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Becoming Normal

How Aleksandar Vucic turned the process of normalization with Kosovo into an operation to normalize Serbia.

by Tihomir Loza 15 May 2014

If one of your chores for the week is to become prime minister and inaugurate your cabinet in parliament, chances are you wouldn’t pick a Sunday. Nor would you ordinarily elect to present your program and cabinet members to parliament in a speech running for over three hours. Except Serbia’s new prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, doesn’t do ordinary.

 

The 27 April parliamentary special session was really the coronation of a man who for the previous 20 months made weather as Serbia’s first deputy prime minister following a peculiar arrangement in which the prime minister’s post went to a junior coalition partner, while the biggest party, Vucic’s Serbian Progressives (SNS), got hold of most levers of real power.

 

Belgrade’s diplomatic corps and political, religious, and other dignitaries were in attendance, with applause and smiles all around. Eighty-seven percent of attending legislators voted for the new government. The leader of the biggest, though now tiny, opposition party uttered a few mild criticisms, the most memorable of which boiled down to the need for political rivals, and citizens in general, to speak nicer of one another. A few hundred other well-wishers, “meritorious SNS members” whom the party bussed to Belgrade for the occasion, also greeted Vucic, who addressed them outside the parliament after the vote. In the evening, on TV screens and Internet portals, most commentators welcomed Vucic’s government program and the makeup of his cabinet with levels of enthusiasm ranging from mildly cautious to very strong. To cap the bliss, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs boss, flew to Belgrade the next morning to express the union’s support for the new Serbia that Vucic symbolizes, a smile one usually keeps for the nearest and dearest beaming from her face.

 

How did Serbia, which over the past 25 years cast itself in roles ranging from pariah to a democracy bogged down in vicious internal divisions, end up in this fairy tale? Curiouser still, why does this extraordinary state of affairs generate so little wonderment, as if it were worthy only of mild bemusement?

 

The triumph of Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party in March’s parliamentary elections was expected, but its scale and the circumstances surrounding it are remarkable. The party took more than 48 percent of the vote, which translates into 158 seats, just short of a two-thirds majority in the 250-member parliament. It was the second highest percentage of votes for an electoral list since the first post-communist multiparty elections in 1990.

 

Vucic commands unreserved support, not just from his SNS and the few small parties on its list, but also of most election losers. Prior to the formation of government, at least three other parliamentary party leaders were volunteering themselves and their parties for whatever role Vucic chose for them.

 

Vucic addresses a February rally in Leposavic, northern Kosovo. Photo from the Serbian Progressive Party website.

 

And his support extends far beyond parliament. The leader of the small but visible Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), which for the first time failed to enter parliament, suggested the party’s electoral fiasco didn’t matter terribly, as its agenda and values would be advanced by Vucic. Amazing stuff in a country that until very recently featured a wildly fragmented political scene typical of so many early transition societies. In fact, bar a few members of the now exhausted Serbian commentariat, the only tangible sign of a lack of enthusiasm for Vucic was the record-low turnout of 53 percent for the elections.

 

Vucic now wields more power than any other Serbian leader since the 1990s, when Slobodan Milosevic seemed an immovable center of gravity of Serbian politics. A more contemporary parallel comes from across the border in Hungary, where the Fidesz party of Prime Minister Viktor Orban has just retained its surreal supermajority in an election. But unlike Orban and Milosevic, Vucic never tampered with electoral rules to smooth his way to victory or a two-thirds majority. And while dominant, Orban is challenged by two distinct forces advocating different sets of values to his own. Only once did Milosevic’s party win on its own an outright majority of seats in the Serbian parliament, but not even then did Milosevic rule without many opposition voices. More substantively, while Milosevic and Orban fired up their voters by promising to defy the international community and regional neighborhoods, Vucic seems to be thriving on doing the opposite.

 

GETTING NEW VOTES

 

So what’s Vucic’s secret? To divine that, we have to slog through some numbers.

