Can Europe Make It?

Competing conservatisms in Serbia and Croatia

Nationalist conservatives are dominating the political scenes in Serbia and Croatia, but how do they compare and differ in the way they rule?

Vassilis Petsinis
11 July 2017

Serbian PM Ana Brnabic, who is openly gay, was nominated for the position by President Aleksandar Vucic, leader of the nationalist conservative SNS. Predrag Milosavljevic/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved.The last few years have witnessed the domination of Serbia’s and Croatia’s political landscapes by two, nominally, conservative parties of the centre-right: the Serbian Progressive Party-SNS and the Croatian Democratic Community-HDZ.

Despite their shared Yugoslav heritage, the evolutionary trajectories of these two parties into prevalent political actors are qualitatively different. The main questions here are: How did the SNS and the HDZ come to dominate Serbia’s and Croatia’s political spectrums? What does this tell us about the outlooks of these two parties towards the EU?

SNS: reformation as de-radicalization

On 24 February 2003, the Serbian Radical Party-SRS leader, Vojislav Sešelj, surrendered himself to the ICTY. Although he officially retained party-leader status, the actual administration passed into the hands of Tomislav Nikolić; one of Sešelj’s most trusted associates.

Back then, Aleksandar Vučić was a young and ambitious SRS-cadre who had served as Information Minister in Mirko Marjanović’s short-lived government (1998-2000). At that early stage, Nikolić and Vučić vowed to preserve Sešelj’s legacy. Vučić especially castigated the EU for its ‘blatant disregard’ of Serbian national interests and its ‘cultural imperialism’ (e.g. the alleged ‘imposition’ of LGBT rights). He even contributed the foreword for a book, published by Vojislav Sešelj in 2005, bearing the title: ‘English homosexual minnow: Tony Blair’ (Serbian title: ‘Engleski pederski isprdak: Toni Bler’).

Throughout most of the 2000s, the SRS exerted a powerful appeal to rural voters and to certain segments of the urban proletariat. The party succeeded in maintaining the groupness of an electorate which consisted of target-groups as heterogeneous as: anti-Western nationalists; former voters of Slobodan Milošević’s Socialist Party-SPS; and various ‘losers’ of the transition. However, the SRS never made it to the halls of power as result of last moment cordon sanitaire arrangements among the centrist and centre-right parties.

These political forces had been marred by fragmentation which was subject to conflicting ideological prerogatives or, even worse, inter-personal antipathies. For instance, the legalistic and statist political culture of the Democratic Party of Serbia-DSS often came at odds with the ‘Third Way’ outlooks adopted by the centrist Democratic Party-DS. Meanwhile, the simultaneous emphasis on the EU accession process and the preservation of conservative values (e.g. the informal partnership between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the state) would render the Serbian Renewal Movement-SPO a peculiarly sui generis political actor.

Tomislav Nikolić started to elaborate more efficient ways for the SRS to capitalize on these cleavages among their rivals and establish a firmer foothold on the political mainstream. In short, he proposed that: lesser emphasis should be put on nationalism; greater stress should be placed on reforming the economy and other domestic issues; the EU accession process should be conditionally endorsed.

After a series of tense disagreements, Nikolić departed from the SRS and was soon joined by Vučić. Officially proclaimed on 21 October, 2008, the Serbian Progressive Party-SNS assumed the identity of a centre-right party and endorsed accession to the EU under the fundamental condition that Serbia’s national interests in its neighbourhood (e.g. Kosovo and Republika Srpska) are effectively safeguarded.

In light of the global economic crisis, the ‘Third Way’ prerogatives, espoused by the DS, quickly lost their popular appeal whereas the other parties have been continuously failing to project a sound alternative to the masses. As result of this reformation process and realignments on the macro-political level, the SNS has come to dominate a continuum that stretches from the boundaries of the liberal centre all the way to the conservative right.

HDZ: reformation as byproduct of systemic transformation

President Franjo Tuđman’s death (10 December 1999) was a watershed for Croatia. The absence of equally charismatic figures within the HDZ and the widespread fatigue after a decade of nationalism and warfare diverted electoral support towards the Social Democrats-SDP. During its term in government, the SDP initiated a systemic transformation which consisted of: the restriction of Presidential competencies; the substantial upgrading of legislation on minority rights; the emphatic commitment to Croatia’s accession process to the EU.

These developments spurred the marginalization of the more nationalistic and Eurosceptic elements within the HDZ as well as this party’s expression of firm endorsement to Croatia’s trajectory towards the EU. Throughout all of this though, the HDZ remained rather critical over the external pressures for steadier cooperation with the ICTY (e.g. the case of general Ante Gotovina) and the public use of Serb Cyrillic script in multiethnic municipalities (e.g. Eastern Slavonia). These external pressures generated discontent among the Croatian public, especially the residents of rural constituencies with the most traumatic memories from the latest conflict.  

