Serbia plays China card against European Union
Serbia's President Alexander Vucic, in Brussels on Friday, expressed hope that his country may “join the EU by 2026.” However, Belgrade continues to increase economic cooperation with China while Russia, Serbia’s traditional ally, upholds its support for Serbian claims of sovereignty over breakaway Kosovo.
Stressing a need to “speed up dialogue” between Belgrade and Brussels, Vucic indictated that one of the conditions for EU membership - Belgrade’s recognitions of Kosovo as an independent state - could be discussed.
Quoted by Serbia’s B92 news website, he “indicated that he expects talks with Pristina to continue in two to three weeks.”
Vucic’s visit to Brussels takes place one year after French President Emmanuel Macron visited Belgrade, when he vowed to help restart stalled talks between Serbia and Kosovo.
Relations between Serbia and its former province remain bitter, two decades after the Kosovo war led to Pristina seceding and declaring independence.
Belgrade refuses to recognise Kosovo's status, still considering it to be Serbia's southern province, despite a majority of European Union countries and the US recognising it as a sovereign nation.
Meanwhile, both Russia and China continue to support Serbia in its claim on Kosovo.
China and Serbia found common ground during the 1999 Nato bombing campaign of Belgrade, when Nato bombers attacked buildings of the Chinese embassy to Serbia.
Three journalists of China’s Xinhua News Agency were killed during the raid which Nato said was carried out ‘by accident,’ a claim that has always been rejected by both Beijing and Belgrade.
In the aftermath of the Kosovo and Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, Serbia has tried to strengthen economic ties with the European Union, and started the process to become an EU member. But the Kosovo issue has always blocked deeper integration.
The president of Kosovo headed back to his country Friday after pulling out of a White House meeting due to his indictment for war crimes stemming from the 1990s armed conflict between ethnic Albanian separatists he helped lead and Serbian forces.
President Hashim Thaci, who had already left for Washington and was in Austria when the charges against him were announced, landed at Tirana International Airport in Albania and was said to be on his way to Kosovo by car. The airport in Kosovo's capital of Pristina remains closed due to the coronavirus.
Thaci said he would address the people of Kosovo from his office on Sunday evening.
A special prosecutor who has been investigating alleged war crimes by the Kosovo Liberation Army during and after the 1998-99 conflict on Wednesday announced the indictment of Thaci and nine other former rebel fighters on murder and other charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity against ethnic Serbs, Roma and others.
Asked about Thaci’s draft indictment, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic said in Brussels that Belgrade has been very “cautious” and showed restraint in reacting to avoid fueling tensions over the issue.
Thaci was a commander of the Kosovo Liberation army, or KLA, that fought for independence from Serbia. The fighting left more than 10,000 dead, most of them ethnic Albanians, and 1,641 are still unaccounted-for. The war ended after a 78-day NATO air campaign that forced Serbian troops to withdraw.
Belt and Road
China has quickly integrated Serbia in its Belt and Road Initiative and its “17 + 1” partnership that encompasses massive infrastructural projects carried out by Beijing and 17 countries in Europe and Central Asia.
To compensate for the lack of European investment and general reluctance from western tourists to visit the country, President Vucic was quick to capitalise on China’s eagerness to make headway into Europe.
In 2017, Chinese citizens were granted visa-free access to Serbia and in the first half of 2019, the amount of Chinese visitors to the country had risen 36% over the previous year.
More visible is China’s massive investment in telecoms, with the local Huawei headquarters overlooking the Danube from a highrise building and tyre maker Linglong investing almost €1billion in its first European factory in the northern city of Zrenjanin, sponsoring the the country’s top football league now re-christened the “Linglong Superliga.”
The Financial Times reported that since 2012, the Serbia has received US$9.5billion of publicly announced Chinese funding and investment, “more than half of China’s stated investment in the region.”
In 2019, Chinese companies announced 16 greenfield projects in Serbia, making China the country’s biggest source of such investment, according to the Financial Times. Chinese companies made up for some 20% of all foreign direct investment into Serbia.
The EU is becoming increasingly wary of ties with China. In the EU – China Strategic Outlook published in 2019, China was called a “systemic rival” of the European Union. More recent developments and worries about how China dealt with the Covid-19 Pandemic, have raised more doubts about the relationship between Beijing and Brussels.
Vucic’s strong focus on doing unfettered business with China is in sharp contrast with Brussels, and may encourage EU policymakers to integrate Serbia into the EU more quickly than anticipated.
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