 

At parliamentary elections in May 2012, Vucic’s SNS won 24 percent, just 2 percent more than the incumbent Democratic Party (DS) of former President Boris Tadic. In less than two years, the SNS doubled its share of the vote to 48 percent.

 

Things get really puzzling when you consider where those nearly 800,000 extra votes – nearly 12 percent of the electorate – might have come from. Probably very few came from the people who in 2012 supported the Socialist Party of Serbia of Ivica Dacic, who until 27 April was prime minister and now bears the gilded title of first deputy prime minister in addition to being foreign minister. That party, once led by Milosevic, took some 80,000 fewer votes than in 2012, but given the lower turnout it essentially stood its ground at just under half a million votes, or 13.5 percent. A group of small ultraconservative and nationalist parties, none of which reached the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament, together lost some 300,000 votes compared with 2012. Perhaps half of those votes this time went to the SNS, while the other half weren’t cast.

 

The bulk of Vucic’s gains could have been made only at the expense of liberal parties. Indeed, the best place to start accounting for those 800,000 new votes for the SNS is somewhere around the nearly 450,000 fewer votes that the Democratic Party and its splinter New Democratic Party (NDS), now led by Tadic, won combined compared with  the DS showing in 2012. In addition, a significant proportion of the SNS gain could have come from voters who had supported smaller liberal parties, a couple of which lost about 235,000 votes combined and didn’t make it into parliament.

 

The puzzling thing is, of course, that Vucic’s background is anything but liberal.

 

PROMINENT EXTREMIST

 

Were you to ask even as recently as four years ago anyone with a basic knowledge of Serbian politics to name the three best-known Serb extremists, Vucic would have made the list, no small feat in a country with a highly saturated market for that sort of thing. As a prominent member of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) of the indicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj, Vucic frequented Serb-held territories in Croatia and Bosnia in the 1990s. The party was in the governing coalition when Milosevic went to war with NATO in 1999, with Vucic, as minister of information, introducing fines for wayward journalists. While the SRS polled persistently well at just under 30 percent from 2003 to 2008, it was never close to power nationally, as much of the rest of Serbia’s political scene shunned it. The party’s secretary-general, Vucic, roamed the increasingly bizarre, rather sinister, and occasionally violent, far-right fringes of Serbian society, leading initiatives such as one to rename Belgrade’s Zoran Djindjic Boulevard – after the prime minister and DS leader assassinated in 2003 – to Ratko Mladic Boulevard, for the Bosnian Serb general now on trial for war crimes, including the Srebrenica genocide.

 

When Vucic and current President Tomislav Nikolic in 2008 broke away from Seselj, who’s been on trial at the UN war crimes tribunal at The Hague since 2003, to form the SNS – which soon attracted much of the SRS membership – it wasn’t immediately obvious that they would seek to turn themselves into moderates, yet they soon started to talk of European integration, the Balkan politicians’ way of suggesting to the electorate that they are government material and all-around nice chaps. In Serbia’s case, a wannabe European is also required to distance himself (or, rarely, herself) from the 1990s to start sounding credible both internally and externally. That the SNS leaders might also try to actually become moderates became apparent in 2010 when they repeatedly described the Srebrenica massacre as a terrible crime of which they as Serbs felt ashamed, a giant leap for people who had previously glorified Mladic, even if they refused to call the massacre a genocide. Still, while Nikolic and Vucic started to see more of Western ambassadors at this time, few saw them as a plausible future government, partly because it was difficult to imagine how they could reach out beyond or even keep most of the former SRS core vote, a group that might be described as the roughly 25 percent of voters at the bottom of Serbia’s socioeconomic and cultural food chain.

 

Indeed, the SNS showing in the 2012 parliamentary elections seemed to vindicate such doubts. While the party came first, it won nearly 300,000 votes fewer than the SRS four years before. The SNS’s first place with a 24 percent share of the vote was primarily the result of the failure of Tadic’s DS, which came second at 22 percent, to hold on to its own support. The DS lost more than 700,000 votes compared to 2008. Clearly, many DS voters decided to punish the party for its perceived sins in office by abstaining.

