The EU Should Refrain from Blaming the Messenger: It’s Long Past Time for Clarity on What’s Required of Belgrade

On Monday, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hoyt Yee spoke at the Serbian Economic Summit in Belgrade. In his speech, he told the assembled that the idea of providing diplomatic immunity for Russian personnel at the joint Humanitarian Center in Niš was “not a norm of the international community,” that bringing convicted war criminal Vladimir Lazarević onto the Military Academy teaching staff “was not a good sign of the government’s determination to punish war crimes,” and – most incendiary – that Serbia cannot continue to straddle the EU and Russia. In a discussion after Yee delivered his speech, he said: “You cannot sit on two chairs… especially if they are so far apart and may fall over,” Serbia needed to choose a side.

As one might expect, the reaction from within Serbia was swift and negative. Ultranationalist Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin decried Yee’s statements: “I can say that those are not statements coming from a friend and a man who respects Serbia, who respects our policy, who respects our right to decide.”

We’ve been here before, at least in terms of frictions between the West and Belgrade. Last year, President (then still Prime Minister) Vučić himself accused EU Delegation Ambassador Michael Davenport of plotting a coup against him during the 2016 “Ne davimo Beograd” protests.

Then, as now, the official EU reaction was… acquiescence and mollification. The attitude in Brussels and in most member state foreign ministries seems to be that an accommodating stance toward the Vučić regime is the best way to facilitate Serbia’s membership and democratic transformation.

Yet the preponderance of the evidence points squarely in the other direction. The overarching sense in Belgrade is that the more prickly – and less compliant – it is with the requirements of the club the Serbian Government proclaims it wants to join, the better deal it will get. That tactic has worked up until now, fueling a sense that Belgrade has many suitors, and it really need not choose.

But it must. EU membership and alignment with Russia are mutually exclusive. So are EU membership and failing to recognize Kosovo’s independence. Since 1999 – when the Stability Pact for Southeast Europe first opened the door to the EU (and NATO) to a Serbia (still in the by-then moribund FRY) which was willing to comply with the rules of the club(s) – the choice has been readily apparent. The intervening 18 years of opacity have only impeded the entrenchment of democracy and rule of law in both Serbia and Kosovo.

Getting the EU to insist on adherence to its policies, such as sanctions on Russia for its seizure of Ukrainian territory in Crimea and eastern Ukraine, ought to be a given for a self-respecting Union which now leads the free world by default. Serbia has no chance of entering the EU with a policy and constitution which maintains Kosovo is still integral to the state. The EU is less likely than ever, with the ongoing Catalonia crisis, to make a collective proclamation to that effect. But it need not. A handful of parliament resolutions in EU member states, and in the European Parliament itself, would underscore the reality that a Serbia which cannot grasp its own dimensions is utterly unsaleable to current members.

One can only surmise that Deputy Assistant Secretary Yee’s admonition to Belgrade was unpopular in Brussels and EU member state capitals, given the political capital invested in the long-moribund Belgrade-Prishtina dialogue. The false hope of reanimating the dialogue continues to restrain the EU from confronting Vučić – to be clear, he calls the shots in Serbia – on his own authoritarian drift, let alone on Belgrade’s relationship with Moscow.

But the EU should refrain from blaming the messenger. Hoyt Yee only stated what the West, collectively, ought to have demanded far sooner. This is a sentiment I and my colleagues have heard repeatedly from EU member state officials in the region for some time. Making it clear that Serbia can only join the EU by embracing not only the acquis, but the collective policies and common values of the Union, would give long overdue traction to advocates of such an approach in Serbia. By refraining from doing so, the EU doesn’t just blur the distinction – it assists Vučić in impeding and reversing Serbia’s democratic transition. Belgrade is not alone in facing a choice. So do Brussels and each EU member state.