Serbia is Still Leaning West: Unravelling the Post-Election Landscape

Parliamentary elections in Serbia were another landslide victory for the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). That is not news. The unexpected defeat of the nationalist pro-Russian opposition is.

On the evening of December 17, Aleksandar Vučić, the President of Serbia, declared his party’s overwhelming success at polls, winning twice as many votes as the largest opposition coalition “Serbia against violence” (SPN). This means that the ruling party will have enough MP’s to form a new government. If it continues cooperation with its former coalition partners, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and ethnic Hungarian and Bosniak parties, it will enjoy a comfortable majority that will enable bolder and faster reforms towards the promised goal — full European Union membership. However, there are many obstacles on that path, some of which even the most determined government will not be able to remove on its own.

The key change in the new Assembly will be the absence of the parties that oppose the EU integration of Serbia, advocate closer relations with Russia and blame the government for leniency in the negotiations on the future solution for Kosovo. None of these topics dominated the elections, and thus did not decide the outcome. But because of the highly polarizing campaign between the ruling party and the opposition coalition, which turned the polls into a referendum on Mr. Vučić’s own presidential mandate, the smaller parties lost their seats. It’s an outcome Moscow might not particularly like.

As the results started to emerge, the SPN immediately accused the authorities of election fraud. In Serbia, such accusations by defeated parties have become a political mythology, but they should not be taken lightly. Claims that voter lists were manipulated, if proven, would cast a shadow on the local elections in the capital, Belgrade, where SPN expected to fare better. While the opposition demanded a rerun due to irregularities, it is more likely to occur due to a hung council. However, even with numerous objections regarding the quality of the election process noted by ODHIR/OSCE, a monitoring mission, it is hard to dispute the general impression that the majority of Serbians preferred not yet to change the government.

Political context

Foreign commentators tend to routinely describe Serbia as a "hybrid democracy" and a "captured state”, subject to Mr. Vučić’s authoritarian rule and his pressure on independent institutions, media freedom and political opponents. Although these labels serve for a negative geopolitical branding of this Balkan country, rather than bringing any analytical value in a comparative overview of the political environments in the countries of the wider region, the Serbian political system should be primarily viewed in the light of international circumstances.

These are, above all, influenced by the rivalry between NATO and Russia in Ukraine, the failure of the European enlargement policy and the unresolved status of Kosovo. The second set of factors concerns the economy and technological development, which is marked by rapid GDP growth, problems of energy security, as well as digital and green transformation. All these factors have a strong influence both on the mood of the public and on the choices the Serbian government is forced to make.

President Vučić’s conservatives have run the country since 2012. In 11 years in power, the government has put its mandate to the test five times, including four extraordinary elections. Every time it won by a large margin. Such a frequency of elections was not caused by political instability as the support for the ruling party and its de facto leader remained consistently strong. On the contrary, it seems that the government managed to prevent the opposition from taking advantage of favorable political developments by calling snap elections every time it felt its legitimacy might be called into question.

And there was no shortage of crises. In 2012, Serbia was still recovering from the consequences of the economic turmoil of 2007. This was followed by catastrophic floods in 2014, then the Covid-19 pandemic, and finally, the war in Ukraine with its dramatic geopolitical and economic effects. All the while, the acute diplomatic, and at times, security crisis caused by the unresolved status of Kosovo, has not ceased.

This time, the reason for early elections was the request of the opposition after two unprecedented mass shootings in which tens of children and young people were killed and wounded. The opposition held the government responsible for the political atmosphere from which the mass murderers suddenly emerged. The government faced massive protests and demands for changes in media regulations. The main demands were focused on pro-government outlets which the opposition blamed for inciting violence with extreme content. Although the number of protesters sharply dropped during the summer, this political episode and a series of violent incidents in Kosovo, most notably a clash of armed Serb civilians with the Kosovo police in Banjska, led the opposition parties to believe that Mr. Vučić fell from grace with the West. Thet prompted the snap elections which they have now lost.