 

‘WHITE BALLOTS’

 

Yet the most interesting and controversial element here was a 2012 campaign supported by prominent democracy activists that called on traditional DS supporters, the relatively enlightened middle-class Serbia, to voice their anger with Tadic’s party by casting an invalid, or “white,” ballot. Some argued that an even better way to hurt Tadic would be to actually vote for Nikolic, who ran against him in presidential elections held at the same time. The jury is still out on whether this campaign accounted for the SNS’s edge of 2 percentage points over the DS and the similar margin that Nikolic won over Tadic in the presidential runoff. The number of DS and other liberal party voters who cast either of those protest votes was at best around 100,000, yet the fact that some did injected a delicate and far-reaching notion into Serbia’s body politic: that people whose icon is Djindjic, the slain modernizer, could vote, without the sky falling down on them, for politicians who once all but rejoiced in Djindjic’s death. This is important, for 20 months later they obviously did exactly that in their hundreds of thousands in what clearly was not a protest vote.

 

Incumbent parties pull off landslide victories only when they enjoy exceptional credibility, usually on issues the electorate considers central to the country’s future. The prevailing view is that Vucic charmed Serbia by casting himself as a strong and decisive leader dedicated to fighting corruption. The explanation makes sense. Vucic and Nikolic had long maintained that the post-Milosevic transition had been one big failure, with rampant corruption its defining feature. While a bit exaggerated, this spiel rang true with the impoverished electorate, the so-called losers of transition in particular. The SNS leaders were in a good position to argue this case precisely because since Milosevic’s fall they hadn’t been allowed anywhere near power nationally, so never took part in any privatization and other deals. Once in power, Vucic basically appointed himself the commander-in-chief of Serbia’s law enforcement, security, and judicial structures and then worked toward his goals directly with individuals and small groups of people from these structures who he personally trusted, with little regard for procedure. Quite a few businessmen, including the country’s best known tycoon, security officials, former ministers, and underworld figures ended up behind bars, with the anti-corruption narrative relentlessly beamed into people’s homes from TV screens, Internet news sites, and, most crucially, a handful of dirt-cheap tabloids, with Vucic often personally in the role of narrator.

 

While obviously pleasing as well as thrilling for many people, this alone would hardly bring 800,000 new voters to Vucic, people who had never dreamed of ending up in his camp. After all, previous governments had all done a bit of their own fight against corruption, albeit in less spectacular fashion. Besides, as elements of selectiveness had always been suspected in Vucic’s approach, many voters might have taken his anti-corruption drive with a big grain of salt. In addition, corruption cases are spun by the media Vucic controls as a political rather than judicial and law enforcement matter. When alleged criminals end up in the dock, prosecutors and judges take back seats, while the tabloids lead from the front, with “well-placed government sources” and often Vucic himself speculating, not even about the alleged crimes but rather about links the alleged criminal may have had with politicians from parties other than the SNS or security and judicial officials. The primary purpose of this, of course, is to keep members of Serbia’s establishment on their toes.

 

Still, it would be rather unfair to deny all merit to Vucic’s campaign against corruption, even if it can’t quite be taken at face value, nor am I discounting its contribution to Vucic’s electoral triumph. There may, however, be reason to suspect that Vucic himself did not regard corruption-busting as his primary vote-getter. Two weeks before Election Day, Vucic said the country’s most wanted fugitive – alleged drug baron Darko Saric – would be arrested days after the elections. He sounded as if he had it all scheduled, like a dentist appointment. True to Vucic’s word, two days after the vote Saric was flown to Belgrade via Podgorica on a chartered flight from somewhere in Latin America, where according to government sources he had been located and held by Serbian and U.S. secret services. The timing was curious. If he really was in a position to decide when Saric would be delivered to Serbia, wouldn’t Vucic have wanted this trophy in Belgrade a few days before, rather than after, the election? Or were he and/or his U.S. partners in this matter savvy enough to work out that adding a point as big as a Saric arrest to a game that Vucic was anyway certain to win was bound to alienate those voters who would have viewed it as cynical abuse of law enforcement for electioneering?

