Serbia Prime minister’s two days visit to Russia on Monday and Tuesday was marked by negotiations about the South Stream gas pipeline project, which aims at transporting Russian natural gas to Southern and Central Europe countries through the Black Sea. It should also diversify delivery routes of Russian gas by bypassing the Ukrainian territory. While Belgrade has increasingly turned westwards by declaring its accession to the EU as its foreign policy priority, it has reaffirmed its willingness to preserve good relations with Moscow. This position may be challenged by the finalisation of the South Stream, opposed by Brussels.
Finalising the South Stream
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić met on Monday and Tuesday Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and President Vladimir Putin. The diplomatic visit mainly focused on economic issues but was also the occasion for Vučić to underline while Serbia, which signed the Association Agreement with the EU in 2008 and became an EU candidate-member in 2012, wants to become a part of the EU, “it also does not want to damage good, the best friendly relations with Russia”.
These relations are first economy-centred : for now, Russia is Serbia’s third most important trade partner, a fact that is likely to improve as the contract relating to the South Stream pipeline construction on Serbian territory was signed today in Belgrade. The South Stream would go through Bulgaria, Serbia, Hungary, Slovenia, Austria and Italy, benefiting from the recent annexation of Crimea to dispatch the resources. Although Dmitry Medvedev declared that “the project is to the benefit of both Serbia and Russia and should not be politicised”, it has big political implications for EU-Russian relations.
Opposition between Brussels and EU members
The European Union has showed its reluctance to the project, which would go against the EU’s Third Energy Package. The package states that gas transmission networks in the EU - pipelines – must be separated from the generation - natural gas extraction facilities. The European Commission launched in mid-June an investigation which concluded that Gazprom – Russia’s gas extractor company - was not respecting European energy sector competition rules. The European Commission had already suspected the company of making advantage of its favourable position in former Soviet countries to distort the European gas market.
This decision does not win unanimous support from European member states, who are breaking ranks with the efforts to sanction Russia over the crisis in Ukraine. Austria, Hungary and now Serbia declared they would build their own sections of the pipelines, getting round the EU’s protests. In June, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had suggested that countries in favour of the project should show their disagreement in a joint letter to José Manuel Barroso. More recently, it was Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s turn to oppose the EU and back the Russian project by declaring that “Hungary cannot afford depending on Ukraine” and that he is “responsible for the sustainability of his fellow citizens’ energy supply”.
Serbia’s implication in the project has risen concern in some Western European countries where Belgrade is denounced as a “Trojan Horse” for Russia. Dimitar Bechev, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a European think-tank, explained how Russia “has embraced enlargement to the Balkans as an opportunity to build its influence inside the union” after doing so in Bulgaria, Cyprus and Greece.
By bypassing Ukraine, the South Stream may marginalise the country, said Günther Oettinger, the European commissioner for Energy. He deplored Russia’s engagement in doublespeak by asking for Ukraine’s stabilization while launching the construction of infrastructures without them.
South Stream would eventually compete with the Ukrainian gas network, thwarting its effectiveness. Similarly, Moscow has relentlessly opposed Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine’s signature of the Association Agreement with the EU, but is now encouraging Macedonia, Montenegro and above all Serbia to move closer to Brussels. In this regard, Russian Ambassador in Belgrade declared yesterday that there is no “contradictions between [Serbia’s] drive for entering the EU and developing friendly relations with Russia". For Bechev "Russia has very different strategies when it comes to their former fellow republics in the Soviet Union, part of their previous sphere of influence".
Reacting to these words, a former Serbian ambassador in Ukraine, Dusan Lazic, explained how the current crisis is very controversial in Serbia, especially on the eve of its accession to the OSCE chairmanship in 2015. Belgrade “is going to be in a situation where it will be coordinating the work of OSCE while trying to find solutions that are acceptable to the East and the West”. A task that promises to be complicated.
Author: Laura Gounon