Global Independent Analytics
Aleksandar Mitić
Aleksandar Mitić

Location: Serbia

Specialization: Balkans, NATO and EU policies, Strategic communications

Serbian elections: how long can Belgrade keep the balance?

Brussels and Washington are keen on finishing their “independent Kosovo project” – rounding up the secession of the province from Serbia, which they have been masterminding for the last two decades.

No matter how hard political marketing strategists try, they are unlikely to persuade Serbian voters that Sunday’s parliamentary elections are historic and decisive. The results, however, could have a strong effect on Serbia’s strategic foreign policy orientation, and thus on the geopolitics of the Balkans.  

On the surface, everything is more or less known: Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić is heading for a second landslide victory in two years. Polls indicate his coalition, led by the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), will obtain between 44-53% of the vote. The only dilemma is whether his coalition will obtain an absolute majority in the 250-seat parliament, or whether he will need a minor partner to form the government.

Vučić’s rule will in fact continue to be challenged by international sources of pressure, by pro-Western liberals that accuse him of „autocratic rule“, and by pro-Russian parties that accuse him of being a „Western puppet“. Interestingly, the most popular political product during the election has come not from the political parties, but from the rap group „Beogradski sindikat“, whose song „The System is Lying to you“, published on YouTube on 19th April, only five days ahead of the polls, got 2 million views in 48 hours (http://bit.ly/1pdqj62). The video notably features a man wearing a mask of Vučic’s face being pampered by the masks of Angela Merkel and Hillary Clinton.

Only two years ago, in March 2014, Vučić already won an absolute majority. Yet, he decided to include in the government the second largest party in the country, the Socialist Party (SPS) of current Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić. The two have been in power since 2012, when Dačić became Prime Minister following a surprise defeat for the pro-Western liberals. Vučić’s decision to include the socialists in the 2014 government was seen by critics as an anticipated scapegoat strategy should things go wrong, as Dačić could be blamed for the inefficiency of the government. The same can be said for foreign policy, where Dačić’s links to Moscow (which dates back to the 1990’s) have at times been tampered by Vučić’s renewed pro-Western orientation. The Vučić-Dačić coalition thus seemed to be a fine match for the neutral position Serbia had to have during the 2015 OSCE Chairmanship.

However, while Serbia is militarily neutral – 74% of the population is against NATO membership and only 14% are in favor according to an April 19th poll – it is in the process of EU integration and is actively negotiating with Brussels. Until now, Brussels was grudging but flexible about Serbia’s neutrality and links with Moscow, as it is fully aware that the pro-EU elites cannot sway the pro-Russian feelings of the Serbs – anywhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of the population are favorable to Russia and polls indicate the trend of support to Moscow continues to rise.

Furthermore, Brussels and Washington are keen on finishing their “independent Kosovo project” – rounding up the secession of the province from Serbia, which they have been masterminding for the last two decades. For this, they need cooperation from the government in Belgrade. Serbia is the only country in the history of EU membership applicants that has to fulfill a unique chapter of negotiations – Chapter 35 – which is related to the “normalization” of relations between Belgrade and the Albanian secessionist authorities in Priština.

Brussels thus, apart from the traditional negotiation conditions, has two special sticks for Serbia – the Kosovo chapter and Chapter 31 on harmonizing with EU foreign and security policy. Once Chapter 31 is opened, Belgrade would have to begin harmonizing its foreign policy with the EU, which is particularly tricky for Serbia given that it has refused to impose sanctions on Russia. Aware of this tricky position, the Baltic countries, Poland and Sweden have been pushing for a rapid opening of the negotiations chapter in order to lure Serbia into the sanctions fold.

As a trailer of pressure to come, Western media outlets have been portraying the Serbian elections in pure geopolitical frames: “Ultranationalism and Russia colour Serbia’s elections” (http://bit.ly/1rnSvVV), “Russia pulling on Serbia as Serbian elections looms” (http://bit.ly/1qEKPxC), “Pro-Russians set for comeback in Serbia” (http://bit.ly/1ScRFFi).

Western alarmist reports have incited sarcasm in the Belgrade press: “The closer we get to the polls, the more we learn about ourselves from the Western media. According to our Western colleagues, Serbia today is a country under the mighty effects of Russian influence, organized crime, and ultranationalist right-wing forces. Had I been born yesterday, I would have not had a clue that we are talking about a country that is an official EU membership applicant, with numerous media and non-governmental organizations that have been financed by Europe and the USA”, writes Bojan Bilbija, columnist of Belgrade’s daily “Politika”.

The extent of phobia about “growing Russian influence” has gone as far as creating a database of 105 pro-Russian NGOs, political parties and movements in Serbia (http://bit.ly/1SxpJxV), which was financed by the Rockfeller Brothers Fund and compiled by the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies, a leading NGO propagating NATO membership for Serbia.

Paradoxically, the only issue that has created uproar during the election time has been the signing of a technical agreement between Serbia and NATO in February. The agreement stirred negative backlash in public opinion. As result, Vučić included on his electoral list known anti-NATO proponents, such as Nenad Popović, leader of the pro-Russian Serbian People’s Party (SNP), and Miroslav Lazanski, Serbia’s leading military columnist.

Vučić is indeed facing pressure from pro-Russian parties that are likely to (re-)enter the new parliament after a two-year absence: the Serb Radical Party (SRS) of Vojislav Šešelj, recently acquitted of war crimes allegations by the Hague tribunal, and the coalition of Dveri-Demoratic Party of Serbia (DSS), headed by Boško Obradović and Sanda Rašković-Ivić, which are both projected at 5-10% by the polls.

On the other side, three pro-Western coalitions are aiming at passing the 5% census threshold – the Democratic Party of Bojan Pajtić, the Prime Minister of the Vojvodina province (DS), the openly pro-NATO coalition led by former Serbian president Boris Tadić (SDS), and „Dosta je bilo“, led by former Vučić’s minister of economy, Saša Radulović.

Thus, Vučić’s choice of partner in the future government – no matter whether he obtains an absolute majority or not – will likely be an indication of the future of Serbian foreign policy. He has already stated he will not sign a pact with the pro-Russian parties. His choice among the pro-Western parties – if he opts for that direction - would likely be Tadic’s pro-NATO coalition. We could also see „more of the same“ with Vučić deciding to continue his partneship with Dačić, and thus a delicate balancing game between Western aspirations of the leadership and Russian leanings of the Serb population. This option seems to be the safest for Vučić as he continues to walk the thin line, at least for the time being.

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