 

So what is it that Vucic has done since 2012 in addition to fighting corruption that made both his core voters and those for whom he once was a bogeyman to vote for him in such numbers? Interestingly, it is the same thing that made Western governments lend their full support to this ultranationalist turned pro-EU modernizer. It is Kosovo that made Vucic what he is now. He let go of Kosovo on Serbia’s behalf, and Serbia awarded him handsomely for doing so, just as the EU paid him back by opening membership talks in January.

 

NORMALIZATION WITH PRISTINA

 

A reminder of what Vucic has done in relation to the breakaway province is in order here. He first tested the waters by letting Dacic front for Belgrade in EU-sponsored talks to “normalize” relations with Pristina. When Dacic’s first handshakes in autumn 2012 with the hate figure that is the Kosovo prime minister, Hashim Thaci – who led the Kosovo Liberation Army in the war against Serbia in 1998-1999 – caused no earthquake at home, Vucic rapidly took ownership of the process, appearing at talks personally at key moments. In April 2013, the talks resulted in the so-called Brussels agreement, which, stopping short of formal recognition of Kosovo’s independence, in essence sees Serbia accepting that Kosovo is no longer subject to its authority in exchange for a degree of autonomy for Kosovo’s Serb enclaves. Important elements of the agreement have since been implemented with considerable success.

 

But how did that translate into Vucic’s electoral success? When and how exactly did the Serbian electorate express a desire to be rid of Kosovo? And if Kosovo was Vucic’s stock in trade in the March elections, why did he barely mention it in the campaign? Vucic triumphed because he gradually realized that, while unsayable, letting go of Kosovo was doable and desirable, electorally and otherwise. And it was he who had to do it.

 

Vucic’s predecessors at the helm of Serbia, Tadic’s Democratic Party, never dared to accept publicly that Kosovo cannot again be subject to Serbia’s sovereignty, even though it had been clear for years that the middle-class, relatively open-minded Serbia, for which the party used to speak, largely wanted to be somehow rid of the burdensome Kosovo baggage once and for all. Instead, Tadic devised a policy called “both Kosovo and the EU,” promising essentially to advance the country’s aspiration to join the EU, while leaving the business of disposing of the Kosovo burden to future generations. It seemed the only way, as nearly the whole political scene assumed that the country was a hostage of the hard-line part of the electorate, people like the core SRS and later SNS voters, who would never stomach the “loss” of Kosovo. A quick look back to the February 2008 riots following Kosovo’s declaration of independence, when groups of thugs set fire to, among other things, the U.S. Embassy, suggested exactly that. It was at the same time clear that the EU, for all its support for Tadic’s lot, would not let Serbia progress much further toward membership without the Kosovo business being sorted first. Indeed, when Tadic won the EU candidate status in March 2012, the prize came with the caveat that further progress would hinge on progress on Kosovo, something that turned the membership status from an electoral gift into a liability, as it only served to underline Tadic’s powerlessness over this issue of all issues two months before elections.

 

With the benefit of hindsight, it is increasingly clear that toward the end of the 2000s the nationalist part of the electorate went through an important mood shift. While nationalist masses still voted traditionally nationalist parties, the actual business of right-wing extremism, violence in particular, was carried out by highly organized but fairly small fringe groups greatly helped by the advent of new media and support from some circles in the Serbian Orthodox Church and government institutions.

 

Take the events of 21 February 2008, for example. The government of then-Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica brought busloads of people to Belgrade for a rally fancifully titled “Kosovo is Serbia.” It was a remarkably polite affair. The crowd went through the motions of nationalist enthusiasm while politicians – among them Nikolic, then still an SRS member – and artists delivered predictable speeches. The masses were then led to another place to see priests pray for Kosovo. Meantime, a few hundred thugs strolled down to Belgrade’s diplomatic quarter and, unopposed by police, felt like setting some embassies on fire. The then-U.S. ambassador to Belgrade believes the attack on his embassy was authorized personally by Kostunica, who had once been regarded a moderate nationalist and who around this time went berserk with hatred of the West, a metamorphosis for which he has paid a heavy price in all elections since and something that Vucic and Nikolic would surely have taken notice of.

