How Aleksandar Vucic Became Europe’s Favorite Autocrat

The EU is undermining its credibility by choosing stability over democracy in Serbia

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic address a joint press conference following their talks at the Chancellery in Berlin on February 27, 2018.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic address a joint press conference following their talks at the Chancellery in Berlin on February 27, 2018.

A recent report from the British House of Lords laments that the European Union has chosen “stability over democratic values” in the Western Balkans and expresses “serious concern that gains made towards good governance and the rule of law are in danger of being lost as countries in the region turn to authoritarian leadership.” As ironic as it may be for an unelected institution like the House of Lords to fret over democratic values, the authors of the report have a point: most post-Yugoslav governments have become “stabilitocracies” rather than democracies — and nowhere is this dynamic more evident than in Serbia.

Since returning to government in 2012 following a 12-year spell in opposition, Aleksandar Vucic has methodically climbed Serbia’s political ladder, rising from defense minister to prime minister before finally ascending to the presidency last spring. President Vucic is a reformed ultranationalist who served as Slobodan Milosevic’s minister of information in the final days of the Yugoslav wars, a role that involved fining journalists who criticized the regime and banning unfriendly TV networks. In recent years, he has presided over a period of alarming democratic backsliding. His ruling center-right Serbian Progressive Party enjoys a complete stranglehold on Serbia’s government, judiciary, and security services, and he has neutered the local media to such an extent that only a handful of outlets have dared to publicize the substantial allegations of corruption, cronyism, and voter intimidation that have plagued his time in office.

Over the last six years, Vucic has established what could best be described as a soft autocracy: On the surface, Serbia is still a democratic society with nominally free elections and a political opposition, where dissenting voices are able to criticize the ruling party without fear of mysteriously disappearing in the night. But Vucic’s control over Serbia’s centers of power is so complete and the democratic process is so skewed in his favor that dissent poses no threat to his rule. His political opponents are free to run against him, but they have few means to make their voices heard. The country’s institutions are so totally controlled by Vucic’s allies that there is nothing to stop him from subverting democratic norms.

This is most evident in the media. Vucic has managed to strangle the press by taking control of its main income stream: advertising. Most of the country’s advertising agencies are owned by a handful of media tycoons loyal to Vucic, who, rather than basing publicity budgets on market factors, buy advertising space from TV stations and newspapers that give the president favorable coverage and withhold funds from those that criticize him. Media outlets have another incentive to toe a pro-government line: RTV Pink, the country’s biggest private broadcaster, received at least 7 million euros in government loans between 2014 and 2016. According to Dubravka Valic Nedeljković, a professor of media studies at the University of Novi Sad, when Vucic ran for president in 2017, Pink returned the favor by devoting 267 times more coverage to his campaign than to all of his opponents combined. Although few newspapers or TV stations function as outright government mouthpieces, most avoid asking any difficult questions.

Those who try to hold leaders accountable often find their bank accounts blocked by the tax authorities while they’re placed under investigation for alleged financial irregularities. Danas, a prominent independent newspaper, has lost so many advertisers that its daily edition now fits on 24 pages instead of the usual 32, despite offering the cheapest advertising space on the market. Individual journalists who have been too stinging in their criticisms of the president have been taken in for questioning by the BIA, Serbia’s national intelligence agency, on charges as outlandish as blackmail and sex trafficking.

In an interview with Radio Free Europe in October 2017, the president of the European Federation of Journalists, Mogens Blicher Bjerregard, singled out Serbia as the nation with the worst violations of media freedom in the Balkans. Yet EU officials such as Johannes Hahn, the European commissioner for European neighborhood policy and enlargement, have been more than happy to look the other way as Vucic tramples on the “European values” that they purportedly hold so dear. Austria’s new chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, once gushingly described him as “an anchor of stability,” while German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently told Vucic that “we are impressed by how successful Serbia is on its way to reform.” Their silence regarding his antidemocratic behavior is deafening.

As long as Serbia remains outside the European Union, Brussels is able to dissociate itself from Vucic’s antics. Unlike Viktor Orban’s illiberal democracy in Hungary, Serbia’s soft autocracy isn’t a stain on the European brand. Vucic may be a poor representative for the European project, but he is a reliable enabler who allows Brussels to move closer to its geostrategic goals in the Balkans.

Indeed, Vucic offers stability in a volatile region and has successfully overseen a series of International Monetary Fund austerity measures to reduce Serbia’s debt and budget deficit by cutting public sector wages and pensions, which are part of a much wider restructuring of the Serbian economy aimed at meeting EU enlargement criteria. For all his democratic failings, Vucic is a relative moderate by Serbian political standards, and his domination of national politics ensures that unrepentant ethnic chauvinists like Vojislav Seselj, Milosevic’s former deputy prime minister who spent 11 years on trial at The Hague fighting charges of crimes against humanity, remain marginalized. He’s been hitting all the right notes on Kosovo and recently declared that “we must live and work together successfully.” Normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosovo, which would set the ground for an eventual recognition of its independence, is arguably the EU’s top priority in the Balkans.

