On February 25, the Serbian National Security Council adopted conclusions on the war in Ukraine, while qualifying the conflict as “events in Eastern Europe”. The conclusions expressed support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity but refrained from imposing sanctions on Russia.
Serbia has not signed on to EU sanctions against Russia since they were introduced in March 2014, citing its dependence on Russian gas and Moscow’s support for its position of non-recognition of Kosovo. It remained, along with Bosnia and Herzegovina, the only country in the region not to align or to announce its alignment with the new series of sanctions introduced by the EU.
However, it seems that the continuation of the balancing policy will not be seriously challenged, at least publicly, by either the United States or the European Union. The U.S. Embassy tweeted Friday evening that it “welcomes Serbia and President Vučić’s stance on supporting the territorial integrity of Ukraine, which has been violated by an unlawful attack and not provoked”, using stronger language than Serbia in the Council Conclusions.
Sjedinjene Države pozdravljaju ponovljen stav Srbije i @predsednikrs o podršci teritorijalnom integritetu Ukrajine koji je narušen ilegalnim i ničim izazvanim napadima Rusije.
— US Embassy (@USEmbassySerbia) February 25, 2022
The day before, President Vučić met with the ambassadors of the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France and Italy, as well as the EU ambassador to Serbia, with whom he presumably discussed the Serbian position on sanctions.
A few days later on Monday, European Commission spokeswoman Ana Pisonero said the union expected Serbia to comply with the sanctions. No further official calls have come from the EU, although Vučić said on Monday he had been under “great pressure” and that the past few days had been the most difficult of his professional career.
Several European politicians and former diplomats, however, criticized Serbia’s position. Most of the comments drew a reaction from Serbian officials and were carried by pro-government media.
European Parliament rapporteur for Kosovo and shadow rapporteur for Serbia from the Greens/EFA group Viola von Cramon tweeted on Friday that it was high time for the Serbian government and the President of Serbia to publicly condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“The time for sitting on two chairs is over,” von Cramon wrote as Serbian leaders took longer than any other government in Europe to condemn the attack.
The time for sitting on two chairs is over.
— Viola von Cramon (@ViolavonCramon) February 25, 2022
Serbia later said the violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity was wrong, while President Vučić was also asked to comment on the tweet by the news agency Tanjug during the press conference following the meeting of the National Security Council on 25 February.
“As for Viola von Cramon, I’ve always tried to be a gentleman, but now I have to tell her to get serious or at least stop talking nonsense, which she regularly does. It’s not a coincidence that he became an Albanian icon in Kosovo and an icon of all those who would do something against Serbia,” he said.
The European Parliament’s rapporteur for Serbia, Vladimír Bilčík, also made his opinion known immediately after the announcement of the decision not to align with the sanctions against Russia. Unlike in the case of Viola von Cramon, Serbian officials did not react to Bilčík’s position on the matter.
“Putin’s attack on Ukraine is a defining moment for the western balkans, too. Everyone should understand that Serbiathe choice not to join EU sanctions are a defining foreign policy decision for much broader EU-Serbia relations,” Bilčík wrote.
Putin’s attack on Ukraine is a defining moment for the #WesternBalkans, too. Everyone should understand that #Serbiathe choice not to join #EU sanctions are a defining foreign policy decision for much broader relations between 🇪🇺 and 🇷🇸.
— Vladimír Bilčík, MEP (@VladoBilcik) February 25, 2022
Over the next three days, several commentators, including former diplomats, criticized Serbia for not joining the sanctions.
Former US Ambassador to Kosovo Philip Kosnett tweeted on Sunday that “Vučić of Serbia chose Putin over the West.”
“While claiming that his hands are tied by public opinion and that he is hiding behind the Church. It’s not leadership; it is moral cowardice,” Kosnett wrote.
So it looks like Serbian Vucic has chosen Putin over the West – while claiming he has his hands tied by public opinion and is hiding behind the Church. It’s not leadership; it is moral cowardice. EU, US, please note.
— Philip Kosnett (US Ambassador, retired) (@PhilKosnett) February 27, 2022
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić and Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin reacted to these criticisms.
“President Vučić didn’t choose Putin over the West, he didn’t hide behind anyone and never claimed that ‘his hands were tied’ by anything. He chose international law and principles, Serbian interests and peace. It is leadership. As for the moral, don’t even start,” Brnabić tweeted.
Aleksandar Vulin also defended the president.
“I know that for Mr. Kosnett, morality is a refuge for the weak, but Serbia has always found its strength in moral values. This is why Kosnett attacks President Aleksandar Vučić because he takes care of Serbia and does not lose moral values,” Vulin said.
Official Serbia also reacted strongly to the comment made by former Swedish Prime Minister and High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina Carl Bildt.
Commenting on a Twitter thread by journalist Michael Martens about Serbia’s refusal to join sanctions against Russia, Bildt wrote that Serbia had disqualified itself from the EU membership process.
With this position 🇷🇸 has de facto disqualified from the membership process 🇪🇺. There should be no room for new members 🇪🇺 who do not share our core values and interests. https://t.co/vw5r5st6Nm
—Carl Bildt (@carlbildt) February 27, 2022
President Aleksandar Vučić reacted to Bildt’s tweet on Monday, describing what he was doing as “going after” Serbia, which “some people” are doing.
“As they are not able to take on those who are that strong, they are looking for someone they can do it with. Congratulations to Bilt, he has made it in life, let him and the others carry on” , Vučić said.
Bildt’s comment was also followed by headlines such as ‘He was eager to attack Serbia’ by a pro-government tabloid Kurir.
After the outbreak of war, front-page headlines in pro-government newspapers continued some of the long-standing pro-Russian and anti-Western tendencies in reporting, which were also visible early last week.
They included “Cowards of the West abandoned Ukraine” (Srpski’s Telegraph, February 26), “The West prohibits negotiations in Zelenskyy” (Večernje novosti, February 27), “Russians in Kiev: Ukraine begs for peace” (Informant, February 27).
Sprski Telegraph also reported on Friday that “Russian media was buzzing with Vučić’s statement: Serbia’s decision is the main news in Russia”, also featuring the embrace between Vučić and Putin photographed in November last year.