At a time when Europeans are trying to isolate Russia and somehow wean itself off its fossil fuels, Serbia is cementing its ties with Moscow through a Russian gas deal.
Belgrade has been a candidate for accession to the European Union for ten years, but maintains close ties with the Kremlin. When Serbia condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine before the United Nations at the end of February, it refused to join the sanctions against Moscow.
The Balkan country of seven million has secured a “very cheap” deal to supply Russian gas for three years, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said after a phone call with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on Sunday. The Kremlin limited itself to saying that Moscow will “supply Serbia with natural gas without interruption”, but the Serbian leader assured that it was “by far the best deal in Europe”.
“We will have a safe winter in terms of gas supply”he assured, predicting that the bill would then be 10 to 12 times lower than elsewhere in Europe.
European countries this week reluctantly agreed to ban much of Russia’s oil imports in a bid to dry up war funding. The bloc also wants to reduce its dependence on gas, Moscow has cut lines to several European countries, but the prospect of a full embargo on this energy source seems further away.
Brussels has condemned the gas deal with Moscow, saying it expects Serbia “not to further strengthen its ties with Russia”.
“Candidate countries, including Serbia, must progressively align their policies towards third countries with EU policies and positions, including through restrictive measures”said Commission spokesman Peter Stano.
Officially, Belgrade presents the European goal as a priority, but avoids any anti-Russian measure. Pro-government media are repeating messages that could be written by the Kremlin.
The head of Russian diplomacy, Sergei Lavrov, is expected in Belgrade early next week, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry. The minister recently told Serbian journalists that Russia is “sure” that his country “will continue to make smart decisions.” Serbian officials have accused the West of pressuring Belgrade to comply with sanctions, and some are even talking of dropping the EU bid.
“It’s as if they’ve spent the last decade preparing society not for EU accession but for an alliance with Moscow”Srdjan Cvijic of the BiEPAG group (Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group) told AFP.
Specific details of the deal were not disclosed. but “A ‘brother clause’ is always inherent in cheap prices, which is not in the contract but contains appropriate agreements or political concessions.”Judge Goran Vasic, energy specialist at the University of Novi Sad.
Serbian authorities deny that the delivery of gas at friendly prices is a “reward”.
“Anyone who accuses us of not imposing sanctions on Russia because of a gas deal should be ashamed”pounded Prime Minister Ana Brnabic.“If we don’t impose sanctions on Russia, it will be on principle.”
Belgrade is grateful to Russia for refusing to recognize Kosovo, its former province, and stresses its historical and cultural ties with Russia’s “big brother”.
In fact, Serbia has little room for manoeuvre. The previous contract for the supply of Russian gas, also at preferential prices, expired with no viable solution for Belgrade in the near future.
In recent decades, Serbia has gradually conceded to Moscow a virtual monopoly over its energy sector by building pipelines exclusively for Russian gas. In 2008, when Kosovo declared independence, it sold a majority stake in NIS, its oil and gas company, to Russian giant Gazprom, a decision widely seen as the price paid for Moscow’s veto of the UN over the former Serbian province was paid.
“It is evident that all this time we have had a well-organized lobby that has defended the monopoly and continues to do so.”adds Goran Vasic.