 

Could it be that the liberal part of Serbia (as well as most international commentators) read too much into the ferocity of violence perpetrated by Serbian fringe groups in relation to pride events, football matches, or Kosovo while Vucic had a unique vantage point to view them with a pinch of salt? Yes would be my answer, although admittedly even if people like Tadic were able to read the temperature of nationalist voters correctly they would have been in no position to take advantage of it.

 

LEARNING LESSONS

 

Vucic must have caught a whiff of fatigue with nationalism among nationalist voters to start advocating EU integration in 2008. While they were and likely still are perfectly capable of acting on nationalist sentiments, that usually amounts to no more than barking half-hearted curses at the television when an Albanian, Muslim, Croat, or American reference is made. Vucic would have sensed among his voters a desire for normality: the prospect of a decent job; a reasonably decent and orderly society in which police officers, judges, teachers, and doctors don’t take bribes, at least not that often; a few personifications of early capitalist plunder behind bars ... those sorts of things, otherwise known as EU integration. It now seems obvious that many years after the wars such people had very little in common with metropolitan hooligans who’d do anyone’s bidding as long as it included a license to hurl stones and torches at people, shops, or embassies, and some free crack cocaine.

 

Perhaps Vucic can assess the political weight of violent extremist groups so adeptly because he is a former hooligan himself, an important biographical footnote he has openly spoken about. As a keen supporter of the Crvena zvezda (Red Star) soccer team, he took part in the infamous pitched battle in Zagreb in May 1990 between Crvena zvezda and Dinamo Zagreb supporters, a televised event that defined nationalist sentiments on the eve of Yugoslavia’s descent into violence. While as a politician he achieved some respectability later on, it was always assumed that Vucic continued to have strong links with the hooligan scene. But 18 years later, on the day of Kostunica’s “Kosovo is Serbia” rally, he saw how little influence he had on contemporary hooligan groups despite his yet-untarnished status as a prominent ultranationalist. Before and during the riots, he repeatedly appealed to them to refrain from violence, only to admit his failure late that night, an episode from which he would have drawn some important lessons.

 

When it comes specifically to the electorate’s mood shift on the Kosovo issue, Kostunica’s decline would have been particularly instructive. As leader of a small conservative party, in 2000 Kostunica beat Milosevic in a presidential election courtesy of Djindjic’s ability to line up the whole opposition behind him. He turned his party into a significant kingmaker after Djindjic’s death, partly thanks to an internal crisis in Djindjic’s DS, but mostly because he managed to position himself as a safe pair of pro-EU hands sitting between the nationalist and liberal blocs. As prime minister from 2004 to 2008, he first acted as if satisfying the EU and United States’ wishes were his only purpose in politics. For example, he engineered a series of high-profile surrenders to the Hague tribunal, a key EU demand. Then, as Kosovo’s formal declaration of independence neared, he increasingly fashioned himself as the owner of the Kosovo issue, imposing through what now looks like emotional blackmail a new constitution on the country, complete with a preamble that declares Kosovo a part of Serbia. Kostunica then went on to become an ever more stubborn personification of this fiction, arguing that, if the EU powers were to recognize Kosovo, Serbia should reject the EU altogether. As he did this, his party’s share of the national vote nosedived from the high teens in the mid-2000s to 4 percent.

 

Vucic could also learn a lot about the true direction of travel of nationalist voters from the often ignored resurrection of Dacic’s Socialists. Left for dead in the mid-2000s, the party founded by Milosevic attracted 250,000 new voters between 2008 and 2012 as a direct consequence of Dacic’s decision, encouraged by Western ambassadors, to adopt a pro-EU stance and distance itself from violent fringe groups.

