Serbia Under Pressure as U.S. Envoy Says It Never Backed Ukraine

Serbia is facing mounting pressure to condemn Russia for its role in the Ukrainian conflict and may face delays both in the construction of the South Stream pipeline and membership talks with the European Union.

Premier Aleksandar Vucic, whose Serbian Progressive Party won March 16 general elections, was “taken by surprise” after U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Michael Kirby said the government never openly supported the territorial integrity of Ukraine, his press office said in an e-mailed statement today.

Vucic has “personally on dozens of occasions clearly and unambiguously repeated the stance on respecting the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and even Crimea, as an integral part of the Ukrainian state,” his office said in Belgrade.

The Beta news agency published an interview with Kirby, who said Serbia has said aloud that it respects the territorial integrity of all United Nations member states, though Serb officials have never specified Ukraine and its territory.

“It’s becoming harder and harder for Vucic to balance between Russia and the West, especially after the plane crash,” Tim Judah, a correspondent for the Economist and author of several books on the Balkans, said by phone today. “Positions of European Union members and Washington regarding Russia sanctions are getting closer now,” which makes it more difficult for any country, including Serbia, to exploit any lack of unity among western powers.

Shaky Economy

With the $40 billion economy facing a third recession in five years and a quarter of the working-age population jobless, Vucic wants to attract investors to boost jobs and growth in the biggest former Yugoslav republic.

He also wants to prepare Serbia to join the EU by 2019 and expects the formal opening of the first of 35 chapters as part of EU accession talks by October.

“The U.S. is trying to diminish Russia’s influence on Europe, and Serbia, seen as Russia’s friend, can only expect pressure to grow” after the downing of Malaysia Air Flight 17 over Ukraine, Predrag Simic, a political analyst in Belgrade and the former Yugoslav ambassador to France, said by phone.

“As a result, we can wave goodbye to South Stream for at least five years and it will take time for Serbia to open the first chapter under EU accession talks,” Simic said.

The government will continue to pursue both EU accession and “good relations” with Russia in line with the mandate that led his party to a landslide victory three months ago, Vucic said in Belgrade today.

‘European Path’

“Serbia is on a European path, it will not give up its European goal,” Vucic said. “Whether we’ll always be able to meet all the expectations, that’s one of the challenges. We’re certainly trying.”

Serb President Tomislav Nikolic said in a July 10 interview that “Serbia has friends both in the West and in the East and they must not tear us apart, pulling us one way or the other.”

“I don’t expect Serbia to be in a position to make a choice between the two because Serbia would not be able to choose,” Nikolic said.

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