There are many reasons for the defeat. SPN will claim that the ruling party’s misuse of public resources and media were decisive. This certainly had an impact, but the opposition leaders must primarily blame themselves for their failures. In order to create the broadest possible front against Vučić, the coalition had to whitewash its ideological and political differences, as well as personal animosities among its leaders. Because of this, SNP could not present a convincing plan that would rival the government’s program. Furthermore, not having much else to build upon, it failed for the SNS maneuver to make the elections a referendum on Mr. Vučić, focusing exclusively on his personality and corruption scandals. That strategy proved to be unsuccessful because the disciplined and powerful political machinery of the SNS managed to mobilize its electorate, promoting economic success, and timing the government's generous social measures before the elections. Its central claim was that all the achievements and big plans for the future would be jeopardized if the opposition won. The opposition candidates failed to propose competent economic policies that would guarantee economic growth, while promises to eradicate corruption did not work because they were often made by individuals who were themselves accused of corruption while in power.

Also, Mr. Vučić, on behalf of his party, openly expressed his views on Kosovo negotiations, the relationship with Russia and the EU and other delicate topics. In contrast, the opposition leaders avoided these matters, fearing internal discord and negative public reactions. It seems that the Serbian leader managed to cover the main pain points of the average Serbians by skillfully positioning the ruling party’s policies, which made it difficult for the opposition to come up with a plausible alternative that would look both distinctive enough and committed enough to the national interest.

Mr. Vučić can boast economic successes as they are well recognized by the leading economic and financial organizations. Serbia has managed to keep its public finances stable and the budget deficit was brought under control after the pandemic and the inflationary shock caused by supply chain disruptons and energy markets reactions to sanctions against Russia. The rapid growth of GDP, which has more than doubled since 2012, was enabled by improvements in business environment that made Serbia more attractive to foreign investors. In 2022 and 2023 it drew over 8.5 billion dollars worth of direct foreign investments, a more than all the other countries of the Western Balkans region combined. This has brought unemployment to a historically low point, which is also reflected in a noticeable rise in living standards.

Although Serbia is still one of the poorest countries in Europe, the gap with some EU members is quickly narrowing. In recent years, the effects of massive investments in transport infrastructure have become visible - highways and high-speed railways now connect major cities. A new airport and a railway station were built in Belgrade, but the construction boom is no longer limited to Belgrade. With new factories, hospitals and schools, housing prices are rising all around Serbia. The government has launched energy and digital transformation programs and encouraged rapid growth of the dynamic ICT sector, which favored the development and application of innovations in industry and agriculture. Ambitious support programs for the development of artificial intelligence and biotechnology are underway, with expected increase in the efficiency and competitiveness of Serbia’s economy, science and healthcare.

Overestimated Russian influence

Mr. Vučić's government managed to maintain a neutral position during the war in Ukraine, condemning Russian aggression, but not imposing sanctions on Russia; staying on the European course, but not fully agreeing to the French-German plan regarding the solution of the Kosovo problem. This position is very popular among the voters in Serbia. There are several reasons why.

First, Serbia does not recognize the self-proclaimed independence of Kosovo, which it considers the cradle of its national identity. It adheres to the international agreement with Western countries that ended NATO's military intervention in 1999 and established an international protectorate under the auspices of the UN. That is why it cannot join the EU because the condition for complete integration is precisely the solution to Kosovo territorial and security problem. And because it does not give up on Kosovo, Serbia must rely on Russia and China’s to keep Kosovo out of the UN. As long as the negotiations facilitated by the European Union are yielding poor results because, despite the guarantees given by the European officials, the Albanian authorities in Kosovo refuse to implement the Brussel Agreements, Serbia will have to remain in coordination with those powers that support its legalistic claims. Second, Serbia is largely dependent on Russian natural gas, which comes at discounted prices through the Turkish Stream gas pipeline. Although additional gas and oil pipelines have recently been built with the help of the EU, which should enable the diversification of energy sources, Serbia is in no position to renounce good relations with Russia.

This mixture of historical, economic and political factors influenced the current government of Serbia to continue the polyvalent foreign policy, inaugurated after 2000, which also had its roots back in Yugoslavia, one of the leading members of the Non-Aligned Movement. Finally, on the psychological level, Russia's support in connection with the main security and territorial problem often overshadows economic aid programs and vague promises of accession offered by the EU.