 

Yet Vucic would have certainly learned most about the electorate’s mood from his own party’s experience in the 2012 elections. He could see that, despite pitching himself and Nikolic as pro-EU moderates and doing things such as calling the Srebrenica massacre a terrible crime, the SNS still won nearly a million, largely former SRS votes and Nikolic beat Tadic in the presidential runoff. After that, it did not take a rocket scientist to glean that the nationalist part of the electorate could perhaps stomach even more treachery. The absence of any significant backlash to Dacic’s handshake with Thaci was really a test tube confirmation that nationalist voters were ready to go the whole hog, which could only mean unloading the Kosovo burden from Serbia’s back and which is why Vucic let go of Kosovo with such confidence.

 

VOTER GRATITUDE

 

His triumph in the March elections should therefore be seen as a consequence of two separate but linked instances of voter gratitude. The nationalists simply thanked Vucic at the ballot box for reading their true but unspoken political desires. The liberals awarded him for finding a way of delivering the nationalists, the very people who held them down for decades, to the cause of turning Serbia into a normal, forward-looking country. That’s how Vucic in effect turned the normalization of relations with Kosovo into an operation to normalize Serbia.

 

Vucic’s Kosovo business was in some ways a classic piece of pragmatism on a “patriotic” issue that a liberal politician would be unlikely to get away with (a bit like De Gaulle and Algeria or Nixon and China). Had Tadic, often derided as a flighty metropolitan playboy, tried to sell to Serbia the notion that Serbian law does not extend to Kosovo, all hell might have broken loose, as it did when his chance encounter with a Kosovo Albanian general at a fog-enveloped Skopje airport became public in 2006. Tadic was widely denounced as a traitor, with the then-secretary general of the SRS, Vucic, calling on him for days to explain his contacts with Albanian “terrorists.”

 

Of course, the rock-bottom basis upon which any notion of detaching Kosovo from Serbia could be sold to the electorate is in the fictional nature of Serbia’s sovereignty over Kosovo. The territory hasn’t really been part of Serbia in any organic sense since the Middle Ages. To oversimplify matters a bit, in order for Kosovo to “be Serbia,” it needed Serbs, who, however, persistently migrated northward for centuries, with the 1912 reacquisition of the territory by the Kingdom of Serbia accelerating this trend. Couple this with extremely high Kosovo Albanian birth rates and declining birth rates among the Serbs, and the picture of 20th century Kosovo as an essentially ethnic Albanian place emerges. That such a place should be owned and ruled by an external power was perfectly feasible in the first half of the century when Serbia and later the Kingdom of Yugoslavia were local powers. It wasn’t totally outlandish after World War II, with the new, communist Yugoslavia not only strong regionally but also in sync with worldwide self-determination sentiments, which resulted in broad autonomy for Kosovo. But once Yugoslavia collapsed it was only a matter of time before this compact piece of land of 2 million people, 90 percent of whom wanted to break away, did so. 

 

While NATO’s conduct of the 1999 intervention was questionable – the alliance’s interpretation of what constitutes a legitimate target in particular – and while questions can be asked whether Serbia’s legitimate interests could have been given a fairer hearing later on, it cannot be denied that NATO’s taking of Kosovo was something of a deus ex machina in a story that would have otherwise continued along the Chechnya and Dagestan lines, with insurgent bombs likely going off, not only in Kosovo, but Belgrade as well. It is not enough to simply be a Serb nationalist to continue with the fiction that Kosovo is Serbia 15 years after the Serbian state was bombed out of it and after most world powers have recognized its independence. You’d need to be a fool, too. Vucic correctly worked out that on such matters very few people remain fools forever.

 

USING POWER

 

What will Vucic do with his extraordinary power now? In terms of leaving nationalist instincts behind and acquiring a set of shiny new pro-Western values his transition has been complete. He is a strong-willed teetotaller now, unlikely to waver. Sobriety is a relatively new territory for him, though, so we might expect erratic and overweening moves sometime.

