BELGRADE -- "Every step toward imposing sanctions will only damage Serbia, not Russia," said Andrej Mitic, the international secretary of the far-right Dveri party, over a glass of lemonade in the regal lobby of Belgrade's Hotel Moskva. "For that reason we see these current anti-Russian policies as anti-Serbian policies.... We see great dangers to the interests and values of the [Serbian] people."
As Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic faces international pressure to join EU sanctions on Russia for its February 24 invasion of Ukraine, it is politicians from Serbia's far right -- politicians such as Mitic -- who are being the most vocal in urging the government to ignore EU wishes and support Russia.
So far, Vucic, who was sworn in for a second presidential term on May 31, has held the line and refused to join EU sanctions, which have targeted Russia's energy and financial sectors, and high-profile individuals. Serbia's national interests, the president has argued, depend on maintaining friendly relations with all of its international partners, not just Brussels.
Within the EU, Vucic has faced criticism from politicians and diplomats. Carl Bildt, who served as the EU's special envoy to the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, said on February 28 that Serbia's position on the Russian invasion should disqualify it from the EU accession process. And on March 21, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis called for countries to face penalties for doing business with Russia.
Although Vucic won a landslide in April 3 presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections, two ultranationalist parties entered Serbia's parliament, a rightward shift that Vucic blamed on the fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
A relative newcomer on Serbia's political scene, Dveri served a single parliamentary term between 2016-2020 and reentered the national assembly in April, along with another ultranationalist party, the Serbian Oath Keepers Party, who were entering for the first time.
"Dveri supports Russia's current political position and believes that Russia has been forced to respond after being besieged by NATO," Mitic said, his soft-spoken voice and polite demeanor jarring against his populist rhetoric and hard-line Euroskeptic views.
For Serbia, it is not an easy geopolitical decision. The EU is the country's main economic benefactor and trade partner, but Belgrade is totally dependent upon Russian energy imports and relies on Moscow's geopolitical support to block international recognition of Kosovo's independence. Throughout Vucic's decade-long spell in government, where he served as both prime minister and president, Serbia has remained neutral, opportunistically shifting its geopolitical loyalties from the EU, Russia, and China whenever it saw fit.
Mitic serves as the intellectual backbone of Dveri and is, in his own words, tasked with translating political theory into concrete policies for the party. His background is in political philosophy and he says he left academia to join the party as an adviser in 2018. He is also Dveri's spokesman for the international media and his contemplative demeanor stands in stark contrast to the party's domestic image, which is so firmly associated with its rowdy, firebrand leader, Bosko Obradovic.
When asked to elaborate on his support for Russia, Mitic points to Serbia's reliance on Russian energy and Moscow's support over Kosovo, as well as the long-enduring historical and cultural ties between the two "brotherly" nations. When pressed on a solution to the vexed issue of sanctions, he says that Dveri's official position is that any such decision should be put to the Serbian people in a referendum.
The Oath Keepers, who also won 10 parliamentary seats and just under 4 percent of the vote in April's elections, also support a referendum on sanctions. In a May 12 press conference, where only two journalists were present, the party's leader, Milica Djurdjevic-Stamenkovski, laid out her position on Russia, which is identical to that of Dveri: no to sanctions and any such decision must be put to a referendum.
Djurdjevic-Stamenkovski came to public prominence in 2008, when she took a leading role in the violent protests that erupted after Kosovo's unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia. She has been a mainstay of right-wing street politics in the country ever since, also taking part in demonstrations expressing support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Putin's annexation of Crimea.
When RFE/RL asked Djurdjevic-Stamenkovski why there should be a referendum on the sanctions issue when the Serbian people just handed the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) a commanding mandate, she said that "Serbian-Russian relations are a centuries-old constant in Serbian society."
"The issue of sanctions against the Russian Federation is far more specific, painful, and would have more drastic consequences for our country than some other state," Djurdjevic-Stamenkovski said. That is why, she adds, any move that could potentially jeopardize these ties should only be decided by a nationwide vote.
Ideologically there is little to separate Dveri and the Oath Keepers. Both parties are ultranationalistic, oppose Kosovo's independence, and advocate for closer ties with Russia. The main difference between the two is that Dveri supports a return to monarchic rule, promotes religiously conservative views, and has a less thuggish reputation than the Oath Keepers, whose protests have frequently led to violence and disorder in the past. A standout example came in October 2020, when the party protested against ethnic Albanian artists from Kosovo exhibiting their work in Belgrade.
Despite the minor differences, the two parties are natural allies and Mitic confirmed to RFE/RL that Dveri has held talks with the Oath Keepers and other pro-Russian bedfellows, the Socialist Party, on how they can use their combined parliamentary platform to keep the pressure on Vucic to prevent the president making concessions on sanctions.
