"On Monday 6th June Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov planned to visit Serbia to sign a new three year gas agreement provided by the Russian energy company Gazprom. Under the agreement Serbia would pay approximately $400 per 1,000 cubic meters of Russian natural gas — almost four times less than other European countries pay.
"However, Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Montenegro refused to allow Mr Lavrov’s plane to fly through their airspace to reach Serbia.
"Although the prevention of Lavrov’s visit to Serbia by the three NATO members - Bulgaria, North Macedonia and Montenegro - might have been a relief for some of the officials in the Balkans and those people in Serbia that support EU integration, the damage has already being done by extending the invitation in the first place to Lavrov and agreeing a new gas agreement with Russia, at a time when most EU countries are planning to cut ties from Russian gas.
"Serbia, formally seeking European Union membership, depends almost entirely on Russian gas, while its leading energy companies are under Russian majority ownership. The country has refused to join the EU in imposing sanctions on Russia following the invasion of Ukraine, putting it at odds in aligning its foreign policy with the EU. As an EU candidate country, Serbia would be expected to follow EU policy and surely this will not go unnoticed by a number of EU countries in the next round of Serbia’s EU accession talks.
“Lavrov's visit to the Balkans in the middle of the war in Ukraine, and the agreement of a new gas deal speaks to the broader point that Russia is an important player in the Balkans. The EU accession conditionality must be rethought at the next EU-Western Balkans Summit in June – you can’t have the country which is considered as a frontrunner among the Western Balkans candidate countries to join the EU sitting in two chairs (Russia and the EU).
"On Monday evening Foreign Minister Lavrov and the President of Serbia denounced the West for not allowing Serbia to pursue its own policy. In his remarks Lavrov said that NATO and EU want to turn the Balkans into a project of their own called ‘closed Balkans’ and not an ‘Open Balkans’ – referring to the Open Balkan initiative. He went further to say that the U.S. and EU have asked Russia to not endorse it as it is viewed as promoting Serbia's interests above those of the wider Western Balkans. Needless to say, Larov offered his full support to Open Balkans project.
"The Open Balkan initiative is a cross-border economic project supported by Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia who co-founded it in 2018. It has received mixed reviews locally, with Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina refusing to join unless Serbia recognizes them as a state, whereas Montenegro is unsure. It is viewed as controversial as most of the agreements between Serbia, Albania, and North Macedonia have not been fully transparent.
“Also, the Open Balkans initiatives sits outside the EU accession framework and is free from the EU political and values constraints. As such the Open Balkans is regarded as potentially undermining the EU led ‘Western Balkans Regional Common Market’ initiative adopted in 2022, which the EU has championed, which is based on meeting the EU common market rules and which includes all six Western Balkans countries with a view to gradually integrating economically the Western Balkans into the EU Common Market.
"If, at the next EU-Western Balkans Summit at the end of June, the EU does not offer any substantial path to the EU accession and clarify if the EU-led ‘Western Balkans Regional Common Market’ will in fact led to them join the EU Common Market in the future, support for the Open Balkans project may grow. However, strong support for the Open Balkans by the Trump Administration, and now Lavrov's comments, will add more fuel to the fire for those that strongly oppose it.
"Either way, both the EU and US need to re-evaluate their policy notion that “Trade equals Trust,'' the principle which underpins both the Open Balkans and the EU Common Market - after all, Russia has been the leading trading partner of Ukraine. Policymakers must rethink their policy approach on how to build trust, and this should be based on values not just on who the number one trading partner is."
7 June 2022
Media Relations Manager