The Influence of Strongman Aleksander Vucic
Authors: Gigi Manukyan, November 2020
Image by Wikimedia Commons
Compared to its Western counterpart, Eastern European democracy is in its experimental stage, with the countries making up the former Yugoslavia in their infancy.
As the COVID-19 pandemic rages through the world and governments struggle to keep up with its destructive effects, the Iron Curtain’s faulty experimentation with democracy finds itself exposed. As turmoil flames through the Balkans, old unresolved conflicts continue to emerge—and this time, unlike in the 1990s, the West is nowhere to be found. But the question remains: is the region once again headed for war?
Protests Rock Belgrade
With the West busy handling its own COVID-19 crisis, the Balkans have been left to fend for themselves and left vulnerable to Aleksander Vucic. Serbia’s “strongman” president has continued his revisionist campaign, while disrupting his neighbors and allegedly rigging Serbia’s presidential elections (Karnitschnig). Prior to the elections, Serbians were frustrated with the Vucic administration’s inconsistent response to the pandemic. The election’s outcome was the first major COVID-19 pandemic-related unrest in Europe. Echoing former President Slobodan Milosevic, President Vucic has retaliated with violent force against demonstrators (Kingsley). He authorized military forces to use tear gas, rocks, and missiles against demonstrators (“Riot”).
The protests began immediately after the announcement of a second wave of lockdowns as Serbia’s COVID-19 cases increased (“Serbia”). Demonstrators were even more fed up with the Vucic administration’s initial lackluster response to the pandemic rather than the idea of preventive measures against the virus. Despite the increasing number of cases around the world, including in Serbia, the administration proceeded with elections, which resulted in a landslide win for Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party. The Serbian Progressive Party swept 60%, or 190, of the 250-seat Serbian Parliament (Kingsley, Serbia’s Strongman).
The election was initially scheduled to take place in April; however, it was pushed back to July following the increase of COVID-19 cases. Leading up to the new election date, Vucic lifted multiple protections (Stojanovic) in place claiming that the pandemic was under control in Serbia (Soric). This resulted in an increase of COVID-19 cases and deaths, while the Serbian economy continued to plummet. Economists project a -3 percent growth this year compared to a 4.2% increase in 2019 (FocusEconomic). While the economy is expected to recover by 2021, the uncertainty of the virus is looming over Serbia. If the COVIDS-19 virus had been addressed promptly and effectively since the beginning, there would be no need for a second wave of lockdowns.
Since assuming office in 2017, Vucic has been a polarizing figure in the region due to his extremist past (Feng). During the Yugoslav Wars, Vucic was an active member of the Serbian Radical Party and a close friend of the party’s leader, Vojislav Šešelj, who was recently indicted for war crimes by The Hague (Karnitschnig). Prior to his presidency, Vucic served as the Minister of Information in 1998 and actively cracked down on opposition journalists. Despite his self-proclaimed change from his past, Vucic’s response to the protestors is right out of Šešelj’s and Milosevic’s handbooks. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Vucic’s administration resorted to government-backed violence.
For the first time since 2003, Serbia is no longer categorized as a democracy in “Nations in Transit,” Freedom House’s study of democracies of former Communist states, due in part to its treatment of the country’s journalists (“Dropping”). On July 28, Serbia’s Finance Ministry’s Administration Anti-Money Laundering Unit requested bank transaction details on 20 individuals and 37 non-governmental organizations for alleged ties to funding terrorism and money laundering (Csaky). One of the NGOs targeted was the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK), which had exposed the then-Belgrade mayor’s, (Sinisa Mali), involvement with money laundering. Sinisa’s case was dismissed by the Court due to a lack of evidence. It is critical to note that the current Minister of Finance is none other than Sinisa Mali, who prompted independent media and civil society organizations to dismiss the money laundering claims as nothing more than Vucic’s strongman tactics to further frighten journalists from investigating powerful Serbian politicians. Furthermore, the Anti-Money Laundering Unit appears to be nothing more than an excuse to track money going into civil society and independent media groups as an intimidation tactic.
Dismissive of his own citizen’s outcries, Vucic has been promoting his nationalist policies outside of the country. The pandemic has allowed Vucic to refocus on the Kosovo question and its sphere of influence within the Western Balkans.
On September 4, Serbian and Kosovo leaders met with President Donald Trump to continue peace talks and to forge a possible economic deal. The deal, while portrayed as “historic” by the Trump administration, is anything but what President Trump claims. In reality, the lackluster treaty made no real change and the small agreements reached by both parties had been agreed upon in prior treaties.
The only dramatic outcome from the talks was both Serbia and Kosovo agreeing to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (Gordy). Throwing Israel into the mix only complicates Kosovo’s relationship with the Muslim countries backing Palestine and any chance of Serbia being accepted into the European Union (EU). Furthermore, by not legitimizing Kosovo, Serbia is further jeopardizing its chances of EU membership. Since the EU accounts for 67% of Serbia’s exports, straining relations with the EU is not in the best interest of Serbia’s economy (“Benefits”).
Kosovo and Serbia’s initial tensions with one another date back to the Ottoman days following the Albanian expulsion in the 1870s (Daalder). Serbia would eventually gain control of Kosovo in 1912 only to lose control after World War I, when Serbia and Kosovo were absorbed into the Federation of Yugoslavia. In 1974, Kosovo was awarded full autonomy within Yugoslavia. Following Milosevic’s rise to power, his proposed changes to the Serbian Constitution stripped Kosovo of most of its autonomy which eventually led to the 1998 Kosovo War (Nelsson). Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and was officially recognized by over 100 countries, including Montenegro, the United States, Turkey, and France. Neither Serbia nor Russia have recognized Kosovo’s independence (Ozturk).
