This month, Serbia will have her second general election since 2012. Journalists, analysts and diplomats, alike, tend to agree that incumbent Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic is not likely to face any serious challenge whatsoever. Some of them even believe that the elections will enable Mr Vucic to solidify his grip on power. However, I will present four arguments here for an opposite conclusion.
Firstly: does Serbia accept the post-ideological context?
Mr Vucic seems to try and copy the syncretic approach (I believe he is obsessed by a similar blueprint developed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel) which, in effect, introduced the so-called post-ideological world. Left and Right, liberalism and populism, West and Russia, nationalism and cosmopolitanism – none of these choices should matter anymore, as each of them might be either good or bad, depending on whether or not it benefits Mr Vucic’s short-term goals.
That political syncretism is not new amongst authoritarian leaders; indeed, in the twentieth-century, Spain’s Francisco Franco and Argentina’s Juan Peron essentially had the same ideological blueprint which Mr Vucic is now trying to force Serbia into: bits and pieces of everything, with essentially nothing as a result.
However, Serbia remains a deeply politicized society, bitterly divided over ideological issues, sometimes very old ones. Mr Vucic might try to present himself as an ardent European and, at the same time, a friend of Russia. Nevertheless, both European and Russian admirers in Serbia could easily identify with far more sincere political options to vote for as oppose to Mr. Vucic’s ‘progressives’.
Secondly: the failure of appeasement policy
Since the start of the Ukrainian civil-war, which began in early 2014, with all of the features of a Western-Russian political conflict which followed, both major international players are constantly increasing their expectations from Serbia.
Mr Vucic tried to meet that challenge by keeping to his course of “neutrality”: continuing with his European Union accession agenda but keeping “the best possible relations” with the Russian Federation. Whilst most Serbs might probably do the same, if they were in Mr Vucic’s shoes, the real problem is not with a general concept, but in poor implementation.
Neutrality, as Mr Vucic understands it, is, in fact, appeasement. Throughout the last two years, the Serbian government has tried to accommodate both sides by meeting each demand they have asked for, in order to keep both of them friendly, inasmuch as it was possible to do so. Mr Vucic’s vision of Serbian neutrality was not a sovereign country, but rather a no-man’s-land.
However, after two years, both the West and Russia are less happy with Mr Vucic’s government than they were in 2014.
A cynic would probably say that whatever Serbia did, was not enough for those who asked for it, but, at the same time, it was already too much for another side.
Thirdly: unwilling opponents and insincere followers
One could notice, in a way, a bizarre feature, common for both opponents and followers of Mr Vucic: both of them are deeply confused. The former believe that he is just the wrong man for what are, essentially, good policies, while the latter think that he is the right man who is, somehow, forced to pursue wrong policies.
That controversy is much deeper than journalists or diplomats are able (or, indeed, interested) to comprehend: whoever trusts Mr Vucic does not intimately like what he is publicly saying (and occasionally writing); and whoever does like what he says, does not trust him.
The Serbian Prime Minister, therefore, finds himself in a difficult position: he has tried to pursue policies for the elites, but the elites have not accepted him; at the same time, he has, essentially, betrayed the expectations of his supporters, but he still hopes – in vain, I believe – that, at least one more time, they will fail to notice his betrayal.
Fourthly: the price of compliance
The Serbian Government concluded a new stand-by agreement with the IMF in early 2015. While the international community and Serbian neoliberals applauded what they called “a brave and ambitious programme of economic reforms”, the real progress is missing. The budget deficit was halved and the exchange rate remained stable, but a high price was paid: recession and severe deterioration of living standard for most of the population.
Two big industrial complexes –the steel mill in Smederevo and the copper mine in Bor (which, together, employ about 10,000 people) – appear to be huge failures and it is unclear whether they will survive by the end of this year. Several sources very close to top echelons in the Serbian government privately confirmed to me that early general elections were, indeed, called in order to avoid the devastating impact which bankruptcies of Smederevo and Bor, respectively, would have on public support for the government.
Therefore, the price of compliance appears to be much higher than Mr Vucic originally expected, misled by false support of international diplomats and bankers.
Conclusion: wrong man in hard times
Likewise, this happened with two former Serbian leaders: Slobodan Milosevic (2000) and Boris Tadic (2012). We believe that Serbia’s unnecessary early elections will trigger the fall of Aleksandar Vucic in 2016.
In a way, Mr Vucic was the wrong man in hard times. While desperately trying to always present himself as part of the solution and repeatedly failing to deliver to different stakeholders, he has eventually become part of the problem.
Published in British magazine “Politics First” on 2 April 2016.
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