International relations have always reminded me of dominoes. When we consider the bigger picture, a seemingly insignificant event or policy can have a significant influence. The fact that Serbian President Vucic is also a staunch Putin supporter would undoubtedly have major ramifications for him, particularly if Putin recognizes Kosovo.
Despite the fact that Serbs welcome Ukrainians, most of them recall the year 1999. Of course, the Serbs could not forget the occupation of Kosovo, one of Milosevic’s most disastrous political moves, and the NATO bombardment, which ended Milosevic’s operation after 78 days. Furthermore, NATO’s extensive bombardment of the former Yugoslav lands in 1999 is the major reason they did not participate in the sanctions against Russia today (Brkic, 2022).
First of all, it would be useful to briefly mention where Vucic’s support came from and from whom he got his power. Since 2014, Vucic, a right-wing populist with close links to Moscow, has led Serbia as prime minister and subsequently president. For a long time, Serbian opposition groups hoped that Zdravko Ponos, the candidate for the centrist Alliance for Victory coalition, would defeat Vucic in the second round of the presidential election by gaining support from his diverse detractors, ranging from Belgrade liberals to far-right nationalists. The opposition hoped to win the election by fielding a candidate against Vucic who could appeal to a wide range of voters, including the far right nationalists. However, opposition leader Ponos was overwhelmingly defeated in the election. Because the incidence of voting for far-right parties in legislative elections and backing Vucic in presidential elections is fairly high, this suggests that far-right voters did not vote for Ponos as it was planned (Bechev, 2022).
However, this might alter in the coming election, with many far-right and even center-right supporters refusing to vote for Vucic. The reason for this is that the Russia-Ukraine conflict did not proceed as planned, and as a result, Putin used Kosovo’s recognition as a negotiating card to get the UN to recognize the local governments in Donbas (Gadzo, 2022). In addition, recently in the UN, Putin told Guterres “the decision of the UN International Court of Justice on Kosovo, that in exercising the right to self-determination, the territory of a state is not obliged to apply for permission to declare its sovereignty to the country’s central authorities.” (Trkanjec, 2022). Nevertheless, before the incident got to this point, Vucic had a lot of confidence in Russia and even said in an interview on a television channel; “That is why our position is so difficult: Serbia has embarked on the European path, Serbia has always supported Ukraine’s integrity, but on the other hand, some eighty-five percent of people will always side with Russia whatever may happen. These are the facts I am faced with as the country’s president.” (TASS, 2022).
Putin may unintentionally lose votes to Vucic
Of course, this will enrage voters on the far right and center-right. In other words, Putin’s stance appears to be costing Vucic a significant number of votes. This appears to be a severe danger to incumbent Vucic, who took office in 2014 and was just re-elected, in the next elections. In other words, Putin may unintentionally lose votes to Vucic and pave the way for democratization by removing Serbia from competitive authoritarianism. This would certainly be very interesting for Balkan politics. Because in this way, Russia may lose one of its most important allies in the Balkans. Vucic and his SNS party are sufficiently established in Serbian politics and state institutions that a party or individual from within Serbia is unlikely to dislodge them (Vladisavljevic & Krstić, 2021).
One of the opposition’s challenges in Serbia is its inability to unite. Nevertheless, Putin may provide it to them, and Putin can, if unknowingly, facilitate the overthrow of Vucic’s leadership by providing materiel to strengthen the Serbian resistance. As Wolchik and Bunce pointed out in their 2009 article, removing the dictator requires mobilizing individuals not merely to vote, but to vote for the opposition (Bunce & Wolchik, 2010) . I genuinely think that the Kosovo problem will have an impact on public mobilization to vote for the opposition.
Putin shifts the course of action by applying win-win strategy
As long as Serbia’s opposition remains severely fragmented and unorganized, Serbian competitive authoritarianism will remain. Furthermore, the majority of Vucic’s votes came from the center and extreme right, according to the election results. Thus, the opposition needs voters in this sentiment to abandon Vucic. The fact that Russia brought Kosovo to the negotiating table is also significant, because the strongest Russian supporters are those who voted for Vucic (Brkic, 2022). I place a high value on Putin’s Kosovo policy, because it stands out as the opposition’s most powerful trump card in the current political environment in Serbia. Putin plans to forsake the concept of reciprocity and shift to a win-win foreign policy after associating the invasion of Crimea in 2014 with NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 and implementing it in his foreign policy till the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Simultaneously, as Putin pursues a win-win strategy, it appears that Vucic will be the the biggest loser. This might open the path for Serbia to achieve democratic accomplishments.
Bechev, D. (2022, April 5). Serbia’s Vucic proved he is here to stay. Elections | Al Jazeera. Retrieved May 4, 2022, from https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2022/4/5/serbias-vucic-proved-that-he-is-here-to-stay
Bunce, V. J., & Wolchik, S. L. (2009). Defeating dictators: Electoral change and stability in competitive authoritarian regimes. World Politics, 62(1), 43–86. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0043887109990207
Brkic, B. (2022, March 3). Russia’s war in Ukraine leaves Serbia stuck between a rock and a hard place. euronews. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2022/03/03/russia-s-war-in-ukraine-leaves-serbia-stuck-between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place
Gadzo, M. (2022, May 11). ‘This game is up’: Serbia urged to take a stand on Ukraine’s war. Russia-Ukraine war News | Al Jazeera. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/5/11/this-game-is-up-how-vucic-balances-his-ties-amid-ukraine-war
85% of Serbians will always support Russia whatever may happen – President Vucic. Tass.com. (n.d.). Retrieved May 23, 2022, from https://tass.com/world/1407763
Trkanjec, Z. (2022, April 28). Serbian diplomat says Putin recognises Kosovo. www.euractiv.com. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/serbian-diplomat-says-putin-recognises-kosovo/
Vladisavljevic, N. & Krstić, A. (2021). Competitive Authoritarianism and Populism in Serbia under Vučić in Political Cartoons.