By Igor Jovanovic
Maja Kocijancic, the European Commission spokesperson, said that “in the current circumstances” a Serbian-Russian joint military exercise would “send a wrong signal”, the Belgrade-based Beta news agency reported on Tuesday.
“We expect Serbia to act in accordance with its obligations under EU accession process,” Kocijancic added.
In response, the Serbian Defence Ministry on Tuesday said it tried to run a balanced international cooperation policy in accordance with Serbia’s proclaimed military neutrality and national interests.
“When it comes to activities with the Russian Armed Forces the Ministry of Defence pays equal attention to all other key partners,” a statement said.
According to Serbian media reports, Russian, Belarus and Serbian military units will organize a joint military exercise in September named “Slavic brotherhood” on Russian territory.
Joint military exercises were discussed during the meeting of the Serbian and Russian defence ministers, Bratislav Gasic and Sergei Shoigu, on August 15 in Moscow.
Shoigu reportedly invited Serbian Army special units to take part in a military drill with Russian special forces next year.
The Serbian army has also planned several military drills with NATO member armies this year.
Aleksandar Radic, a military expert in Belgrade, said the Serbian government will now face a challenge in maintaining good relations both with the Russia and the West at a time when their relations remain shaken due to the conflict in Ukraine.
Radic told BIRN that Serbia will have to decide what is the greater priority – holding military drills with Russia or continuing smoothly with European integration.
Drills with the Russians would not “significantly improve” Serbia’s military capacity and the exercises sent a political message, he said.
“On the other hand, from the EU’s perspective, Serbia has to harmonize its foreign policy with the EU,” Radic told BIRN.
Zoran Dragisic, a professor at the Belgrade Faculty of Security Studies, agreed that Serbia has to harmonize its policy with the EU if wants to become a member state.
He told BIRN that staging such exercises with Russia will not affect Serbia’s standing immediately, but may weaken it in in the long run.
“Flirting with Russia is a thorn in the West’s eye and that could affect Serbia’s position negatively,” Dragisic said.
Serbian relations with Russia are a sensitive issue in the EU accession process because Belgrade has refused to join the EU sanctions imposed against Moscow over Ukraine.
The Serbian government has stressed on numerous occasions that EU integration is its priority but that it also wishes to maintain warm relations with Russia, Serbia’s traditional ally.
Serbia proclaimed its military neutrality in December 2007 and the current government under Aleksandar Vucic has announced no plans to change the policy.
However, Serbia is a member of the NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme. In March, Serbia concluded the Individual Partnership Action Plan with NATO, IPAP, which is considered the highest level of cooperation with NATO for a non-member country.
Serbian officials are keen to recall that they cherish good military relations with Western partners as well.
Bratislav Gasic, the Defence Minister, on August 17 at a meeting with US Ambassador Michael Kirby, praised the army’s cooperation with the US.
Gasic said the Plan of Bilateral Military Cooperation for 2016 envisaged 127 joint activities, excluding the education of Serbian army members in the US.