unproven allegations that Russian Wagner mercenaries have been active in Kosovo, and they in fact were active during recent protests.
Again such accusations are unproven, although it is clear that the Wagner group, which has been on the forefront of Russian gains in Ukraine, has made consistent efforts to recruit Serb fighters in Serbia—a campaign that Vucic has now condemned.
Meanwhile, the French-German Kosovo plan appears to demand that Serbia recognize Kosovo independence or that it give up on EU accession altogether.
“The Europeans—especially the Germans—seemed to be about threats,” the source added. “Recognize Kosovo and sanction Russia or you are out. Yet that approach also seems to be changing. Or at least there are signs that it could be changing.”
The source noted that while the US has at least backed the long-promised Community of Serbs in North Kosovo, the Europeans have appeared to recognize that it cannot simply goad Serbia into what it deems better behavior. Russian meddling is a risk, Chinese investment is pouring into the country and there are also wild cards such as Bosnian-Serb loose cannon Mirosav Dodik, who has made much of wanting Bosnian Serb independence and also his close ties to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
Meanwhile, the Serbian armament industry is ramping up due to wartime needs—and possibly due to the Serbian governments understanding that it must also arm itself for the future.
“The combination of so many outside forces has some in Brussels giving Serbia a rethink,” he said. “And I have no doubt that grants for Serbian rail and energy needs are also tied to this.
“Serbia needs to feel the benefits of the EU now,” he added. “Promising Serbs that the country might possibly join the EU in 2030—which is essentially what the Germans and French put on the table—is not enough. If anything, that kind of talk only makes Vucic’s job more difficult.”
The war in Ukraine has in fact been ongoing since 2014. Photo by the Ministry of Defense of Ukraine, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.