BELGRADE - Serbian President Aleksandar Vuvic appeared to rebuff pressure from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday for Serbia to join European Union sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, saying he did not believe sanctions to be "efficient".
Scholz, who is on a two-day tour of the Western Balkans, said that as an EU membership candidate, Serbia should join the bloc in its measures against Moscow, which all its members were required to follow.
Speaking at the same news conference in Belgrade, Vucic said Serbia was in a difficult position and that the EU should consider that Serbia and Russia had long-standing special ties.
"As far as sanctions are concerned we have different position.... We remember sanctions (against Serbia)and we do not think sanctions are efficient," Vucic said.
He did not say whether Serbia planned to introduce sanctions on Russia.
On his trip, Scholz promised to help the Western Balkans to reinvigorate their long-stalled campaign for European Union membership, a move aimed at easing regional tensions and fending off the influence of rival powers such as Russia.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has lent a new sense of urgency to the process of to tying Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo closer to the 27-member EU, whether through full membership or an alternative community.
Speaking alongside the Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti in Pristina earlier on Friday, Scholz said his government had made Kosovo's EU membership a priority and would also support its aspiration for EU visa liberalisation.
"It is very important to send a new signal of confidence and hope that this accession process is wanted by the EU with great seriousness, and that it also has a realistic chance if everyone makes an effort," Scholz said.
Ukraine and neighbouring Moldova have pushed to accelerate their own bids for EU membership since the invasion, raising questions over whether their accession should be fast-tracked or should wait their turn after Western Balkan countries.
EU countries including Germany have said there could be no short-cuts to Ukraine's membership.
"We are also in favour of Ukraine's membership into the EU. Of course, Ukraine has all the attention and it is in the hearts of everybody who wants peace and democracy because there is a terrible war going on there, an unprovoked and unjustified war," Kurti said.
"But I believe there must be both (to join EU), Ukraine and Western Balkans," Kurti said.
Scholz's visit comes hot on the heels of that of European Council President Charles Michel and ahead of an EU-Western Balkans leaders' summit on June 23.
The prospect of EU membership had for years been the main driver of reform and greater cooperation in the region after a decade of war and upheaval in the 1990s, until EU expansion stalled, spawning disillusionment.
Unresolved conflicts there have given rise to new tensions lately, such as the pro-Russian Bosnian Serbs' secession plans.
"We will not surrender this region in the heart of Europe to Moscow's influence," German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock had said when she paid a visit to the Western Balkans in March.
Florian Bieber, a Balkan expert at Austria's University of Graz, said the lack in progress in the region's EU membership bids was partly to blame.
"The fact it hasn't happened is a real problem and the growing influence of other countries like Russia and China is a result of this process not developing," Bieber said.
He said it now remained to be seen whether Scholz's government, which took office in December, will push the process forward or "muddle along" as former chancellor Angela Merkel did by professing support for the region but doing little to further it.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had also been set to visit Serbia this week, but his visit was cancelled when nearby countries closed their airspace to his flight.
Scholz is set to travel later to Thessaloniki in Greece to meet representatives of the South East European Cooperation Process (SEECP), a 12-country Balkan regional body.
On Saturday, he travels on to North Macedonia and Bulgaria, which are locked in a dispute preventing the start of EU accession talks.
(Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Berlin and Ivana Sekularac in Belgrade; Additional reporting by Fatos Bytyci, Editing by Alex Richardson and Raissa Kasolowsky)