Lawmakers in Serbia elect new government with pro-Russia ministers sanctioned by the US

BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbian lawmakers on Thursday voted into office a new government that reinstated two pro-Russia officials who are sanctioned by the United States, reflecting persistent close ties with Moscow despite the Balkan nation's proclaimed bid to join the European Union.

Prime Minister Miloš Vučević's government got backing in a 152-61 vote in the 250-member parliament. The remaining 37 lawmakers were absent.

The government includes former intelligence chief Aleksandar Vulin, who has made several visits to Russia in recent months, as one of several vice-premiers, along with Nenad Popović, another Russia supporter who has faced U.S. sanctions.

The foreign minister in the previous government, Ivica Dačić, also a pro-Russia politician, will be in charge of the Interior Ministry in the new Cabinet.

The vote followed a heated two-day debate. President Aleksandar Vučić's ruling nationalist conservative Serbian Progressive Party holds a comfortable majority after an election in December that fueled political tensions because of reports of widespread irregularities.

The increasingly authoritarian Vučić has refused to join Western sanctions against Moscow over its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, though Serbia has condemned the aggression.

Vučević, the new prime minister, reiterated that Belgrade doesn't intend to impose sanctions on Russia and “cannot and will not give up" its friendship with Russia. Integration into the EU remains a ”strategic goal."

He added that the "best possible” ties with the U.S. also are in Serbia's interest.

“I firmly believe that our relations can once again be on a high level," Vučević said.

Filip Ejdus, a security analyst and a Belgrade university professor, described the new government's composition as “spin" designed for the West and Russia, and for voters at home.

“It sends a message to the EU that they should not push Belgrade too much over democracy, rule of law, or Kosovo if they want to keep Serbia in its orbit,” Ejdus said. “At the same time, it signals to Moscow a readiness to strengthen the strategic partnership with Russia.”

The U.S. imposed sanctions on Vulin in July, accusing him of involvement in illegal arms shipments, drug trafficking and misuse of public office.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control said that Vulin used his public authority to help a U.S.-sanctioned Serbian arms dealer move illegal arms shipments across Serbia’s borders. Vulin is also accused of involvement in a drug trafficking ring, according to U.S. authorities.

Vulin, who in the past had served as both the army and police chief, has recently received two medals of honor from Russia, one from the Federal Security Service, or FSB, and the other was awarded to him by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Popović, a businessman and a former government minister, has “used his Russia-based businesses to enrich himself and gain close connections with Kremlin senior leaders,” the U.S. Treasury said last November in a statement.

Opposition lawmaker Radomir Lazovic criticized the inclusion of the disputed ministers. Lazovic said “these individuals shouldn’t be part of the government, not just because they are blacklisted, but because their harmful behavior has hurt the citizens of Serbia.”

The U.S. sanctions against individuals and companies in the Balkans are designed to counter attempts to undermine peace and stability in the volatile region and Russia's “malign” influence.

The West has stepped up efforts to lure the troubled region into its fold, fearing that Russia could stir unrest to avert attention from the war in Ukraine. The Balkans went through multiple wars in the 1990s, and tensions still persist.

Serbia's falling democracy record has pushed the country away from EU integration, explained Ejdus. Reports of election fraud at the Dec. 17 vote triggered street protests and clashes.

“Vučić is still pretending to be on the EU path because it’s beneficial for Serbia’s economy, and the EU tolerates his authoritarian tendencies out of fear of instability that could be caused in its backyard if Belgrade was lost to Russia and China,” Ejdus said.