Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev reiterated Moscow’s support for Serbia during a visit to Belgrade on Saturday (19 October) and announced the signing of a free trade agreement between Serbia and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU).
Medvedev paid a visit on the 75th anniversary of Belgrade’s liberation in World War II. He repeated Russia’s stance on respecting Serbia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in Kosovo, whose independence, declared in 2008, Serbia and Russia don’t recognise.
He also attended a parade showcasing Serbian army’s capabilities and announced the signing of about a dozen bilateral agreements and memorandums.
As Medvedev put it, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić will sign on 25 October a free trade agreement with the EAEU, which functions on equal grounds, realising the pragmatic interests of its members.
The EAEU members are Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan. The free trade agreement with the EAEU will give Serbia access to a market of 180 million consumers.
Serbia already has free trade deals with Russia (since 2000), Belarus (2008) and Kazakhstan (2009), which allow it to export 99% of its goods to those countries duty-free.
Serbia’s negotiations on free trade with the EAEU started in 2016. There were some controversial issues, but they were resolved this spring.
Current trade between Serbia and the EAEU member states is worth close to $3 billion, 90% of which is trade with Russia.
As an EU candidate country, Serbia can make free trade deals, but they will become invalid once the country has joined the EU, as the bloc’s free-trade deals have supremacy over national ones.
Nevertheless, EU member states do not look kindly on cooperation between a membership candidate and third countries. Russia, China and Turkey have over the past few years been intensifying their presence in the Western Balkans, particularly by investing in infrastructure projects.
Also, the countries aiming to join the EU, including Serbia which opened accession talks in 2014, are to gradually harmonise their policy – including trade and foreign policy – with that of the EU. Serbian officials say that will happen when Serbia becomes a member.
The EU is the biggest foreign trade partner, donor and investor in Serbia, even though the public does not always have that perception.
Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajčak described Serbia’s actions, for example its agreement with the EAEU, as “confusing.”
“If you are serious about your European orientation then obviously you make political decisions that bring you closer to it. This is not one of them,” AP quoted Lajčak as saying after a meeting of EU foreign ministers in late August.
On the subject of the EU, Medvedev said in Belgrade that countries should not be imposed a choice between the East and West, but should rather be left to act in line with their own interests.
“We highly appreciate the fact that Serbia has not imposed sanctions against Russia, despite great pressure,” Medvedev pointed out.
He also said that Russia is interested in a partnership relation with the EU, based on mutual respect.
According to a new survey conducted by the Bureau for Social Research (BIRODI), membership of the EU is the most acceptable foreign policy priority for 45.5% of citizens, while membership of the EAEU is acceptable for 17.6%.
Just over a third of the respondents believe Serbia should not be a member of either the EU, NATO or the EAEU.
As regards Kosovo, “the mother of all issues” for Serbia, Medvedev said Russia supports Serbia and is ready to help it in any way it can to preserve its territorial sovereignty and integrity, underscoring that Russia is only in favour of a peaceful solution in accordance with the UN Security Council Resolution 1244.
“We want stable Balkans and cooperation with all countries in the Balkans,” Medvedev said in a speech in the Serbian parliament.
The European Commission is closely following the talks about a free trade deal between Serbia and the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and expects Belgrade to align with EU foreign policy, EU spokesperson Maja Kocijancic told EURACTIV.com and EURACTIV Serbia.
"Serbia is expected to progressively align with the EU Common Foreign and Security Policy," Kocijancic said. "We follow the situation closely and discuss these issues in our regular political and trade dialogues with the Serbian authorities," she added.
"In the context of its EU accession negotiations, Serbia committed to withdrawing from all bilateral free trade agreements on the day of its accession to the EU. Serbia’s withdrawal from trade deals with third parties is not a new condition but a general rule applying to all candidate countries wishing to join the EU," Kocijancic said.
She added that the EU remains Serbia’s most important trade partner, as the trade between them amounts to 63% of Serbia’s total trade, with very good dynamics of growth.
"Trade with Russia is less than 10% of Serbia’s total trade. In addition, European investments in Serbia are more than 10 times higher than Russia’s," the EU spokesperson said.