HELSINKI -- European Union foreign ministers on Friday urged Serbia not to stray from its EU membership path as the Balkans country readies to sign a trade agreement with a Russian-led economic bloc.
Serbia is expected to sign the pact with the Eurasian Economic Union — made up of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan — on Oct. 25. But to join the EU, candidate countries such as Serbia must align their policies with their European partners, notably on trade.
At talks with his EU counterparts Friday, Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak described Serbia's actions as "confusing."
"If you are serious about your European orientation then obviously you make political decisions that bring you closer to it. This is not one of them," Lajcak said.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius said that "if countries want to join the club they must comply with the rules, values, principles."
He said every country has a right to take its own trade and economic decisions but that "preferably it would be good to have them in alignment with the policy of the Union they are going to join."
The EU remains Serbia's largest trade partner, with trade amounting to nearly 26 billion euros ($29 billion) in 2018 — about eight times more than trade with all the EEU countries combined.
In an email statement, the office of EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogerhini underlined that trade with Russia is less than 10% of Serbia's total trade, compared to 63% for the 28-nation EU.
It said Belgrade can sign agreements with whomever it wants before it joins, but that as part of its membership talks "Serbia committed to withdrawing from all bilateral free trade agreements on the day of its accession to the EU."
The prospect of joining the European club has been a powerful driver of pro-democratic reform in the volatile Balkans region. But the bloc has been accused of not living up to its promises, particularly by delaying the start of membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia, despite the EU's executive arm recommending that they go ahead.
The EU has committed to deciding their fate by October, but Mogherini suggested Friday that the 28 member countries are not yet ready to hand down their verdict. Mogherini has warned that any failure to start talks soon could "undermine stability and seriously discourage further reforms."
"Let's not forget that some of these countries were at war just 20 years ago. That's a very short time," she told reporters Friday.
Serbia opened its EU membership talks in 2014, but made little progress mostly because of unresolved issues with its former province of Kosovo which declared independence in 2008.
Russia has supported Serbia — its only real remaining ally in the Balkans — in maintaining claims on its former territory. Moscow has also been beefing up Serbia's military, raising concerns in the war-scarred region.
Russia's ambassador to Serbia, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, who announced the imminent signing of the trade agreement earlier this week, said in a tweet "as it is known" Serbia will not join the EU before 2025 at the earliest. "Is it smart in this situation to reject real and appealing possibilities that are opening up for Belgrade today?" he asked.
Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.