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BELGRADE — By appointing two members who are under U.S. sanctions to the new Serbian government, Belgrade has only nurtured its relationship with Moscow, a senior associate with the Berlin-based Council for Democratization Policy told RFE/RL on April 30.

But including the two sanctioned officials to the new government roster “doesn’t imply abandoning the policy of sitting on two chairs” — one in the East and one in the West, said Bodo Weber, who replied to e-mailed questions from RFE/RL after the government was named.

The “two-chair” policy refers to Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s attempt to maintain good relations with the European Union — which Serbia strives to join — while keeping close ties to traditional ally Russia, even after the Kremlin’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022.

Milos Vucevic, leader of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), was tapped last month to form a new government, and on April 30 he announced it will include former intelligence chief Aleksandar Vulin, who has been under U.S. sanctions since July 2023, to the post of deputy prime minister, and Nenad Popovic, another official blacklisted by the United States, as a minister without portfolio.

Vulin was placed on the U.S. sanctions list in July 2023 for allegedly using his position to further Russian and criminal agendas, including arms dealing and drug trafficking.

Popovic, designated in November 2023, used his Russia-based businesses to enrich himself and gain close connections with Kremlin senior leaders, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.

The U.S. State Department told RFE/RL that the United States is “disappointed to see two sanctioned individuals proposed for positions in the new government.” The department’s e-mailed response to a request for comment added, “Our position on Mr. Vulin and Mr. Popovic is well known. They remain under U.S. sanctions.”

Vucevic also named Milica Djurdjevic Stamenkovski, president of the right-wing Zavetnici party, to head the Ministry of Family Care. The Zavetnici party, formerly in opposition, entered into cooperation with the SNS after the December elections, which were marred by widespread allegations of fraud and irregularities.

There also are several new names in the 25-member government, while 13 ministers remain at the helm of the same ministries they led in the previous government.

“There’s a recognizable continuation of the trend of greater involvement of party operatives [and] members of the inner circle around Vucic,” said Weber, adding that he didn’t see any ideological shift in the policy of Vucic’s regime in the composition of the new government.

He said Vucic’s regime has always relied less on a specific ideology and more on maintaining power, “so the authoritarian mindset behind it, rather than its nationalist ideological heritage, has been and remains more important.”

Asked what message the new government sends to the international community, Weber said EU membership has long been more of a means for Vucic to consolidate and maintain power and to strengthen Serbia’s international position rather than a serious goal.

At the same time Weber is very critical of the European Union’s “appeasement policy” toward Serbia, saying it means Vucic doesn’t need to worry about what message his new government sends.

“Since the EU has failed to muster the strength to stop its long-failed appeasement policy toward the authoritarian-autocratic regime in Serbia, what continues is a performance devoid of any substance called Serbia’s European integration,” he said.

An initiative by Germany and France on the political dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, a former province of Serbia whose independence Belgrade does not recognize, “was based precisely on that previously proven failed appeasement policy toward Vucic,” Weber added. “It has gloriously failed in an unprecedented escalation in northern Kosovo, which Western capitals still aren’t willing to acknowledge.”

Tensions in ethnic-Serb dominated northern Kosovo have remained high since an incident in September that left an ethnic Albanian Kosovar police officer dead after an encounter with masked commandos allegedly led by a Kosovar Serb politician. Three of the gunmen were also killed.

Weber said Belgrade will never face sanctions for the regime’s “direct responsibility for the attackā€¦ensuring that even resorting to massive electoral fraud in the December elections in Belgrade won’t provoke a serious reaction from the West.”

He added that Vucic apparently had no concerns about a possible strong U.S. reaction to the appointment of two sanctioned ministers.

The policy of imposing sanctions on officials close to the Kremlin remains “entirely disconnected from the general policy of the U.S. administration towards Belgrade.”

Weber also criticized the United States as having “taken a leading role in the Western appeasement policy.”

However U.S. envoy for the Western Balkans Gabriel Escobar has urged the two sides to resolve their differences. And in March during a visit to Pristina he put pressure on Prime Minister Albin Kurti to reverse a ban on the use of Serbia’s dinar in the country’s north.

But Weber said it was apparent that nurturing relations with Moscow was considered in forming the government at a time when Vucic feels pressure due to the Council of Europe coming closer to admitting Kosovo and a UN resolution on the genocide in Srebrenica.

“However, this still doesn’t mean abandoning the policy of sitting on two chairs,” Weber said.

Weber also said Vucevic has the capacity to lead the government and keep the cabinet together based on his status as a member of Vucic’s “inner circle” and his position as president of the party.

He added that it will be interesting to see how Vucic relates to the prime minister, noting it won’t be as easy to shift blame for negative events onto the government when it’s led by the president of the ruling party.

None of this will jeopardize the stability of a regime that currently isn’t seriously threatened, “least of all by the West, and it seems, no longer by the opposition,” Weber said.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Balkan Service

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