Serbia is the stage for a proxy war between East and West, President Aleksandar Vucic said on Monday, as Belgrade seeks to maintain a delicate balancing act between its ambition to join the European Union and its ties with Russia and China.
Vucic’s remarks to Reuters come a day after protesters at a rally in Belgrade against a gay pride march waved Russian flags and carried posters of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
“You have a proxy war of big powers going on in Serbia through political players, the non-governmental sector on both sides, the media, and various social organizations, and you can see it every day, in every way,” he said, speaking to Reuters at his office in Belgrade.
Serbia is a candidate to join the European Union, its single biggest trade partner and investor. It is militarily neutral but maintains ties with NATO and has purchased weapons from its member states.
However, the Balkan nation is almost entirely dependent on Russian gas and has also bought weapons from Russia. China is a major investor, mainly in mining and infrastructure.
Although Serbia has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at the United Nations, it refused to join sanctions against Moscow. Both Beijing and Moscow support Serbia’s opposition to the independence of Kosovo, Belgrade’s former southern province, over which it fought a 1998-99 war.
Before it joins the EU, Serbia must mend ties with Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008.
Independent Kosovo is recognized by the United States and all but five EU members, but not by Belgrade and a number of other states, including Serbia’s allies Russia and China.
Although Serbia and Kosovo agreed to settle the dispute over identification documents, authorities in Pristina said local Serbs must switch their car number plates from Serbian to Kosovo ones within two months of Sept. 1.
Vucic said he did not believe authorities in Pristina wanted “a serious conversation or a serious dialogue” but that they believed they could impose their plans with support from the West.
“I trust that those countries which are…protecting the so-called independence of Kosovo…will convince the Pristina regime not to play [with] a conflict in the region which is certainly full of problems,” he said.
The Serbian president said more talks and shuttle diplomacy by EU and U.S. envoys aimed at resolving the car number plates issue are expected in the coming weeks.