A New Tune from Serbia

Dragan Stojanovski

Catherine Ashton must be satisfied: Serbia will get a new prime minister. And for Baroness Ashton, that’s big news.

For the past year and a half, EU’s foreign policy chief spent hundreds of hours in weekly meetings with the prime ministers of Serbia and Kosovo, bringing together old foes to forge a historic normalization of relations between Serbia and its breakaway province-turned independent country. These talks were undoubtedly one of Ashton’s major successes since the EEAS was created five years ago, but they were far from relaxing afternoon tea parties. Tension and shouting were reported, but so were jokes, laughter and even serenading; all this, thanks to the quintessential Balkan charmer—Serbian outgoing Prime Minister Ivica Dacic. All this is about to change.

Dacic’s Socialist Party (the ex-communist, ex-Milosevic party) did well in this year’s elections—earning 15 percent of the votes, just as it did two years ago. In 2012, this result turned Dacic into a kingmaker in post-electoral coalition bargaining, bringing the Serbian Progressive Party to power and Dacic to the prime minister’s office. But Serbian voters have now declared Dacic redundant, backing the Serbian Progressive Party with 48 percent of votes—close to two-thirds of seats in the parliament.

Enter Aleksandar Vucic, the triumphant leader of the Progressives—Serbia’s unofficial, and soon to be official, Number One. He’s not much of a singer, he rarely smiles: picture Mad Men’s Pete Campbell paired with the poise and wisdom of Bert Cooper and the dark past of Don Draper. Throughout the nineties and up until five years ago, he was one of the most prominent figures of the Serbian Radical Party—extreme right, extreme nationalist and extremely involved in war crimes committed by Vojislav Seselj (current address: Hague War Crimes Tribunal). His role model at the time—Vladimir Putin; best friend: Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Today Vucic couldn’t be more different. His new role model: Angela Merkel. Vucic is determined to bring Serbia into the EU and he is committed to all necessary political and economic reforms to achieve this goal. This includes full normalization of relations with Kosovo, as well as good regional cooperation. For Ashton and other EU leaders, that sounds nicer than any serenade. Winston Churchill once said that the Balkans produces more history than can be consumed, and Serbia has a long reputation as Europe’s troublemaker (this year marks a century since the beginning of the First World War). This election season in Serbia, Kosovo and the EU were non-issues for the first time—and that produced a real sigh of relief.

Vucic’s new best friend: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE. Just a week before the elections, like a wish granted from Zayed’s magic lamp, UAE’s loan of one billion dollars (out of three billion promised for this year) arrived to help support Serbia’s troubled public finances. With unemployment at over 30 percent, roaring public debt at 65 percent of GDP and a supersized public sector, Serbia is in desperate need of structural reforms, investment and growth. (Money is so tight that the country had to withdraw from competing in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest.) Vucic is resolute again: bold, necessary and unpopular measures will be taken to steer the country to safe waters. Like his role model Merkel, Vucic is a big proponent of belt-tightening, but after 18 months in power, he has yet to deliver on what that will mean in practice.

Vucic’s electoral success and enviable popularity are a product of his fight against corruption. Just like their counterparts in Italy in the beginning of the 90s, Serbia’s political and business elites lived in perfect symbiosis until the global crisis. As money began to run out, Brussels started to call more and more often, asking uncomfortable questions about shady business practices. As a result, Vucic’s position has been a tough one—sometimes too tough. Arrests are announced before they happen and verdicts are made in loyal press outlets before the trials even begin.

All in the service of long-awaited justice, you may say. But for Vucic’s critics and Serbia’s almost non-existent opposition (the main opposition party won less than 6 percent of votes), this is a sign that, like in Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Hungary, things are about to change. But whether this will be a change for the better remains to be seen.

For Catherine Ashton, the change is definitely a positive one. With things moving in the right direction in the Balkans, she’ll be able to free up her schedule for more-pressing meetings—how about some laughs and serenading around the negotiation tables on Iran, Syria or Crimea?


Dragan Stojanovski is an Associate at the EastWest Institute.

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