Why the Election in Serbia Is No Cause for Rejoicing

The prime minister’s electoral victory this weekend is being cast as a win for the European Union. It wasn’t.

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On Sunday, April 24, Serbia held snap parliamentary elections that many international observers depicted as a referendum on the country’s membership in the European Union. The Serbian Progressive Party of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, which supports accession to the EU, won a resounding victory with 48.6 percent of the vote. The results will allow the party to retain control of parliament for the next four years.

Vucic says he called the elections two years early to strengthen his pro-EU mandate at a moment when ultra-nationalism and pro-Russian sentiment seem to have made a comeback. He’s also promised to make sweeping economic reforms that will satisfy both the EU and the International Monetary Fund and move Serbia toward a European future. As a result, most international media outlets were quick to interpret Sunday’s results as a victory for the European Union. EU officials, many of whom see Vucic as a stable, pro-European partner with whom they can do business, were quick to congratulate him for his victory.

But Vucic’s win is not indicative of widespread acceptance of Western values or support for EU accession. In reality, pro-European sentiment in Serbia is lower than it has been in years. What Vucic’s victory shows is that, through his heavy-handed leadership style, he has succeeded in smothering any credible opposition to his rule.

“One thing Vucic has done effectively is to neutralize any potential sources of opposition: There are no credible opposition parties, and control over media and information is almost complete,” says Eric Gordy, a sociologist and Balkan expert at the University College London.

In a letter addressed to Joe Biden last year, Human Rights Watch called attention to restrictions on media freedom in Serbia, noting that media workers operate in a “hostile environment” and pointing out “political interference” in reporting. The OSCE issued similar warnings in a pre-election report published in April. Critics also claim that Vucic used a high-profile anti-corruption campaign to whittle away at the political opposition.

“Vucic has been craftily solidifying power during the last few years, taking control of the media and institutions,” agrees Branislav Radeljic, senior lecturer in international politics at the University of East London. In Serbia, people frequently complain about the persecution of opposition activists and pressure on journalists critical of the government, he says.

Given his anti-democratic behavior, it’s unlikely that Vucic’s support for EU accession is based on genuine respect for European values and rule of law. Instead, he should be viewed as an opportunist who is interested in little more than preserving his own power. While he is determined to amass allies in Brussels, he has also promised to strengthen Serbia’s ties with Russia and has praised Serbian war criminals (all while describing himself as a moderate). And it bears noting that he was minister of information for Serbia’s notorious former strongman, Slobodan Milosevic, and was responsible for developing his wartime propaganda machine.

“To interpret Vucic’s electoral victory as a victory for the European Union is a completely wrong interpretation,” says Goran Miletic, program director for the western Balkans at Civil Rights Defenders. “Vucic has been a politician for more than 20 years,” he adds. “He fully understands how to manipulate the majority of Serbians, who are conservative, patriarchal, not well educated, and [he also understands] the power of media control.”

Vucic’s opponents say that his rise, combined with European indifference to his methods, has actually weakened support for the European Union in Serbia.

“Many from the intellectual elite who firmly advocated EU accession in the past are now disenchanted with the EU’s lack of reaction to Vucic undermining of democratic principles,” Radeljic explains. “It revealed the EU’s hypocrisy toward its core principles and values such as the rule of law and human rights.”

Gordy says that Europe has supported Vucic due to his willingness to normalize relations with Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008. “It seems that Vucic’s bargain with the EU was that if he appeared to be cooperative on Kosovo, then they would turn a blind eye to everything he did internally,” Gordy says. “This is an especially large disappointment for the people who made the EU a kind of lifetime project, saw the identity of Europe as fundamentally democratic, and looked to the EU as a guarantee of human rights and the rule of law.”

Bojana Stojkovic, a 30-year-old youth worker and economist from southern Serbia, says that young people have become more politically apathetic and disengaged since Vucic came to power. “The people around me still support EU accession, but I suspect we are a minority,” she notes.

Indeed, opinion polls demonstrate that only 48 percent of Serbs favor joining the EU today, down from 51 percent in 2014 and 65 percent as recently as 2009. That’s in part due to a widespread belief that Europe can no longer guarantee political or economic stability.

“The economic crisis in Europe has weakened its economic appeal a great deal. On the political side, the credibility of the EU as a guarantor of democracy has been seriously weakened by its tolerance of authoritarianism in places like Hungary, Poland, and Croatia,” Gordy says. “Basically, the EU has not made a very good case for itself recently.”

The return of more extreme right-wing political parties to parliament is further evidence that there is, in fact, a growing anti-European current in Serbian politics.

In late March, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) acquitted Vojislav Seselj, an ultra-nationalist politician, of involvement in war crimes during the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. The court reasoned that, although Seselj was a vocal proponent of ethnic cleansing and a supporter of a “Greater Serbia,” he was not directly responsible for the war crimes committed by militias ostensibly under his control. On Sunday, Seselj and his Serbian Radical Party won about 8 percent of the vote, enough to become the third-largest party in parliament.

Regardless of what the public prefers, Vucic will probably continue on his pro-EU trajectory — for economic reasons, if for nothing else. “Many in the Serbian government know that Russia has little to offer in the longer term,” says James Ker-Lindsay, senior research fellow at the London School of Economics. “It is the investment from major EU companies that will turn the country around economically, and Russia just cannot compete with this.”

How Vucic now plans to pursue his EU ambitions and push through difficult economic reforms while placating his country’s growing anti-EU sentiment remains to be seen. What’s clear is that he’ll have four more years to do it. It’s time for Europe to come to its senses and realize that having an opportunistic populist march the Serbian people into the EU is hardly the way to bring the country into the European fold.

In the photo, Aleksandar Vucic, the prime minister of Serbia and leader of the Serbian Progressive Party, speaks during a political rally at the Kombank Arena in Belgrade on April 21.

Photo credit: ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images

Cristina Maza is a freelance journalist covering international affairs. Twitter: @CrisLeeMaza

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