By Jasmin Mujanovic*
Aleksandar Vucic is the new President of Serbia. But the extent to which this was a foregone conclusion, ahead of the recent election, is precisely the problem.
Vucic’s control over his Serbian Progressive Party, the media, and the public administration, was already decidedly “illiberal”. But with his only true competitor, Tomislav Nikolic, now fully out of the way, Vucic genuinely stands alone.
Brussels seems unconcerned. If anything, the EU is relieved that its man in Belgrade has cemented his rule, providing it with a credible lynchpin for its efforts to reign in the perpetually problematic Western Balkans.
The EU has hedged virtually its entire foreign policy muscle in the region since 2012 on Belgrade. To the Brussels establishment, Vucic is a determined reformer, a decisive leader and a man who can deliver results.
Serbia’s civil society, however, more fully realizes the implications of one-man rule. Thousands of people have been out in the streets, night after night, angry especially at the virtual media blackout of opposition candidates during the election.
Student groups are calling for the depoliticization of the public broadcaster and the public administration. Looming above it all is the spectre of Vucic’s erstwhile boss, Slobodan Milosevic.
He was the last man to “win” in the first round of a Serbian presidential election and the last one civil society mobilized against en masse. Though mostly composed of students in their mid-twenties, the crowds clearly know their history.
The new president’s post-election conduct has hardly assuaged doubts about these ominous comparisons. Like his predecessor, Vucic blames a shadowy “old regime” for attempting to “destroy Serbia,” while his underlings in parliament cast sinister aspersions on activists and journalists.
Even the New York Times editorial board, hardly a frequent voice in Balkan affairs, has sounded the alarm. “Having severely curtailed press freedom and marginalized political opposition,” they wrote of the election result, “[Vucic’s] concentration of power bodes ill for Serbian democracy”.
Naturally, the EU’s obtuse technocrats will likely ignore these warnings. Brussels has a poor track recording of defending civil society.
Recall only the bloc’s response to the Ukrainian Euromaidan, the Bosnian protests in 2014, or even the recent crisis concerning the CEU in Hungary: tepid, ambivalent, and passionless.
As with the Turkish refugee deal, the EU’s energy often seems primarily reserved for strongmen – not their critics or opponents.
Brussels’ preference for dealing exclusively with elites is such that even an illiberal cabal is preferable to a tumultuous mass. Germany’s foreign minister has already praised Vucic for his handling of the protests.
Europeans are so dependent on Vucic as a “factor of stability” that they praise the man for not violating the basic right to assembly as if it were a great feat of liberal statesmanship.
We know where this policy of accommodation will lead. Serbia will continue to be ushered through the accession process by the EU but Belgrade will fail to reap the ultimate prize.
Sooner or later, Brussels will demand that Vucic ease his grip on power and/or genuinely turn the page with Kosovo. He is prepared do neither.
In the meantime, Serbia’s opposition will eventually find its legs and future elections will become more competitive. But Vucic will again be loath to accept this reality and will foment internal and external crises to preserve himself in power.
The playbook is familiar. It is how Milosevic dealt with the West, alternating between “pyromaniac and fire fighter.” More recently, it is the same path that the Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik and Nikola Gruevski of Macedonia have walked.
Both were once darlings of the US and the EU, men the West could do business with. They, too, promised all manner of reforms in exchange for economic and political support for their regimes. And they, too, turned on the nationalist-authoritarian dime once these demands for reform began to include a peaceful transfer of power.
What is unique about Vucic is the already cavernous gap between what he has delivered and what Brussels has gifted him. Domestically, as noted, the climate is clearly proto-authoritarian.
In the region, the Kosovo-Serbia dialogue is a shambles, Serbia and Croatia are beset by perpetual acrimony, Serbia’s relationship with Albania is little better, and Vucic has demonstrated no meaningful commitment to reining in Dodik, Belgrade’s de-facto proxy.
And for all of this, Serbia is first in line for EU membership among the “Western Balkan Six.” EU commissioners privilege visits to Belgrade over any other capital in the region – even Zagreb, an EU member state – and their mouths are full of praise for Vucic’s supposedly hardnosed, pragmatic leadership.
Granted, Belgrade’s much touted “neutrality” is increasingly veering into Russian satellite status, and Freedom House has downgraded Serbia’s democracy to its lowest point since 2005, and, yes, there are those kids in the streets shouting “no to dictatorship!” But Vucic is keeping the Balkans “stable” we’re told, and for the EU, this is all that matters.
Alas, as with Milosevic, Dodik, and Gruevski, the Vucic brand of stability will be short-lived. Indeed, it is doubtful whether it ever existed.
Already there is talk of another parliamentary election – the fourth since 2012 – to complete Vucic’s decimation of the opposition and to further his patrimonial control over the remains of Serbia’s electoral system.
The country is already a “managed” democracy in all but name yet Vucic is unlikely to be satisfied with mere managerialism.
Simply, Vucic is a crisis on layaway; he is the former Yugoslavia’s autocrat in-waiting. Both Brussels and Washington have been warned by civil society, by the policy community, and by the independent media of his intentions.
These warnings have been ignored for years and so the die is cast. It remains only to be seen just how detrimental the consequences of his regime will be for the region as a whole.
What is certain, however, is that the protests in Serbia are a small preview of how Vucic’s tenure will inevitably end. It will end as it always does for autocrats, in the street and not at the ballot box. Hopefully by then, the EU will be on the right side of history.
*Dr Jasmin Mujanović is a political scientist specializing in the politics of southeastern Europe and the politics of post-authoritarian and post-conflict democratization. His first book, “Hunger and Fury: The Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans” is now available for pre-order from Hurst Publishers.
The opinions expressed in the Comment section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.
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