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Pandering to Putin comes back to bite Serbia’s Vučić – POLITICO

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BELGRADE – This time even Aleksandar Vučić struggles to have both.

For years, the Serbian president has sought comfortable relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, while maintaining ties with the European Union, which his country aspires to join, and the West more broadly.

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has left Vučić in an acute dilemma and already has the Balkan country at odds with the EU, the United States and other powers over its refusal to impose sanctions on Moscow.

In response to Putin’s war, Vučić has attempted to take his balancing act to a new level. He declared “support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine” and its government supports the UN resolution condemning Russia’s aggression. However, he has rejected calls to stick to the EU line when it comes to sanctions. quote Russia’s refusal to impose such measures on Serbia during the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

Even if Vučić, who is up for re-election next month, decided to turn his attention to the West now, it would be difficult for him – not least because of his politics. Serbia is heavily dependent on Russian energy. And Moscow enjoys strong support from part of the Serbian population, fueled by rampant pro-Putin propaganda run for years by tabloid media loyal to Vučić.

That support was on full display on Friday night when thousands of protesters – some waving Russian flags and carrying pictures of Putin – marches through the center of Belgrade to demonstrate their support for Moscow.

The rally came in sharp contrast to mass protests across Europe condemning Russia’s war against Ukraine. And on the economic front, too, Belgrade is wildly out of step with the EU. When the bloc cut ties with Russia and closed its skies to flights out of the country, Air Serbia booted his service to Moscow.

“Vučić is in a difficult and uncomfortable situation, largely caused by him,” said Aleksandra Tomanić, executive director of the European Fund for the Balkans, an NGO dedicated to strengthening democracy and promoting European integration in the region uses.

Relations between Serbia and Russia have been close since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Russia resisted the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 over Belgrade’s repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Putin has bitterly complained about the NATO bombing, which was not sanctioned by the UN Security Council, while referring to it to justify his invasion of Ukraine.

Moscow was also a powerful and vocal ally of Belgrade when it repudiated Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia and blocked Kosovo’s entry into international organizations.

Putin has visited Serbia several times and has been warmly welcomed by both the political leadership and large sections of the population as a friend of the country.

“Incredible” deal

Last November, Vučić visited Putin in the Russian city of Sochi and the two presidents sealed what the Serbian leader was doing welcomed as an “incredible” gas deal that will keep prices the same and increase supply even as the rest of the Balkan region faces a power crisis.

As fellow Slavs and Orthodox Christians, many Russians and Serbs see themselves as traditional allies and culturally close. Some analysts have argued The two countries are not such natural political partners, but the narrative has nevertheless caught on among large swathes of the Serbian population, partly because it is being pushed by political leaders.

“Putin’s and Russia’s popularity has reached surreal proportions in the Serbian public. Every single politician is afraid that if he does something that is considered anti-Russian, it will upset a significant segment of his voters,” said Vuk Vuksanović, an analyst at the Belgrade Center for Security Policy.

A opinion poll The study released last year showed that Russia was by far the most popular choice when Serbs were asked which power they should rely on most for their national security. The same survey, conducted for the research organization Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group, also showed that two-thirds of Serbs were “very positive” about Putin.

Against this backdrop, any major break with Moscow could spark turbulence as Serbia faces both parliamentary and presidential elections on April 3.

“It would literally be enough for the Russian ambassador to issue a statement accusing the Serbian government of betraying Serbian-Russian friendship in favor of those who bombed Serbia and took away Kosovo, and unimaginable political chaos would ensue ‘ predicted Vuksanovic.

Serbia’s refusal to impose sanctions on Russia also raises uncomfortable questions for the EU.

The bloc has made it clear that it expects the candidate countries to follow EU foreign policy. A European Parliament resolution condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine criticized Serbia for the sanctions.

the resolutionpassed by an overwhelming majority last week, “deeply regrets Serbia’s non-compliance with EU sanctions against Russia, which are damaging to its EU accession process”.

However, analysts and pro-democracy activists have long complained that the EU is too soft on Vučić, both on his stance on Russia and on authoritarian tendencies at home. They have accused the bloc of being too willing to look the other way as long as it sticks to an EU-backed dialogue on Kosovo.

“The EU also bears a great responsibility. For ten years they naively believed that as long as there were positive developments regarding Kosovo, everything else was less important and purely domestic politics,” Tomanić said.

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