Analyst: Aleksandar Vucic is a Jekyll and Hyde character

Srdjan Cvijic

Serbian leader Aleksandar Vucic has two personas. The pro-Western, Dr Jekyll side remains reserved for Brussels, EU capitals, and Washington, while citizens in the country get Mr Hyde, who is slowly transforming Serbia into a postmodern Weimar Republic, Srdjan Cvijić told EURACTIV in an interview.

Srdjan Cvijić is a member of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group.

He spoke to EURACTIV’s Senior Editor Georgi Gotev.

What do we in Brussels fail to understand about Serbia’s strongman Aleksandar Vucic and Serbia in general?

The problem is that some people in Brussels fail to see the continuity of the democratic backsliding and the Serbian regime’s anti-Western policies since Aleksandar Vučić’s party came to power in 2012. The pro-Western, Dr Jekyll side of Serbian policy remains reserved for Brussels, other EU capitals and Washington. The citizens in the country are getting their daily drip of Mr Hyde, who is slowly transforming Serbia into a postmodern Weimar Republic.

The deployment of the police to protect the graffiti painted to honour the war criminal Ratko Mladic is just the latest episode in a long series. Ever since 2012, when Vučić’s party came to power, pro-government media feed the population with a daily dosage of anti-Western, pro-Russian, pro-Chinese, and more than anything else nationalistic propaganda. The difference between the period before they came to power is striking.

While the pre-2012 government extradited war criminals such as Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, this government is honouring convicted war criminals. Such revisionist policies of the Serbian regime are a side dish to a more general ‘Orbanisation’ of the country, that the European Commission’s service document well in their yearly reports, but that their political chiefs in the Commission fail to put forward in their public appearances.

Serbia's police detain activist throwing eggs at war criminal mural

The Serbian police late on Tuesday (9 November) briefly detained a local opposition activist after she threw eggs at a downtown Belgrade wall painting of Ratko Mladić, a convicted war criminal and the wartime commander of Bosnian Serbs.

Is Vučić successful in passing the message to the West that there is no alternative to his rule?

Unfortunately, yes, and this is a big problem. Let me remind you that Milosevic deployed precisely the same tactics with the Western partners in the 1990s. In 1995, he was called a “guarantor of peace and stability” when he was needed to conclude the Dayton Peace Accords in Bosnia. Only 2-3 years later, we had the beginning of an armed conflict in Kosovo, the NATO bombing in 1999, and Milosevic was seen in a true light, as the international pariah he was from the very beginning. The two situations are not comparable, despite the latest developments in Bosnia in particular. I believe there is no appetite for an armed conflict amongst the region’s population. Still, I do not trust that Vučić will deliver anything significant he promised to his Western interlocutors. It is, of course, in his interest to maintain the impression that he is working towards that goal for this, and this is partly keeping him in power.

The Serbian regime’s survival rests on two seemingly opposing pillars: Dr Jekyll abroad and Mr Hyde in Serbia. On the one hand, what brought Vučić to power is a superficial departure from his former extreme right, nationalistic positions. In this sense,  any clear and serious rupture of relations with the West and a full-blown return to pre-2012 policies would bring about his downfall. Crossing the red line, going in the direction of Lukashenko’s Belarus, would alienate the country’s silent majority.

For a large part of the population, Serbia’s pro-Western, pro-EU orientation, despite growing scepticism, remains synonymous with stability and prosperity. A clear break with this geopolitical course would scare the voters off. On the other hand, Vučić feels he needs to cater to his right-wing voting base. Thus we have the daily internal nationalistic propaganda spread by the regime, recent “defence” of the Mladic graffiti being a case in point. Such policies are not only poisonous because they radicalise Serbia’s population but are also detrimental for any attempt to strengthen regional cooperation, such as efforts to establish a common economic and political zone in the region (Open Balkans or Common Regional Market under the Berlin Process) on its way to EU membership.

What should be the EU strategy vis-à-vis Serbia? Does Vučić want to progress?

I think Vučić and the oligarchy in power in Serbia are not serious about EU membership. Rewarding the current regime in Belgrade with the opening of the new negotiating clusters in the face of the painfully obvious deterioration of the rule of law and democratic standards in the country would be detrimental to the legitimacy of the entire accession process. What message would that send to North Macedonia and Albania, who cannot even start the negotiations because of bilateral issues with a single member state?

Or the European Commission starts negotiating with everyone, which would not be a bad solution, or it has to refrain from rewarding the authoritarians and punishing the democrats in the region. We all saw how such policy ended with the municipal elections in North Macedonia and the fall of the Zaev government. EU’s policy is to a large extent to blame for such outcomes.

Should the EU wait for democratic change, or should it be more straightforward with its messages? 

The EU should be more straightforward with its messages, and yes, this will work in Serbia. Twelve years of experience should have been enough to demonstrate that false tapping on the Serbian Orbán’s’ back serves no purpose. The Serbian regime has no genuine alternative to the EU and the West. I hope the times when Belgrade used Putin and the Chinese as scarecrows to frighten Brussels and Washington are behind us and that leaders in the EU and the US can see through this bluff. If finally confirmed, US President Joe Biden’s decision not to invite Serbia, Hungary, and Turkey to its Democracy Summit in December is a step in the right direction, and the EU should follow suit.

How could the EU help the democratic forces in Serbia?

First and foremost, by speaking the truth to the power in Belgrade and making sure that the Serbian population hears this. For this, it is vital to free the media sphere in the country. EU funded organisations such as the European Endowment for Democracy are already doing the job, but this is not enough.

The European Commission needs to provide more direct and robust help. Currently, the situation is such that all television stations having a national frequency, and most of the daily newspapers are a direct mouthpiece of the regime. They are also generously funded by the Serbian government. Twitter, for example, has recently labelled all these pro-regime media as “state-affiliated”. Without direct funding from the government, they will not have a head start in the market game with other disadvantaged professional media.

Whereas it is more difficult for the EU to force the Serbian regime to, for example, distribute national TV frequencies fairly, it can help level out the market disadvantage of the independent media by providing them direct funding for content. It is not that the pro-regime media are more successful in selling their content. They have the government’s money to keep their costs low and bail them out when needed.

Serbian President fumes as Twitter exposes his ‘friendly media’

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has compared himself to Donald Trump as a politician victimized by Twitter, after the social media took the decision to tag many of the media organisations which support him as “pro-government”.

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