Vučić’s Zeitenwende or buying time?
What is behind the move by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, who announced his willingness to accept the EU’s Franco-German-backed proposal for the resolution of the Serbia-Kosovo dispute? Srdjan Cvijić and Maja Bjeloš offer some insight.
Many hastily interpreted Vučić’s move as a pivot away from Moscow and towards the West. Whether Vučić finally accepts or refuses the deal, this is the first time since he came to power in 2012 that he has indeed been driven to a corner.
Skillfully diverting the public’s attention from the proposal’s content to its consequences, Vučić told the electorate that if Serbia didn’t accept the plan, it would face the wrath of the EU and the US. EU accession talks would be interrupted, the visa-free regime with the EU would be abolished, IMF loans would be slashed, foreign direct investments would stop flowing into Serbia, and the country would face international isolation.
In Serbia, a country entirely economically dependent on the EU, the materialization of any of these threats would indeed seriously endanger Vučić’s reign.
In an instant, established political interests in Serbia quickly inverted their traditional positions on Kosovo. The nationalist conservative political parties in the Parliament confronted Vučić with the exact same nationalist rant about Kosovo he has been giving to others since the 1990s.
Vučić uses controversies surrounding the proposal, including the previously fabricated crisis in Kosovo, to position himself as a key actor and inflate his political rating as much as possible.
This was evident in the midst of the crisis over Kosovo license plates: Vučić appeared 68 times live on TV channels with national coverage (according to the media monitoring performed by the Centre for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) in January 2023).
Knowing that 54% of the population watches TV stations with national coverage controlled by the regime, while the share of independent stations critical of Vučić’s rule is only 2%, the President and his entourage could have dictated a narrative that was more conducive to a smoother acceptance of the Kosovo deal.
Yet, they did not, largely because of his party’s rating in Serbia. In order to justify his acceptance of the deal in front of his voters, Vučić had to portray himself as a victim of the West under great pressure to deliver on the Kosovo logjam. In this way, the Serbian president additionally stirred up anti-Western sentiments.
Kosovo: a lose-lose for Vučić
In the early years of his rule, Vučić was attempting to curry favour with the political centre through his anti-corruption campaign. However, he pursued this strategy while always having to satisfy his right-wing political base.
Vučić’s move towards the slightly nationalistic but pragmatic silent majority that would never exchange Russia for the EU had to be combined with simultaneously pandering to the right.
Vučić also knew that whatever he did, because of his warmongering past in the 1990s, he would never gain trust of approximately 20 per cent of Serbian voters. Vučić could win right and centre, but he could never appeal to the progressive side of the Serbian electorate.
This is why ultimately pushing pro-Western policies and narrative didn’t pay off for him. Thanks to Vučić’s propaganda, Russian soft power has taken deep roots in Serbia. Nationalism has increased too.
Kosovo, Russia and nationalism are a perfect smokescreen. Drawing all attention to these topics distracts voters from looking into real problems: state capture by Vučić’s party, deep links of the regime with organised crime, rapid depopulation and a looming economic crisis, among other things.
Once the Kosovo status is settled, it is highly likely that concerns about Serbia’s poor economic situation, corruption, and crony capitalism will surface, and the establishment could be seriously challenged.
A good tactician, a bad strategist
Vučić is undisputedly a good tactician. However, he lacks a strategy and a vision beyond remaining in power at any cost. The (un)resolved status of Kosovo is a tap dance aimed at securing the Serbian President’s political survival.
Counting that Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti would refuse the establishment of the Association of Serbian Municipalities was part of Vučić’s strategy. However, after Kurti hinted he would accept the proposal as a framework for further talks with Serbia, Vučić encountered a problem.
As a response, he signalled that he was ready for early general elections in Serbia, citing excuses such as a disappointment with the behaviour of his coalition partner, the Socialist Party of Serbia, regarding Kosovo, as well as pressure from the West.
Vučić understands very well Serbia’s place in the new geopolitical context after the Russian aggression against Ukraine. He knows that the war in Ukraine prompted the US and the EU to speed up the resolution of the status of Kosovo and other outstanding issues in the Balkans.
However, the Serbian President also knows that when in danger of losing power, it is better not to be like his Montenegrin counterpart Milo Đukanović. Đukanović was only under the temporary protection of the West. This is because the West ultimately abandons autocrats: they are merely impermanent stabilizers in transitioning from illiberalism to liberalism.
When courting Serbia’s silent majority and Western partners, Vučić likes to compare himself with Zoran Đinđić, the Serbian reformist prime minister assassinated in 2003. Yet, what Vučić really fears is to have a similar fate as Ivo Sanader, Croatia’s prime minister in 2004-2009, who received a prison sentence for corruption on multiple counts.
Everything Vučić does is geared towards avoiding Sanader’s destiny.