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Wednesday 10 July 2024

The Serbian government is looking to shake up its energy policy and pursue nuclear power and is considering partnerships with China, Russia, France, the United States, and others. (file photo)
The Serbian government is looking to shake up its energy policy and pursue nuclear power and is considering partnerships with China, Russia, France, the United States, and others. (file photo)

BELGRADE -- Driven by a need to diversify its energy sector and pivot away from cheap Russian gas, Serbia is moving to end the country’s decades-old policy banning the construction of nuclear power plants on its territory.

Several Serbian ministries announced on July 10 that the country is weighing whether to end the 35-year-old, Yugoslav-era ban on nuclear reactors and said public debate was being opened on the shake-up of Belgrade’s long-standing energy policy.

If successful, the Serbian government could also find itself on a new geopolitical fault line involving nuclear energy in Eastern Europe as countries look to move away from relying on Russia -- which has dominated the nuclear energy sector -- and consider alternative partnerships with countries like China, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic is looking to navigate the new realities created by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and deploy the same hedging strategy for the country’s nuclear future that’s been used by Belgrade to play the United States and the European Union against Russia and China on a host of security and foreign policy issues.

“Even though Serbia has not been hard on Russia like the European Union has, it’s looking to preserve a balancing act with the West,” Stefan Vladisavljev, program director at Foundation BFPE, a Belgrade-based think tank, told RFE/RL. “That means distancing away from Russia for big strategic projects, but where exactly that leads Belgrade remains to be seen.”

Prior to the start of Russia’s February 2022 war, Serbia relied on cheap local labor and discounted Russian gas to make its mining and manufacturing industries competitive and attractive to investors. But Western sanctions and market turbulence have increased the price of Russian gas and seen Brussels and Washington attach a political price tag to making new deals with Russian companies.

That leaves Vucic walking a tightrope between the need to improve Serbia’s energy security by adding nuclear power and the geopolitical considerations brought by the country Belgrade decides to partner with.

Serbian officials have actively weighed their options, having already held meetings with Britain’s Rolls-Royce and France’s state-owned Electricite de France (EDF), in April, when a memo was signed “assessing the potential for the development of the civil nuclear program in Serbia.”

Serbian Minister of Mining and Energy Dubravka Dedovic Handanovic (right) discusses energy cooperation with Pierre Kosar, France’s ambassador to Belgrade, on April 5.
Serbian Minister of Mining and Energy Dubravka Dedovic Handanovic (right) discusses energy cooperation with Pierre Kosar, France’s ambassador to Belgrade, on April 5.

In June, the Energy Ministry said it is “laying the groundwork” for an assessment on partnering with EDF.

EDF did not respond to RFE/RL’s requests for details on what cooperation with Serbia would entail but, in the meantime, China has also entered the mix.

The state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation’s (CNNC) could supply small modular reactors (SMRs), which proponents say are less cumbersome to build and may better suit a country like Serbia’s more modest nuclear power needs.

Another option involves buying a stake in the still under construction Paks 2 nuclear power plant -- a joint Hungarian-Russian project launched in 2014 that is 100 kilometers southwest of Budapest -- which could then send power south to Serbia.

The Serbian Energy Ministry told RFE/RL in a statement that it is currently exploring all potential partnerships.

“After changing the legislative framework, Serbia will analyze the potential for cooperation at the regional and international level with countries that already have a developed nuclear program, both with China as well as with France, the United States, Russia, Japan, and other relevant countries,” it said.

The New Nuclear Chessboard

While Russia has lost its dominant position in oil and gas exports since the 2022 start of the Ukraine war, it continues to be the biggest player globally in providing nuclear fuel, accounting for more than 40 percent of the global market. Russia also has a complete monopoly on the production of advanced nuclear fuel that will be needed to power the next generation of nuclear reactors.

For countries with Russian-made reactors this dependence runs even deeper, with Russia’s state-owned nuclear power giant Rosatom operating 18 reactors across the EU, the bulk of them in Central and Eastern Europe.

This reliance has so far left Rosatom and Russian nuclear materials off sanctions packages passed in Brussels, but the United States, Britain, France, and important Western nuclear fuel providers have announced plans to expand their own capacity to enrich uranium and build reactors across Europe.

Gas centrifuges at Uranium Enrichment Department 53 of the Ural Electrochemical Combine, a subsidiary of Rosatom (file photo)
Gas centrifuges at Uranium Enrichment Department 53 of the Ural Electrochemical Combine, a subsidiary of Rosatom (file photo)

It’s against this backdrop that Belgrade must make a decision and plan for the long-term implications. Currently, Serbia gets almost 70 percent of its electricity from coal, but has committed to completely phase it out by 2050. Incorporating nuclear power along with more green energy is necessary to meet that goal.

