Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy met with Aleksandar Vucic, president of Serbia, one of Russia’s only remaining friends in Europe, during an informal Southeast European summit in Athens.
Despite the differences between the two countries — Serbia has so far refused to sever ties with Moscow or impose sanctions on Russia — the two leaders described the meeting in positive terms, both using the words "good" and "open" on social media afterwards.
The informal summit was attended by top officials from 11 countries from the region, including both EU members and aspiring members, as well as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU Council President Charles Michel.
Hosted by Prime Minister of Greece Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the event was intended to mark the 20th anniversary of the EU-Western Balkans Summit held in Thessaloniki back in 2003, when the promise of eventual EU membership was first extended to the Western Balkans region.
In a joint document, the leaders pledged “unwavering support for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders, based on the values of democracy and rule of law”.
The document also stressed the importance of the Western Balkans, Ukraine and Moldova being “embraced as full-fledged members of the European family”.
Respect for territorial integrity
Both Zelenskiy and Vucic commented in positive terms about their meeting on the morning of August 22.
Writing on the X platform (formerly Twitter), Zelenskiy described it as "open, honest, and fruitful”.
“Good conversation on respect for the UN Charter and the inviolability of borders. On our nations’ shared future in the common European home. On developing our relations, that is in our mutual interest," he elaborated.
Vucic wrote on Instagram that he had a "good and open" conversation with the Ukrainian president.
"We have tackled developments in Ukraine and Kosovo and I have stressed once again that Serbia respects the territorial integrity of Ukraine," Vucic wrote.
As well as finding common ground on support for each other’s territorial integrity — the loss of Kosovo which unilaterally declared independence in 2008 remains a burning political issue for Serbia — both leaders also voiced their support for each other’s ambitions to join the EU.
While Serbia has refused to join Western sanction on Russia, despite being expected to align with EU foreign policy as a candidate country, it has consistently voted in favour of EU resolutions condemning the invasion of Ukraine.
There is speculation that Vucic was keen to meet Zelenskiy in order to get assurances that Ukraine does not plan to recognise Kosovo as independent, as voiced by several influential observers including Ukrainian MP Oleksiy Goncharenko and European Parliament rapporteur for Kosovo Viola von Cramon.
Vucic mentioned the issue both before and after meeting with Zelenskiy. “We … talked about Kosovo and Metohija, I don't think there will be any changes in Ukraine's relationship with Serbia and respect for our territorial integrity, and that was an important task before us,” Vucic said after the meeting as reported by Serbian media.
Goncharenko commented on Twitter: "Zelensky met with the President of Serbia. Serbia is an ally of Russia. We will not be able to drag Serbia to our side. And this is not because we are so bad, but because the population of Serbia supports Russia in some incredible majority. Do we need to meet then? Yes of course. Should we compromise our principles? No. Ukraine should recognize the independence of Kosovo.”
In response, von Cramon commented: "True: it is very likely that Aleksandar Vucic arranged the meeting with Zelenskiy mainly to put pressure on Ukraine: a weapon for non-recognition of Kosovo. I hope that Zelensky understands the political risk such an agreement can carry. Kosovo's independence and stability are also in Ukraine's interest.”
Regional leaders gather
The summit was also attended by the presidents of Montenegro and Moldova, the prime ministers of North Macedonia, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania and the head of the council of ministers of Bosnia & Herzegovina.
Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama was conspicuously absent, reflecting strained relations with Greece due to the imprisonment of ethnic Greek politician Fredi Beleri. Arrested before local elections in May on vote-buying charges, Beleri still won the mayoral seat in the Albanian town of Himara. Athens claimed there are political motives behind his detention, and top officials have warned that Albania’s EU accession progress could suffer if he is not released.
“I believe we all understand that it was not possible to invite Mr. Rama to such an important initiative,” Greek government spokesperson Pavlos Marinakis said, reported AP. Albanian President Bajram Begaj, who was reportedly invited, declined to attend.
Support for EU enlargement
With both EU accession as well as the Ukraine war on the agenda, Michel commented that “enlargement remains a top priority” for the EU.
“Western Balkans, Ukraine & Moldova have a common European heritage, history & future. Enlargement remains a top priority for EU -a strong tool to foster peace, security and prosperity on our continent. We need to find the way forward to make this vision of Europe a reality,” he tweeted.
Von der Leyen tweeted on her arrival to Athens: "We need to bring our friends, the aspiring members of the EU much closer to us and much faster. Glad to be in Athens to discuss the European perspective of our neighbours and partners in the East and the Western Balkans. We will keep bringing down barriers between our regions.”
As well as the verbal commitment to support Ukraine, Mitsotakis committed to continue military assistance to the country throughout the war, and to contribute to post-war reconstruction efforts — though Greek officials declined to comment after Zelenskiy suggested Greece could help train Ukrainian fighter pilots.
Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic also announced, following a meeting with Zelenskiy, that Croatia will offer an extra military aid package worth €30mn to Ukraine.