Last July, Serbian parliamentary elections crowned an 8-year-long trend that was just previously described by Freedom House: Serbia is no longer a democracy. “Years of increasing state capture, abuse of power, and strongman tactics employed by President Aleksandar Vucic” are among the motivations of the downgrade of Serbia to ”hybrid regime”.
In those elections, besides Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), that won with over 60 percent of votes (188 out of 250 seats), only two other parties overcame the 3% threshold – one of them being the Socialist Party of Serbia (32 seats), an SNS junior ally. It was a highly predictable result and, paradoxically, what really gives the picture of authoritarianism in Serbia is not even the outcome of an almost one-party parliament, but the conditions in which Serbian citizens went to vote in July. From March to June, Serbian authorities had been under-reporting COVID-19 deaths and infections – as the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) unveiled. Together with the non-gradual dismissal of restriction measures, this move was meant to give citizens the appearance of a restored “normality” that would finally push them to vote.
This is just one of the ultimate features of an authoritarian drift that began in 2012, when the “Progressives” came to power. During this time, Serbia underwent a gradual erosion of the rule of law and media freedom, while no real progress has been achieved in the path toward the EU. Finally, despite the regime’s rhetoric, Serbia is not a guarantor of stability in the Balkan region, and the Kosovo issue is far from being solved.
Progressive only in name, under SNS rule Serbia regressed back to Milosevic’s era. However, this regression in democratic standards took place in a different way than with Slobodan Milosevic. While the latter was openly authoritarian, widely used intimidation or even the elimination of political adversaries and journalists, and was condemned by the West for the Yugoslav wars, Vucic exploits democracy to look like a progressive, pro-European reformer. He dismissed his radical, nationalist stances to get endorsement from the European Union but never really changed. Today’s Serbia and Milosevic’s are very similar in their essence, but Vucic’s system has a “softer” shape, as his authoritarianism succeeded where Milosevic partially failed: controlling all institutions and media, winning endorsement from the West and presenting himself as a regional leader able to guarantee peace.
One of the reasons for SNS’ successful performance is its clientelist practices. According to some data, the SNS counts on more than 730,000 party memberships: one every nine citizens. During the Yugoslav one-party system, there were only 430,000 party members out of a population of about 22 million. In proportion, even the Communist Party of China and Vladimir Putin’s United Russia have fewer members than the SNS. Party members are cunningly placed to manage many public firms and therefore exert pressure on, or even threaten to fire, their employees whenever elections or government rallies are held.
However, Vucic – who was Minister of Information in the last years of Milosevic’s rule – is aware that, in order to increase consensus, controlling the media is pivotal. But, differently from Milosevic, he has managed to get control not just over national media outlets, but over local ones, too. While during Milosevic’s time, Belgrade-based broadcast media such as Studio B or B92 were free and independent, in recent years they became pro-government. In this respect, it seems that Vucic acknowledged Milosevic’s “mistakes”: in the Nineties, many local media were free and played a fundamental role in informing citizens who gathered from all the country’s regions in rallies against the former Yugoslav president. Today, the few remaining non-controlled local media, like the Nis-based newspaper Južne vesti, are continuously targeted by tax inspectors. Also, at the national level there were more newspapers supporting anti-Milosevic opposition (like Naša borba, Demokratija, Glas javnosti): an alibi-card the regime used to play in the attempt to prove media freedom was not in danger. On the national frequency of Vucic’s Serbia, only N1, a CNN-affiliated broadcast, can be considered independent. And it comes as no surprise that it has been the object of public criticism and verbal attacks by President Vucic whenever he got questions from N1 journalists.
But all this would never be possible without the backing President Aleksandar Vucic enjoys from the international community. In the Balkans, leaders like Vucic are perceived as “stability factors” for the region, even if the only “stability achieved is the absence of regime change in which the local government keeps the EU path as a goal in foreign policy” – as pointed out in the last ISPI Report on the Balkans.
Vucic’s Small “Great Serbia”
“We have to preserve peace and stability in the region”, Vucic has kept saying, taking over full responsibility for it. This has been one of the dogmas that has accompanied all these years of negotiation over the Kosovo issue. However, Belgrade is aware its former province will no longer belong to Serbia and that the eventual signing of a legally-binding agreement could finally cost Vucic his political career. This is why he recently keeps promoting himself as the main national landmark of Serbs in the region, not only from Kosovo – whose local Serb party is totally manipulated from Belgrade. “Vucic must create a ‘Serbs world’ […], the president of Serbia is the president of all Serbs”, the minister of Defence Aleksandar Vulin said referring to “accusations” from Bosnian and Montenegrin media that Vucic wants to keep all Serbs together, after Montenegro’s main pro-Serbian parties won the last parliamentary elections.
The farther Kosovo, the harsher the nationalist rhetoric: even this is a feature in common with Milosevic.
In particular, Vucic’s regional policy aims at “establishing strongman rule at home to address the perceived loss of stature following the fall of Milosevic; positioning itself as the key military and political power in the Western Balkans; undermining the political and territorial integrity of neighbouring states – primarily Bosnia and Kosovo – by using local actors in those states to maintain a controlling stake in these polities’ internal politics, with an eye toward eventually ‘re-incorporating’ portions of their territory into a ‘renewed’ greater Serbian state” – as pointed out by political scientist Jasmin Mujanovic.
In conclusion, Vucic is keeping fresh the “Great Serbia” plan. A plan he, as former secretary general of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, had long been dreaming of. A dream Milosevic tried to realize with a ten-year-long process of Yugoslavia’s dissolution, and that Vucic, at least in his rhetoric, is silently keeping alive.