In the long run, the deals signed with the Trump administration will not sustain until Serbia recognizes Kosovo as a sovereign state. While Serbia was keen on continuing talks with Kosovo and the international community in hopes of EU membership, with Vucic now in power, the hold of EU membership over Serbia is waning. As Moscow’s influence over Serbia grows, Belgrade is drifting from the West to the East. Along with China, Russia and Serbia have been actively blocking Kosovo’s recognition by international organizations, including the United Nations (Vasovic).
In regard to a possible EU membership, Vucic stated, “In reply to a possible offer (to Serbia) to recognise Kosovo and that Kosovo enters the UN, and we receive nothing in return, except EU membership, our answer would be ‘no’” (Vasovic). Serbia’s strongman will only settle on Belgrade’s [Moscow’s] terms.
Meanwhile, across the border, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has continued to threaten Bosnia with secession. Making up one-third of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite federal presidency, Dodik politically aligns himself more with Belgrade and Moscow than with Sarajevo.
Following the end of the Bosnian War in 1995, the country has been divided into two entities: Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats, and Republika Srpska for the Bosnian Serbs. With each side pointing blame at the other for the war, the appointment of three individuals from three opposing sides to jointly serve as president is unproductive, especially if one vehemently denies committing genocide (Karčić).
Dodik has been actively rallying support to secede from Bosnia and join Serbia, much to the dismay of the Western world. As the question of Kosovo continues to make headlines, it appears that Dodik’s desire to breakaway grows. “It should be part of the public discourse that it is impossible to talk about a special status of Kosovo without talking about a special status of the Bosnian Serb Republic,” said Dodik, during a news conference with Vucic in Banja Luka (“Dodik”). Like Serbia, Dodik’s Republika Srpska does not recognize the 2008 independence of Kosovo, and if Serbia were to recognize Kosovo’s status, then by default, Republika Srpska should be granted the same status (N1 Sarajevo).
If Dodik’s bid for secession is successful, war will inevitably break out again, one that neither Bosnia nor Serbia can afford (North). Although threatening secession has defined Dodik’s presidential career, growing tensions in Bosnia and overall in the Balkans parallels the tensions that led to the dissolution of Yugoslavia and subsequently to war (“Dodik’s Repeated”).
Bosnia is not the only Balkan state that should be wary of Alexander Vucic the Great. The recent Montenegrin election saw gains for the pro-Serbian and pro-Russian opposition; thus, increasing the chances of more anti-West coalitions within Montenegrin parliament.
Despite the Democratic Party of Socialists winning the most votes, three Serbian-backed opposition groups won the most seats in the 81-seat parliament (“Montenegro’s”). For the Future of Montenegro, a group backed by the Serbian Orthodox Church which seeks closer ties with Serbia and Russia won 32.55% of the vote (“Thousands”).
This breaks from the comparatively pro-Western government that was pushed by Montenegro’s Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) and led by President Milo Djukanovic—a fundamental figure in establishing stronger ties with the West. Given the massive combined influence of these parties, the country will instead sway towards Russia rather than towards NATO. Thousands of protestors have taken to the streets against the election results in retaliation for the growing Serbian and Russian influences in the Montenegrin political arena.
To argue that Djukanovic is a reputable leader free of any wrongdoing would be false. He has been Prime Minister three times, and has held other high positions of power since 1990. If the region has learned anything from allowing leaders to rule for multiple terms, it is to not. Unlimited terms allow for a leader to become a dictator with no checks on his or her power. The longer a leader is in office, the longer he or she is able to exert such force (Dedovic).
Djukanovic has also been accused by the opposition leaders and human rights groups of corruption. Such accusations include: money laundering through his family-owned bank, selling pieces of the Montenegrin coastline to shady Russian and Azeri businessmen, and smearing journalists who oppose him (“Person”). However, aligning with the East as opposed to the West under the Serbian sphere of influence would further hinder Montenegro’s growth as a democracy. This would also jeopardize both Montenegro’s status for EU citizenship and its position within NATO.
Montenegro and Serbia of recent times have had an interesting relationship. Although the two countries were part of the Federation of Yugoslavia until its dissolution, their bond began to deteriorate following Montenegro’s move towards a more pro-Western stance. Yet, national identity in Montenegro remains divided. While some Montenegrins see themselves as part of a larger Serbian identity, others view themselves as independent Montenegrins and members of the unrecognized Montenegro Orthodox Church. As the new pro-Serbian opposition groups enter parliament, it will be interesting to see how the religious divide and national identity will play out in the political sphere.
The Balkans have become the new battleground of the East vs. West struggle between the EU and Russia with Aleksander Vucic as Putin’s puppet. As Serbia continues to gain a stronger foothold in the region, old conflicts in the former Yugoslavia will be reignited. From secession claims to ethnic nationalism to government corruption, the region is a ticking bomb. After the demonstrations in Serbia, protests have begun to spread throughout the region as civilians are fed up with the blatant corruption of the Balkan leaders. With the pandemic bringing to light the fragile political systems in play, it is only a matter of time before another major conflict shakes the Balkans.
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