The Balkan countries of Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania are not members of the European Union. But Serbia - an important part of the group - started formal accession talks in January 2014, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.
Serbia has close political, cultural and religious ties to Russia. The Balkans are also strategically important to Russia because they could provide access to the Mediterranean, avoiding the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, the narrow sea straits controlled by Turkey. Russia has one military base in Serbia.
GIS expert, Professor Dr Blerim Reka, former Ambassador of Macedonia to the EU, wrote in his report ‘Serbia faces tough choice over Russian project in Balkan geopolitics’ on July 29, 2014, that European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso had visited Serbia in July to press the country to impose sanctions against Russia. He used Serbia’s accession status as a lever. Discontinuing building the planned South Stream gas pipeline from Russia to Europe was also part of the discussion.
Serbia’s economic ties and trade with Russia are important to its economy.
In the same report, Professor Dr Reka said Russia’s energy giant Gazprom holds 51 per cent of the Serb oil industry. This was acquired at 10 per cent of its real value under a 2008 contract which also gives Gazprom exploration rights at extremely advantageous terms. This is damaging Serbia's revenues and highly detrimental to the country's interests. Serbian police began an investigation into the contract on August 12, 2014.
These dealings show the importance of the Serbia-Russia economic and political relationship. Russia has also supported Serbia politically on the Kosovo independence issue.
Part of the reason for the present problems in Ukraine was the EU’s dogmatic view over Ukraine accessing the Eastern Partnership. Ukraine had to choose between Russia or Europe. Russia also saw this situation as dogmatic.
The opportunity for Ukraine to have relations with both was ignored. The EU also failed to recognise that the Eastern Partnership might be perceived to promise more than it could deliver in tangible advantages.
Serbia’s accession status is not even a definite promise of EU membership. It is dangerous for the EU to use this situation to apply pressure on Serbia and could mean the Serbian government facing the difficult dilemma of choosing between Russia and Europe.
Maybe Russia can offer Serbia more advantages than the EU in the short term.
Europe needs to carefully monitor its Balkan politics. A Ukraine-like crisis in Serbia could spread beyond Serbia and throughout the Balkans.