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Serbian Elections: The Ghost of Milosevic Haunts Serbia's European Path

A man poses for a photograph next to the grave of late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in the town of Pozarevac, March 11, 2016

A man poses for a photograph next to the grave of late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in the town of Pozarevac, March 11, 2016

Dragan Stavljanin and RFE Balkan Team

The Serbian Progressive Party, which swept the early parliamentary elections on Sunday, has vowed to continue Serbia's European path and to railroad through tough reforms.

Party leader Aleksandar Vucic, a former ultranationalist who served as information minister under former president Slobodan Milosevic, secured an outright majority in parliament.

The return of ultra-nationalists, first among them the leader of the Serbian Radical Party Vojislav Seselj, who was recently acquitted of war crime charges by the Hague Tribunal, however, may complicate Serbia's EU membership talks by objecting to concessions, such as giving up the claim to sovereignty over Kosovo.

Serbian Prime Minister and leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) Aleksandar Vucic at a polling station

Serbian Prime Minister and leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) Aleksandar Vucic at a polling station

Meanwhile, critics Vucic's critics say his government has grown increasingly autocratic, even some labeling him a "dictator."

A landslide victory for the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) did not come as a surprise, Florian Bieber, an expert for Western Balkans from the University of Graz, told RFE/RL.

"If there was a possibility for the ruling party to get dramatically fewer votes then the elections would not have been called at all," he added.

When the snap elections were called, Vucic indicated that getting a strong mandate would help in achieving his stated goals of bringing Serbia closer to EU membership and bolstering the economy.

"Don't worry much about what he says and watch carefully what he does," replies Daniel Serwer, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, in an interview with RFE/RL.

"What I'll be watching more than anything else is the treatment of the media and the independence of the court system. Those seem to me to be two areas about which the West has doubts. Of course, Serbia has many other things to be done, as required by Acquis communautaire," says Serwer.

The elections in Serbia would change nothing, said RFE/RL Eric Gordy, a Senior Lecturer at the School of Slavonic and East European Politics at the University College London.

"I think that the elections in Serbia resembled the 'Soviet model' with an aim to change nothing, so that the people who already hold power have a free hand. And they succeeded in that because the real radicals - or the far-right - are now the only opposition to the ex-radicals. So now Vucic will have a free hand to push through the program endorsed by the EU and the US and, at the same time, to seal a one-party rule all over Serbia, which was, after all, the goal of every government after 2000," Gordy pointed out.

Vesna Pesic, former leader of citizens' protests, ambassador to Mexico and a sociologist, told RFE/RL that Serbia is losing all its capacities for reform with a great speed.

"This kind of decline is typical only for extremely retrograde countries. If you look at the data, you would realize that Vucic gained support mostly from the poorest segment of the population. I saw that in Guatemala and in Mexico - this kind of a desperate situation where a strong man steps in and deceives them with false promises. Nevertheless, voters don’t take it rationally, but rather for granted," Pesic extrapolated.

Teofil Pancic, a journalist and columnist with RFE/RL, says that Vucic is a dictator in a most typical manner of speaking.

"He is not to be likened to Kim Jong Un. However, he is a kind of a dictator. He displays a democratic form in order to hide and mask the authoritarian essence of his rule. Yet he enjoys great support within the electorate, despite his manipulative politics."

Daniel Serwer says that Vucic has won a strong endorsement from the voters and their approval of the European direction for Serbia that he campaigned for.

Several European officials congratulated Vucic on the same night. The Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurtz wrote a message in Cyrillic, which was quite a prompt reaction from the EU.

"You have to ask Europeans whether there is any significance in their haste to congratulate Vucic, but it's not at all surprising that Europeans would be comfortable with Vucic," says Serwer.

"After all he has been involved with them very deeply in recent years and collaborated in the European sponsored talks on Kosovo. So, the Europeans would be happy for stability in Serbia," he added.

Three Milosevic's allies won almost 80% of the seats

Aleksandar Vucic, Ivica Dacic and Vojislav Seselj - all of whom played an important role in Milosevic's nationalist project during the tumultuous 1990s - are now leading the three strongest parties in the Serbian parliament, with almost 80% of its seats.

