Vučić’s HOT balancing act between the EU and Russia protect him from recent domestic protests

  • After the 17 December 2023 national and Belgrade municipal elections, protests burst in Belgrade denouncing election fraud and manipulation, which were registered by both local and international observers 
  • Vučić is able to smoothly balance Serbian international relations, committing to EU membership to receive pre-accession funding and maintaining good relations with Russia, based on historical, religious and economic ties
  • The EU and the US avoid criticising Vučić’s autocratic derive, confirming that their interest lies more on Serbian stability and the containment of possible spillover effects both in the Balkans and in the EU rather than in the promotion of democracy and rule of law 
Aleksandar Vučić, President of Serbia, speaking during the Widening Europe’s Horizons session at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2023 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, 19 January. Congress Centre – Sanada. Copyright: World Economic Forum/Ciaran McCrickard

Why is Vučić’s heat level HOT? 

Answer: The massive grassroots protests that erupted in Serbia in December 2023 condemning electoral fraud and manipulation failed in overturning the results of the elections won by Vučić’s party.

On 17th December 2023 Serbian citizens voted for the renewal of the National Parliament and the Belgrade City Assembly, which were won by the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), a pro-Russian populist party founded by the current Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić in 2008. Right after the elections, both local and international election observers denounced several electoral frauds and manipulations, especially in the Belgrade municipal elections. In particular, a report by OSCE stressed how elections were taken under ‘unjust conditions’ of harsh political rhetoric, media biases and pressure on electors, and condemned the cases of vote-buying and ballot box stuffing. 

Serbia Against Violence, an opposition coalition composed of different centre-left parties, called for the annulment and re-running of the election of the Belgrade City Assembly. Simultaneously, a multitude of grassroots protests burst in Belgrade, which on December 24th ended in physically violent clashes with the police and in systematic arrests of people ‘suspected of attempting to violently change the constitutional order’. Whereas the elections for the National Assembly are not expected to be overturned because of the overwhelming victory of SNS, the election for the Belgrade Municipality is expected be re-run since there is no majority able to form a government, given the 49 seats won by SNS and the 43 won by Serbia Against Violence coalition. 

To distance the critiques from the government, Vučić accused ‘external forces’ of having caused and alimented the protests – a narrative that finds its roots in Serbian nationalism also reiterated by the Russian Ambassador to Serbia, who claimed that ‘the West’ incites popular revolts in other states to weaken Russian allies. The same rhetoric, of the West stimulating pro-EU and pro-democracy revolts to weaken Russia, was notably used in the case of the 2013 Maidan Uprising in Ukraine as a justification to the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014. Serbian nationalism indeed is built on the concept of victimhood and addresses the responsibilities of Serbian misfortunes to external actors that through conspiracies intend to undermine Serbia.

What is changing Vučić’s temperature?

Answer: Despite the widespread protests denouncing electoral fraud, the European Union and the United States seem to ignore Vučić’s curtailing of civil and political rights because of the stability that Vučić is able to maintain in the Balkan region.

In the broader Balkan context, the EU and the US played – and still play – a paramount role in the peace and reconstruction process that took place after the wars that during the 1990s caused the breakup of Yugoslavia. In particular, the EU used enlargement as a security strategy aimed at stabilising the region by including Balkan states inside the legal, economic and political framework of the EU.

Such inclusion was based on the achievement reforms aimed at guaranteeing democratic liberties and the rule of law. Thus, it was much more rapid in countries with a pro-EU leadership willing to undertake such costly reforms – as Slovenia, Croatia and Bulgaria. In the case of Serbia, the multi-year struggle to arrest war criminals as Ratko Mladic, together with continuous clashes in the Kosovo region and its unrecognised independence, delayed its path towards the EU.  

Only in 2013 the Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) with Serbia entered into force, providing the political and economic reforms the country that Serbia must undertake to be eligible for EU membership and the funding that the EU would provide to financially sustain such achievements. Until now, Serbia has received more than 3.7 billion euros from the EU. Given the entity of the funding, the EU scrutinises carefully the political developments and the implementation of policies in Serbia and has the possibility of eventually revising the amount of the donations in case of disrespect of the commitments taken in the SAA. 

In this case, the EU – and also the US – failed to criticise the mismanagement of the 2023 elections, which have been described as ‘more irregular than usual’. The German Foreign Office stressed the incompatibility of electoral misconduct and EU membership, while the US Ambassador to Serbia condemned the “violence and vandalism against state institutions”. In the last decade, both the EU and the US have gone through an incremental process of ‘appeasement’ towards Vučić’s incremental deterioration of political rights and civil liberties in Serbia, which does not mean EU’s and US’ lack of consideration or awareness of Serbian domestic matters, but rather a different assessment of priorities.

