Aleksandar Vucic is a Jekyll and Hyde character –

Serbian leader Aleksandar Vucic has two characters. The pro-Western side of Dr Jekyll remains reserved in Brussels, EU capitals and Washington, while the country’s citizens get Mr Hyde, who is slowly transforming Serbia into a postmodern Weimar Republic, said Srdjan Cvijić to EURACTIV in an interview.

Srdjan Cvijić is a member of the Advisory Group on Balkan Policy in Europe.

He spoke with EURACTIV editor-in-chief Georgi Gotev.

What do we fail to understand in Brussels about the strongman of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, and of Serbia in general?

The problem is that some Brussels residents do not see the continuity of the democratic retreat and anti-Western policies of the Serbian regime since the coming to power of Aleksandar Vučić’s party in 2012. The pro-Western side, Dr Jekyll, Serbian politics remains reserved for Brussels. , other EU capitals and Washington. The citizens of the country receive their daily drop from Mr. Hyde, who is slowly transforming Serbia into a postmodern Weimar Republic.

The deployment of police to protect graffiti painted in honor of war criminal Ratko Mladic is just the latest installment in a long series. Since 2012, when Vučić’s party came to power, the pro-government media have fed the population with a daily dose of anti-Western, pro-Russian, pro-Chinese and above all nationalist propaganda. The difference between the period before they came to power is striking.

While the pre-2012 government extradited war criminals such as Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, this government honors convicted war criminals. Such revisionist policies of the Serbian regime are an accompaniment to a more general “orbanization” of the country, which the services of the European Commission document well in their annual reports, but which their political leaders within the Commission do not put forward. of their public appearances. .

Does Vučić succeed in getting the message across to the West that there is no alternative to his rule?

Unfortunately, yes, and that’s a big deal. Let me remind you that Milosevic deployed precisely the same tactics with the Western partners in the 1990s. In 1995, he was called “the guarantor of peace and stability” when it was necessary to conclude the negotiations. Dayton Peace Accords in Bosnia. Only 2-3 years later, we had the start of an armed conflict in Kosovo, the NATO bombings in 1999, and Milosevic was seen in his true light, as the international outcast he had been since very beginning. The two situations are not comparable, despite the latest developments in Bosnia in particular. I believe there is no appetite for armed conflict among the people of the region. Still, I don’t believe Vučić will deliver anything important that he promised to his Western counterparts. It is of course in his best interests to maintain the impression that he is working towards this goal for this, and that partly keeps him in power.

The survival of the Serbian regime rests on two seemingly opposed pillars: Dr Jekyll abroad and Mr Hyde in Serbia. On the one hand, what brought Vučić to power was a superficial departure from his former far-right nationalist positions. In this sense, any clear and serious break in relations with the West and a full return to pre-2012 policies would entail its downfall. Crossing the red line, heading towards Lukashenko’s Belarus, would alienate the country’s silent majority.

For a large part of the population, Serbia’s pro-Western and pro-EU orientation, despite growing skepticism, remains synonymous with stability and prosperity. A clear break with this geopolitical course would scare voters away. On the other hand, Vučić believes he must respond to his right-wing electoral base. So we have the daily internal nationalist propaganda propagated by the regime, the recent “defense” of Mladic’s graffiti is an example. Such policies are not only poisonous because they radicalize the Serbian population, but are also detrimental to any attempt to strengthen regional cooperation, such as efforts to establish a common economic and political area in the region (Open Balkans or Market regional cooperation in the framework of the Berlin process) on its way to EU membership.

What should the EU’s strategy be towards Serbia? Does Vučić want to progress?

I think Vučić and the ruling oligarchy in Serbia do not take EU membership seriously. Rewarding the current Belgrade regime with the opening of new negotiating groups in the face of the painfully evident deterioration of the rule of law and democratic standards in the country would be detrimental to the legitimacy of the entire accession process. What message would this send to North Macedonia and Albania, which cannot even start negotiations due to bilateral issues with only one Member State?

Either the European Commission starts negotiating with everyone, which would not be a bad solution, or it must refrain from rewarding the authoritarians and punishing the democrats in the region. We have all seen how this policy ended with the municipal elections in North Macedonia and the fall of the Zaev government. EU policy is to a large extent responsible for these results.

Should the EU wait for democratic change or should it be more direct in its messages?

The EU should be more direct with its messages, and yes, it will work in Serbia. Twelve years of experience should have been enough to show that a false slap on the back of Serbian Orbán was useless. The Serbian regime has no real alternative to the EU and the West. I hope that the days when Belgrade used Putin and the Chinese as scarecrows to scare Brussels and Washington are behind us and that the leaders of the EU and the United States can see through this bluff. If ultimately confirmed, US President Joe Biden’s decision not to invite Serbia, Hungary and Turkey to his democracy summit in December is a step in the right direction, and the EU should follow suit.

How could the EU help the democratic forces in Serbia?

First and foremost, by telling the truth in power in Belgrade and making sure that the Serbian people hear it. For this, it is vital to liberate the media sphere in the country. EU-funded organizations such as the European Foundation for Democracy are already doing the job, but it is not enough.

The European Commission must provide more direct and solid aid. Currently, the situation is such that all television channels have a national frequency, and most of the dailies are direct spokespersons for the regime. They are also generously funded by the Serbian government. Twitter, for example, recently referred to all of these pro-regime media outlets as “affiliated with the state.” Without direct government funding, they will not have a head start in the market game with other disadvantaged professional media.

While it is more difficult for the EU to force the Serbian regime to, for example, distribute national television frequencies equitably, this can help alleviate the disadvantage of the independent media market by providing them with direct funding for the contents. It’s not that pro-regime media are better at selling their content. They have the government money to keep their costs down and to bail them out when needed.

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