Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić at the Pentagon in 2012, when he was serving as the country's minister of defense.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić at the Pentagon in 2012, when he was serving as his country’s minister of defense.

Walk the streets of downtown Belgrade, and it is not hard to spot the scars of Serbia’s conflict with NATO a decade and a half ago. Bombed-out shells of buildings, partially but not entirely destroyed, remain standing as silent testaments to the alliance’s air campaign. Near the city’s center, in Belgrade Fortress, an exhibit shows a piece of wreckage from a downed American Nighthawk fighter along with the uniform of a captured American soldier. Though the bombings helped bring to an end the brutal regime of Slobodan Miloševic, they continue to have powerful residual affects on Serbian opinions of the West.

However, a new wave of political progress holds promise for the country’s future in thoroughly Western institutions like the European Union. Serbia recently negotiated a landmark agreement on power-sharing in Kosovo, the Albanian-majority breakaway republic that has hampered Serbia’s accession to the EU for so long. The overt xenophobia that once characterized the nation’s politics has almost disappeared; Serbia’s relations are warming with Albania, and it has been broadly humane in its recent treatment of asylum-seeking refugees. A new chapter might be opening for Serbia under the leadership of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, a former Miloševic-era official.

Serbia’s New Balance

After Miloševic’s regime was overthrown in October 2000, his erstwhile allies in the Serbian Radical Party and the Socialist Party of Serbia experienced an understandable drop in popularity. For the following decade, the country was governed by an array of former members of the anti-Miloševic camp, and politicians like Vučić, Miloševic’s former Minister of Information, were largely regarded as nationalist pariahs, unfit for anything but surly invective-slinging as members of the opposition.

That began to change in 2008, with the formation of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). The SNS was sleek, modern, and most importantly, pro-European, which gave it some ideological distance from the nationalist rhetoric that had characterized its forebears. The party’s updated form of conservatism has proven quite appealing to the Serbian public, who gave the SNS control of the National Assembly in 2012. Vučić, then party leader, officially took over as prime minister in 2014 with an absolute legislative majority, a first in Serbia since the Miloševic era.

Thus far, Vučić’s tenure as prime minister has largely been a muddled and often contradictory balancing act struck between his country’s warring liberal and conservative impulses. He has rid the country’s right wing of its resentful attitude towards the West and pushed for a new consensus in favor of European integration and pragmatism on Kosovo. However, in broadcasting Serbia’s ties to Russia and undermining newly-developed aspects of Serbian free society, he has tightened his grip on power and shown reluctance to fully recant the authoritarian populism upon which Serbia has historically relied. Seemingly concerned for his country but also obsessed with control, Vučić seems equally well placed to bring Serbia into a peaceful, prosperous future or drag it back into its corrupt, authoritarian past.

Trading Priština For Brussels

For the past 26 years, since Milošević launched his political career on a promise to defend Kosovo’s Serb minority, the territory has stood center stage in Serbian political discourse. The site of an important battle for the medieval Serb state and home to several historically significant Orthodox churches, Kosovo has often been used as an important rallying point for the Serb nationalist cause. While often claimed as the “Cradle of the Serb Nation,” today only one-tenth of the territory’s population is ethnically Serb, and the historical case for Serb control over Kosovo is far from straightforward.

Partial resolution of the Kosovo issue is a prerequisite for
any further progress in Serbia’s EU application, and Vučić has promised to make membership in the bloc a priority. Many Serbians, including Vučić himself, oppose diplomatic recognition of Kosovo, but he has maintained that accepting Kosovo’s independence is not a requirement for accession to the EU. Nevertheless, he has agreed to a more limited normalization of relations, leaving President Tomislav Nikolić to make stridently nationalist claims in favor of Serb sovereignty over the area. Though opinion polls show that almost two-thirds of Serbians prioritize making Kosovo part of Serbia over joining the EU, a similar number of Serbians in the same survey admit that Kosovo is a de facto independent state. Other polls show a solid majority of Serbians in favor of EU membership.

Gjakovë, Kosovo pictured in 2010.

Gjakovë, Kosovo pictured in 2010.

At this point, the Serbian public seems to implicitly recognize Kosovo as a lost cause, and while it remains an important issue, reunification has become more an object of yearning than a tangible political goal. Goran Miletić, a human rights campaigner in Serbia working with the Swedish NGO Civil Rights Defenders, explained in an interview with the HPR that Serbians “know Kosovo will never be part of Serbia. They accept it, but they do not want to say that publicly.”

There are no openly anti-EU parties currently in the Serbian National Assembly, a situation that can be largely attributed
 to Vučić. After cleaning house in the 2014 elections, the SNS consolidated the conservative vote into one pro-European camp, pushing smaller anti-European factions like the Radical Party out of the National Assembly entirely. Vučić’s popularity has further spread pro-EU sentiment throughout the country. University of Messina economic policy professor Bruno Sergi, who specializes in emerging Balkan economies, told the HPR that Vučić has “established consensus that for Serbia, membership in the EU and normalization of policies with Kosovo [are] a must.” Thus, with an occasional growl at the West or display of Orthodox piety, Vučić can both proceed with European integration and avoid being labeled a sellout.

