On March 16th 2014, snap elections were held in Serbia. Progressive Party leader Aleksandar Vucic had called the elections just two months before, in a move many believe was meant to allow him (who is best known for having implemented a widespread anti-corruption campaign) and his party to consolidate power at a time when they enjoy high approval rates. Moreover, with the Democratic Party splintered, Serbia’s opposition had been all but obliterated.
Vucic has promised to implement painful, but much needed, reforms to aid the country’s struggling economy. Serbia’s GDP per capita is currently 35% of the EU average and more than half of the country’s youth is unemployed. International creditors have told Serbia that it must cut jobs in the public sector and privatize state-owned companies in order to move forward. In late January 2014, Minister of Economy Sasa Radulovic resigned, claiming the current government did not have the political will to implement the necessary economic reforms. That same month, on the 21st, Serbia celebrated the official start of its membership talks with the EU.
Now, Branislav Radeljic, Associate Professor of International Politics at the University of East London, speaks with United Explanations about the political landscape in Serbia.
Cristina: First of all, thank you very much for this interview. Could you tell me a little bit about your own background? When did you leave Serbia and where has your research and work as a lecturer taken you since then?
Branislav: I left Serbia in the early 2000s and continued my undergraduate studies at the University of Rome. Italy was a truly beautiful experience in many respects. Still, I will never forget when one of my professors told me that getting a job in academia or international organizations in Italy was going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible. His sincere advice to leave and continue elsewhere was probably the best advice someone could have given me back then. After moving to Brussels for postgraduate work, I realized how difficult it was to be a non-EU citizen in the capital of the EU, and this is probably why I never let myself develop any strong feelings for that place. After completing my master’s degree, I was interested in going back to Serbia, but my numerous attempts to get in touch with relevant people and institutions in Belgrade never gave me the impression that returning would be a good idea. I will never forget the day I received a scholarship to complete my PhD in London. So far, my research and work have provided me with an opportunity to analyze and talk about various aspects surrounding the EU’s involvement in the post-Yugoslav space. At the moment, I am a Telluride faculty fellow, hosted by the University of Michigan, and an EU distinguished visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley.
Cristina: Now, to discuss the current political situation in Serbia: most claim that the decision to call snap elections on March 16 was made because Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) leader Aleksandar Vucic (Deputy Prime Minister) is currently very popular and wished to consolidate power. Is this a fair assessment and do you think the decision to hold early elections was a good one?
Branislav: The snap elections represented a sort of self-evaluation, and, more accurately, self-confirmation of the all-in-one figure of Aleksandar Vucic. We should not ignore the fact that since its establishment in 2008, the Serbian Progressive Party has focused on the politics of opportunities and not the politics of alternatives, as many of the party’s opponents have done. By adopting such an approach, SNS representatives have managed to secure support from a substantial portion of the electorate. Since the 2012 elections, mantras about the fight against corruption, megalomaniac investments, the creation of new jobs, Kosovo as a constituent part of Serbia, and Serbia’s commitment to EU integration have surely helped Vucic to consolidate his popularity. For him, the decision to hold early elections was a perfect one. Here, the questions I find most relevant are whether the Progressivists will manage to show that their rhetoric and actions correspond to their name and, also very important for the impoverished Serbian society, how much time this will take. If they fail, society will have every right to react.
Cristina: The political opposition in Serbia appears to have been all but obliterated of late. In the parliamentary elections on March 16, the SNS won 158 seats out of the 250-seat National Assembly and the runner-up, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), led by Ivica Dacic (currently prime minister), won only 44 seats. Less than two years ago, there was far more political plurality. To what do you attribute this?
Branislav: The current victory, like the one in 2012, is a clear confirmation of the electorate’s disappointment with the Democratic Party and its willingness to support a candidate who has continued to promise necessary reforms and better living conditions. The Democrats, despite the fact that they deserve a lot of credit for the country’s progress towards EU membership, for cooperation with the Hague tribunal, and for increasing foreign investment in Serbia, failed to combat corruption. In fact, they tolerated it. So the Progressivists, while ready to embrace their opponents’ achievements, also used their opponents’ failures to consolidate their own position, resulting in the party’s increased attractiveness. However, the outcome of the most recent elections clearly shows that the ruling party has a win-lose strategy in mind and that Serbia does not have viable opposition. Political plurality is seriously endangered. I would assume that Vucic is aware of this trend, and, more importantly, of its potential risks.
Cristina: What do you think of Vucic’s now infamous anti-corruption campaign? Was it a sincere attempt to rid the country of corrupt tycoons or a populist effort to silence the opposition?
