Ultra-nationalists hope to dent the success of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić as Serbia votes on Sunday (24 April), calling on the Balkan country to embrace big brother Russia instead of the European Union.
While pro-European Vučić is widely expected to retain power, pro-Russian forces are set to make a comeback in parliament after several years in the cold, buoyed by the recent war crimes acquittal of their leading figure.
Vojislav Šešelj, who heads the Radical Party, was found not guilty last month of all charges arising from the 1990s Balkan conflicts in a shock ruling from UN judges at The Hague.
His Radicals failed to win seats in the last two elections, but the firebrand former deputy premier is expected to lead them back into parliament after a virulently anti-Western campaign.
“We do not want to be in the European Union. All Serbia’s traditional enemies are there!” Šešelj proclaimed last month at a Belgrade rally, also lashing out at NATO for bombing the country during the 1998-1999 Kosovo war – still a sore point for many Serbs.
Šešelj, 61, has publicly burned EU and NATO flags and claims deeper ties with Russia would overcome “economic misery” in Serbia, one of Europe’s poorest countries, where the unemployment rate stands at about 20%.
The Radicals and other pro-Russian groups are together expected to win around 10 to 15% of the vote, while Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party is polling at roughly 50%.
Second, but trailing behind, are his Socialist coalition partners, while splintered centrist and left-leaning opposition groups are predicted to scrape the five percent threshold.
‘Stable or uncertain’
Once a staunch ultra-nationalist ally of Šešelj, the 46-year-old premier has transformed himself into an ostensibly reformist friend of the West who hopes to lead his country of seven million people into the EU.
Vučić has, however, not made light of the hard-right threat, calling on voters after Šešelj’s acquittal “to think about whether they want Serbia to be stable and safe or to return to uncertainty”.
Critics of Vučić see Sunday’s poll — the third general election in four years — as a bid to tighten his strong grip on power.
But the premier insists a clear mandate is required to complete reforms needed to join the EU.
Serbia began accession talks in December, although the 28-member bloc has said it will admit no more countries before 2020.
“This election will be a referendum on whether Serbia wants to be a modern, European country by 2020,” Vučić said in March.
Despite his westward enthusiasm, Vučić must tread a fine line and maintains good relations with Russia – he visited Moscow in October and the two countries conducted joint war games in February.
A survey published in Vreme magazine the same month showed that 67.2% of Serbians favour an alliance with Moscow, while only 50.9% favoured joining the EU.
Serbs’ affinity with Russia, a fellow Slavic and largely Orthodox Christian country, is clear from the mugs and T-shirts bearing images of Vladimir Putin on sale in Belgrade, while a Serbian museum recently unveiled a waxwork of the Russian president.
Although the European Union is a significantly bigger trading partner, Moscow has forged a more positive image in Serbia through a careful communications strategy, according to South Eastern Europe specialist Jaroslaw Wisniewski.
“Put simply, the image is one of Russia showing ‘respect’, while the West is more intent on issuing demands and pushing for unpopular reforms,” Wisniewski wrote in a recent blog for the London School of Economics.
Crucially Moscow, like Belgrade, denies the independence of Kosovo from Serbia, and last year thwarted Kosovo’s bid to join UNESCO, the UN cultural body.
Beyond geopolitical grandstanding, analysts say decent policy debates are absent as Serbia’s election nears, yet they are crucial to promote long-term growth and stem the flow of youngsters who seek jobs abroad.
“Nobody’s going to tell you how we are going to stop doctors from leaving or how we’re going to achieve a functional educational system, which is what makes Europe,” said political analyst Tibor Jona.