This is something of a paradox, though Vucic, as the leader of the Serbian Progressive Party, and Dacic, as the president of the Socialist Party, have made a U-turn in their politics by at least formally embracing the European agenda, while Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party, continues to adhere to his nationalist agenda.

"To have three of the same names from the 1990’s in Parliament today is a unique case in Europe," said RFE/RL Zarko Korac, a psychologist and former Vice-Premier in Zoran Djindjic’s Government.

"It means that the same people from the most catastrophic period in modern Serbian history have been vaulted back into power through a superior number of votes. It is devastating how Europe is indifferent to the manipulation of the media. This is, I would say, a step back. The atmosphere is truly bleak," Korac emphasized.

Daniel Serwer agrees that it is a kind of paradox.

"The alternation of power is an important characteristic of most democracies. Serbia has succeeded in electing different governments over the years and it has subsequently continued in the European direction. Although I would almost be among the first to say it could move faster, at the same time, you have to recognize that for approximately 15-16 years, Serbia has moved in a direction of being a more European country. Russia’s influence is quite superficial in Serbia, except with respect to religion. It seems to me that Putin doesn’t represent anything interesting from the Serbian point of view," Serwer underlined.

Ultranationalists' comeback

The return of ultranationalist parties in the parliament threatens to roll back democratic progress. Could the leader of the Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Seselj pose a serious challenge to Aleksandar Vucic?

Similarly, will this situation make Vucic's job harder or easier? For instance, he could, during any sensitive political situations in Serbia, try to horse trade with the EU by claiming, "if you don't want me, you will get Seselj." Such a case occurred with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the ultra-right party Joblik.

When asked whether the far right Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Seselj, which is now entering Parliament, could obstruct SNS leader Aleksandar Vucic, Florian Bieber said that Seselj can only be useful for Vucic, who will present him as a scarecrow to Brussels.

"The Progressive Party can now claim that there is an opposition which objects Serbia’s European integration. At the same time, Vucic may point out to Brussels that his party is defending the European path, and recent reforms in Serbia. The right-wing parties are not large in number, but Vucic can still exploit their presence for his political games with Brussels. To some extent, this is the same tactic employed by Slobodan Milosevic twenty years ago, when Seselj's Radicals sat in Parliament while Milosevic made an appeal: 'Support us or else there will be others who are even worse than us'," Bieber extrapolated.

When asked whether such a game may impress Brussels, Bieber says that the EU is now, unfortunately, very weak and it would be willing to accept mere talk from Vucic about reforms, in place of genuine reforms. He will be seen as the lesser of two evils.

James Ker-Lindsay, a lecturer at the London School of Economics (LSE) told RFE/RL that a strong anti-European right in the Serbian parliament may prove to be a double-edged sword for the EU:

"You could say that having very strong anti-EU parties in Parliament means that you (as the ruling party) will have more leverage with the European Union in order to get a better deal for Serbia. I am a little bit cautious about that because I think it is important to know, when one deals with the European Union in accession talks, we are calling it negotiations but in reality it isn't about negotiating. It's about the European Union saying: 'If you want to join, this is what you have to do'. Thus, you either do it or you don’t do it. You might be only able to get a sort of temporary reprieve so that you can take it a little bit longer."

Daniel Serwer doesn't see much of a threat to Vucic from the nationalist right.

"However, it has to be watched because Serbia has a long tradition of nationalism, sometimes extreme, that would cause a lot of concern certainly in Europe and the EU.

Seselj is not going to be so strong in parliament. Frankly, he is almost a comic figure. I think that a more serious worry is the rise of somebody else on the right who could exploit issues like immigration the way it has happened in a number of European countries. It's rather remarkable – when you think about it – that it hasn’t happened in Serbia."

Belgrade's journalist, Olja Beckovic, made an interesting parallel between Vucic now and in the past.

"When Vucic says to choose between past and present, he means to choose between his past and his future. He is saying, 'I can again become [an ultranationalist like Vojislav] Seselj if you don't want me to be European'."

