Serbian Prez Vucic tightrope walk continues, but not recognition of sham referendums in Ukraine

Serbia continued to walk the tightrope of East-West relations this week, with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic stating that Serbia “cannot and will not” recognize referendums in Ukraine in territories slated to be annexed to Russia while at the same time facing sharp criticism from the EU and the US simultaneous increased cooperation with the Kremlin.

Regarding the former, Vucic’s arguments should come as no surprise, as ironically (or logically) he has tied the referendums to Kosovo and Serbia’s refusal to recognize that state as independent, as reported by international press, including the Voice of America (VOA).
On this note, Vucic state that it is in Serbia’s “best interest to protect the territorial integrity of internationally recognized countries,” according to VOA.

The statement, predictably, has received mixed reviews, as certainly the US and EU are against any recognition of sham referendums in Ukraine, where Russia has already claimed that there is 98-percent local support for secession to Russia. Yet Vucic’s logic—which is actually logical—will be less accepted, as the EU and the US have recently pressed hard for recognition of Kosovo independence.

Moreover, the EU has all but called Vucic on the carpet for Serbia’s decision to sign a “consultation plan” that would see increased cooperation with Moscow, although Serbia was quick to say that the plan addressed “bilateral” cooperation, but not issues of security.

The latter has been hard for the EU to take at face value, especially as the signing came 1) immediately after Russian mobilization of 300,000 citizens (at least) 2) heightened threats from Russian President Vladimir Putin—including that he is not bluffing over nuclear weapons and 3) that the plan was signed by Serbian Foreign Minister Nikola Selakovic with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.

Lavrov has long been not only a staunch executor of Putin’s designs, but also a difficult party to contend with at any diplomatic level, combining a sharp mind with terse and often very cutting sarcasm no matter who has been present on the other side of the table.

Meanwhile, Vucic’s tightrope continues to become still more unstable, as not only has there been a sharp influx of Russian draft evaders—which will raise both questions from Russia but also from the EU with regard to security concerns—but also Serbia continues to face prodding from Kosovo that in the least may be described as highly passive-aggressive.

Much of this appears to be led by Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, who has recently labelled fearful Serbs in Kosovo enclaves criminals and this week pushed the line that there could be “imminent conflicts” with Serbia, as quoted by the Balkan news service Novinite.

While both sides have their gripes, such a statement does feel disingenuous. Kosovo has recently attempted to force Kosovo Serbs to trade Serbian IDs and car registration plates for Kosovo identification—which while logical was clearly a hot-button from the start—and it has ramped up border patrols, which will invariably be matched by Serb posturing. This combined with inflammatory statements—including Kurti’s claim that Serbia is not a democracy and that it “finances” the undermining of government in Kosovo is doing no one any favors.

Yet Vucic’s tightrope walk is difficult to shake. While heavily criticized, he has deftly  held strong and debated smartly in the EU—a necessity, considering the need to placate key voters at home. Time will tell, however, as to just how long Vucic can play this game of balance, however, as increasingly it appears that circus act or not, this is a game without a net.

Photo credit: Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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