A piece where I made a few comments in Foreign Policy has got a little attention since being picked up by a few regional media outlets (here it is in N1, Danas, Slobodna Evropa, there may be a few more spots). As always, when I make statements for media they do not run the whole thing (this is normal, just editing, and besides I talk a lot), so I like to make the whole thing available. So here are the questions and answers, as they were exchanged through the magic of e-mail.
- Many have interpreted Vučić’s electoral victory as a victory for the European Union. Were the results really indicative of popular support for Serbia’s EU accession?
The EU was not an issue that was discussed in the election. With the exception of some parties on the far right that have a limited constituency, all of the parties in Serbia are pro-EU. If we were to take the composition of the new parliament as a measure, in contrast with the previous parliament it has some anti-EU parties in it. The fact that most international media have come out with headlines describing Vučić as a “pro-EU reformer” is probably just a product of successful international publicity by Vučić on the one hand, and the fact that most of the people producing the coverage are ignorant of the region on the other.
- To what do you attribute Vučić’s success?
One thing he has done effectively is to neutralize any potential sources of opposition: there are no credible opposition parties, and control over media and information is almost complete. Another thing he has done is to secure the unquestioning support of internationals, who are more interested in stability and cooperativeness than in any concrete political question. And a third thing he has done is to bind together more strongly than before the levers of political and economic power, so that the channels of employment and patronage go through his party. This is at bottom the same thing that all of his predecessors have tried to since 1990, but eventually all of them failed. He appears to have succeeded for now, but all of these apparently monolithic systems have the same source of weakness, which is that their supporters are not sincere and are always looking for a better deal.
- Would you agree with the assertion that certain segments of Serbian society have been disappointed by the EU’s lack of response to Vučić’s authoritarian streak?
It is hard to avoid the impression that Vučić’s bargain with the EU was that if he appeared to be cooperative on Kosovo, then they would turn a blind eye to everything he did internally. This is an especially large disappointment for the people who made the EU a kind of lifetime project, saw the identity of Europe as fundamentally democratic, and looked to the EU as a guarantee of human rights and the rule of law.
- Why do you believe that support for Serbia’s EU membership has dropped since 2009? Is it because of the financial and refugee crisis in Europe, or is support for Serbia’s ties with Russia increasing? If the latter, why?
There are basically two reasons why anybody in the region is pro-EU. The first is economic instrumentality, they see it as a way to get access to markets, funds, and benefits. The second is political, they see the EU as a guarantee that democratic structures and practices will be permanent.
The economic crisis in Europe has weakened its economic appeal a great deal. What remains is the sense that Europe is the only available alternative, but this is a fairly weak argument. On the political side, the credibility of the EU as a guarantor of democracy has been seriously weakened by its tolerance of authoritarianism in places like Hungary, Poland and Croatia. There are also some factors that are especially strong in the region: the EU’s wretched mismanagement of the refugee crisis, and its catastrophic diplomacy in Macedonia, have made it look incompetent and a little bit dangerous. Basically, the EU has not made a very good case for itself recently.
As for Russia, there is some level of popular sympathy, but concretely there is not much sign of a strengthening of ties. It is possible to see images of Putin all over the place, but this is most likely a sign that Putin functions as a kind of symbol of resistance to the West. I don’t think that most people have much attachment to Putin or to Russia, or even that they know very much about them.
- Now that the Radical Party is back in parliament and other pro-Russian groups, like the Serbo-Russian movement and the Patriotic bloc, are emerging on the political scene, is there a chance that SNS could be pressured away from the EU or pushed to the right?
The reappearance of the Radicals is temporary and limited. Šešelj stumbled into a series of favourable circumstances, not least the positive publicity he got from the Tribunal. For the overwhelming majority of people in Serbia he is a crass buffoon and an embarrassment. This result is probably the best result his party is ever likely to get. And I wouldn’t expect the presence of SRS in the parliament to influence policy. They will throw things, bloviate, and make scenes for TV, and be extremely useful for Vučić in making him appear to be moderate.
Until the official count is complete it is not entirely clear that DSS and Dveri will be in the parliament at all. They are probably closer than SRS is to expressing the authentic sentiment of the political right in Serbia, but they have some basic problems with reputation and perception. They will only have a voice in policy if one of them succeeds in refashioning itself into a credible party.