Last month, Serbia and Azerbaijan signed bilateral memorandums of understanding to expand cooperation on energy, developing and further strengthening the gas and electricity agreements made earlier this year. While at first glance this may seem to be of peripheral interest to contemporary geopolitics, the agreements could have broad implications for the European Union.
From the Brussels point of view, Azerbaijan’s president Ilham Aliyev is a useful ally. Last July, he signed on to a strategic partnership with the EU by agreeing to increase the gas supply to EU nations by 50 percent (from 8.1 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2021 to 12 bcm by the end of 2022) with more to come on stream later.
President Aliyev has now shown himself willing to follow through on the partnership by supplying gas and electricity to EU aspirant Serbia to meet most of its needs as well.
In so doing, two birds are struck with one stone — and the EU will be pleased with both.
In the case of Serbia, Azerbaijan’s position removes with a single stroke the reason most often cited by that country’s president, Aleksandar Vucic, for refusing to take part in the EU’s sanctions against Russia. Namely, that if he joins the ranks of those opposed to Moscow’s war of aggression, Serbia will run out of gas, and fast.
With Azerbaijan plugging this gap, once the interconnecting pipeline from Bulgaria to Serbia is complete next year, Belgrade will have no excuse but to finally follow the EU’s lead and join efforts to punish Russia for invading Ukraine.
At that point, the EU will insist Serbia’s hapless president risk the wrath of Vladimir Putin and tie his colours to the Western mast.
It may not be such a hard sell. Putin himself is somewhat suspicious of Serbia’s leader, as are most who deal with the opaque Vucic. Whereas neighbouring Hungary under prime minister Viktor Orban has been given a 25-year contract on favourable terms, the Russian leader has preferred to keep his Serbian counterpart compliant via a tight rein of annually-reviewed gas pricing.
Brussels and Berlin have an extra reason for wanting to separate the two.
Where Serbia goes, neighbouring Bosnia is likely to follow. The restive Republika Srpska entity within Bosnia, which has previously blocked anti-Putin proposals in the Bosnian context, will not want to be the only holdout.
With Serbia and Bosnia on board the great ship of sanctions, the EU will have achieved almost total policy consensus on the continent for its stand regarding Russia — something it has sought to do since the invasion began. Only Russia, obviously, and its ally Belarus, naturally, will remain as the outliers.
However, Rome was not built in a day. Neither will Belgrade’s compliance be easily secured.
Serbia’s reluctance with respect to Russian sanctions is not simply a question of electricity, oil, and gas. Memories of the 1990s Balkans conflict remain fresh — particularly Serbia’s experience when it came under attack by Nato bombers without the blessing of the United Nations. Alongside this memory is an awareness that historical ally Russia did not join in those hostilities, nor did it join the sanctions that served as the hors d’oeuvres to the West’s military operation.
But nearly a quarter century down the road, the reality of Serbia’s geopolitical position within touching distance of the EU — and of associated factors like the volume of its trade with the EU, dwarfing trade and investment between Belgrade and its old eastern ally — provides a powerful incentive for the Serbian government to finally play ball on the sanctions issue. Aliyev’s energy guarantee to the Serbians on behalf of EU interests brings this scenario of compliance significantly closer.
For too long Serbia has been the odd man out on the sanctions question, en passant generating considerable benefit for itself, not least from the relocation into Serbia of wealthy Russians and their enterprises. Serbia’s dissident status has made a serious dent in the credibility of Europe’s stand against Russian aggression.
Now that Azerbaijan and its president, having extended support to the EU, is offering energy support to Serbia, Vucic’s Yugoslavia-style, non-aligned, balancing act will soon be over.
The time for Serbia to choose is coming and it will be a choice Serbia’s president will have to make. At that point, president Vucic will be opaque no longer.