Branislav: I would say both. Addressing the problem of deep-rooted corruption in Serbia is not an easy task. By insisting on the corruption issue and delivering bombastic statements, Vucic used the media to convince the public that he was doing a lot to fight corruption, and people began to believe this. Some sensational arrests have been of crucial significance here. Still, in reality, these are baby steps and the Progressivists must know that they are still far from fulfilling their original promises. I find it difficult to believe that any remarkable progress will be achieved in this field any time soon, especially given the background of some of Vucic’s closest associates, a number of whom will be even more present in the new setting. For a short period, Vucic openly recalled and interpreted Max Weber’s work, insisting that Weber’s theories about Protestant ethics and responsibilities should be embraced in Serbian society. However, this advocacy was soon put on hold. I would like to be wrong here, but at this point it is difficult to imagine why Vucic would go back to Weber’s ideas and promote them further, as their accurate interpretation would actually imply reconsidering his own position and policies.
Cristina: Vucic was Minister of Information in the late 1990s, when Milosevic was in power and when newspapers were being fined and closed under a law designed to muzzle dissent. Do you believe, as some claim, that Vucic learned from that experience and is now working to silence any opposition in the media?
Branislav: Vucic is an intelligent man and it can be assumed that he learned a lot when serving as Minister of Information, including the most sophisticated ways to control the media and, therefore, to manipulate the public. By analyzing the content of the dominant newspapers in Serbia since 2012, it can be observed that they have generally tended to support Vucic’s actions and reactions at home and abroad, while simultaneously trying to discredit his opponents, sometimes by providing pure misinformation. This does not only inform us about Vucic’s own capacities, but also about the submissiveness of the Serbian media. It is telling that no serious televised debate was hosted between the candidates during the recent campaign, and that only a few TV programs offered a critical analysis of the possibilities for Serbia’s future.
Cristina: After his very public resignation from Vucic’s government, Vucic also accused former Minister of Economy Sasa Radulovic of corruption. However, charges were never formally pressed and Radulovic was able to run independently in the recent elections. Do you believe that Radulovic’s accusations that Vucic blocked economic reforms and misled the public about foreign investments were founded in reality?
Branislav: I still struggle to understand what really happened here. In contrast to Vucic, we did not know very much about Radulovic’s background, apart from the fact that he was a leading expert in his field. What became clear after Radulovic’s resignation was that the relationship between the two was never an easy one. However, neither of them dared to explain their falling-out publicly or to participate in an open debate. Their decision not to talk openly was far from fair to the public. Still, some of the explanations following Radulovic’s resignation do lead me to believe that his stance on the responsibilities for the problematic progress of reforms could possibly be correct. One of his closest colleagues, political economist Dusan Pavlovic, wrote about the conflictual relationship between Vucic and Radulovic. This material, which was originally supposed to become a book, ended up published on the author’s website. This clash is one of the topics I sincerely hoped to see debated much more during the recent electoral campaign, especially given the relevance of economic reforms to the race.
Cristina: Serbia’s GDP per capita is currently 35% of the EU average and more than half of young people are unemployed. Do you believe that the economic reforms that Vucic plans to push through will succeed in rectifying this situation?
Branislav: At this point, it is difficult to be optimistic about the planned reforms and their implications for young people. Many young people see political affiliation and SNS membership as a way of securing a job and future privileges. On the other hand, well-educated people are still interested in leaving Serbia as they find it difficult to believe in Vucic’s capabilities. Your questions are highly focused on Vucic and I think you are right to make them so. Many expectations have been placed directly on Vucic, but he will not be able to deliver anything without an extremely competent and well-coordinated team. If asked, I would advise him to form a small team of real experts, people whose qualifications will be valued above their political affiliation.
Cristina: The Western media has heralded Vucic’s victory as a victory of pro-EU forces in Serbia. What do you think the country’s EU prospects look like now? What will come next on Serbia’s path towards EU integration?
Branislav: I have dealt frequently with the position of the Western media both in the context of Yugoslavia’s crisis and the Western Balkans’ EU prospects, and I often remain bewildered by their reporting. In their view, Vucic has made significant progress from his original, far-right background, to where he is now; in other words, from being anti-EU to being pro-EU. The country’s progress towards EU membership will depend on both Serbia, which is expected to pursue reforms, and on the EU, which is currently much more concerned with other developments both inside and outside of its borders. As we all know, it is the EU who will have the final say with regard to the satisfaction of the Copenhagen criteria and the eventual accession of Serbia. We should not forget that progress towards EU membership would also re-open the question of Serbia’s borders, meaning the question of Kosovo’s status. This may be problematic as Vucic and his Progressivists are also very pro-Russia. While we can say that their focus on opportunities and benefits from both East and West has helped them to secure votes at home, in the current European political context (very much affected by the situation in Ukraine), we can also expect external pressures on Serbia to choose one side over the other.
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