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  • Writer's pictureLolita Chowdhury

Russian Referendum: Why Serbia Won’t Recognize It

The Donetsk Oblast region in southeastern Ukraine is one of the four provinces facing annexation referendums (Markus Spiske/Unsplash)

On September 23, more than half a year after its invasion of Ukraine began, Russia held annexation referendums in four Ukrainian provinces: Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. However, one of Russia’s closest allies, Serbia, refuses to recognize the annexation vote for these Ukrainian provinces.

What is The Relationship Between Russia and Serbia?

Geographically, Russia and Serbia are not close to each other. Culturally, however, both are Eastern Orthodox-Christian countries with Slavic heritage. And though their diplomatic relations in modern times can be traced back to June 24, 1940, when the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) formally recognized the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (which included present-day Serbia), the Serbian and Russian people were close allies for centuries before that.

The Russo-Ukrainian War further attests to how fondly the Serbian people view Russia. According to polls, only 26% of Serbs believe that Russia is to blame for the war. The majority believe that Ukraine and the West are at fault, possibly due to the overwhelming number of news networks in Serbia that report Moscow’s version of events.

When Russian authorities announced they would hold election referendums in four Ukrainian provinces, the West and Ukraine immediately denounced them as “illegal sham votes held at gunpoint.” However, Serbia unexpectedly joined the West in their opposition to the referendums.

What was Serbia’s Response to Russia’s Referendums in Ukraine?

At the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on September 21, Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic stated that Serbia would not recognize the results of the referendums “as it adheres to international law, the United Nations Charter, and UN resolutions.” The Serbian Foreign Minister Nikola Selakovic later told reporters outside the UN building that Serbia would not support referendums that go against its “policy of preserving territorial integrity and sovereignty.” Additionally, Serbia chose to adopt the UN resolution condemning Russia's aggression against Ukraine.

These actions shocked many Western nations, and while some welcomed Serbia's change of heart, several others remain wary, questioning Serbia's intentions, especially considering its dependence on Russian gas. This dependence is why Serbia refused to join the sanctions placed on Russia by other Western countries. On the other hand, the referendums in Ukraine are reminiscent of the situation in Kosovo, a former province of Serbia that declared independence in 2008. Many suspect that the Serbian opposition to the referendums is a way to further delegitimize Kosovo’s independence. Therefore, their refusal to recognize the referendums in Ukraine is not entirely without basis.

What Happens Next?

As of now, Russia has yet to announce the annexation votes in the four occupied provinces of Ukraine. As for Serbia, the country’s elections will take place in April 2023. President Vucic is currently caught straddling Russia and the West, maneuvering between what is best for Serbia and its allies. Even though it may seem that Serbia supports Ukraine’s independence, Serbia’s actions show that their intent may be to garner support against Kosovo. The results of the referendum and Russia’s next steps in the war will show what the future holds for the Russian-Serbian relationship.



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