March 9, 2023

The Early Elections Excuse: Will Serbia Get Away With(out) Sanctions Again?

A Kosovo Serb woman walks past a mural reading "Kosovo is Serbia and Crimea is Russia" in the Serb majority north of Mitrovica, on August 26, 2022.
A Kosovo Serb woman walks past a mural reading "Kosovo is Serbia and Crimea is Russia" in the Serb majority north of Mitrovica, on August 26, 2022.

Serbia finds itself at a crossroads once again. In mid-January, President Aleksandar Vučić met the representatives of the European Union, the United States, Germany, France, and Italy. As he said after the gathering in Belgrade, Serbia and Kosovo must reach an agreement — it is against the EU’s best interest to have an unresolved conflict in its courtyard amid the war in Ukraine.

At the end of February, the European Union published its plan for Serbia and Kosovo to normalise relations, after months of shuttle diplomacy and strong pressure to reach an agreement. Both governments have given their tacit approval to the EU proposal. However, the details are still uncertain and Kosovo has accused Serbia for dragging their feet.

The West, too, had a message for Belgrade: impose sanctions on Russia or risk sanctions against oneself. The EU may suspend the accession process, withdraw investments, and re-introduce the visa regime, Vučić told the Serbian people. He described the alleged ultimatum as an unprecedented pressure against Serbia.

In recent years, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been the staunchest supporter of the “Kosovo is Serbia” principle. Moscow’s permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council makes its position crucial. Furthermore, Serbia is almost totally dependent on Russia’s natural gas.

Belgrade’s declared priority is accession to the EU, which presupposes following the EU’s foreign policy. It, however, has hardly been the case since the accession process launched in 2009 and become palpable after Russia attacked Ukraine. Although Serbia voted for the UNGA’s resolutions to condemn Moscow and support Ukraine’s territorial integrity, it has not yet introduced sanctions and continued to do ‘business as usual.’

The Turning Point Has Come, Hasn’t It?

In the first days of February, President Vučić announced that the early elections could be held in autumn. The vote — allegedly triggered by tensions within the ruling coalition — puts the Kosovo issue on the ice by raising the sanctions question once again.

Serbia held general elections last April. But it wasn’t until October that the government had been formed. Although nobody admitted it publicly, the reason behind the delay was clear: to avoid making any decisions as long as possible. The West, while preoccupied with the war, turned a blind eye and gave the Serbian government some extra time.

In 1948, President Josip Broz Tito opposed Joseph Stalin and, with generous support from the West, made Yugoslavia the most prosperous of the communist countries. President Vučić likes to compare himself to Tito but also frequently mentions former Serbian and Yugoslav assassinated monarchs when airing his own grievances. Bearing in mind young Vučić’s tenure as the minister of information under authoritarian president Slobodan Milošević in the late 1990s, history seems to cast a shadow on both designing and evaluating Serbian foreign policy.

French President Emmanuel Macron (L), Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic (C) and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (R) pose for a photo at their meeting during the Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, on February 17, 2023. (AFP/Scanpix)

The ‘Real’ Russian Question

Stop Bill Clinton. On 24 March 1999, then-president Boris Yeltsin pleaded with the international community to revert the decision to begin a military campaign against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro). NATO was determined to intervene, arguing that it had to end the atrocities being committed by the Yugoslav Army and the Serbian police force against Kosovo Albanians.

Yet in Serbia, very few trusted Yeltsin to persuade the U.S. president or the American allies. Instead, Yeltsin was perceived as America’s man — neither genuine nor ‘real’ Russian. A real Russian, from a Serbian vantage point, was an orthodox, Slavic brother who would always side with Belgrade regardless of what Moscow’s own interests might be. Soon, Russia would elect a new leader — Vladimir Putin, a ‘real Russian.’

NATO’s bombing lasted until 10 June and resulted in the Military Technical Agreement signed between the International Security Force and the Governments of Yugoslavia and the Republic of Serbia. The accord stipulated that the Yugoslav and Serbian armed forces would withdraw from Kosovo, Serbia’s southern province, which they did within days. Simultaneously, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution that authorised international military presence in Kosovo. And thus what once was a Serbian province became de-facto an international protectorate.

Bizarrely, Milošević proclaimed victory over NATO. However, the overwhelming majority of Serbians realised that the country had surrendered and the Military Technical Agreement was, in fact, a capitulation. People knew that Kosovo was Serbia no more. And they did not care.