Serwer agrees that Vucic was a nationalist, even an extremist one:

"Now he is choosing European future. You know, some people ask why the West is so soft on Vucic. And the answer is simple. Diplomacy consists of trying to convince the other guys to do what you want them to do. And Vucic is doing a lot of what Europe wants him to do. He is currently pretty successful, even in a domestic politics. That’s something that is going to be welcomed in Europe and Washington."

Is regional stability a priority for the EU at the expense of democracy?

There is a widespread feeling that the West, particularly the EU, is prone to turn a blind eye towards breaches of democratic rules in Serbia for the sake of Vucic's more cooperative approach with respect to more pressing issues in the Balkan region - the issue of Kosovo first and foremost.

Serwer concurs that the Kosovo issue is important for regional stability, which depends mostly on relations between Belgrade and Pristina continuing to develop in a positive direction:

"So far as the media and judiciary is concerned, the main responsibility lies on Serbs to clean things up, not on the EU. On the other hand, the EU, in its annual reports, has been very clear about the media question as well as the court one.

Reforms in these areas are not necessarily coming spontaneously, but they should come. So, it would be mistake for Vucic after assuring four more years in power, not to try to align media policy with the Western expectations."

How long can Vucic "ride 2 horses?"

Vucic promised that Serbia will accelerate its European path without making compromise. However, he also stressed that Belgrade will seek to maintain its friendship with Russia, a traditional Orthodox ally and supporter.

It appears that Serbia still intends to strike a middle course between the EU and Russia.

"It's possible to be a European country and maintain good relations with Russia, at least under more normal circumstances," says Serwer.

"Nevertheless, Serbia will be faced, sooner rather than later, with the fact that its policies vis a vis Russia are not entirely aligned with EU policies, especially on sanctions imposed on Russia due to the Ukrainian crisis. So, Vucic, who is trying to 'ride both horses' right now, will eventually have a moment which will force him to make a choice. I don’t think there is any doubt that he'll choose Europe," he added.

Eric Gordy opined that Brussels will be very happy "because people without credibility are easy to blackmail."

Serbia is still vying for a dominant position in the Balkans

The outcome of the election shows once more that Serbia remains more or less the same nation it was when Slobodan Milosevic forged it, former Yugoslav politician, now analyst, Azem Vlasi told RFE/RL. However, he also notes that such a Serbia will no longer be able to attack neighboring countries as it did during the Milosevic era, but it still retains its overbearing and arrogant attitude.

Vlasi doesn't expect changes in Kosovo-Serbia relations. The government in Belgrade will continue with the same political agenda towards Kosovo, with the same rhetoric, but without any chance to achieve its goals there.

"There is no normalization between Kosovo and Serbia, and it's a hollow phrase so long as it does not include the normalization of bilateral relations, meaning their mutual recognition. Belgrade constantly labels Kosovo a Serbian southern province, a part of Serbia, and insisting it will never recognize its independence. This is sheer farce. If Serbia really intends to join the EU once it meets all the necessary requirements along the European path, it will have to recognize Kosovo because there are no countries in the EU having territorial and legal disputes," Vlasi concluded.

Former Croatian President Stipe Mesic offers a reminder in his interview with RFE/RL that the election campaign in Serbia was held in an atmosphere tinged by nationalism, and swirling with inappropriate statements from both sides.

"Once the elections are over, everything can go back to normal. However, the problem is that Serbia has not come to terms with its troublesome past yet – having not passed through a painful catharsis in the aftermath of the last war. Following the ideas of Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia entered the war in the former Yugoslavia. The war ended, the borders were not moved a single millimeter, and yet Serbia didn’t learn anything from it. In fact, a large number of Serbian citizens don't blame Milosevic for entering the war, but rather for not winning it and that is a huge problem," Mesic extrapolated.

Slavo Kukic, a professor at the University of Mostar, told RFE/RL that he doesn't expect any changes in Serbia’s posture towards Bosnia and Herzegovina.

"Vucic will pursue the same political agenda, meaning that while he will be verbally supporting the sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina, he will buttress the politics of Milorad Dodik behind the scenes, which will weaken Bosnia and Herzegovina as a state. After all, Vucic announced in a recent statement that Serbia would help to strengthen the police forces in Republika Srpska by providing several armored vehicles. That means he is offering military assistance to one part of the state without consulting its respective institutions," said Kukic.