- By Guy Delauney
- BBC News, Balkans correspondent
A Russian news video purporting to show Serbian volunteers training to fight alongside Russian troops in Ukraine has sparked outrage in Serbia, revealing its complex relationship with Moscow.
The Russian mercenary group Wagner made these videos in the Serbian language to encourage recruitment for the war.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic reacted angrily on national television.
“Why, from Wagner, are you calling someone from Serbia when you know it is against our rules?” he said.
Critics frequently accuse Serbia of prioritizing its long-standing friendship with Russia over its ambition to join the EU. But what has emerged in recent days in Belgrade shows that the picture is not so black and white.
Hinting at less than rosy relations with Moscow, President Vucic said that not only was Serbia “neutral” regarding the war in Ukraine, but that it had not spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin for “several month”.
It is illegal for Serbs to participate in conflicts abroad.
The number of Serbian recruits involved does not appear to be significant. Some fought alongside Russian forces in Ukraine in 2014, but without any sort of official support.
In fact, Serbian courts have convicted more than two dozen people for participating in “fighting on foreign battle fronts.”
A Belgrade-based lawyer and anti-war groups on Thursday filed criminal complaints against the Russian ambassador as well as the head of the Serbian Security and Information Agency (BIA) for allegedly recruiting Serbs to the Wagner group.
In Belgrade, where provocative murals are commonplace, Wagner’s skull emblem appeared on a downtown wall last week. It was signed by the Popular Patrols, a far-right organization that has previously organized poorly attended pro-Russian rallies.
None of the major political parties have even hinted at their support for the invasion of Ukraine.
Indeed, Serbia has always voted in favor of United Nations resolutions condemning Russian aggression.
This week, President Vucic made Belgrade’s position clear: “For us, Crimea is Ukraine, Donbass is Ukraine, and it will remain so.”
The United States expressed concerns to the Serbian leader last week about Wagner’s recruiting efforts, and U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill said this week that he was happy to learn that President Vucic could see “the threat for peace and stability posed by Wagner potentially operating in Serbia.”
But Mr Vucic’s position was not enough to impress the European Parliament, as Serbia repeatedly refused to impose sanctions on Russia.
For the second time, MEPs adopted a resolution calling for the suspension of accession negotiations until Serbia agrees to sanctions.
As long as the EU was reluctant to expand the bloc to Western Balkan countries, it made sense for Serbia to maintain friendly ties with Moscow.
This reminded Brussels that Belgrade had other options. Cheap gas supplies, Gazprom’s majority stake in the Serbian oil company NIS, and Russia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence were practical reasons to remain on good terms.
But the invasion of Ukraine changed perceptions. Belgrade was not impressed when President Putin cited Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence to justify recognizing the independence of areas of occupied eastern Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Brussels belatedly realized that its reluctance towards the Western Balkans left room for Moscow to intervene. The accession negotiations of Albania and North Macedonia were quickly unblocked and Bosnia obtained the status of candidate country.
So if the Serbian president was waiting for a moment to turn decisively to the West, he might well have arrived.
He warned of “very difficult” conversations with EU and US special envoys – and said he would address Serbs this weekend to tell them “what is required and expected from Serbia regarding Kosovo and sanctions against Russia.
Mr Vucic has made similar remarks before – without ever committing to major policy change. But this week he once again reiterated that Serbia’s trajectory is westward.
“I know the EU is our path,” he told Bloomberg News. “There are no other ways.”