The nation was exhausted by the post-Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, as well as ravaged by poverty, corruption, and organized crime. In 2000, voters turned their backs on Milošević. And after 10 years, he lost the election. The far-right Serbian Radical Party (SRS) moved from the ruling block into the opposition camp. Then-Minister Vučić stepped down to be remembered for his two-year record of oppressing free media.

A New Beginning. Everything But Easy.

Serbia, under its new government, turned towards the West and the EU. Milošević’s fall and his extradition to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) marked the start of a new era. Serbian society, however, soon became polarised.

Although the majority approved of the EU integration, there was significant opposition to cooperation with the ICTY, which was an important precondition for the EU accession process. Political and military elites of the Milošević era were indicted for war crimes and therefore wanted by the ICTY. Nevertheless, some of them were still in office, including in the intelligence agencies.

The so-called ‘controversial’ businessmen — meaning those who made their money under Milošević’s rule — were against the pro-European reforms that threatened to scrutinise their wealth. Even the Serbian Orthodox Church defended the individuals wanted by the Tribunal which it deemed anti-Serbian to begin with. As always, it was rather sceptical of the West in general and too attached to Russia. At that time, however, Putin’s Russia was not yet as assertive as it would become in the years to follow.

The Russian Legacy Endures

In February of 2003, SRS leader Vojislav Šešelj surrendered himself to the ICTY; he was indicted and later convicted of war crimes. Tomislav Nikolić, Vučić and Šešelj’s deputy, assumed the party leadership. The SRS — which has always been pro-Russian — consolidated itself after the 2000 defeat and Šešelj’s so-called exile. From 2004 through 2012, it was the largest opposition group that controlled about one-third of the Parliament. In 2012, it finally came to power by taking a pro-European course and a new name — the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).

As Šešelj went to The Hague, Milošević’s wife Mirjana Marković exiled to Moscow, where she claimed political asylum from Putin’s regime. Why Serbia let her leave, despite the accusations of her involvement in the murder of her husband’s political opponent Ivan Stambolić, remained unclear. Milošević’s son Marko (implicated in serious crimes himself) also escaped to Russia shortly after the democratic transition of 2000. He, too, was granted political asylum. Mirjana Marković died in Moscow in 2019; Marko Milošević allegedly still lives and has some business there.

The High Spirits

The main promoter of the modernization of Serbia and its EU membership after the 2000 transition was Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić, the leader of the Democratic Party (DS) and a philosopher who studied under Jürgen Habermas. Đinđić was assassinated in the courtyard of the government’s building almost 20 years ago on 12 March 2003. The assassins were members of the Special Police Units (JSO) founded under the Milošević regime, as well as members of a criminal gang. Although they were later convicted, the political trail of that murder remained a mystery.

Vučić later revealed that he was so ecstatic when Đinđić was killed that he got drunk for the first time in his life. The Russian state TV portrayed Đinđić as the puppet of the West and claimed that he got what he deserved.

Still, Serbia followed along with the European path despite Đinđić’s assassination. The next cabinet, led by moderate nationalist Vojislav Koštunica, extradited many indicted persons to the ICTY. The JSO had previously blocked the highway in Belgrade protesting cooperation with the ICTY. The new government introduced a reformist agenda and adopted democratic laws. Boris Tadić — Đinđić’s successor as the leader of the DS — was elected president in 2004 and re-elected in 2008.

The two sides of Tadić

When Kosovo proclaimed independence in February of 2008, it triggered Prime Minister Koštunica’s resignation later in March. President Tadić, nevertheless, kept his office, and the DS continued with the European trajectory.

On the one hand, Tadić remained faithful to the pro-European choice. Radovan Karadžić and General Ratko Mladić, the main protagonists of the Bosnian War and Srebrenica genocide, were arrested and delivered to The Hague. On the other hand, Serbian foreign policy evolved after Kosovo had declared independence with massive support from the West. In 2009, President Tadić said that Serbia had completed its foreign policy doctrine and formulated the “four pillars of diplomacy”: the EU, the U.S., Russia, and China.

Moreover, it was during Tadić’s presidential term that Russia’s Gazprom Neft purchased 51% of shares in Naftna Industrija Srbije (NIS, a Serbian petroleum company) for the meagre price of 400 million euros. Gazprom Neft also became the owner of two large refineries in the country, as well as of over 400 gasoline stations both in Serbia and some of its neighbours. Thus, Moscow has gained a monopoly in the Serbian oil and gas market that it keeps till today.