Cuddling With The Bear

Since the birth of the Serbian state in the 19th century, Serbia and Russia have traditionally had a special relationship, and despite warming relations with the EU, Serbia frequently aligns its foreign policy with Moscow. Belgrade’s biggest policy break with the West lies in its refusal to join Western sanctions on Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea. Serbia has also agreed to joint military drills with Russia, invited Putin to Serbia for several high-profile visits, and was a ready partner in Russia’s planned South Stream gas pipeline before it was scrapped at the end of 2014.

However, the relationship is not nearly as robust as it seems. Serbians collectively groaned last year at Putin’s comparison 
of the Crimean annexation to Kosovar independence, and while Russia is an important trade partner, commerce between the two is dwarfed by Serbia’s trade with the EU. Russia is ultimately 
no substitute for Europe, which Vučić has repeatedly acknowledged. Though he values cordial relations with Russia, he prioritizes Serbian membership in the EU first.

Russia’s value to Vučić does not lie in the relationship’s strategic value but as a tool of domestic politicking. Because of the country’s conflict with NATO in the 1990s (along with Russia’s pro-Serbian response), the Serbian public is generally more receptive to Russia than to the West. Of all the former Yugoslav republics, Yugo-nostalgia is the most well-received in Serbia. The memory of Josip Tito’s “Third Way,” by which Serbia committed neither to a Russian East or European West but played them both for their advantages, still holds significant electoral sway. Miletić told the HPR that when it comes to foreign affairs, “citizens like the policy of the present government,” and cordial relations with Russia, in addition to more desperate efforts at courtship from the EU, shore up Vučić’s domestic political support from Russophiles and Titophiles alike. Rather than stemming from any deep convictions about Slavic brotherhood, it is likely that his foreign policy is a calculated political move. Media portrayals of a Serbia “torn” between East and West only reinforce this false premise, and fail to recognize Vučić’s strategic maneuvering.

An Authoritarian Streak

If a summary of Vučić’s political career were to end here, his image as a committed and pragmatic democratic reformer might be justified. However, Vučić (and a sizable plurality of the country he governs) has not fully abandoned another, older model of governance in Serbia—one which involves autocratic leadership and a civil society beaten into submission.

Whereas coverage of Vučić’s deceptive drift towards Russia has been excessively shrill, outside reporting of his crackdown on independent Serbian journalism appears regrettably inadequate. As the former Minister of Information during the Milošević era, Vučić is no stranger to media censorship, and indices of freedom of the press in Serbia have declined precipitously since he took power. Miletić told the HPR that Vučić is “obsessed” with his image in media—often working to influence it in Western interviews and op-eds—and regularly clamps down on writers and publications that critique his leadership.

While Serbia does not, as Miletić noted, have “open censorship like in Belarus,” Vučić still controls media through “soft” devices, like intimidation and harassment of journalists, self-censorship, and accusations of foreign espionage. Advertising, which Miletić says Vučić also controls, provides another method of managing political discourse, allowing him to push the message of the SNS with a flood of ads while leaving little airtime for opposition parties. Journalists in the country say the environment is the most repressive it has been since Milošević.

In other areas, too, Vučić demonstrates a hunger for power and a willingness to use illiberal methods to accumulate it. His much-touted anticorruption efforts, while generating some success, seem to largely target his political adversaries. Within his own party, there are reports that Vučić has worked to consolidate power and erode support for his rival, President Nikolic. However, instead of being punished for this obsessive accumulation of power, Vučić continues to enjoy sky-high popularity. In fact, like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Vučić
has deftly employed a model of authoritarian populism, using popular support to weaken institutional checks on power and increase his personal authority. Miletić noted that many Serbians still favor the idea of a “strong hand” that brings stability to the government. With his opposition in tatters, it is likely that Vučić will continue to enjoy popular support despite, or perhaps because of, his authoritarian streak.

Nevertheless, Vučić’s Serbia is in a distinctly different geopolitical position than Orbán’s Hungary, and the country’s love affair with autocracy could potentially undermine its EU aspirations. Membership for Serbia is still a ways off, but as it begins
to take a more defined shape—the country’s candidacy was officially declared in 2014—undemocratic tendencies provide
an easy excuse for European leaders still suffering from expansion fatigue to turn Serbia away. Though respect of “democratic values,” a criterion for EU membership, is notoriously difficult to quantify, its absence is easy to spot; few would argue that Vučić’s intimidation of journalists constitutes an effort to ““promote and encourage… civil rights and freedoms.” Ignoring both the letter and spirit of the organization’s law does not appear an effective strategy for Vučić to prove his personal commitment to freedom of the press and, more broadly, EU membership.

Vučić seems to want to have it both ways: liberal policies under a repressive government. While he has pushed aside strident nationalist voices and begun the long journey toward resolving the Kosovo issue, he has also silenced the independent Serbian media, and the threat of Serbia’s young democratic institutions collapsing is all too real. These conflicting political strategies may have served him well thus far, but they are ultimately irreconcilable. European Union membership will eventually require real democratic progress, and the course Vučić has charted in that regard is diametrically opposed to one that can ready Serbia for EU accession. In the meantime, Serbian progress will likely stall, with the country precariously on the verge of authoritarian relapse.

Image source: Wikimedia // Leon E. Panetta // Patrick Gllogjani

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