Why Serbia’s President Vucic chose Richard Grenell over Angela Merkel

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

File photo. The then US ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell (L) gestures during the meeting with Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (R) in Belgrade, Serbia, 24 January 2020. [Andrej Cukic/EPA/EFE]

Although EU membership is Serbia’s official foreign policy goal, Russia and China – and perhaps the USA in the future – are providing something that is much more valuable for the Serbian leaders: a hope that the drawing of the national borders will be possible again, writes Filip Milacic.

Dr Filip Milacic is a national adviser on political affairs at the OSCE Mission in Montenegro. The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not reflect the opinions of the OSCE.    

The last several weeks in Europe were marked by the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic. Accordingly, the stories of the pandemic’s effect on the health, economy and politics have been dominating the news, which is why one important development slipped past under the radar.

In the midst of the pandemic, Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti lost the vote of confidence in the parliament.

According to the media, he paid a price for objecting to a secret deal between Serbia’s and Kosovo’s Presidents, Aleksandar Vucic and Hashim Thaci, which was brokered by US special envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Richard Grenell and which allegedly includes the land swap.

President Vucic, who has always been bragging about his good relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, decided this time to go against the wishes of the EU and Chancellor Merkel thereby jeopardizing his country’s European integration.

Yet this was a completely expected move. Even though the EU membership is Serbia’s official foreign policy goal, for the following two reasons Serbia’s European integration is doomed to fail:

Firstly, the EU membership is not in President Vucic’s political interest. His recent bizarre press conference, in which he strongly criticized the EU and praised China, prompted many to regard the coronavirus pandemic as a critical juncture in which Serbia will decide its future path.

However, unrelated to the coronavirus pandemic, Serbia under President Vucic has already embarked on the path of autocratization and by praising China and its system he is strengthening his own political legitimacy.

In addition to it, by portraying the EU as selfish, President Vucic is also trying to lower EU’s popularity within the Serbian electorate and, thus, weaken the impact of EU’s inevitable critic of his authoritarian practices.

Secondly, even if President Vucic would be ousted from power there still remains a key obstacle to Serbia’s European integration– Serbian national question. On the Serbian political scene, there is a widespread notion that the national question is still to be resolved (the national boundaries are to be drawn again).

On that matter there is a bipartisan agreement, i.e., there is no difference between the stances of the ruling parties and the majority of the opposition parties. This is hampering Serbia’s European path because the obligations of a potential EU membership are in a collision with Serbia’s aim to resolve the national question.

Serbia must make a deal with Kosovo, which would most probably imply its direct or indirect recognition. This is very unlikely to happen as the recognition of Kosovo – in any form – is extremely unpopular within the Serbian electorate.

Many surveys have shown that the prioritising of the national question is not only a choice of the political elite as the majority of Serbian citizens share that view too.

Moreover, Serbia’s constant interference in the inner affairs of neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro and pretensions toward those two countries are against one of the pillars of the EU integration– good neighbourly policy.

In the spirit of the 1990s the Serbian political leaders are behaving like they are the representatives of all Serbs in the region, and not only the Serbian citizens.

In other words, in Serbia, the national question trumps European integration. High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, recently lamented the lack of “Thanks to the EU for the help it has been providing us” billboards on the streets of Belgrade.  So far this ‘honour’ has only been reserved for China and Russia.

The EU could double its financial assistance, but it would still not ‘deserve’ the gratitude billboard on the streets of Belgrade because Russia and China – and perhaps the USA in the future – are providing something that is much more valuable for the Serbian leaders: a hope that the drawing of the national borders will be possible again.

This explains why President Vucic risks alienating German Chancellor Merkel and Brussels by making a secret deal with Kosovo’s President Thaci under the sponsorship of Grenell.

Serbia’s Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic repeated on several occasions that the current American administration is more receptive to Serbia’s vision of Balkan’s future than any previous one and Serbia should seize this opportunity.

Serbian priorities lie there, and not in the reforms that would bring it closer to the EU membership. It is time for the EU to acknowledge it.

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