The Balkan region, although mostly pacific for the last two decades, is still threatened by two frozen conflicts: one between Serbia and Kosovo – the previous region of Serbia with an Albanian-majority population that declared independence in 2008, and one between the two entities of the Bosnian Federation – the Muslim and catholic Bosnia and Herzegovina and the orthodox Serb-majority Republika Srpska, which threatens to declare independence. Given the eventual possibility of another outbreak of hostilities in the European neighbourhood, the EU, as well as the US, are more concerned about regional stability rather than on internal matters, thus tacitly accept Vučić’s authoritarian derive as long as he contributes to both Serbian and regional stability. 

What is driving Vučić?

Answer: Vučić’s political past reveals a problematic relationship with the respect of democratic liberties, while his political present reveals a pragmatic approach to both domestic and international politics.

Vučić’s disregard for democratic rights dates back to his early political career, when in 1994 he joined the Serbian Radical Party, a right-wing populist party that supported the creation of the ‘Great Serbia’ – i.e. an ideology calling for the unification of most of the Balkan peninsula under the Serbian state, which ruled in Serbia throughout the 1990s. In 1998 he was also appointed as Minister of Information and received many critiques for the limitation of media freedom, which nowadays result completely controlled by the president. 

After being elected in the National Assembly in 1993 and having participated in various governments throughout the 1990s, in 2014-2017 Vučić was appointed Prime Minister and in 2017 has been elected President of Serbia. His behaviour in both domestic and international politics can be seen as bipolar and pragmatic. At the domestic level, Vučić balances electoral fraud, media control and curtailing of political and civil rights with pro-European and anti-crime policies, while simultaneously engaging in nationalist discourses aimed at winning the trust of that part of the population that sees Serbia as the permanent ‘victim’ of injustice done by the West and neighbouring states.

In particular, these Sebians felt betrayed by the secession of other states from the Yugoslavian Federation, and misled by the US, which changed the conservative approach aimed at guaranteeing stability that had in the first part of the conflict to an interventive approach aimed at impeding Serbia from maintaining its sovereignty over other territories by bombing it.

At the international level, Vučić slowly advances in the process of accession to the EU and commits to EU’s political values and economic neoliberalism, while he maintains positive relations with Russia, with which Serbia shares a common Slavic culture and the Christian Orthodox religion. An exemplification of this bipolar approach is Vučić’s formal condemnation of Russian aggression on Ukraine but his refusal to impose sanctions on Russia since it was “the only country not to have imposed sanctions on against us in the 1990s”.  

By doing so Vučić communicates with both pro-european and nationalist Serbian citizens, as well as stabilises Serbia and contains the spillover effects that ethnic or political instability could have in the broader Balkan and European region. Hence, Vučić satisfies the European request for security, while remaining a loyal ally of Russia that avoids economically hampering it. 

What does it mean for you?

Answer: Despite the authoritarian derive, Vučić successfully maintains satisfactory relations with the EU and the US by guaranteeing the control, stability and security on Serbia and in the broader Balkan region. 

Although permeated by liberal values and the moral imperative to export democracy, the EU and US’ engagement in the Balkans has always been dictated by security needs of preventing unwanted spillover effects related to refugee flows, organised crime or conflict from reaching EU’s and NATO’s territory. The rationale behind EU’s enlargement was to give economic incentives to post-conflict unstable countries to build democratic institutions that would control the management of conflicts, thus rendering the state eligible for EU membership, which would in turn grant the EU the possibility to more fully control the state and avoid eventual crises.

Although the enlargement strategy has proven to be weak in the Serbian case, given Serbia’s difficulties in complying with the accession criteria, its related democratic backslide, and its enduring ties with Russia, the EU reiterated such strategy as the main security strategy for the region even after the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, meaning that the EU deliberately continued proposing an unsuccessful strategy even in such a fragile situation.

One possible interpretation is that the EU is not really willing to enlarge to Serbia, but is only interested in the stability of the country – i.e. in the control of its borders, the fight against organised crime and in the containment of internal cleavages. On his side, Vučić seems to satisfy such requirements since he advances both in the pro-EU and nationalist agenda, and combats corruption and organised crime, limiting the spillover effects to Europe. If such an agenda hampers political rights and civil liberties of Serbian citizens, neither Vučić nor the EU seem to care that much.