The ensuing capitalization on these grievances enabled the HDZ-leader, former PM Ivo Sanader, to form two consecutive governments between 2003 and 2009 (later to be replaced by the new PM, Jadranka Kosor). Meanwhile, the participation of the Independent Democratic Serbian Party-SDSS in the first Sanader government, as a coalition partner, clearly hinted at the HDZ’s substantial reformation or ‘de-Tuđmanization’ (Croatian: Detuđmanizacija).

Throughout that period, the HDZ had to rely on support from coalition partners and did not succeed in establishing itself as a preponderant actor in its own right. Even worse, allegations over Sanader’s direct involvement in acts of fraud took a negative toll on the party’s public image.

Most recently, the HDZ emerged victorious in the 2016 parliamentary elections although it still has to rely on support from smaller coalition partners. Furthermore, President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović was the HDZ nominee for the 2015 presidential elections. The key to the party’s enduring success should be sought in the ‘selective re-appropriation’ of elements from Franjo Tuđman’s legacy which was officially spearheaded by Tomislav Karamarko during his tenure as HDZ-leader.

This change of course seems to resonate with the dominant mood among several layers of the electorate during the last few years. The HDZ, as well as the SNS, have mutually capitalized on varying shades of Euroscepticism in Croatia and Serbia with the objective to enhance the appeal to their target-groups. However, how similar the policymaking patterns of these two parties actually are?  

Conservative values versus political maneuvering  

Croatia’s entry to the EU (2013) brought about several benefits for the country. EU-membership has facilitated Croatia to promote and upgrade its tourist industry whereas, in light of the youth unemployment, it has also enabled a younger generation of highly-qualified professionals to seek employment opportunities within the common European space.

Nevertheless, the persistence of the economic and the refugee crises inside the EU rendered a growing percentage among the Croatian public highly sceptical over the actual timing. Moreover, an extensive network of extra-parliamentary actors has been still seeking political capital out of public grievances over minority rights (e.g. war veteran associations) as well as LGBT rights (e.g. several groupings affiliated to the Catholic Church).

In response to these public grievances, the HDZ granted its assent to the constitutional referendum on the same-sex marriage ban (2013). Most recently, the party endorsed the Zagreb Mayor’s decision to rename Marshall Tito square into the Square of the Republic of Croatia.

This endeavor to remove vestiges of the Communist past and the simultaneous endorsement of conservative values helps forge a rudimentary bridge between the HDZ and, say, the conservative parties of Hungary and/or Poland. By contrast to these governments, during the refugee crisis, Croatia objected to the erection of razor wire fences along its borders.

However, the HDZ-led government staunchly scrutinizes the long-term viability of the EU’s quotas arrangement for refugees. Largely as consequence of the country’s more recent entry to the EU, Eurosceptic speech in Croatia is not as vocal as within the ‘Visegrad Four’ group.

Nevertheless, the party’s attempts to capitalize on cultural Euroscepticism in public discourse (e.g. the allegedly ‘external imposition’ of minority/LGBT rights and the refugee quotas) has elicited the more emphatic embedment of HDZ into the conservative right.

The state of affairs in Serbia seems to be qualitatively different. Although still incorporating a cultural component, the latest wave of Serbian ‘Euroscepticism outside the EU’ has been predominantly geopolitical. During his tenure as the Serbian President (2012-2017), Tomislav Nikolić concretized the doctrine of ‘Balkan’ foreign policy.

Without halting the EU-accession process, this notion addresses a foreign policy of equal distance from Euro-Atlantic institutions and other global partners (mainly Russia). At an early stage, this pattern of policymaking was prompted by the occasional friction with Brussels and powerful Western governments (e.g. Germany) over Kosovo and other vital issues in regional geopolitics. Within the current context of the economic and the refugee crises, this concept clearly resonates with the declining appeal of the prospective EU-membership among the Serbian public.

Furthermore, the entrenchment of SNS as the preponderant political force has provided President Vučić with plenty of room for tactical and situationally adaptive maneuvering. This has facilitated the Serbian President to placate a broad range of nationalistic/conservative interest groups in the interior (e.g. the historical restitution of controversial figures from the Second World War) while, simultaneously, extending symbolic gestures towards Brussels in regards to the Serbian government’s standard commitment to the EU system of values (e.g. the latest appointment of openly gay Ana Brnabić as PM).

Although it might appear precarious to proceed to solid predictions for the future, it becomes visible that the HDZ has embarked on a more decisive course towards the conservative right in a comparable fashion to centre-right parties in Central Europe (albeit the Eurosceptic voices inside this party remain considerably milder).

Meanwhile, in Serbia, the long-term sustainability of the SNS’ political maneuvering is conditional upon the potential of the other political forces, as well as civic and extra-parliamentary actors, to project a convincing alternative to the electorate.

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