“It is not possible to sit on two chairs at the same time,” US deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, Hoyt Brian Yee, said on October 24, speaking in Serbian as he quoted an old Serbian saying. Yee’s comment implied he did not believe Serbia could continue to balance improving ties with Russia with striving towards European Union membership.
The comment sparked tensions in Serbia, where the government has consistently tried to pursue its primary goal of EU accession while still maintaining good relations with Russia. This balancing act has, however, become harder after relations between the EU and Russia worsened due to the Ukrainian war and economic sanctions imposed by the EU against Russia.
When it becomes an EU member, Serbia will need to synchronise its foreign politics with the EU and thus join the sanctions — even though the government has pandered to popular sentiment by claiming this will never happen. Pointing out the difficulty in the current course of action made Yee’s comment, delivered at the 17th Serbian Economic Summit on October 24, unwelcome among both the Serbian public and government officials.
“Countries which want to become EU members have to show clearly that decision. You can’t sit on two chairs, especially if they are so far from each other,” the diplomat said, N1 reported.
Yee also raised the thorny issue of the Russian humanitarian centre in the Serbian city of Nis. “I would like to ask officials in Belgrade what Russia does to help Serbia to reach its strategic goal — to become an EU member? We do not see how the existence of [the Russian] humanitarian centre in Nis under diplomatic immunity can help Serbia to accomplish EU standards and become an EU member.”
The Russian-Serbian centre for emergencies near Nis is a military facility since one of the Serbian army’s responsibilities is helping citizens in natural disasters and other emergencies. The centre is therefore seen as a Russian military base in Serbia even though it isn’t officially billed as such.
The purpose of the base was initially related to protection of the South Stream pipeline which was expected to run through Serbia. The project was killed few years ago, but the facility is still there although it is reportedly empty and the Russians do not seem willing to withdraw — in fact they have asked for special diplomatic status for their people working at the base.
Yee and other US diplomats have repeatedly sought to draw attention to increasing Russian influence in the Balkans, often wielded through so-called “soft power”. Back in June, Yee said the US was concerned about the centre, which is close to Serbia's border with Kosovo, "not so much for what it is now, but what it might become if it receives what Russia has been asking from Serbia, which is some kind of special status, a protected diplomatic status or immunity," Voice of America (VOA) reported on June 15.
Shortly after Yee’s statement went viral, Tanja Miscevic, who leads Serbia's accession negotiations with the EU, tried to clarify what he actually said and claimed that his statements had been taken out of context.
“Yee said also that it is absolutely clear for him what is Serbia’s strategic definition, and that it is membership within the EU … the US is Serbia’s partner on that path,” Miscevic told journalists, N1 reported on October 24.
“Serbia doesn’t sit on two chairs. It has clear strategic determination and that is the EU,” Miscevic added.
Nonetheless, Yee’s words raised tensions in Serbia. The first high-level official to react was Serbian Minister of Defence Aleksandar Vulin, who is typically vocal on issues touching Serbian patriotism and is considered a “Russian man”. He called Yee’s words “the most difficult public and very undiplomatic pressure on Serbia to date”, which put “pressure on our right to decide independently”, B92 reported.
“[T]hose are not statements coming from a friend and a man who respects Serbia, who respects our policy, who respects our right to decide. Serbia will make its decisions on its own, no matter how big those who think they can decide for us are," Vulin continued.
President Aleksandar Vucic, who met Yee on October 24, has not yet voiced his opinion on the matter. However, a statement from his office said the two officials had an “open discussion” in which Yee expressed his concerns over the perception that Serbia has “one leg in the European Union and the another in the alliance with Russia”. Yee also commented on Russian influence within the region to the president.
“President Vucic listened very carefully to the American representative and very directly responded to his remarks,” reads the statement.
On a more positive note, it adds that: “The American diplomat praised Serbia’s progress toward accomplishment of its strategic goal — EU membership — and underlined that further development in the segment of rule of law and media freedom as well as in normalisation of relation with Kosovo will be decisive for Serbia’s path to the EU membership.”
Yee also met Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, telling her that the US is ready to provide every kind of assistance so that Serbia can become a member of the European Union in the near future, reads the government’s statement.