The pro-Russian bloc, which also includes the center-right Democratic Party, holds 66 out of 250 parliamentary seats in Serbia's new parliament -- just over half the number of seats belonging to the ruling SNS. That doesn't mean, however, that Vucic has no cause for concern. According to Belgrade-based political analyst Dragomir Andjelkovic, the real danger of Serbia signing up to sanctions on Russia comes from the potential revolt within Vucic's own party.
"I believe that any move of this kind by Vucic would provoke a huge backlash inside the SNS," Andjelkovic said. "Their voters are against sanctioning Russia and most party members share the same views with the majority of party officials. Of course, at the top of the party, officials will remain silent and nod along, but [sanctions] would lead to serious protests on the lower levels and among the party base."
Not just within the SNS, Vucic will likely be wary of how the Serbian public would react if the government joined sanctions against Russia. Mitic said that imposing sanctions would cause a public backlash so strong that it would "topple the government." When asked about this possibility, Andjelkovic said that he was "sure" that a decision to impose sanctions would "cause mass unrest that would bring people out into the streets."
In early March, not long after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the People's Patrol, Serbia's most prominent ultranationalist street movement, held a pro-Russian protest that swamped downtown Belgrade. Since then, the party has followed up with intermittent, albeit smaller, demonstrations. The group's 33-year-old leader, Damnjan Knezevic, is confident that mass dissatisfaction has the potential to overpower Vucic's political dominance in Serbia.
"The people unfortunately can't do very much, but what they can do is give legitimacy or express their opposition to specific political decisions by taking to the streets," Knezevic said. "We had that in July 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, where the majority of the Serbian people didn't want to go back into lockdown.... We're the only country in the region that didn't have a second lockdown. As far as the situation around Russia is concerned, I'm absolutely certain that we'll be even more aggressive."
Serbia is often perceived as instinctively a nation of Russophiles, but the reality is more complex. In March, Demostat, a respected Belgrade-based polling agency, released a study that found that only 21 percent of the public believed that Serbia should side with Russia. Yet, in April, a survey found that 76 percent of Serbian citizens oppose joining sanctions against Russia. So, people didn't want to side with Russia, but they also didn't want to put sanctions on it.
Demostat's study also found that 50 percent believe that Serbia should remain unaligned, regardless of the cost. Plus, many Serbs are motivated by their antipathy for the West. Andjelkovic says that much of the West's lack of popularity is due to enduring resentment over Western sanctions and military action against Serbia during the 1990s, rather than widespread Russophilia.
"People are aware that the West has wronged us in the past," Andjelkovic said. "So, for them, it ultimately seems irrational and self-defeating to turn against someone who has consistently supported us just because of the demands of those who have undermined us in the past and continue to do so."
Vucic's dilemma is complicated by the fact that the EU is essential to the Serbian economy. Over 63 percent of Serbia's trade is with the EU, while over 77 percent of direct foreign investment and an overwhelming majority of development aid comes from the bloc, aid that some Serbian politicians fear could be nixed if they continue to oppose sanctions.
"Any sort of cutting ties [with the EU] or the loss of [candidate] status would be damaging to Serbia in multiple dimensions, not just through the economic support that Serbia gets from the EU," said Igor Novakovic, research director at the International and Security Affairs Center in Belgrade. Serbia was granted EU candidate status in 2012.
"Investors calculate that Serbia will someday become a member of the EU and will, in the coming period, nurture extremely strong ties with the European Union. So this could be a strong warning to some investors to withdraw [from Serbia]."
Yet despite these concerns, Serbia's right-wing opposition is dismissive of the dangers. Oath Keepers leader Djurdjevic-Stamenkovski has said that "foreign investors would leave Serbia much sooner if Serbia imposed sanctions on Russia" because of the "increase in energy prices that would follow as a direct consequence," whereas Dveri's Mitic says that Serbian citizens would barely feel anything at all.
"In regard to these [foreign] investments and everything else, the Serbian people see very little benefit from them," Mitic said nonchalantly. "There are some benefits, but it mostly goes to either the NGO sector or to endless reforms that are an end in themselves.... The Serbian people have received very little that's of benefit over the past 22 years."
For now, Vucic seems to be biding his time. "If we look at things long-term, it's possible that there would be even graver consequences if we don't impose sanctions," Andjelkovic said. "But it's difficult for the government to measure that and overlook its current problems because of something that might happen in the future."
So which way does he think that Vucic will ultimately fall?
"I think that, as a pragmatic politician, Vucic will act in accordance with both his own party and other interests and delay [a decision] as much as possible so he can buy himself more time while he waits to see how things play out in Ukraine," Andjelkovic said. "In the coming months, I'm sure that Serbia won't impose sanctions, but we'll have to see what happens further down the road."