Photographer: Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images

Serbia Will Choose EU Over Russia If Forced, Premier Says

  • Fate of Serb membership depends on EU desire for new members
  • Question of Kosovo to be decided ‘at end of journey’ to EU

If Serbia is forced to choose between closer ties with Russia and joining the European Union, it will side with the latter, the country’s new prime minister said.

Ana Brnabic

Photographer: Pedja Milosavljevic/AFP via Getty Images

Ana Brnabic said she’d continue a path started by her predecessor, President Aleksandar Vucic, to make the country ready for EU membership by the time her term ends in 2020. Eastern Europe’s first openly gay woman to lead a government, she was handpicked by Vucic to replace him after he won an April vote.

“The EU is where we’re going -- that’s clear,’’ Brnabic said from the government office in Belgrade on Friday, across from the shell of the Defense Ministry that was bombed by NATO forces during the Kosovo war in 1999. “We do have emotional ties with Russia because of tradition, culture and religion. There are many people in Serbia who completely perceive Russia as our big brother, our protector.’’ She said the those sentiments can’t be disregarded, “but our strategic path is the EU.’’

Brnabic’s statement was the clearest yet on the Balkan state’s direction as it seeks to re-integrate itself with western Europe while keeping hold of its tight relationship with Russia.

The country of 7.1 million is trying to follow its fellow former Yugoslav republics Slovenia and Croatia into the EU to help raise living standards that are just over a third of the bloc’s average. At the same time, it occupies an important geopolitical position for both Russia and western nations as they struggle to wield influence on Europe’s southeastern fringe.

The dinar weakened 0.2 percent to trade at 120.6691 against the euro at 10:44 a.m. in Belgrade. The yield on Serbia’s dollar bonds maturing in 2021 rose two basis point to 3.345 percent, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Russian Sanctions

As president of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, Vucic still holds sway over Brnabic’s government despite moving to the nominally ceremonial presidential role. He took advantage of the standoff between Russia and the EU when he was premier by pledging to overhaul the judiciary and economy and embrace the bloc’s values, while also accepting investment and arms from Moscow. He also refused to follow the bloc’s sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, a stance Brnabic couldn’t say she would continue if it imperils EU accession.

“I can’t comment on that right now because in the Balkans, it’s very difficult to commit to anything,” said Brnabic, 41, , a U.S.- and U.K.-educated political independent and Vucic’s former public administration minister. “It’s a difficult region.”

Kosovo Status

Russia is also Serbia’s largest ally supporting Belgrade’s refusal to accept the 2008 secession of Kosovo, one of the biggest hurdles to concluding accession talks. Brnabic said moving forward to normalize ties with the province now depended on Kosovo granting some autonomy to Serbs living in the north of the former province and the overall issue of status would be “decided at the very end of the journey.”

“Regardless whether we get completely ready in 2020 to join the EU, it will again depend on the EU whether they want to accept new members,” she said, adding that the government will need to promote the goal among a skeptical public. Fewer than half of Serbs -- 47 percent -- support joining the EU, according to a poll by the Serbian European Integration Office conducted in December.

She also addressed criticism from Serbian opposition leaders, who have accused Vucic of staging a power grab in which he will still hold the reins of government while holding the role of president.

“I never once had a reason to doubt that I will have his full support for difficult decisions, but also a free hand to do what I think is best,’’ she said. And when asked whether she’d be able to make decisions without his oversight, she said: “I would be surprised if I don’t.”

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