For the Western Balkans countries, October was marked by a failure to reach a date for the start of EU membership negotiations for Northern Macedonia and Albania, as well as new agreements Serbia signed with Russia and China. These events have once again fueled the debate on the space being opened up for the influence of other actors on the Western Balkans. While the European perspective of these countries remains uncertain, their cooperation with partners from the east indicates that an alternative is considered if the European integration process and EU membership remain on the long stick.
Based on recent weeks developments, Serbia is the country that is taking the most concrete steps in further developing cooperation with countries and organizations coming from the East. Since the beginning of this year, Serbia has hosted the highest officials of the Russian Federation in two occasions. In January this year, Russian presidentVladimir Putin paid a visit to Belgrade, while Prime Minister Medvedev visited Belgrade to mark the anniversary of Belgrade’s liberation in World War II. Despite increasingly intensive cooperation with China, these visits indicate that Russia is still Serbia’s traditional partner in international relations and a welcome guest. One of the topics that marked the visits of these two officials was the signing of Serbia’s agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union. Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabic signed a free trade agreement with Eurasian Economic Union in Moscow on October 25th. This agreement provides free flow of goods, duty free, between Serbia and the five countries that make up this international organization.
The Eurasian Economic Union was formed in 2015 on the foundations of the Eurasian Economic Community. The Union is made up of five countries: Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Member States comprise a population of 183 million people and can represent a significant market for product placement and for improving foreign trade relations. The Eurasian Economic Union represents the final step of Eurasian economic integration, initiated by Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev since the first half of the 1990s. Today, among the countries that make up the Eurasian Economic Union, Russia is positioning itself as the most important actor, both in the field of international relations and in resolving issues within the community. The member states of the Eurasian Economic Union are harmonizing their economic relations but are still pursuing an independent foreign policies.
Similar to the European Union, decision-making institutionsns have been developed. The umbrella institution is the Supreme Council of the Eurasian Economic Union, which, like the European Council, brings together heads of state. The Inter-State Council of the Eurasian Union brings together the heads of governments (Prime Ministers) of the Member States, while the Eurasian Economic Commission is a supranational body that provides all conditions for the Union’s further development and elaborates proposals in the field of economic integration. The seat of the Commission is in Moscow. The Union Court, based in the capital of Belarus, Minsk, is the permanent judicial body of this organization.
Negotiations between Serbia and the Eurasian Economic Union were announced back in 2016, just one year after the organization officially began operating. It was originally announced that the agreement would be signed during Putin’s visit to Belgrade in January 2019, but the signing was postponed until October.
By signing a free trade agreement, Serbia has improved the pre-existing conditions it has in trade relations with five member states. Namely, Serbia already had free trade agreements with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, while it gains greater access to the markets of Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. Of all these countries, Serbia has by far the most developed relations with Russia, as one of the most important partners in the field of foreign trade, with foreign policy relations which are now traditionally very tight-knit.
In addition, Russia’s position in the field of international relations leads to the interpretation of the Eurasian Economic Union as “Putin’s Union”, an organization in which Russia has a leading role and is Russian way of expanding influence over its immediate spheres of interest.
While economic relations between Serbia and the Eurasian Economic Union will be improved to some extent, the announcement and subsequent signing of the agreement has come under criticism from EU officials. As a candidate state for EU membership, Serbia is obliged to align its foreign policy with the foreign policy declarations adopted by the EU member states. The level of alignment of Serbian foreign policy with the foreign policy of the European Union has already been at the lowest level, compared to other Western Balkan countries. The low level of alignment is conditioned by the relationship between Serbia and Russia, precisely by the fact that Serbia has not imposed sanctions on Russia. At the EU foreign ministers summit held in August 2019, European officials criticized Serbia, pointing out that signing the agreement moves Serbia away from its strategic and long-term foreign policy goal – European Union membership.
It is questionable how much Serbia will really profit from signing an agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union. The existing agreements have provided access to the largest part of the market of almost 200 million people. Apart from Russia, none of the remaining four member states is a significant foreign trade partner of Serbia. The most important partners in the field of foreign trade are still EU member states and CEFTA countries. What constitutes a significant part of the signing of the agreement is the further intensification of relations with partners from the east and the tendency to act towards an alternative to the process of gaining EU membership.
The politicization of relations with partners from the east has to some extent distracted the public from the Serbian European integration process, which has been stagnant for quite some time and is increasingly uncertain in terms of obtaining a concrete date for Serbia to become a member of the EU. Serbia’s cooperation with non-EU countries is greater than ever. With a traditional partnership with Russia, cooperation with China is at its historically highest level.
Turkey can also be seen as one of the actors with which Serbia develops close relations, primarily through announced joint projects in the future, such as the Belgrade-Sarajevo highway. Signing an agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union is all about pursuing a foreign policy in a direction that can be called creating a safety net or creating a “plan B” in case the European integration process fails, or Serbia does not get a date for becoming a member state of the European Union.
The uncertainty of the results of European integration for the Western Balkans countries allows the influence of other actors in this area and the conduct of a foreign policy that will be based on fostering relations with other actors. The signing of the agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union is a step which shows that decision-makeing processes in Serbia, especially in the foreign policy area, takes into account other actors with whom relations could be further intensified, primerely Russia, China, and Turkey. Unless the process of European integration is intensified and concretized, cooperation with other actors, including the Eurasian Economic Union (with Russia at the helm) will become a relevant alternative and a way to secure Serbia’s position in the field of international relations – a position of a country that has no EU membership perspective and is located between East and West.
First published in Novi Magazin weekly no. 444, 31 October 2019
Photo: Russian Federation government