Yet, reporters on Serbia, either maliciously or out of sheer ignorance, tend to overemphasize Russia's influence in Serbia as well as the depth of cultural and historical ties between these two countries. What is greatly overlooked is that the relations between Serbia and Russia are primarily instrumental. Serbia did not impose sanctions on Russia, but neither did it help Russia to avoid them, like Turkey, a NATO member. Economic exchange with Russia during the last two years has increased by only about 10%, strictly in the areas that are not affected by the sanctions. Air Serbia, the national airline, which operates direct flights to the US, China and EU, did not exploit sanctions to take over the Russian market, but continues to maintain a similar number of flights to Russian cities it had before the war. In the United Nations forums Serbia consistently voted in favor of Ukraine, drawing parallels between Crimea and Kosovo. In addition to all that, Serbia even terminated military-technical cooperation with Moscow, and was therefore left without a number of military assets and weapons systems it had already paid for.

All this, unfortunately, seems to escape the observers who often ignore even historical facts. Of course, Serbia will always be grateful to Russia for taking its side in the First World War in 1914. But there are other, less pleasant memories. During the 1991-1999 wars in Yugoslavia, many Serbs felt that Russia had left them in the lurch and even sided with their foes. Stalin's treatment of Yugoslavia is still well remembered, but so is Russian support for Bulgaria to the detriment of Serbia in 1876-1878. Indeed, the Serbs, like the Russians, Poles and the Czechs have Slavic origins and share the same Orthodox religion with the Russians and Ukrainians. But the Serbian Othodox Church is fully independent from the Russian Orthodox Church. The Serbs use the Serbian version of the Cyrillic alphabet, which is, by the way, different from the Russian one, but they also use the Latin Alphabet. Those cultural similarities should not be enough to present Serbia as some kind of a Russian outpost in the Balkans, which is often the case in mainstream media. Ultimately, in Belgrade, scenes typical of the Western lifestyle can be seen at every turn, from the education systems to hedonistic nightlife and the consumerist society dominated by Western brands.

The reasons for Serbia's benevolence towards Russia should therefore be sought neither in history nor in culture, nor in Serbian everyday life, but in the West’s insufficient dedication to political realities in the Balkans. As long as European governments keep ignoring or even trying to suppress legitimate Serbian interests, the space for Russia and other actors for influence will remain open. Many Serbs have reasons to distrust both the sincerity and the ability of the European Union to keep its word. Serbia started its integration with the EU almost 20 years ago, but the end of that process is not yet in sight. In the meantime, many agreements, promises, guarantees and proclaimed principles regarding the EU policies towards Serbia have been forgotten or put on hold.

The methodology of accession has been radically altered so that the European path is now even more difficult and uncertain. Serbia is faced with many conditions, obstacles and demands other countries never had to face. If they had, they might have never joined the Union. Burdened by challenges, from Brexit to the pandemic, from economic stagnation to the security crises in Ukraine, the Middle East and North Africa, and hampered by the complicated decision-making and lack of vision, Europe does not act as a reliable partner, which encourages not only skepticism, but downright fear that disoriented politics and power games between the emerging blocs may start new conflicts in the Balkans.

However, none of that is enough to separate Serbia from its natural, geographical and cultural environment. Surrounded by the countries of the European Union, Serbia has no reason not to eventually join them. But as in life, an engagement that lasts for too long, and a wedding that is being constantly postponed, restores hopes in other suitors and encourages their courtship.

Serbian voters did not elect pro-Russian matchmakers. Instead, they have chosen to stay on course. Whether they are ready to admit it in their vanity or not, this means that they still want the marriage with the EU to take place. The West should understand this signal and work more closely with the new government, in order to overcome conflicts and disputes in a fair and honest way. In Serbia, in Kosovo, where the situation is the most difficult, but also in Bosnia and Montenegro, it would create a rare historical opportunity for the prosperity of the Balkan peoples.

All Serbia needs is a little bit more affection and understanding for its interests. It is tired of being the usual suspect.

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