On 20 November 2021, the President of the Republic of Serbia, Alexander Vucic, gave an interview in Belgrade, where he discussed the most important issues affecting his country today. Asked how he felt about the fact that the US did not invite him to the Democracy Summit, he said:
“Many people try to teach me something, both with regard to European political parties and some American congressional secretaries, but when I read their texts referring to me, I understand that these people struggle to understand what is happening here (in Serbia), they have never been here. And then you can understand that behind all this there is a great interest, both economic and political.”
From the tone taken in this latest interview, the president reconfirms his path, he maintains his step towards EU integration but does not forget the relationship with major powers, including Russia and China.
He does not hide his deep sympathy towards Russian President Vladimir Putin and condemns Turkey’s expansionism towards the Balkans stating that Erdogan’s influence on its borders is evident:
“There is great Turkish influence in the Balkans, we consider Turkey a friendly state (like Russia), but we have different visions on many aspects. We have different relations for example in Kosovo, Turkey has one position, we have another. Publicly there are also very strong statements, President Erdogan has declared that he will demand greater recognition of Kosovo, and I replied that Serbia will do everything to avoid this’.
The issue of Kosovo is indeed the most sensitive one for Serbia, not only in the context of European integration and relations with NATO, but also in the development of the strategic partnership with Russia. The position of external actors on this issue is fundamentally different, which can only complicate the internal political situation. While Moscow advocates “that Belgrade and Pristina reach a viable and mutually acceptable solution for the Kosovo settlement based on UN Security Council Resolution 1244”, the EU’s consolidated position was outlined as early as February 2018 by the then German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel: “Serbia cannot join the EU without recognising Kosovo’s independence”.
Thus, there remains a suspended political and emotional expectation of a European future against the backdrop of the EU’s “prohibitive” demands. To realise them, Serbia “will have to climb Everest”, which does not mean “conquering” the EU. In fact, the Serbs themselves are not ready for that either. A recent opinion poll, published by the newspaper Blitz, shows a record decline in sympathy for the EU: the number of people who support EU integration has dropped by 17% to 35%, while 38% of Serbs are against it.
And this is where the greatest tension can be felt: Serbia is hardening like a hedgehog. Surrounded by NATO on all fronts, its defence budget has increased by 70% in recent years, investing over $1.6 billion a year, more than Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania and Macedonia combined. The help of Russia and China both as its guarantors of Sovereignty in the United Nations, and in the supply of cheap gas to Belgrade, as well as the aforementioned joint collaboration in the military sphere and the 17+1 format in which China is investing a great deal.
On the other hand, the continuous pressure from Brussels to force Belgrade to recognise the umpteenth Albanian “policy” without guarantees of European integration has a double effect on internal politics. On the one hand, it has a negative effect on national psychology, creating apathy and defeatism. On the other hand, it creates a breeding ground for revisionist and chauvinist sentiments, especially among the youth. Such a dichotomy can have unpredictable consequences. The stable development of the country without excesses and upheavals (Serbs have had too many of these in the last 30 years) depends not only on the authorities, but also on the opposition.
Over the past year, the small and rather disparate opposition has acquired organisational and tactical skills to stratify protests.
Leaders of the main opposition forces, the Union for Serbia, visited western capitals, where they were welcomed in parliaments and executive structures.
But Serbian ex National Assembly Speaker Maja Gojkovic’s ‘concern’ about growing authoritarianism and a decline of democracy in Serbia is also confirmed by internationally prominent bodies such as Freedom house:
“the Newspaper reports that the number of arrests and prosecutions for corruption in Serbia has increased in recent years, and high-profile convictions are very rare”. Critics accuse Vučić and the government of having links to organised crime, and cronyism, in the form of jobs provided to allies of the president and the ruling party, is reported to be common. Responsibility for prosecuting corruption cases has been passed between several public prosecutors, who typically blame the police for providing insufficient evidence in cases against government ministers. The work of the ACA is also undermined in part by the ambiguous division of responsibilities between other entities charged with fighting corruption.
Notable cases that have come to light in recent years without being resolved include those of Nenad Popović, a minister without portfolio implicated in a questionable privatisation that led to a manufacturer of electrical transformers going bankrupt; Finance Minister Siniša Mali, whom anti-corruption agencies have investigated on suspicion of money laundering; and Health Minister Zlatibor Lončar, who allegedly has links to an organised crime group”.
The European Commission has also commented on the current situation in Serbia, but moderately assessing the Democratic decline, perhaps in order not to stop the channels of communication already established:
“Serbia has a certain level of preparedness in the fight against corruption. Limited progress has been made in the reporting period. Serbia has yet to adopt a new anti-corruption strategy accompanied by an action plan and to establish an effective coordination mechanism to operationalise the policy objectives of prevention or repression and effectively tackle corruption. The number of indictments and the number of first instance convictions in high-level corruption cases have further decreased compared to previous years. Serbia needs to step up efforts to address these shortcomings and intensify prevention and prosecution of corruption”.
Finally, it can be stated at this point that the current unstable situation in the region is not conducive to improving the democratic quality of Balkan governments. Including Serbia, one can see a constant militarisation where the tendency towards authoritarianism is encouraged by the external enemy constantly in the forefront of the national media as a reason for polarisation and consensus-building.
Also in this interview, the president of Serbia does not rule out a tightening of relations with Kosovo, stating that a potential escalation with NATO may occur in the future.
Indeed, there is ‘an increase in the exploitation of criticality’, which leads to the most negative consequences: possible elections could become the trigger for a serious crisis and even the collapse of the country’s political system.
Recent history is full of examples, where in a context of struggle for influence, territory and resources, political technologies and manipulative practices significantly complicate the passage of almost any country through the eye of the needle of democracy.
To conclude, one last brief remark. The states of Post-Yugoslavia as well as the post-Soviet states have many similarities, especially if we compare them in their democratic development. They all come from a socialist past. The reformism, the enthusiasm, the nationality issue of the multi-ethnic states in the last century created great instability in both regions. Very often people talk about hybrid regimes, or competitive authoritarianism in reference to these states. It still takes time for democracy to consolidate in these countries, especially given how long these peoples have spent in democracy.
Some successful examples, such as Slovenia, Croatia or Estonia, have managed to overcome the communist era by integrating more with the West at the end of the Iron Curtain. But this can only happen, with the effective influence of the EU, which, however, in this case is not very interesting in the diplomatic resolution of the conflicts in the Balkans. Only when this happens could we see a truly democratised Serbia and not one inclined to authoritarianism sympathetic to Russia and China.