Chinese Influence in Serbia as a Factor of European Integrations
There is a common perception, or rather a misconception, that the biggest obstacle on Serbia’s path towards the EU is Russian purported influence. Although it is true to a large extent that the Russian Federation seeks to extend its near abroad influence primarily through maintaining a status quo in states of interest (in the Western Balkans, this would be chiefly Serbia), there are other, perhaps even more pressing matters that Brussels should keep in mind. With the new membership negotiation framework (of which no one truly knows what it will look in practice), and with the EU’s focus on Brexit, among other more pressing issues, it is clear that the membership of the Western Balkan states has been put on a backburner. Much has been written about how Russia wants to propagate its influence in Serbia at a time like this, but a focus on this particular perspective is erroneous, to say the least. The Chinese influence is a far greater unknown. Two factors especially will make it more difficult for Brussels to assess Serbia’s true commitment to achieving EU membership: First, a strong Chinese political presence masked through massive economic investment, and second, a foreign policy alignment with China, which could pose a threat to the EU’s own unity later down the line.
These two interconnected factors make it difficult for the EU to make sense of the new status quo. While the influence of Moscow serves very little purpose but to help the ruling regime stay in power, the support of the Chinese state is quite real across the board. There have been no major Russian companies or state capital moving into Serbia (with the exception of the gas sector, which can also be seen as not being an investment, but a payment to Moscow for its support over Kosovo, whereby Serbia’s gas industry was handed over far below the market value). China, on the other hand, is creating jobs in an economy plagued by underemployment. Former major industrial centers like Smederevo and Bor have provided China with both access to strategic resources on EU’s doorstep (steel, copper, and possibly gold in Bor), and also a channel for influencing broader European (if not EU per se) foreign politics. A kind of a wider co-opting of individual European countries through various channels is already seen in Serbia. President Aleksandar Vučić has gone as far as to say that Serbia condemns any attempt to put the “unity of PR China and the results of your [Xi Jinping’s] policies, which are firmly grounded in peace and stability, at risk.” This is likely a reflection of EU’s own internal lack of unity on dealing with China, leaving space for individual EU and non-EU countries to formulate their own approaches. In fact, Serbia has four foreign policy pillars, one of them being China. On the issue of Hong Kong, however, Serbia did not release a policy standing, possibly out of fear of being too misaligned with the EU.
Although the Chinese influence in Serbia is not pivotal yet, the EU will have to find a way of countering it in a meaningful way. The old ways of dealing with the Russian factor in Belgrade through bureaucratic initiatives will likely yield limited results. Statements of “strong condemnation” on Russia’s malicious efforts in the Western Balkans issued by MPs of the European Parliament or the formation of the Western Balkans StratCom task force (with a budget of only 1.1 million euros annually to combat misinformation) lack visible actions in the field, while the promise of full membership is perceived as just that – a promise. Chinese state capital, on the other hand, is taking the pressure off of the social welfare institutions and is arguably making EU’s efforts to foster rule of law in candidate countries more difficult, disincentivizing reforms. Funds from Beijing lead to a physical presence and are simply more visible to citizens than the EU’s own mechanisms. Finally, because investments derive from state capital, the potential of corruptive schemes with the regime is high, further solidifying the presence of corruption locally.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of IFAIR e.V. or its members.
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Igor Zlatojev, a native of Petrovac na Mlavi, Serbia, earned his BA in Political Science with a Minor in History at the University of Mississippi. He is currently working as a freelance consultant, providing research services across Central and Eastern Europe. He is currently enrolled in an MA program in International Peace and Conflict Studies, the only program of such kind in Poland, at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw.