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SERBIA: Serbia opens its arms and economy to ‘Brother Xi’

By Laurent Geslin | Euractiv FR Est. 6min * 6:00 (updated: 7:28)

Courtesy of Euractiv [website: https://www.euractiv.con]

di Emanuele G. - mercoledì 8 maggio 2024 - 564 letture

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Belgrade on Tuesday (7 May) has raised eyebrows at a time when Serbia’s President Aleksander Vučić has continued to resist increasing pressure to align foreign policy with the West, in particular the EU.

“China is the best partner for Serbia to achieve its national goals”, and it was time to raise bilateral relations to a new level, to a strategic partnership, Vučić told Chinese television station CCTV in an extensive interview ahead of Xi’s visit.

To exemplify that, the Serbian capital has been covered with Chinese flags as a welcome gesture.

Beijing’s influence has significantly increased in the European Union member hopeful over the past decade, with Chinese investment topping €5.1 billion between 2014 and 2023.

Xi’s visit will also coincide with a highly symbolic date of the 25th anniversary of the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. The incident occurred during Operation Allied Force, which was triggered by the Racak massacre during the Kosovo War, ultimately seeing the withdrawal of the Yugoslav Army and an end to the conflict.

However, the incident, which the US claimed was an accident, “is one of the elements on which the Chinese have based their anti-Western narrative over the last 25 years,” Stefan Vladisavljev, an analyst at the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence (BFPE), told Euractiv.

He added, “Visiting Belgrade on this occasion is a way for President Xi to affirm the ties that unite China and Serbia, but above all, Beijing’s new role in the world order.”

Economic ties

Beijing has become Belgrade’s second-largest trading partner, and by 2021, Chinese imports into Serbia were worth €3.6 billion (up 26.9% in 2020), even though the EU still accounts for 60% of the country’s trade.

Chinese investments are concentrated in strategic sectors such as the automotive industry, the copper and gold mines in the Bor region, bought by the Chinese giant Zijin Mining Group in 2018, and the Smederevo steelworks, which came under the control of the Chinese group HBIS in 2016 for €46 million.

New contracts will likely be announced during Xi’s visit to Serbia concerning the construction of the Belgrade metro and the 2027 international exhibition in the Serbian capital.

Vučić had already signed a free trade agreement with his Chinese counterpart last year -due to enter force on 1 July and to expire when Serbia joins the EU one day – covering thousands of products from both countries, including Serbian honey and wine.

In 2009, Belgrade had already signed a framework agreement with Beijing on infrastructure, exempting Chinese companies from going through restrictive calls for tender to bid for public contracts.

This provision has been denounced by Serbian civil society, which points to the opacity of the contracts signed by the Chinese – often financed by loans granted by banks that are also Chinese – and repeated attacks on the environment, for example, during the expansion of the Drmno lignite mine, which supplies the Kostolac power station near the Danube.

Public opinion unconvinced by EU

As Russia’s war in Ukraine continues and Moscow’s influence is felt throughout the continent, many fear what impact that could have on regions with a history of instability, such as the Western Balkans.

In late 2023, the EU announced the €6 billion Growth Plan for the Western Balkans to link funds to reforms and boost the regions ties to the European single market.

However, public opinion in Serbia remains unconvinced, with only 33% of recent survey respondents saying they favour EU membership, the lowest percentage in a region where countries like Kosovo and Albania enjoy over 90% approval rates.

While Serbia is a candidate for EU membership there has been little progress and earlier this year, the European Commission made changes to Serbia’s negotiation conditions, insisting that it stop obstructing Kosovo’s efforts to join international organisations including the Council of Europe and the EU.

In December 2023, then-prime minister Ana Brnabic wrote a letter to the Commission stating that the country would not implement several of the agreements made under the EU-backed dialogue.

Belgrade has also refused to align itself with the EU’s foreign policy regarding Russia and has strengthened economic and diplomatic ties with a series of high-level visits and agreements. Ties with Russia, China

A 2023 survey by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy found that 42% of Serbians believe they should rely on Russia, with almost 8% (third position) believing they should rely on China regarding international relations. Only some 25% had faith in the EU.

Another recent survey, found that over 75% of Serbs consider China “friendly”, and 64% believe that relations between Serbia and China will improve.

These figures have been rising steadily since the COVID-19 pandemic, when the EU failed to provide fast and adequate support to candidate countries while Chinese planes were delivering surgical masks and gloves to Belgrade airport.

Back then, street walls and placards in Serbia were covered with large signs proclaiming, “Thank you, Brother Xi”.

Chinese political rhetoric emphasising the territorial integrity of states has also resonated in Serbia considering the ongoing dispute with Kosovo.

In February 2024, Vučić explained in an interview with Chinese television CGTN: “For us, it’s very simple. Taiwan is China. And it’s up to you to see what, when and how you’re going to do it.”

**Alice Taylor contributed to reporting.

[Edited by Alexandra Brzozowski/Alice Taylor]

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