Serbia’s elections present a dilemma for the EU
As tensions with Russia rise, Brussels must decide whether it wants to continue backing an increasingly autocratic government in Belgrade
Serbian voters go to the polls on Sunday to vote in presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections. The incumbent president, Aleksandar Vucic, and his ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) are certain to extend their spell in power into a second decade.
This is the fifth nation-wide vote that Vucic and the SNS have contested since entering government in 2012. In that time, the president and his party have become political juggernauts, winning each election by an increasingly unassailable margin. Although part of this has to be attributed to Vucic’s personal talents and sharp political instincts – he is undoubtedly the shrewdest Serbian politician since former prime minister Zoran Djindjic, who was assassinated in 2003 – a much more significant factor is the impossible electoral conditions faced by the country’s opposition.
Since stepping up from defence minister to prime minister in 2014, and then president in 2017, Vucic has copied from the playbook of his ally and neighbour, Viktor Orban. He has transformed Serbia into a hybrid regime, a mix of democracy and authoritarianism where democratic processes aren’t a total sham – like they are in, say, Belarus or Syria – but where the outcome is never really in doubt.
Vucic has done this by selling off Serbia’s state-owned broadcast and print media to pliant oligarchs and buying the loyalty of most other private media by offering local tycoons low-interest state loans. Nominally independent institutions, such as the national media regulator, have been filled with partisan, pro-government appointees, helping to make Serbian elections nearly as uncompetitive as those in Russia.
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Yet despite this, Vucic’s rule has been given the full-throated backing of the EU. In the run-up to the last parliamentary election in 2020, Donald Tusk, the former head of the European Council, declared on Twitter: “Dear President, you have full right to be proud and satisfied with what you have done for Serbia during your term … Good luck on Sunday.”
This praise was and remains utterly bizarre. The 2020 election was boycotted by Serbia’s opposition parties in order to draw attention to their pointlessness. The SNS ended up winning 75% of parliamentary seats, while only two other parties cleared the 3% threshold for entry into the National Assembly. (This time around, opposition parties are running.)
The EU is also Serbia’s main source of aid, trade and foreign direct investment – by a huge margin. Vucic uses the development that this enables for propaganda purposes, presenting it as proof of his own competence.
Vucic has copied from the playbook of his ally and neighbour, Viktor Orban
In short, Vucic’s increasingly undemocratic rule has been made possible by Brussels. The nature of his government is no secret, which means the EU has willingly chosen so-called ‘stabilocracy’ over democracy in the region. Vucic might not share the EU’s much-romanticised ‘values’, but he is someone that Brussels can do business with.
This is because for all his faults, Vucic has shown no interest in triggering ethnically driven conflict in the region. Stability in the Balkans is clearly more important to the EU than its own self-professed liberal principles. That is understandable realpolitik. Yet Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine has shown just how short-sighted it is to allow one man to take control of an entire state – which is precisely what Brussels has done in Serbia.
Over the past ten years, the SNS – a network of functionaries created for the sole purpose of serving its leader – has effectively supplanted the Serbian state by taking control of every lever of power and neutering any opposition to its rule. This is useful to Brussels because it ensures reliability. But stabilocracy comes with significant risks, because the leader can cancel stability just as easily as he can impose it.
This is what is happening in Russia – and it could well happen in Serbia if Vucic decides that abiding by EU sanctions on Moscow is too much of a political risk. A large portion of the Serbian electorate is deeply Russophile; mass protests in support of the Kremlin became a weekly occurrence in Belgrade throughout March.
For Vucic, Serbia’s ultranationalist Right poses a far greater threat domestically than the moderate opposition he faces in this weekend’s election. As the EU takes a more hostile stance towards Russia, there is a risk that he will become uncooperative. Should that happen, it will be a crisis of Brussels’ own making – and for that reason, the EU needs to change its strategy in the Balkans.
Active support for regime change could have catastrophic consequences
In particular, Brussels should speed up Serbia’s long-delayed EU accession process. This suggestion will alarm many in the EU who think it was a mistake to have admitted Romania and Bulgaria relatively quickly, yet this policy would have significant advantages over the status quo.
Corruption and institutional dysfunction still plague Romania and Bulgaria but – unlike Serbia – the two countries have substantial safeguards against the misuse of executive power. It is highly unlikely that, once inside the EU, Serbia would further weaken its own protections. Admitting the country into the bloc would present huge challenges, as it is far less prepared for entry than either Romania or Bulgaria were in 2007. It could even be argued that neighbouring North Macedonia and Kosovo are more deserving of membership, because of widespread illiberal sentiment in Serbia. But what is the alternative?
Economic sanctions would entrench the siege mentality of the Right, which already sees an anti-Serb agenda everywhere it looks. Revoking visa-free travel within the Schengen zone would mainly isolate the country’s most progressive and pro-European citizens. Slobodan Milosevic proved just how long pariah states can hold out against sanctions. The only other option would be active support for regime change, which could have unintended consequences because it cannot be achieved swiftly and quietly. Any move of this nature would cause instability within Serbia and would likely reverberate across the region. Change in some form, however, is unavoidable.
The EU bet the whole house on Vucic, who has been both pragmatic and cooperative so far. Now it faces an uncomfortable wait to see whether this will continue.
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