We are living in a thrilling period for politics, having many crucial elections in a row, which will shape the geopolitical outlook of the world – or, at least, the West – for many decades. We started with the Brexit referendum. On the 9th of November, we were up all night to see the winner of the US presidential election. Now, after a brief Dutch interlude (outcome of which was a comparatively surprising status quo), we are all patiently waiting for the two major economies of continental Europe to choose their new leaders and, hopefully, set the future (or the end?) of the European Union.
However, while we were all concerned with the upcoming siege of Gibraltar and the newest French polls (guess what: Macron and Le Pen are still around 25%), many of us have missed another interesting happening for our continent. Presidential election in Serbia, 1st April 2017.
Well, the former PM Aleksander Vučić won 55% of the vote in the first round, defeating a weak opposition (the strongest competitor got only 16%) and avoiding a second-round runoff. The turnout was low, at about 54%, and protests started almost immediately afterwards. They consider the elections rigged, since Vučić and his party, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), manipulated the media, getting a disproportionate share of coverage. Moreover, the protesters also claim that the Electoral Commission was not impartial.
Anyway, the SNS confirmed its supremacy over the national scenario: it has held the relative majority of seats in the National Assembly since 2012, and it faces an increasingly fragmented opposition. Indeed, in the parliamentary election of last year, they got 131 seats out of 250, while the first opposition party only had 22.
During the electoral campaign, Vučić was the only candidate who met powerful foreign leaders, namely the German chancellor Merkel and Russian president Putin. His reputation abroad is solid; indeed, he is seen as the pivotal leader of the whole Western Balkans region. Lately, the US president Trump sent his greetings and encouraged the Serbian efforts towards EU membership. Formally, the Serbian presidents mainly have a ceremonial role. Nevertheless, Vučić is confident that he will still be able to hold control over the government and the parliament by appointing a loyal figure as PM - who is yet to be chosen - and through his close ally Gojkovic, the speaker of the Parliament.
THE MAN, THE POLICIES, THE FRIENDS
The position of SNS and Vučić in the political spectrum is not well-defined. They call themselves ‘progressive’ and govern in a coalition with a Socialist Party, the SPS. Both share nationalist stances, and we may say that they come from a conservative past and are becoming, at least in some areas, liberal.
In his first executive role, Vučić served as Minister of Information from 1998 to 2000, under a repressive government, which took severe censorship measures and fought brutally against the Kosovo secessionists during the Kosovo War of 1998/1999. Afterwards, coming back to executive power in 2012, he confessed that he had made many political mistakes and claimed that he had changed. Indeed, he promoted a series of privatization reforms and fiscal consolidation, following a more liberal approach. In the last years, unemployment halved – from 25% to 13%, the debt has become more sustainable and GDP has been growing at a good pace. Yet, the Serbian economy is one of the less advanced of the continent and poverty remains a widespread phenomenon.
As far as foreign policy is concerned, Vučić has followed the same strategy as his predecessor, Nikolić: he tries to push for joining the European Union while it maintains strong ties with Moscow. This potentially dangerous game has been successful so far. Serbia is making progress on their path towards EU membership. Following the common procedure established with the Eastern enlargement of 2004, the Stabilization and Association Agreement was signed in 2007 - a preliminary treaty which formalizes the application of the country and sets the structure of the following Accession Conferences. In these meetings, Serbia is proceeding fairly well.
However, Kosovo is still an unsolved issue. The region declared independence in 2008, and the tensions eased only when EU brokered an agreement in 2013. The legal validity of the document is questionable, though, as the Serbian parliament did not ratify it as a binding law. Indeed, Belgrade has not yet recognized the independence of the country – which, instead, needs to happen before the EU admission, given that Kosovo itself is an EU membership candidate.
On the other hand, Moscow is a historical friend and is perceived as a major business partner by the majority of the population, which does not acknowledge the more relevant relations with other EU partners. Russia has many media outlets which can easily spread disinformation and Kremlin propaganda, as the country lacks Western counterparts. BBC, for example, does not even offer news in Serbian. Unsurprisingly, Serbia decided not to align itself with the EU sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis.
Furthermore, Moscow is about to give warplanes and tanks to Belgrade as a gift – but there is not such a thing as free lunch.
Russian presence in Wester Balkans is worrying. The EU has only recently renewed its commitment in the region. The latest important event was the admission of Croatia into the bloc as its 28th (soonish 27th) member. Since then, there has been a failed coup by Russians in Montenegro. In January, a train from Serbia crossed the Kosovo borders, bringing the message ‘Kosovo is Serbia’; a Russian involvement is not to be ruled out .The tension between Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, and Belgrade rose again: the president of Kosovo has decided that it is high time for the country to have its own army in addition to the NATO peacekeepers in the country. Actually, he has recently backed down and declared that the creation of the army will not be immediate, since it needs a constitutional reform – but he will still proceed with it. Sooner or later, Belgrade will have troops controlled by another government in what it considers its own soil.
THE EU PERSPECTIVE
European leaders count on Vučić to be the man (may Kissinger forgive me) who answers the phone when they want to call the Western Balkans. Thus, they tend to ignore the authoritarian nuances of his government. For example, he helped stop a referendum on the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and he is one of the strongest supporters of the single market the EU hopes to see established between the ex-Yugoslavia countries and Albania before any further enlargement takes place in the region.
Notwithstanding the trust and reputation he gained in Berlin and Brussels, there is the possibility that Vučić is not the stabilizing actor the region needs. In fact, the turnout for the election was very low. Many Serbians have completely lost faith in the political class. Even if they did not abstain, almost 10% of the voters chose to vote for the satirical candidate Maksimovic, a university student without any political program but to denounce the corruption of the other parties. Therefore, the large approval he seems to enjoy may be much more fragile. Vučić claims he is going to defeat corruption in the Serbian society, but he very carefully ignores the corruption inside his own party. Furthermore, his ties with the Kremlin are undeniable.
Given that after creating the Western Balkans single market, completing the due economic reforms and solving the issues with freedom of press and Kosovo, Serbia finally enters EU by 2020 (unrealistically soon, but that is the SNS target): we would not only have a Putin-friendly government in European Council, but a whole country whose relations and friendship with Russia are deeply rooted and not new-born, and possibly volatile, as in Western Europe.
Is Vučić the right man to lead Belgrade into Europe? Above all, can the EU afford to accept Serbia? Would it not make the decision-making process in Brussels even slower and more complex?
Anyways, the EU needs to be present in Western Balkans. The US seem to have acknowledged the key role of the region, as the Senate has voted for the admission of Montenegro to the NATO a few days ago, despite the attitude of the Trump administration towards the Atlantic Alliance. Russia certainly cares about the delicate relations and balance between the ex-Yugoslavia members, and it is definitely willing to alter them for its own benefits. The European Union needs to show to the world that, despite Brexit, despite the rise of Eurosceptic populism, it is still able to manage the tensions within its own continent.
It needs to show that it is still capable of acting, and that it is going to be there.