 

Along with his disregard for procedure, much of what Vucic has done in office smacked of improvisation as well as demagoguery. Take his approach to the economy. It has been a patchwork of, not even statist, but rather personal dirigisme and arbitrariness. He’s based his promise to attract foreign investment almost entirely on what is described as his “friendship” with the heir apparent of the United Arab Emirates. He gave – yes, that’s an appropriate word – prime development land in Belgrade to UAE investors for a $3 billion development project, Belgrade on Water. Shouldn’t such a contract be awarded in a tender, some wondered? “For those who ask for there to be a tender, I say let them show even $3 million and I will call a tender,” said the then-first deputy prime minister. Vucic also sold a 49 percent stake in the flagship airline, JAT, now renamed Air Serbia, to Etihad. But the carrier was losing passengers to the low-cost airline WizzAir. Vucic’s solution? Airport fees that instantly gave Air Serbia an advantage over rivals of some 14 euros ($19) per passenger.

 

Vucic is also big on the need to bring order to Serbian finances and is likely to follow an IMF-endorsed blueprint with industriousness and discipline. Given the inconsistency and unsustainable generosity of the country’s budgetary architecture, that is welcome news provided it is accompanied or closely followed by growth and new jobs. If it isn’t, 12 months from now Serbia’s public finances may be orderly, while its economy is cash-starved and in deep recession. Vucic seems to take it for granted with such boyish innocence that growth will naturally follow fiscal consolidation, which will itself invigorate the private sector and attract FDI, that one wonders if some of his Western advisers are confusing the Balkans and the Baltics and our decade with the 1990s.

 

Or how about a special tax on politicians’ salaries, which Vucic has promised to introduce? You’d be wrong, though, to take from this that Vucic is an ordinary demagogue. Sure, the core message here is aimed at the bottom end of Serbia’s political market. But Vucic knows he is now expected to simultaneously cater for upmarket audiences, so he says he is aware that he will be accused of demagoguery for doing this, but that he nevertheless will do it – no, not to fill the state coffers, he knows it’s not much, he says – but simply to show solidarity with the people. Clever this, but is it smart?

 

Or let’s jump to a completely different area, such as the many unsolved murders of journalists and other public figures in the 1990s and early 2000s, an issue that liberal voters are particularly keen on seeing dealt with. Rather than creating an enabling environment for prosecutors and police investigators to do their jobs, Vucic set up a commission made of prominent journalists, police officers, and lawyers. To do what exactly? The commission’s public communiqués would suggest it assists, prods, or pressures prosecutors and police structures. Needless to say, there is no constitutional basis for any of that. The commission has certainly created an impression of political will in this murky area, although when it comes to actual results, matters are more or less where they were 18 months ago when the commission was formed, with some facts on perpetrators established long ago now re-emphasized and reordered and some old suspicions given new prominence. There hasn’t been any suggestion yet of actionable evidence on the question of all questions: who issued the orders? Perhaps sensing that this would soon make the whole endeavor look phony, in March “government sources” told the nation, naturally through the tabloids, what the nation has always suspected – that in some cases the authorities were close to proving that Milosevic and/or his wife, Mirjana Markovic, were behind many such murders. The story, designed to create quick excitement, died after a few days.

 

Vucic is likely to improve Serbia’s overall human rights record, though, on the most visible fronts in particular. Yet, don’t look for signs of passionate commitment to human rights among his lot – Vucic barely touched on the theme in his three hour-speech to parliament. Progress will come from his  belief that in order to modernize you also need to do human rights, period. When earlier this year an extremist group published a list of “30 biggest Serb-haters” – containing the names of leading human rights advocates – it was heartening to see it quickly followed by arrests. This year’s pride events, scheduled for later this month, will be a test of Vucic’s resolve on this front. While the depth of homophobia in general and among hooligan groups in particular should not be underestimated, Vucic is more than likely to do whatever it takes to stop them from disrupting the pride.

