Germany encourages Serbia to choose EU over Russia | Europe | News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 01.04.2022

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Germany encourages Serbia to choose EU over Russia

As Serbs prepare to vote in parliamentary and presidential polls on Sunday, members of Germany's Bundestag tell DW that they expect the government in Belgrade to make a clear break with Vladimir Putin's Russia.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock with Serbian President Alexsandar Vucic

Foreign Minister Baerbock traveled to Serbia, where she met President Alexsandar Vucic

Upon taking office in December, Germany's coalition government made clear that the Balkans were high on its list of foreign policy priorities. One early signal in this direction was the nomination of the Green Manuel Sarrazin as the government's special representative to the Western Balkans.

The governing coalition of the Social Democrats, Greens and neoliberal Free Democrats has intensified Balkan engagement since Russia invaded on Ukraine on February 24, with officials fearing that the war could fuel simmering conflicts in this southeastern corner of Europe. Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock hastily traveled to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia to make clear that the EU is serious about its intent to allow these countries to join. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz also mentioned the Western Balkans in a press conference on March 28, saying EU negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania must begin "as soon as possible."

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With parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for Sunday in Serbia, DW spoke to several German Bundestag representatives about their expectations.

Adis Ahmetovic, the Bundestag rapporteur for the West Balkans, told DW that it is a positive sign that Serbia's opposition is not boycotting the elections. "After the last elections, all the fundamental mechanisms of a parliamentary democracy — by which the opposition supervises the work of the government — were missing," said the Social Democrat, who was elected to the Bundestag in 2021.

German Bundestag member Adis Ahmetovic stands by a river

Ahmetovic says the future of German policy in the West Balkans will be very different

In view of forecasts that President Aleksandar Vucic will remain in power after the elections, Ahmetovic said Germany's government would take a different approach to the Balkans than Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Christian Democrats (CDU) had. "We're witnessing the creation of a new Western Balkans policy, in which each country will have its own role," he said. "I think that it's important to see all six countries of the Western Balkans as equals," he added.

Ahmetovic said strategies that had sought a central figure as the guarantor of Balkan stability were not in the interests of the region, Germany or the European Union. "Every head of state or government will have an equal role when it comes to stability," he said. "That was a little different under Angela Merkel."

Moscow or Brussels?

Ahmetovic also criticized the decision by Kosovo's government not to allow Kosovans with Serbian citizenship to participate in Sunday's elections. "What is possible for Turkish or Serbian citizens living in Germany should also be possible in Kosovo," he said. "For me, the decision of Prime Minister Albin Kurti is incomprehensible."

The lawmaker said Belgrade continued to play an important role in the Balkans, particularly with regard to the situations in Kosovo, Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. "Serbia needs to provide stability by making sure that the destabilizing factor in these countries does not come from Serbia," he said. "Because all the conflicts in the surrounding countries are in some way connected to Serbia."

Though Germany had previously tacitly accepted Serbia's attempt to straddle the gulf between Russia and the European Union, the invasion of Ukraine leaves no more room for that, Ahmetovic said. "We expect a clear position on foreign policy from Serbia," he added. "Belgrade should understand that it is not possible to have one's cake and eat it. This is a time for positioning, not compromise."

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Serbia's 'difficult path'

Anton Hofreiter, the Green chair of the Bundestag's Committee on European Union Affairs, said Belgrade had a "difficult path" to the EU. "Serbia urgently needs to return to democracy and the rule of law," he said. "This includes fully condemning Russia's aggression against Ukraine and joining the ranks of its European partners." 

Renata Alt, the Free Democrat chair of the Bundestag Committee on Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid, offered a similar take. "Vucic's maneuvering between the East and West is also reflected by his opposition to impose sanctions on Russia," she told DW. "The EU should consider serious consequences." She predicted that the invasion of Ukraine would have an impact on the elections in Serbia. "Russia's war of aggression has relegated issues that mobilize voters, such as the environment and corruption, to second place."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic

Chancellor Merkel took a different tact with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic

The opposition CDU and Christian Social Union share the governing parties' view that Serbia should opt for the EU. "The Russian attack on Ukraine marks a turning point that even Serbia's politicians cannot ignore," said Jürgen Hardt, the foreign policy spokesperson of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group. Should Serbia have serious ambitions to join the European Union, the government would have to credibly turn away from President Vladimir Putin and join the bloc in imposing sanctions on Russia.

"The Serbian people deserve to be part of the EU and to help shape a common European future in peace and prosperity," Hardt said, adding that Belgrade had the potential to play an important role in contributing to the future success of the Balkans in the European Union. However, he said, Serbian politicians must "put yesterday's ghosts to rest and look boldly to the future."

This article was translated from German.

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