I'm talking of Serbia. Last week Serbia was put in front of a very delicate choice, and in the tricky position to have to balance between its foreign policy priorities. In result, Serbia decided to side which China on the Nobel peace prize issue and they initially refused to send their representative to the Nobel ceremony in Oslo, where the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was about to be awarded the Peace prize in absentia, for his long fight for human rights in China. Liu is currently serving a 11-year sentence in China for "subversive activity" because he joined some other Chinese dissidents in 2008 who crafted the charter of human and political rights in China.
Predictably, China harshly condemned the choice of a Nobel laureate. (As if the Nobel peace prize matters anyway? Just look who took it last year! And for what?) China also did their best to thwart the ceremony by using their economic influence to pressure a number of countries to boycott the event (and succeeded, thus proving that their influence has increased vastly). The Chinese authorities even decided to stage their own "Confucian peace prize" which would reflect their understanding of a contribution for world peace.
Serbia was one of the countries who sided with China, along with Russia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Cuba, Venezuela, etc. The Serbian government explained this decision by saying that they do care about human rights, but meanwhile they also regard their relations with China very important. "Serbia gives a large importance to its bilateral relations with China. All our decisions are related to defending our national interests. China is a vital partner of Serbia", the Serbian foreign minister Vuk Jeremic said.
Not so long ago, Belgrade declared EU, Russia, US and China to be the four main "pillars" of their foreign policy. Balancing between the strategic partnerships with these four has never been a trickier job than it is at the moment.
Immediately after the decision, criticism mounted both from within and from outside Serbia. The EU-relations supervisor Jeljko Kacin experssed his bewilderment with Belgrade's decision and he condemned the servility of his country. (Of course he preferred to talk about China while completely forgetting to mention the pressure from the EU and US). The chairman of the South-East European Delegation at the EU parliament, Edward Kukan also said Serbia's boycott would have a negative effect, and reminded that human rights are a top priority for EU, and boycotting the ceremony would be interpreted as a sign that Serbia is not "serious enough" about the fight for human rights around the world.
The European Commission expressed "concern" and reminded that all 27 member states have taken a unified position and would all honor the ceremony. In Serbia itself, the government's decision has brought lots of criticism from a number of NGOs and opposition parties who insisted that the government should reconsider its position.
At the end of the day, Belgrade decided to make a complete U-turn and send its ombudsman Sasa Jankovic to represent the PM. This way they put an end to the raging discussion about the soundness of its previous decision, and explained that they were sending Jankovic in order to "answer the expectations of a large circle of the Serbian society".
But when we look beyond the nicey-nicey diplomatically sounding phrases, we could ask the question what REALLY urged Serbia to take China's side on this issue in the first place? Apparently, Belgrade is trying to demonstrate that it supports one of their biggest allies on the Kosovo issue. Let's not forget that China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, they have a veto power, and the issue of Kosovo's independence has been put to discussion there many times. Let me remind also that China is one of Serbia's biggest trade partners, and the Serbian government relies heavily on Chinese investments, especially in vital sectors like infrastructure and energy.
Serbia knows that as long as it has the support of China and Russia, Kosovo will never become a UN member, and its access to other international bodies would continue to be blocked. The government has stated more than once that they shouldn't be put in a situation where they'll have to make concessions in "return" for Kosovo.
One of these exchange coins could be the country's European integration. The EU has actually never put the question about Kosovo's independence as a condition for Serbia's integration - at least not officially (and remember that Serbia has recently issued its official application for EU membership). If we're to trust WikiLeaks (that demon Assange!), the State Department documents regarding EU-Serbia hint that there's quite a disagreement within the Union on this issue. According to the leaks, some top French officials have insisted to their US and EU colleagues that it should be made clear to Serbia that they have to recognize Kosovo if they ever want to be let into EU.
Still, Serbia has softened its position somewhat in the recent months. In September they introduced a resolution on Kosovo, which would open their way to EU negotiations. But the talks will have to wait until a new stable government is formed in Pristina (the parliamentary elections were held this last Sunday). The main negotiation points and participants are yet to be specified. Kosovo claims it'll be only discussing subjects related to the everyday needs of its people, while Serbia hints that they could include Kosovo's status as well.
Whether Belgrade would maintain this fragile balance in its foreign relations, and whether it'll choose pursuing a sovereign policy rather than harmonizing it to the EU one, and what will happen to Kosovo in the EU context is yet to be seen. But the Nobel prize event shows that Serbia will increasingly have to make hard choices between the four "pillars" of its diplomacy, and would have to choose one ahead of the rest, if it ever wants better stability. Because, as our local proverb here across the Serbian-Bulgarian border says, "Try to keep two watermelons under one arm, and you'll find them both on the ground" (literal translation). But let's be realistic - at this point, EU has no viable alternative from a Serbian perspective.