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Crimea Dispute Tests Serbian Government's Middle Course

Outgoing Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic (left) with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Dacic is reportedly the Kremlin's closest ally in Belgrade.
BELGRADE -- Serbia's delicate path between the European Union and traditional partner Russia is being tested as relations between Moscow and the West fray over the crisis in Ukraine's Crimea.

With a new Serbian government being formed under a prime minister who has pledged to move closer to Brussels, Moscow is scrambling to assure its continued influence in Belgrade.

Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia's current First Deputy Prime Minister, will soon to be installed as premier following the convincing March 16 election victory of his Progressive Party. Belgrade, he says, will "respect its obligations on the way to the EU and will not have a hostile attitude towards Russia."

It's a common balancing act that Serbian governments need to perform, according to Dimitar Bechev, head of the Sofia office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"The ethos in the western Balkans is a bit of the old strategic game where you try to play off both sides -- the West on the one side and Russia on the other -- and extract the most benefits," he says.

The outgoing Serbian Prime Minister, Ivica Dacic, who also serves as Interior Minister, is widely seen as the Kremlin's closest ally in Belgrade and Moscow. He is reportedly lobbying to assure that he remains in the cabinet.

Vucic made what was described as a "private trip" to Moscow last week and, according to some reports, he was accompanied by Dacic. Reports of the trip fueled a round of speculation about what Russia was up to.

Moscow's Ally In The EU?

Belgrade-based political analyst Bosko Jaksic believes Moscow is trying to make sure Vucic keeps a seat for Dacic in the new cabinet.

"Moscow has not given up its influence in the Balkans," he says. "Especially Putin's Russia, which is working to revitalize the Soviet space and will definitely -- just as it uses Syria to maintain its position in the Middle East -- try hard to keep Serbia as its stronghold in the Balkans."

Branko Ruzic, deputy head of Dacic's Socialist Party, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service that Dacic was out of the country, but refused to elaborate.

According to Bechev, Russia doesn't necessarily oppose Serbia's EU ambitions as long as Moscow maintains its influence in Belgrade.

"At the end of the day, Russia's fundamental interest is to have many friendly countries inside the EU," he says. "So, if Serbia acts as Cyprus does these days, it shouldn't be a problem. Quite the contrary, [Russia] should actively be pushing the likes of Serbia -- and also Montenegro -- to join the EU."
Aleksandar Vucic will almost certainly be Serbia's next Prime Minister
Aleksandar Vucic will almost certainly be Serbia's next Prime Minister

Of particular importance in both Moscow and Belgrade is the fate of the South Stream pipeline, which is planned to bring Russian natural gas across the Black Sea to the European Union. The fate of that multibillion-dollar project, construction on the Serbian portion of which has already begun, is up in the air after Russia's incursion into Ukraine and amid bolstered calls in the EU to break Europe's dependence on Russian energy.

Belgrade's relations with Moscow have been strained, however, by the insistence of Russian President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials that Crimea's separation from Ukraine is analogous to Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008.

Belgrade does not recognize Kosovo's independence.

Bosnian Serbs Encouraged

At the same time, Serbia's allies across the border in Bosnia Herzegovina's Republika Srpska are encouraged by Russia's actions in Crimea. Speaking on March 22 after meeting with Vucic, Republika Srpska leader Milorad Dodik said Crimea's referendum on joining Russia was "a democratic expression of the people's will."

"We are observing world events very closely, and we will follow the best examples from the world once the time for that comes," Dodik said.

According to Jaksic, it will become increasingly difficult for Belgrade to maintain its middle course between Brussels and Moscow as it draws nearer to EU membership, especially if tensions between the bloc and Russia grow sharper.

"The authorities in Belgrade know that each new day of European integration means more obligations for the implementation of EU policy," he says. "And it will not be able to navigate between different positions and different interests for long, but will have strictly defined obligations. Maybe we can avoid this at this point, but I would like to know whether we will have a clear answer if we are forced by Brussels or Moscow to make a choice. I don't think we have [got such an answer]."

Branka Mihajlovic of RFE/RL's Balkan Service reported from Belgrade. Robert Coalson reported and wrote from Prague