Serbia between domestic tensions and regional responsibilities
Protests in Serbia against President Aleksandar Vucic and the conservative Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Srpska Napredna Stranka) have grown in recent weeks without interruption. However, despite the street rallies, now extended well beyond Belgrade, the government remains in a stable position. President Vucic hinted at the beginning of January that he might call for snap elections, but opposition parties reiterated that they would not participate in voting under what they describe as “the current unfair conditions”. They call, instead, for a “transitional government” of experts, with a one-year mandate, after which fair elections would be held. The European Commission’s assessment, meanwhile, hints at serious shortcomings in judiciary independence and freedom of expression.
Nebojsa Zelenovic, the Mayor of Sabac, one of the three municipalities not controlled by the SNS, spoke at the Council of Europe about “abuses against those who are not considered to be loyal to the central government.”
In an assessment of the April 2017 presidential election, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported biased media coverage, an undue advantage of incumbency, and a blurred distinction between campaign and official activities undermined the level playing field for contestants.
Serbia remains in a very peculiar situation on the international scene, where President Vucic has been entrusted with the task of delivering on the issue of Kosovo, beginning with the normalisation of relations. An “associate member” of the European Peoples Party (EPP), the biggest and most influential political group in the European Union, Vucic entertains very good relations with a wide spectrum of political leaders, a useful instrument when it comes to gathering public opinion behind Serbia’s national interests.
In the current tense geopolitical constellation of the Balkans, Serbia remains a key player whose stability and internal political situation have the power to affect the entire region, more so than any other country. In a moment in which the domestic scene in Bosnia Herzegovina seems dictated by growing differences and blockages between the three-member presidency, an assertive and divisive Serbian influence over the region could destabilize the fragile cooperation that exists between the three entities. This could cause a disruption in the dialogue that would at this stage reveal fatal, given the heavy deadlock that has characterized Bosnia Herzegovina over the last decade.
Serbia’s stability and readiness to cooperate are essential to ease relations with Kosovo and to both countries’ positioning, not only within the European Union but as actors on the global scene. The tensions that have arisen after Kosovo’s government introduced 100% levies on agricultural products from Serbia (and Bosnia Herzegovina) were followed by Pristina’s bold move to declare the transition of its security forces into a real 5,000 unit military force, tasked with protecting the territory, as well as crisis management. NATO’s criticism of Kosovo’s decision did not stop its parliament from approving the law proposal, 20 years after Kosovo Albanians’ uprising against Serbian rule and eleven years after independence.
The role of the United States, the United Kingdom and some other NATO members, as well as Switzerland, which hosts a strong Kosovan community, in supporting Kosovo’s army, has been instrumental to its development. Training, equipment and other forms of aid have been guaranteed, along with a commitment to politically resolve the status of Kosovo in the months to come.
The United States’ role in the Balkans has changed since the Kosovo conflict, but it still remains key to the stability of the region, in particular in the pivotal area of Northern Kosovo. Russia and the United States exercise their influence over Serbia and Kosovo as if on a chess board, trying to push the European Union to act as a defender of the democratic principles and guarantor of the rule of law in areas where political tensions mirror and reflect the two power’s conflicts elsewhere.
Serbia’s political stability is key to putting in place a pragmatic and sustainable resolution of the border issue with Kosovo: border changes that creating ethnic lines and divides would generate more instability and resentment in the population, where lives would be strongly affected if Kosovo were to lose its northern part and its Kosovo Serb community, and gain an Albanian ethnic territory instead. A solution is urgent and it must bring a final status for Kosovo, in order to promote general development in the area.
Tensions between Belgrade and Pristina have reached a new peak and failure to resolve the border dispute represents a heavy burden for their respective advancement towards EU membership.
A dilution of respect for democratic principles and internal rule of law can effectively slow down Serbia’s advancement on the EU path, as several government officials and academic institutions have recently highlighted in reports on the state of advancement towards meeting key EU accession criteria. The protests, therefore, arrive at a moment when Serbia is being questioned on its future political agenda and choices to come, which involve a decision between a continued allegiance to Russia or joining the EU block (including accepting and subscribing to democratic principles that are at present being tested across Europe).
Critics of President Vucic say that his “light authoritarianism” is a product of modern times, a populist trend known already in countries like Russia and Turkey where the adherence to national values fuels the myth that the nation is the strongest common denominator of the population, the sole guarantor of national interests and opposed to supra-national values. EU membership implies a truly law-based system set on fundamental human rights and elements of a “post-national” identity.
The historical friendship between Serbia and Russia is based on traditional, emotional, political and religious grounds (orthodox Christianity), even though economically the EU is by far the first trade partner of Serbia and the biggest investments come from EU countries. Russia continues to support the Serbian position on rejecting the independence of Kosovo, while Serbia does not support EU sanctions against Russia, even if obliged to follow the common position by adhering to the Stabilisation and Association agreement between Serbia and EU. The EU has tolerated this choice so far, claiming that alignment with EU positions on international issues has to be achieved gradually in the process of accession.
The country is therefore acting as a critical player on different fronts, bringing forward the EU integration process while maintaining close relations with Russia, as Serbia is the perfect strategic partner in a region where almost everybody else is part of NATO: Serbia is surrounded by NATO countries (Croatia, Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Montenegro and the soon-to-be Republic of North Macedonia), while NATO is in Kosovo with its military presence. Through Belgrade, Russia can heavily influence Bosnia Herzegovina where ethnic Serbs control half of the country (entity of Republika Srpska), aiming at preventing the country from joining NATO.
Another pillar of Serbian foreign policy is represented by the Non Aligned Movement: many countries in Africa and Asia do not recognize Kosovo’s independence and have proven instrumental in blocking Kosovo’s entry into InterPol.
Serbia entertains excellent relations with many Muslim countries, such as the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, which are very big investors in the country. Relations with Iran are also positive and Serbia lifted visas for Iranians coming into the country, reintroducing them only after the EU asked the government to put an end to a situation that caused thousands of Iranians using the visa free travel to Serbia to illegally travel into the EU and claim asylum.
Serbia’s proximity with Russia, its process of membership with the EU and the friendly relations the country has with the United States make it a very chameleonic and one-of-a-kind actor within a region in which the principles of belonging, membership and clan mentality tend to rule society and politics.
Serbia’s internal evolution and its alignment on the international scene are at present completely interdependent from one another. The new European Parliament that will be elected during the May elections will have to deal with the concerns about the rule of law in the country, independence of the judiciary and the effectiveness of the fight against corruption.
Serbia’s main responsibility at the European level is to resolve the Kosovo issue: in short, it has the potential to act as a key country, for good and bad.