Serbia’s elections and the autocratic shift

Serbia’s elections and the autocratic shift

Belgrade is likely to pursue a policy of maximum strategic autonomy while inching closer to EU membership.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

Serbian voters went to the polls on June 21, delivering an absolute majority for incumbent President Aleksandar Vučić and his ruling Progressive Party coalition.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Serbia’s legislature is now in the hands of a government devoted to EU accession talks while also embracing right-wing populism and national conservatism
– COVID-19 in Serbia risks becoming a tool of greater autocratic consolidation and an excuse to stifle opposition and dissent
– Serbia’s economic agreements and overtures to China and Russia carry the risk of exclusion from further EU engagement

Voters in Serbia went to the polls on June 21, and the result was an expected landslide victory for the ruling Progressive Party (SNS) and Socialist Party of Serbia coalition, led by President Aleksandar Vučić. The vote came after a delay of several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic as well as an opposition boycott due to concerns over the election’s fairness. The leader of the opposition Union for Serbia coalition called it a ‘hoax vote.’

Vučić’s resounding victory, at over 63% of the vote, marks a further consolidation of his power that will likely have far-reaching consequences for Serbia’s democratic development and aspirations for EU membership. Smaller pro-EU parties such as the Free Citizens Movement and United Democratic Serbia failed to reach the 3% threshold required for representation in the National Assembly. As a result, Serbia’s legislature is firmly in the hands of a government that is both committed to EU accession talks and openly embracing right-wing national populism. This is similar to elsewhere in Eastern Europe, such as with Hungary’s ruling party Fidesz and Poland’s incumbent Law and Justice Party (PiS). As with these governments, Serbia’s legislature will likely be at odds with the EU’s values of inclusion, solidarity and burden-sharing in a time of crisis. Serbia’s government is also likely to practice Euroscepticism and place greater value on the nation state and national identity over a pan-European identity.

THE OPPOSITION CRIES FOUL

Leading up to the election, opposition parties and NGOs such as Freedom House declared that Serbia was no longer a democracy, but rather a ‘hybrid regime’ defined by creeping authoritarianism. Similarly to Viktor Orbán in Hungary and PiS in Poland, Vučić has led Serbia down an increasingly autocratic path that has resulted in the consolidation of many of the country’s institutions, including the media, under centralised government control. The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) noted that while the election in Serbia was fair, media coverage was largely one-sided in favour of Vučić and presented an uneven playing field.

The COVID-19 pandemic in Serbia, which has resulted in over 13,700 cases and 267 deaths, also risks becoming a tool of autocratic consolidation and a means to leverage all the powers of the state in order to curb dissent in a time of crisis. At a time when Serbia’s future as an EU member is also at stake, the bloc is likely closely watching the degree to which democratic norms are enhanced or diminished because of COVID-19.

Serbia first submitted its application for EU membership in December 2009 and has been an official candidate country since December 2012. A tentative date for accession has been set for 2025, however significant roadblocks remain over efforts by Serbian leaders to strengthen the rule of law and achieve greater economic development. Vučić’s latest victory is likely to push this date back even further unless the ruling SNS party commits to substantive reforms and Serbia’s opposition parties are satisfied with electoral fairness and impartiality. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the election results have further cemented the SNS as a party determined to consolidate its power internally before engaging with the opposition. At the moment, Serbia’s EU accession talks risk being a partisan effort led by one party instead of a bipartisan, cross-party coalition in the spirit of European unity.

SERBIA’S MULTI-VECTOR FOREIGN POLICY

Serbia is at a critical juncture in its democratic development. The period ahead will likely define whether Serbia’s future is one of integration with EU institutions or one defined by strategic ambiguity and flexible arrangements with Brussels, Beijing, and Moscow. In October 2019, Serbia signed a free trade deal with the Eurasian Economic Union, an economic bloc led by Russia, in a move that drew strong criticism from the EU. Serbia is also one of the few European countries to partner with China on Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure projects and it has signed on to considerable BRI investments, including a metro network in Belgrade and road and railroad modernisation projects. While more than half of EU members have individually joined the BRI, the EU remains opposed to joining the Chinese program as a united bloc, and both France and Germany, critical member states in evaluating Serbia’s accession, prefer engaging with China as a single group rather than through bilateral arrangements. In contrast to strict EU accession requirements, deeper engagement with China and Russia allows Serbia to overlook democratic and institutional deficiencies in favour of economic investment opportunities. Given the democratic backsliding that has occurred in Poland, Hungary, and other EU member states, there is the risk of premature accession by Serbia to the EU without fully addressing these stringent accession requirements.

EU accession could result in increased support for populist parties and political polarisation, given that populist parties can utilise their electoral popularity to construe the transfer of sovereignty from Belgrade to democratically distant EU institutions as a violation of the will of the people. Thus far, the SNS has been increasingly hesitant towards EU institutions while simultaneously engaging in EU accession talks. As a candidate for EU accession, Serbia’s policy approach is expected to be hyper-focused on meeting the standards of EU membership. If Serbia becomes an EU member state, debates over the EU will likely be internalised in domestic politics. This will be more democratic but also raise the risk that far-left and far-right parties will stymie the government’s position and tap into voter disenchantment with the EU.

For the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, EU member states will likely be preoccupied with internal challenges to the economy, security, and immigration. As a result, a greater focus will likely be placed on individual member states over EU-wide institutions. Serbia will likely face less scrutiny from Brussels while simultaneously having more autonomy to pursue its geostrategic ambitions, especially as European leaders push for greater EU cohesion to respond to the pandemic. Serbia’s foreign policy is complex and tied to many different states to benefit from as many economic and political outcomes as possible. In the near term, this approach risks excluding Serbia from deeper EU engagement while creating an isolated state that is uniquely vulnerable to demands from both Beijing and Moscow. To Vučić and the SNS, this geopolitical ambiguity may offer the best of both worlds in a time of crisis and uncertainty that threatens Serbia. For Brussels, it represents the risk of an opt-out from an ‘ever closer union’ by Serbia in favour of a more flexible and at times autocratic governing approach. As a result of the election, Serbia’s legislature will likely be unified in its commitment to Europe but not the EU, viewing accession as a worthwhile but not a necessary pursuit in order to achieve a strategic and well-balanced economic and political position in Europe.