 

When it comes to regional and foreign affairs, Vucic will continue to cast Serbia as a responsible, law-abiding player. Make no mistake – the international excitement about Vucic extends to the Balkan region as well. You can read it from his cordial and already productive relationships with Montenegrin and Croatian politicians or the friendly comments about Vucic by Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) politicians, who in the past often summarily despised Serbia’s whole political class. In their comments on Vucic they are all basically saying they feel that, for the first time in years, they have partners in Belgrade whom they can trust not to nose into their countries’ affairs. This new trust will, of course, be important for Bosnia in particular where a local Serb strongman, Milorad Dodik, has threatened for years to proclaim independence for Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb half of the country that he leads, a feared scenario that can undermine peace in the region. Vucic has so far sought gently to put Dodik in his place, repeatedly saying that cross border solidarity among Serbs and all that is a wonderful thing, but that for Serbia, Republika Srpska is a part of Bosnia, whose territorial integrity is undisputable. No surprise then that Vucic’s first foreign trip as prime minister was to Sarajevo, where earlier this week he reinforced this message in an attempt to set the relationship between Serbia and Bosnia on a new, more relaxed footing.

 

Of course, the crisis of relations between Russia and the West over Ukraine complicates matters for Vucic. As a candidate for EU membership, Serbia is supposed to gradually adopt EU foreign policy. Situations such as the current one are tricky as Serbia is often thought of as a nation with its historic affinities and loyalties split between Europe and Russia. For the time being, Vucic can relatively easily give something to both camps – Serbia will, he says, respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity but will never introduce sanctions on Russia (which no one has asked Serbia to do). The question is what Vucic would do, for example, if relations between the EU and Russia deteriorate to the extent that EU powers seek to amass a very wide anti-Putin front. Commentators have often described Vucic’s instincts as pro-Russian. Historically, this would certainly be true of his party, perhaps Nikolic in particular, as well as of his coalition partners, Dacic’s SPS. While one must hope that the United States and the EU have now relearned a thing or two about pushing fragile countries with divided loyalties to choose sides, chances are that Vucic, if in a position to decide on his own, would find a way to choose the West.

 

Similar sentiments will surround debates on whether Serbia should join NATO, something many Serbian politicians, including Nikolic, have said the country would never do. Many Serbians seem to think that before being allowed into the EU the country will be required to join NATO. Serbian politicians and journalists often say this had also been demanded of all 2004 and 2007 entrants (which can’t be true, as neither Cyprus nor Malta did so). Still, while the EU is unlikely to ever make it a formal condition for Serbia’s EU entry, EU powers are not at all unlikely to become keen on seeing Serbia in the alliance as well the union as a way of double-sealing the region’s geopolitical architecture and stability. If the wider European environment and relations between the West and Russia are benign enough then and he is still calling the shots, Vucic is likely to fashion out a pro-NATO stance for himself.

 

A bit more substantive is the question of whether the EU will demand that Serbia formally recognize Kosovo’s independence before it joins, something that Vucic said Serbia won’t do. A formal demand is impossible as long as there are EU states that don’t recognize Kosovo, but this may change by the time Serbia is ready to join – unlikely before 2020 – and make Serbia’s non-recognition untenable. Barring extreme deterioration of Serbia’s internal situation, recognition of Kosovo’s independence somewhere not too far down the road would naturally stem from what is now called the process of normalization of relations with Kosovo. No leaps of imagination are required to picture Vucic arguing for such a move. If in doubt over whether the normalization process can really take root, have a look at the SNS standing among those who are directly affected by it, the Kosovo Serbs. Nearly 54 percent of those who voted on 16 March voted for the party (if on a very low turnout).

 

Of course, one obvious danger with Vucic is that much of Serbia as well as the partners in the West and the region will remain so excited about the country’s widely supported pro-Western government that Vucic will exercise his power basically unchecked. While he is unlikely to become Serbia’s equivalent of Egypt’s Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who gets away with murder because secularists believe he will rid them once and for all of the hated Islamists, it makes sense to ask – precisely because Serbia’s democracy is still in its infancy – whether Vucic could become a relatively enlightened autocrat who gets away with loads of nonsense or even foul play on account of his perceived ability to cut Serbia loose from its ugly, 1990s self for real.

Tihomir Loza is deputy director of Transitions.

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