Still “stronger than Vučić”

Tadić’s handling of the Kosovo issue frustrated many of his foreign partners across the spectrum. At the Belgrade Security Forum in September of the same year, Russian ambassador Alexander Konuzin wondered whether there were any “Serbs in this room,” meaning the ‘real Serbs.’ The diplomat also protested over anti-Russian remarks by one participant and complained that “nobody spoke about real issues such as Kosovo.” Ambassador then left the conference.

The West was dissatisfied with Tadić’s reluctance to resolve the issue of Kosovo. During Angela Merkel’s visit to Belgrade in the summer of 2011, he resisted the demand to dismantle the Serbian state institutions in northern Kosovo (predominantly populated by Serbs).

These days, Tadić frequently reminisces about that “fatal” visit by the former German chancellor. He is stronger than Vučić for he has defied Merkel, he says. In Serbia, that rebuke is widely regarded to have put Tadić on thin ice and paved the path for the former ultra-nationalists’ return to power.

The mightiest man in Serbia

In the 2000s, the radicals, such as Vučić and Nikolić, were seen as the main threat to democracy. It wasn’t until 2008 that they had finally rebranded their party, having realised that they would hardly ever come to power with such extreme nationalist rhetoric. Vučić and Nikolić thus separated from Šešelj and created the SNS with significant backing from the radical factions. Suddenly, they were —or rather pretended to be — a normal conservative party that later even joined the European People’s Party.

In 2012, Nikolić defeated Tadić in the presidential elections, and the SNS was able to form the new government. Vučić has since moved from the role of first the vice prime minister to then prime minister and finally to president and has become the mightiest man in Serbia — the title he enjoys today.

In foreign policy, the progressives started to deliver, unlike Tadić. In 2013, Belgrade and Pristina signed the Brussels Agreement, and Serbia dismantled its institutions in the north of Kosovo. Vučić was leading Serbia into the EU, and Brussels was opening new chapters in the accession process, albeit Vučić beginning to reveal his true authoritarian face once again.

The SNS government soon returned to the old habits of oppression by seeking to establish control over the free media. NGOs and political opposition were labelled as ‘traitors of the fatherland’ — just as was the case when Vučić served as the information minister under Milošević.[i]

“Ukraine attacks Russia”

When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Informer, the main pro-Vučić tabloid, came out with the front-page headline reading, “Ukraine attacks Russia.” A similar editorial policy has persisted over the last 12 months in all government-affiliated daily newspapers and in most TV studios. The only exceptions are two so-called anti-Serbian newspapers and two cable news channels.

Approximately 200 000 Russian migrants have escaped to Serbia after the war started. Those are mostly young and educated people who could not remain in their country and do business as usual while at risk of being drafted and sent to war. They were quite confused to see the “Z” signs and Putin’s portraits on the buildings’ facades in the Serbian cities. One could even occasionally stumble upon the “Wagner” emblem in downtown Belgrade.

It must be said, however, that these messages of professed support to Putin did not appear out of the blue but rather was put out by various extremist groups and football hooligans who are — more or less — under the government’s protectorate.

What “Never” to expect

In December 2022, Aleksandar Vulin, previously the minister of interior and an extremely pro-Russian left-wing nationalist politician, was appointed the head of the Security Information Agency (BIA, a national intelligence agency). Shortly before his nomination, Vulin said, “We will never, ever, ever impose sanctions on Russia!” Earlier in August of last year, he visited Moscow where he was hosted by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.

Now, the far-right MPs criticize Vučić because he has not spoken with Vladimir Putin in person for nine months. Although the two presidents had previously met over twenty times in just seven years. Vucic has also come under fire for allegedly preventing his foreign minister Ivica Dačić (who is also the leader of the Socialist Party, an SNS’ coalition partner) from meeting Lavrov. Lavrov wanted to visit Serbia but could not due to international sanctions against Russian air carriers.

Delivering his speech to the parliament on 2 February, President Vučić complained that Serbia was already paying too high of a price for failing to harmonise its foreign policy with that of the EU and introduce sanctions against Russia in particular. Vučić added, however, this was not solely his — but rather the government’s — decision.

Paradoxically, Vučić today is asking all those pro-European groups whom he has been defaming and persecuting for years to stand behind him.

[i]Serbia was rated “partly free” in the “Freedom in the World 2022” index by the Freedom House.

Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s). This article was written for ICDS Diplomaatia magazine

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