Is Serbia doing enough to help the West against Russia?
The European Union has adopted a new position against Serbia, namely that because she has not joined EU / western sanctions regimes against Russia she is to be castigated and her movement towards the EU will be blocked. See e.g. here:
Why is Serbia not joining EU sanctions against Russia? The answers are obvious and none of them are a reason to hold back the EU accession process. Here they are:
Russia subsidises massively Serbia's energy prices in the amounts of billions of Euros a year. (The exact figures are not public.) The EU has made no offer of any kind to replace those subsidies, that would surely be lost were Serbia to impose sanctions. Actually Russia understands this completely and she is extracting a very low price from Serbia to maintain discounted energy prices.
Given that Serbia and Russia have virtually no trade (there are no Russian commodities for sale in Serbian shops - not even vodka), the only meaningful sanctions Serbia could impose might be (a) banning direct flights; and (b) imposing visa requirements on Russians (who can currently travel to Serbia visa free).
As to (a), Turkey, Moldova and Georgia, all western allies (Turkey is a member of NATO; Moldova receives massive EU funding), maintain direct flights with Russia. Why not Serbia? These flights actually keep Air Serbia afloat and give Russian refugees and dissidents an escape route.
As to (b), Belgrade has become a centre for Russian dissidents escaping the Motherland. What is wrong with that? Shouldn't at least some corner of Europe welcome Russians wanting to escape Vladimir Putin's permanent war? Moreover Turkey and Moldova also welcome Russian citizens visa free. There is no doubt that we are trying to move Moldova towards EU membership and we even pretend we are trying the same with Turkey (although nobody really believes it anymore).
Serbia is a small, impoverished country (7 million people) with not a lot of influence in Europe or more broadly, historically buffeted between East and West. Her position is not to be envied. She has an atrocious litany of problems, including a pandemic drug crisis; a wave of dangerous criminals smuggling high margin hard drugs across her territory from Albanian lands to Western Europe; a hidden international sex trafficking crisis; diabolical infrastructure; a shambolic capital city the population of which nobody really knows, a lot of corruption (particularly at high levels) and a general paucity of institutional quality.
Serbia's saving grace is her President, who is an efficient administrator, a sharp politician and in all his instincts a liberal, permitting the EuroPride 2022 parade to go ahead in Belgrade amidst substantial opposition in a sexually conservative society.
Serbia has declared herself as neutral in the war, but actually her President has gone much farther than that. He has declared that Russia is in the wrong in this war, and that both Crimea and Donbas are properly part of Ukraime. That is not a neutral position; it is a pro-western, pro-Ukrainian position. Exactly why are we taking fault against Serbia? Consider the following:
Serbia is a genuine democracy, unlike Russia, with Serbia having possibly the best freedom of speech in the entire Balkan region and even in all of Eastern Europe. Serbia publishes a panoply of pro-governement and anti-government newspapers, magazines, TV stations and websites. There is total freedom of speech and no censorship whatsoever. This author has just finished watching a live Serbian comedy show, mercilessly ridiculing the government. You could not do that in Moscow (or in Budapest, Kyiv or Warsaw at this time).
Some people criticise Serbia for recruiting for the Wagner Group. This is nonsense. A number of Serb paramilitary volunteers went to fight for the Donetsk and Luhansk Republics in 2014. Some of them (it is not clear how many) have gone back in 2022. But Serbia does not encourage this: quite the opposite. It is a crime in Serbian law to fight for a foreign power of any kind and in any capacity. Any Serbian citizen who returns to Serbia with a Ukrainian border stamp is immediately arrested at the border and typically receives a two-year mandatory sentence of imprisonment.
Ukrainian refugees who reach Serbia are provided with quick processing (in the airport), free accommodation and generous social provision given that the country is very poor.
A handful of pro-Russian demonstrations were organised by pro-Russian Serbian Opposition groups in 2022 in which demonstrators were paid on a per-person basis with Russian funds to demonstrate in favour of Russia. Everyone understands this. The Russian funding then ran out (Serbia is no longer a priority for Russia given her war in Ukraine), and the demonstrations stopped.
Serbia's military is poor and ill-equipped. She has no equipment of quality to supply tp the Ukrainian Armed Forces, as a poor Eastern European nation; noone is asking her to provide either military or financial contributions. With a GDP per capita of barely USD7,100, she can't afford it.
Serbia has in the past invited Russian Armed Forces into southern Serbia to prevent hot war over North Kosovo, an unbordered and ungoverned border region between Serbia and Kosovo notorious for its massive hard drugs trafficking businesses; but Russia is withdrawing, having lost interest in the region in light of the need to redeploy her armed forces in Ukraine.
Serbia's persistently pro-western, pro-EU stance should be rewarded wit EU accession negotiation progress and EU regionalism subsidies to improve delapidated Serbian infrastructure and to keep predatory Chinese and Emirati investments at bay. There is no reason to condemn Serbia.
Contrary to the BBC article, we are aware of no evidence that Serbia's internal security service, the BIA, is involved in encouraging Serbian mercenaries to join the Wagner Group. We believe this assertion to be entirely fabricated. However we do know that an Opposition politician in Serbia has been involved in such activities; or, at least, so it was reported in the international media. This would make more sense, as the Serbian Opposition are funded by Russia and hence are pro-Russian, doing things like organising pro-Russian demonstrations in Belgrade.
It is true that Belgrade has a lot of FSB officers in it these days. Our estimate is 500. But their role is not to supervise the Serbian government. (Most of these people don't even speak Serbian; we have met several of them.) Their function is to keep an eye on all the Russian dissidents in Belgrade. Moscow has no interest in directing Serbia's policy on anything right now. It is too involved in Ukraine. Moreover if Moscow were interested in doing this, then it would traditionally use the SVR (Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service), which is extremely weak now in Belgrade, ever since ita apparent Head of Operations, Nebojsa Lazarevic (who we inferred in fact to be a sort of rogue FSB officer), was caught using Russian political funding to finance Serbian drug trafficking deals: something the Russians do not find funny at all. We have not heard from him since and we have no idea whether he is in a Moscow prison; a Belgrade prison; or dead. We imagine the Russians would have dealt with him or would be planning to do so, in any event.
Moreover it is not clear what Serbia can really do about the fact that there are so many FSB officers in town to watch Russian dissidents. The same is true of England. It seems impossible to keep them out, given their propensity for skilled use of forged ID documents.
Serbia is an essential alliance state for the West in the Second Cold War. We should be investing in her. Just as the Russians are (or were) investing in her embarrassing Opposition movement, we should be investing in her comparatively pristine government. She offers the possibility of massive return for moderate investment, if her problems are handled with sensitivity and care.