Free Trade Deal with Russia-led Block Could Hamper Serbia’s EU Hopes: Report

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s office said after a meeting with the Russian Ambassador on Monday that the country will sign a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) – a move which could hamper the Balkan country’s efforts to join the European Union, the Associated Press reported.

The recently appointed Russian envoy, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, said in the statement that the agreement will “give new quality to future cooperation” between Serbia and the Russian-led EAEU and grant Serbia access to a market of 180 million people. The EAEU consists of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Serbia has for years been negotiating with Brussels on joining the EU. Candidate countries must align their policies with the bloc’s, including imposing trade sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine.

The EU remains Serbia’s largest trade partner, with trade amounting to nearly $29 billion in 2018 — about eight times more than trade with all the EEU countries combined.

Russia has been supporting Serbia, its only remaining ally in the Balkans, in maintaining claims on the former Serbian province of Kosovo which declared independence in 2008. Moscow has also been beefing up Serbia’s military, raising concerns in the war-scarred region.

Serbia already has a free trade agreement with the largest EEU members: Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. The new agreement will only expand to Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, with a combined total population of 9.2 million people, according to a recent report by Eurasia Daily Monitor, a Washington-based analytical publication.

“Many have warned that Belgrade’s flirting with Moscow could backfire considering Serbia’s strategic commitment to ultimately joining the EU,” the report said.

“The trouble is that while this flirtation with Russia lasts, it strengthens the belief that Serbia is a ‘Russian satellite’ in the Balkans, which neither the EU nor the majority of the international community view favorably,” analysts warned.