“Where a country gets its reactor from is extremely important and keeps them tied together,” Jennifer Gordon, the director of the Atlantic Council's Nuclear Energy Policy Initiative, told RFE/RL. “The buyer-vendor relationship can be a 100-year relationship when you take into account building the reactor, its lifespan, and then needing to decommission it.”

Countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Finland, and Bulgaria have relied on Russian nuclear-fuel imports to make up for the lack of Russian gas and oil as a result of the war, but they’ve also begun to pivot away from Rosatom for any future plans.

Bratislava, Helsinki, and Prague have excluded the Russian company from future tenders, and the Czech energy company CEZ has signed contracts with the U.S. firm Westinghouse Electric and the French company Framatome to supply fuel assemblies for its plant in Temelin.

Westinghouse is also constructing two new reactors in Bulgaria, where it is to also become the country’s main supplier of fuel rods.

For Belgrade, the nuclear decision could also be a harbinger for where Vucic is looking to take his country.

While Serbia remains nonaligned, Vucic insists his goal is membership in the EU, but talks have made little progress in 12 years amid EU concerns over the rule of law and the status of Kosovo.

Serbia has a traditionally close relationship with Moscow, but Belgrade has been looking for distance from Russia since the war in Ukraine.

Vucic has also built strong ties with China, which has invested heavily in the Balkan country and often tops Serbian opinion polls as the most popular foreign power. Serbia, along with Hungary, were also the only two European countries Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited in May after his state visit to France.

Xi Jinping (left) looks on as Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic speaks at the Palace of Serbia on May 8 while the Chinese leader was on a two-day visit to Belgrade.
Xi Jinping (left) looks on as Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic speaks at the Palace of Serbia on May 8 while the Chinese leader was on a two-day visit to Belgrade.

“Xi’s visit opened up new frontiers for cooperation,” said Vladisavljev. “China is already a leader in renewable energy sources and is looking for new ways to expand its presence. For Belgrade, the best way to utilize its ties with China is to focus on areas that Serbia can’t do on its own.”

Vucic has also strengthened ties with French President Emmanuel Macron, who has made developing nuclear energy across Europe and championing European firms a key part of his “strategic autonomy” policy, which seeks to reshape the political order across the continent.

The View From Belgrade

While France’s EDF -- once the world’s leading nuclear energy developer -- appears to be making headway with Belgrade, Serbia’s other options are still in contention.

The Serbian Energy Ministry told RFE/RL that an analysis on whether to choose a conventional reactor or SMRs will be carried out in the near future, and Vucic said in March at an energy summit in Brussels that “we are interested in getting at least four small modular reactors to replace 1,200 megawatts” of output.

Prefabricated SMR units can be manufactured and then shipped and installed on site, making them potentially more affordable to build than large power reactors, which are often custom designed for a particular location and sometimes lead to construction delays. But some estimates have shown the cost for SMRs could be similar or more expensive than traditional reactors in the long term due to higher maintenance costs.

China and Russia are racing to pull ahead in the SMR field, but a collection of American and European firms are also making advances in the market.

Serbia’s presidential administration and the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade did not respond to RFE/RL’s request for comment about Beijing’s potential role.

One major obstacle for an SMR deal could be the cost.

In his March comments, Vucic said the price for four SMRs could total 7.5 billion euros ($8.1 billion) and that external funding would be required because he “doesn't know how it would be financed.”

Construction at the site of the Paks 2 Nuclear Power Plant in Paks, Hungary (file photo)
Construction at the site of the Paks 2 Nuclear Power Plant in Paks, Hungary (file photo)

A less costly option is buying a stake in Hungary’s Paks 2 plant, which is an idea that Vucic first discussed with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in 2021.

“We are ready to be a minority owner in order to ensure our energy security, especially because of our strong economic activity,” Vucic said in 2021.

Buying a stake in Hungary’s nuclear reactor is appealing to Belgrade as it would avoid needing to build a nuclear reactor on its own soil and face any potential public backlash.

But the Hungarian project spearheaded by Russia’s Rosatom has been delayed and over budget. While Hungarian officials say the main reactor is still planned to be shipped from Russia, Paks 2 CEO Gergely Jakli told the Hungarian financial newspaper Portfolio in May that Russia’s involvement is increasingly expensive and he is considering bringing on other investors’ to complete the project.

China has been floated as a potential option, especially since Budapest and Beijing signed a nuclear-energy cooperation agreement during Xi’s visit in May, and China is looking for opportunities to showcase its nuclear expertise overseas.

Framatome is also a subcontractor in Paks 2 and while Chinese and French nuclear companies have partnered together in the past, souring relations between Beijing and the West along with growing resistance to allowing Chinese firms to build strategic infrastructure in Europe could derail any such cooperation.

