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Serbia Is Succumbing to a Dangerous Nationalism

An Altamar podcast with
A man wearing a suit, blue tie, and glasses leans to talk to another grey-haired man in a suit standing behind a podium. the background is blue.

The conflict in Ukraine has put the Balkans, and Serbia in particular, in a difficult position. Serbia has been an EU candidate since 2009, while also maintaining strong ties to Russia. It voted in favor of a UN resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine, but then declined to impose sanctions. 

The conservative Serbian Progressive Party of President Aleksandar Vučić easily won elections last month at the presidential, parliamentary and municipal levels. President Vučić and his party have ruled Serbia for over 10 years, and he seems to be strengthening his hold on the country, with increasingly authoritarian tendencies. 

Meanwhile the same month, electors in nearby Slovenia delivered a resounding rejection of the incumbent president, Janez Janša, who has a similar brand of nationalist populism as President Vučić and is often called the “Slovenian Trump.” 

This week, the Altamar podcast team of Muni Jensen and Peter Schechter were joined by Majda Ruge, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. 

When asked if Serbia’s President Vučić and his party are as comfortably in power as they seem, Ruge responded, “[President] Vucic as a candidate got about 59%, according to some news outlets, almost 800,000 more than all the other candidates combined. However, his party got about 42% of the vote, which gives them 120 seats, and they will need 126 in the parliament to form a government. … They will definitely need a coalition partner.” 

In Slovenia, President Jansa was beaten by the Freedom Movement, which was only formed last year and campaigned on a transition to green energy, an open society and the rule of law.

Balkan Nationalism

Comparisons have been made between President Vučić and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Altamar’s Muni Jensen asked, “Is that a simplistic view?” Ruge explained, “Not really. There are many similarities between the two. They both fit into this autocrat/nationalist image, and they follow a very similar script for the consolidation of power. They’re both using tactics where they create enemies of Hungarian or Serbian people in order to distract from or to legitimize consolidation of unchecked political power.”

Sixty-one percent of Serbia’s citizens, when asked in the polls, believe that Russia’s aggression on Ukraine is not an aggression, that it is a war that was brought about by the West and NATO.

However, they choose different enemies to create. Prime Minister Orbán vilifies Muslim immigrants and Western figures or institutions, while President Vučić uses a “typical regional enemy image — the Bosniaks and Bakir Izetbegović, the Kosovars, NATO, et cetera.” 

Ruge points out that Serbia is non-compliant in a lot of EU policy areas, beyond just its ties to Russia. For example, Chinese infrastructure projects fail to meet European procurement and environmental standards. Similarly, the “installation of facial recognition cameras was always problematic in relation to EU privacy laws, data protection, and national security perspective.” But Russia’s military action did change something, according to our guest — “The EU is no longer willing to tolerate [noncompliance] to the same extent. The pressure on Serbia is much more significant than it was before.”

Serbia’s Close Ties to Russia

Serbia remains linked to Russia through its cultural, historical and economic ties. A significant one is that Serbia imports 80% of natural gas from Russia, at a quarter of the market price. 

“[President] Vučić shapes public opinion through the government control of the media. He has pushed public opinion in such a direction that it’s going to be very difficult to get himself out. Sixty-one percent of Serbia’s citizens, when asked in the polls, believe that Russia’s aggression on Ukraine is not an aggression, that it is a war that was brought about by the West and NATO. Then again, if he’s pushed against the wall, I think he could skillfully turn the narrative and start driving it in the other direction.” 

Does Ruge think there is a carrot that could be offered to persuade Serbia to align closer to the EU and away from Russia? 

”They’ve been giving them too many carrots, to be quite honest,” says Ruge. “The EU has failed to insist on the implementation of its membership conditionality. And it has purposefully closed one eye and ignored huge violations of rule of law and democratic norms.” 

However, she notes that “the inevitable carrot that the EU will have to give is including Serbia in whatever the future energy arrangements they will set up for themselves.” Serbia is very unlikely to turn on Russia while they are so dependent on natural gas. To win Serbia’s allegiance, the EU will have to provide an alternative. 

The Dangers of Believing in a Greater Serbia

The ruling Progressive Party continues to court the far-right, using nationalist rhetoric. Ruge is concerned that “huge percentages of the Serbian population are still intoxicated by this idea of a greater Serbia and a Serbian world. … At the moment, I simply don’t see any structural conditions in place to move to a more moderate politics and moderate public opinion.” 

What do Serbia’s relationships with its neighbors look like? Despite some rising tensions and Serbia’s geopolitically problematic role, Ruge noted that [President] Vučić’s government had “opened up its vaccination program to all of the countries [in the region]. Exactly this time last year … you could find more citizens of Sarajevo on the streets in Belgrade than ever because everyone traveled to Serbia to get vaccinated.” As always, the Balkans remain complicated.

Majda Ruge

Senior Policy Fellow at European Council on Foreign Relations

Majda Ruge is a senior policy fellow with the Wider Europe program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, based in Berlin. Before joining ECFR, she spent three years as a fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute/SAIS at the Johns Hopkins University. She has worked for the Delegation of the European Commission and spent time at prominent universities such as the Free University in Berlin, and the Gulf Research Center.

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