Populism and cozy ties with Russia and China: Vucic takes Serbia further away from EU

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (L) during a meeting on the sidelines of the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) in Beijing, China, 26 April 2019. [Kremlin pool/EPA/EFE]

European tolerance has greatly contributed to Serbian President Alexander Vučić and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party’s establishing an authoritarian system that has nothing to do with the rule of law, writes Svetla Miteva.

Svetla Miteva is a Bulgarian journalist specialised in the Western Balkans, working for more than 30 years with the Bulgarian Telegraph Agency BTA.

Slamming the EU is not a good way to build relations. “MEPs have lost their minds, they are lost in time and space” – this is how Vučić reacted to the recent European Parliament report on Serbia, which indeed contains criticism. “They seem to have read a report from 2011, not from 2021,” the Serbian president quipped.

The EP report drew the attention of the Serbian public by shedding light on the “Krusik”, “Jovanjica”, “Telecom “Serbia” and “Savamala” corruption affairs, condemning the attacks on investigative portals and NGOs, as well as criticising Serbia’s high levels of air pollution.

Vučić lashed out at the report to show his voters how unfair the European Union was to mention Serbia’s insufficient medical resources to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and insufficient medical capacity.

“We are testing more than in 80% of the EU member states, and they criticise us! We do not lack medical equipment and currently, we have 500 respirators in storage. This should be enough for people to see the obvious lies of the EU,” Vučić hammered out.

Defence Minister Alexander Vulin went even further. He described the report as a “portrait of hypocrisy” and suggested that Serbia should review its policy towards the EU.

In reality, Serbia was praised by the European Parliament for having set EU membership as its strategic objective but was also criticised for not advancing many reforms and lagging behind on key topics. MEPs expressed concerns about the functioning of the Serbian parliament, currently without opposition, and cast doubts on the legitimacy of the body.

The resolution also highlights the importance of aligning Serbia’s policy with the EU’s foreign agenda, as at the moment, the country has the lowest level of approximation in the region. Serbia is being asked to deliver on justice, media freedom and the fight against corruption.

Unlike neighbouring Montenegro, the Republic of North Macedonia and Albania, Serbia did not join Europe’s sanctions against Russia following the arrest of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

According to political analyst Dragomir Andjelković, Serbian support of the sanctions against Russia would backfire against Belgrade. “Western countries understand that because of the Kosovo conflict, we will not impose sanctions against Russia. We need Russian support to protect national sovereignty, commented Andjelković.

Last year, Serbia did not open a single new chapter in the accession negotiations with the EU. In Belgrade, this was seen as a complot against the country.

Although Serbia is an official candidate for EU membership, its intentions are ambiguous, as the country pursues very close relationships with Russia and China.

Over the last decade, European tolerance has greatly helped Vučić and the ruling Serbian Progressive Party to establish an authoritarian system that has nothing to do with the rule of law. Analysts warn that Belgrade is increasingly getting closer to Russia and China, moving away from the values of liberal democracy.

While the EP report praised Belgrade for its serious attitude towards dialogue with Pristina, Vučić sent the message that he would continue “stubbornly, not to recognise Kosovo’s independence”. “There is nothing they can do to me,” declared the Serbian president.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many opportunities for Vučić to highlight his good relationship with Russia and China, importing over a million vaccines to the Chinese company “Sinopharm” as well as the Russian “Sputnik V” vaccine.

The Serbian Institute of Virology ‘Torlak’ signed on 5 April an agreement with the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) and the company “Generium” for the transfer of the “Sputnik V” production technology. On the basis of the agreement, Russia will provide Serbia with know-how on the procedures and technologies necessary for the production of the vaccine.

In mid-March, Vučić also announced that a new factory to produce the Chinese vaccine will open in Serbia. According to him, this will make the country a powerful force in healthcare.

With vaccine provisions to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and the free vaccination in Serbia of people from neighbouring countries, Vučić has positioned himself as a leader in the region, trying to offset the bloody heritage of his predecessor Slobodan Milošević during the 1990s.

Serbia has always been a fertile ground for nationalism, and Vučić has further encouraged this tendency. Free from EU commitments, Serbia could only be a troublemaker again.

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