This leaves Serbia balancing the technical and financial dimensions to any offer, as well as the strategic ones, as it pushes ahead in its pursuit for nuclear energy.

“This is about a civilian nuclear energy program,” the Atlantic Council’s Gordon said. “But whatever option Serbia chooses, it will have a geopolitical bearing.”

Written and reported by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Mila Manojlovic in Belgrade and RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish in Prague
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (left) welcomes Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Astana on July 2 for a state visit and two-day SCO summit.
Kazakh President Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev (left) welcomes Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Astana on July 2 for a state visit and two-day SCO summit.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping met on July 3 in Kazakhstan as part of a two-day summit for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which is poised to admit Belarus as a member.

The expected expansion of the club of Eurasian countries is part of another push from Beijing and Moscow to use the regional security bloc as a counterweight to promote alternatives to the Western institutions that make up the U.S.-led world order.

Putin told Xi ahead of their bilateral meeting that Russia's ties with China were stronger than ever and touted the SCO as a powerful instrument to advance their foreign policy agendas.

"Russian-Chinese relations, our comprehensive partnership and strategic cooperation, are experiencing their best period in history," Putin said in comments broadcast on Russian state TV. He hailed the SCO for "strengthening its role as one of the key pillars of a fair multipolar world order."

Moscow and Beijing have deepened their political, military and economic links since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

In his opening remarks, Xi told Putin that China and Russia should "uphold the original aspiration of friendship for generations" in response to an "ever-changing international situation."

Calling Putin an "old friend," Xi alluded to the progress the two countries had made in putting in place "plans and arrangements for the next development of bilateral relations."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also met with Putin at the SCO, offering to help end the Ukraine-Russia war. Erdogan said he believed a fair peace suiting both sides was possible, according to the Turkish presidency. But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Erdogan could not play the role of an intermediary.

"No, it's not possible," Peskov said when asked whether Erdogan could assume such a role, according to TASS. There was no explanation for why the Kremlin was opposed to Erdogan's participation.

The SCO summit, which ends of July 4, was also set to focus on better coordination for counterterrorism in the region, which remains high on the agenda for members following Moscow's Crocus City Hall attack in April. The security situation in Afghanistan and a new mechanism for an investment fund proposed by Kazakhstan will also be discussed by leaders.

"The mandate for the SCO can be quite vague and far-reaching," Eva Seiwert, an analyst at the Berlin-based MERICS think tank, told RFE/RL. "Officially speaking, this is a security organization that focuses on improving collaboration among its member states and building mutual trust throughout the region."

The bloc was founded in 2001 with China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan as members with a focus on settling territorial disputes and has grown to tackle issues like regional security and economic development. The SCO added India and Pakistan in 2017, Iran in 2023, and is set to grow again with the addition of Belarus this year.

The SCO's evolution over its 23-year history has largely been shaped by China and Russia's evolving relationship.

At times, Moscow has looked to water down or block Chinese-led plans for the bloc, including proposals for a regional development bank and a free-trade zone. But as Xi and Putin have built stronger ties between their countries in recent years -- especially since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine -- the two leaders have more actively made the SCO a part of their broader cooperation together and a centerpiece of their shared anti-U.S. worldview.

"For a long time, China wanted to make sure that the SCO is not portrayed as an anti-Western organization, but this has changed, especially since Iran joined," Seiwert said. "It's becoming clear that the SCO doesn't care so much about what the West thinks anymore."

At a meeting of senior Russian officials in June, Putin spoke about the creation of "a new system of bilateral and multilateral guarantees of collective security in Eurasia," with the help of existing organizations like the SCO, to work toward gradually "phasing out the military presence of external powers in the Eurasian region."

Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin, told RFE/RL that while the SCO is increasing its international visibility and geopolitical weight, it still remains an organization that is heavy on symbolism but light on substance.

"It's still trying to figure out what it is now and what it can be," he said. "At the end of the day, its main advantage is just the sheer size and its collective GDP, but there are still almost no substantial results."

In the absence of a clear mandate, the SCO is largely serving as a diplomatic forum for regional leaders to get sought-after face time with Xi and Putin.

Leaders and representatives from nonmember states like Azerbaijan, Qatar, Mongolia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkmenistan, and Turkey are also expected to attend, as is United Nation Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Notably absent from this year's summit is Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar attending in his place.

Niva Yau, a fellow at the Atlantic Council's Global China Hub, says that India appears to be losing interest in the SCO, in part due to New Delhi's tense rivalry with Pakistan, but also over ongoing tensions with China amid a multiyear border dispute.

She says that this growing reticence from India may hamstring the bloc's potential and Beijing's future plans for it.

"It reduces the SCO's global profile and limits some of China's bigger plans," she told RFE/RL.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

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