EU officials are also wary of exerting too much pressure on Vucic lest he look east instead. The Serbian president maintains close ties to the Kremlin, and some of his local critics have accused him of leveraging that relationship against Brussels. Vucic is adamant that, unlike neighboring Montenegro, Serbia will never join NATO, and he refused to follow the lead of Western powers in imposing sanctions on Russia. This is because pro-Russian sentiment runs high in Serbia: The two countries are connected by their shared Orthodox Christian faith and Slavic heritage. “Serbia won’t be changing its policy … and will not impose sanctions on Russia,” Vucic said after a recent meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. In June 2017, just a day after Montenegro’s accession to NATO, Serbian troops took part in a joint military exercise with Russia and Belarus near the Polish border, and the Serbian military later that year received a donation of six fighter jets from Moscow, which also promised 30 tanks and 30 armored vehicles.

Serbia’s efforts to play both sides haven’t gone down well in Washington. Texas Democratic Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson wrote a letter to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence urging him not to meet with Vucic when he visited the United States in mid-2017, and Hoyt Brian Yee, who recently resigned as U.S. deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs, told Serbian officials late last year that a country “cannot sit on two chairs at the same time, especially if they are that far apart.” Yee also expressed fears that a Russian-run humanitarian center near the southern Serbian city of Nis might double as an espionage base, a charge that the Russians have dismissed as absurd.

Vucic’s overtures toward Moscow are mostly rhetorical — designed to throw a bit of a red meat to the Russophiles in his party and the broader electorate. For all of his grandstanding, Serbia’s army still took part in 13 drills with NATO or its member states in 2017, seven of which were with the United States, and some experts argue that the country is a NATO member in all but name. Ties with NATO is a subject that the Serbian government is desperate to avoid: Resentment toward the military alliance is still widespread in Serbia, which was subjected to a three-month-long bombing campaign by NATO forces in 1999.

When Putin pressed Vucic to grant diplomatic status to Russian staff at the aforementioned humanitarian center, he responded with calculated aloofness, dragging his feet and ignoring the more ardent pro-Kremlin voices in his Cabinet until the matter faded. The EU buys nearly 10 times as many Serbian exports as Russia does, and Dimitar Bechev, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, tells Foreign Policy that “for all the noise about links with Moscow, Serbia’s economy and, to some degree, society is deeply integrated into the EU’s.” Vucic is well aware, Bechev argues, that “billions of EU funds benefit member states and feed clientelistic politics. He wants that, too, even if he is no exemplary democrat buying into EU values.”

Even if Serbia’s president clearly knows which side his bread is buttered on, the country still remains heavily dependent on Russia for oil and gas. The Russian energy giant Gazprom owns a majority stake in Serbia’s national oil company, and Serbia might be included in the TurkStream natural gas pipeline.

The fact that Serbia stands resolutely on the European path isn’t necessarily a problem for Moscow, though: Vucic’s pro-Russian sentiments are genuine, and having more sympathetic voices join with Orban and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras inside the EU will likely work in the Kremlin’s favor. “Serbia in the EU is a gain for Russia; they don’t expect more,” Bechev tells FP. “The status quo — political links plus some economic cooperation — suits Moscow.”

The EU’s tolerance of Vucic may be politically pragmatic and an easy way of maintaining stability in the Balkans, but it’s also deeply cynical. Indeed, the EU is undermining its own moral authority. All across the continent, people are losing faith in the European project, and this dissatisfaction doesn’t only come from the populist right: British left-wingers promote the merits of a progressive Brexit, and the union’s cruel treatment of Greece during the eurozone crisis gave ammunition to its critics and tested the faith of Pan-European idealists. In Italy’s recent parliamentary election, two Euroskeptic parties, the Five Star Movement and the League, together won around 48 percent of the vote. Sluggish growth makes the bloc difficult to defend on economic grounds and, by backing corrupt authoritarians like Vucic, Brussels adds weight to the accusations that the EU and its centrist defenders no longer truly stand for anything.

After all, Europe has little right to lecture the Putins, Orbans, Erdogans, and Kaczynskis of the world on their democratic failings if it’s prepared to embrace the likes of Vucic. The growing gulf between the EU’s words and deeds can then be easily weaponized by its populist detractors who, if nothing else, at least practice what they preach.

Aleks Eror is a Belgrade-born journalist whose work has been published by the Guardian, the New Republic, Vice, Slate, the Telegraph, and others. Twitter: @slandr