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    A man walks past by billboards reading Russia, left and Serbia, in Belgrade, Serbia, Friday, Oct. 17, 2014

    Is EU Planning to Drive a Wedge Between Russia, Serbia?

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    The EU-backed Balkan Customs Union is a double-edged solution, Serbian academic Milojko Arsic told Sputnik. Once implemented it may require Serbia to break its free trade agreement with Moscow and impose sanctions on Russia, he warned.

    The creation of a common market in the Western Balkans, an idea voiced during a recent summit of Balkan leaders in Sarajevo, has prompted heated debate.

    Addressing the summit EU Commissioner for Enlargement Johannes Hahn emphasized the need to create a unified trade space for Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania and self-proclaimed state of Kosovo.

    "We propose a Common Market for the Western Balkans. Our ambition is to remove barriers and create a single space for economic development. It will also make clear a longer-term aim of integrating the Western Balkans Common Market into the EU's internal market," Hahn said in an official statement, as quoted by Balkan Insight.

    The idea, backed by Brussels, has received high praise from Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.

    "I will definitely work on that and I wish that I would be able to influence for the [union] to happen, that would be a relief," Vucic told press on March 19, as cited by the media outlet.

    For their part, leaders of Kosovo and Albania have not expressed much enthusiasm about the initiative, saying that not all Western Balkan nations will benefit the same from the potential customs union.

    On the other hand, the six nations have been involved in the Central European Free Trade Agreement, CEFTA, since 2006.

    Speaking to Sputnik Serbian, Mihailo Crnobrnja, the leader of the European Movement in Serbia shed light on the initiative.

    "The [initiative] means the abolition of internal customs barriers and free exchange of goods; but there is one hitch [in it]: all nations should apply the same customs rules for third countries. That means that Albania and Serbia should establish the same rules for [acquiring] TV sets from Japan and South Korea," Crnobrnja explained.

    "This is a complicated process which won't be necessarily playing into the hands of all countries [within the region]. For example, Montenegro does not have its own agricultural sector, so it is not interested in protecting it; for its part, Serbia is developing its agricultural production and needs to protect it. It's hard to say how we will reach a compromise," he underscored.

    Professor Milojko Arsic of the University of Belgrade echoes Crnobrnja.

    "Serbia has signed an agreement on free trade with several countries: Russia, Belarus and Turkey. Serbia's joining the Balkan Customs Union would mean that either all [Western Balkan] nations should conclude similar agreements or Serbia should break them," he pointed out, stressing that both scenarios would be extremely problematic.

    According to Arsic, the countries of the region need to conclude bilateral trade agreements and thus ease potential tensions.

    "European states have worked seriously to unite for the sake of peace and stability, and it had taken 12 years for them [to accomplish this task]. And we are fighting in the Balkans like cats and dogs, so how much time will it take for us?" he asked rhetorically.

    "I see no political conditions for the rapid implementation of such serious projects," Arsic underscored.

    There is yet another problem which is behind the deal: the idea of the creation of the customs union may throw into question the fate of Serbia's free trade agreement with Russia.

    "If the EU takes responsibility for the implementation of the Customs Union, it is possible that in return they will demand that we terminate the agreement with Russia or even to impose sanctions, which Serbia rightfully opposes," Arsic told Sputnik.

    "If we join the EU, we will have to withdraw from the free trade agreement with Russia, and this is more or less obvious, so I do not rule out that the EU is currently playing some sort of a political game and testing the waters in the Western Balkans," the Serbian academic suggested.

    "If it proves to be true, we should not be at the forefront advocating the idea of ​​the Balkan Customs Union," he concluded.

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    Tags:
    customs union, trade agreements, free trade, Aleksandar Vucic, Johannes Hahn, Balkans, Europe, Russia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, Brussels
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