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Expert: An advocate of “both ways” policy wins in Serbia

Aleksandar Vucic. Photo: rumol.org

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has been elected President of Serbia. His words and actions show that he prefers balancing between Russia and the European Union. So, we just have to wait to see if under Vucic Serbia will get closer to the EU or not?

Vucic polled as many as 55% of the votes, while the runner-up, pro-Western Sasa Jankovic, received just 16%. The third was comedian and populist Luka Maksimovic with 9%. Former Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic polled 5%, former convict of the Hague Tribunal Vojislav Seselj just 4%.

Jankovic advocated closer relations with Russia but supported the anti-Russian sanctions. Sasa Radulovic and Nenad Cacak shared his position and Cacak was even ready to recognize Kosovo’s independence. Those two runners together got less than 3% of the votes. So, if we put all of their votes together, we will see that only 20% of the Serbs support headlong European integration.

Jeremic is also pro-Western but he is more moderate. He objects to anti-Russian sanctions and wants to see Kosovo back in Serbia. But he also wants Serbia to join the EU. So, with Jeremic, the pro-western electorate amounts to some 25%.

On the other side are the opponents of the EU and the advocates of closer ties with Russia. Those people say that Serbia must recognize Crimea as part of Russia. And their “flagship” is the leader of the Radical Party Vojislav Seselj, who spent 10 years in the Hague prison even though there were no proofs of his complicity to crimes in former Yugoslavia. If we add to his votes the 2% of Bosko Obradovic and some other candidates, we will get a 7-8%-strong camp of radically anti-Western Serbs.

The supporters of Maksimovic can hardly be affiliated to any of the camps. Just for fun, he promised that if he was elected, Serbia would develop a space program, while he would be stealing money from people. But when serious, he called Russia a cousin and promised not to impose any sanctions against the Russians. Nor was he very anti-European. So, we can’t clearly say what Maksimovic and his supporters actually want.

As regards the winner, Vucic, it seems that he wants to have it both ways. “A huge majority in Serbia is in favor of continuing the [reform] process, the European path, and also wants to maintain our traditional friendships with Russia and China. When you have results like this, there is no instability – Serbia is strong and it will be even stronger,” he said after his victory. His percent shows that he is not lying.

He also expressed gratitude for his visits to Berlin and Moscow: “I especially would like to express gratitude for Mrs. Merkel and Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin for their courage to hold negotiations with Serbia and with me as head of the government 15 and three days before the pre-election silence. Thank them for that, that indicates they have positive opinion about Serbia and not bad opinion about me.”

He has some special plans. His first visit will be to Bosnia and Herzegovina. We can understand this as here Serbs have Republika Srpska, where people have Serbian passports and vote at Serbian ballots. But Vucic’s next visit is to China. Russia, Germany and the EU are not in his short-term plans.

We see nothing strange here. Just like his predecessor, Tomislav Nikolic, Vucic wants to have it both ways. Though reluctant to recognize Kosovo, Nikolic recognized its official documents and though still remembering NATO’s bombings, he signed IPAP with the alliance.

Vucic is not going to join NATO but the EU is a different story. Serbia has been a candidate since 2012. Perhaps, this is why it was not as inhospitable towards Middle East refugees as Hungary was.

In any case, Serbia has certain limits in his pro-European policy and unlike the other former Yugoslav republics, it refused to support anti-Russian sanctions. And Vucic even dared to accuse the EU of using dual standards. Quite recently, he complained that while being very critical of Republika Srpska’s wish to break away from Bosnia and Herzegovina, the EU was quite tolerant towards Albanians wishing to break away from FYR Macedonia.

In the past, Vucic was member of Seselj’s Radical Party and even though he split from it in 2008, he still is radical on some issues. There is one thing he is very clear on – he does not want to see the Ukrainian scenario recurring in his country.

“I will not let any foreign ambassadors or international centers of force control our country. I will not let them destroy Serbia and throw it into darkness,” Vucic said during his election campaign.

Vucic wants to be close with Russia. It is hard to say how sincere he is but without pro-Russian statements, he would have not won the presidential race. Polls shows that over 80% of the Serbs want to be close with Russia and that as many as 90% of them like the Russians. On the other hand, over 80% of people in Serbia object to any partnership with NATO. No coincidence that Serbian mass media ignored Serbia’s IPAP with the alliance.

The Serbs have always been very pro-Russian. They have a lot in common with the Russians: language, alphabet, Orthodoxy. Their Christmas is also on the 7th of January (unlike Orthodox Bulgarians and Greeks, who celebrate it on the 25th of December). Russia has refused to recognize Kosovo’s independence and keeps defending Serbia in the world. The Serbs see this and Putin is very popular in Serbia.

In economy, things are a bit different. Even though Russia is among Serbia’s major trade partners (5% of the exports and 10% of the imports), Germany and Italy have much bigger percentages. As regards investments, the top five is all from Europe and the biggest investor is Austria.

Serbia is not very well-off economically. It has not yet fully recovered from the bombings and the sanctions of the 1990s. The unemployment rate there is as high as 15-20%. The average monthly salary is less than 400 EUR. Per capital GDP in Serbia is 3.5 times lower than in Germany and 1.5 times lower than in Russia. An average Serb earn just 1/3 of what an average European earns. The Serbs earn even less than the Bulgarians, the poorest EU nation.

As a result, almost 1.5 million Serbs are working abroad. Some 80,000 of them are in Russia, as many as 700,000 in Germany, 300,000 in Austria, 100,000 in Sweden, 200,000 in Switzerland, 50,000 in Italy and the Netherlands. Can Vucic be in conflict with the EU when so many of his citizens are working there? We don’t think he can.

There is one more circumstance – Vojvodina. That autonomous province is the most economically developed part of Serbia. Historically, it was part of the Austrian Empire. Almost 15% of its population are Hungarians, with a big percentage of local Serbs being pro-Western. So, Belgrade should listen to them if it wants to avoid any separatism.

So, it turns out that both ordinary Serbs and their leaders are forced to choose between the purse and the soul. Historically and politically, they want to be close to the Russians but economically, they are very dependent on the Europeans. This is why only 10% of the Serbs reject any contacts with the EU and only 20% are ready to sacrifice contacts with Russia for the sake of European benefits.

So, the only option for them is to maneuver. Vucic will certainly go this way. But he also needs some alternatives. And one of them is China. That country already has almost 10% of Serbia’s imports. The Chinese object to Kosovo’s independence. So, there are no obstacles to closer contacts with them.

But the problem is that Serbia may face the same choice Ukraine faced in its time: the EU may force Vucic to choose – either Russia or Europe. And Vucic will hardly be able to resist.

On the other hand, Serbia has no chance to join the EU in the near future as the EU has suspended its enlargement. Unlike the Ukrainians, the Serbs enjoy visa-free regime and many of them already have German or Austrian passports. But this is all they can hope for.

The Russians could use this circumstance for their purposes. They could enlarge their trade with the Serbs and could offer then some benefits on the Eurasian Economic Union market. They could open more non-profit organizations in Serbia. Time will show if the Russians will have enough will and abilities to gain the Serbs over.

In the meanwhile, the latter will continue balancing between Russia, the EU and China. They have no other choice, do they?

Vadim Trukhachev, specially for EADaily

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