– Serbian President Vucic is dancing a particularly dangerous dance on a razor’s edge, trying to get more from the EU in the accession process, and to get the resolution of the issue of the Association of Serbs in northern Kosovo, by playing the Russian card. But the truth is that Vucic has long been disliked by Moscow for his willingness to go over the EU’s side – says Nikolay Krastev, one of Bulgaria’s leading experts on the Western Balkans, former correspondent for Bulgarian National Radio in Belgrade and Moscow. Now he is one the authors of the site Balkan Pool

Belgrade has been the arena of mass rallies since May 2023 and some Western media are already writing about the big revolt against autocracy. What is behind this wave of discontent and who are the participants?

Serbs are unhappy with the authorities’ inaction over the two mass killings in early May, in which 18 young people died. The demands of the people and of the opposition are linked to the withdrawal of the licences of two private national television stations which have reality programmes and promote violence through them.

At the same time, these two television channels support the policies of President Aleksandar Vucic and enable him to attack the opposition. In addition to the revocation of the licences of Pink and Happy, the opposition and the people want a change in the leadership of the Serbian regulatory authority for electronic media, which does not ensure that violence is not promoted in the country’s media sector. Its members are appointed by Serbia’s ruling party, the Progressive Party, whose leader Aleksandar Vucic has been at the helm since 2013. The opposition is demanding that the Serbian authorities give it access to public broadcaster RTS, where its representatives have not had a presence for a decade, leaving people in small towns and villages unaware of its role and its positions on a number of important issues.

At the same time, the Serbian authorities are preventing in every way the two independent and pro-Western television stations N1 and NovaS from being distributed on cable networks and television operators. The authorities are pursuing an unfair commercial policy towards them in favour of the media of convenience, which propagate violence, pursue an anti-Western, anti-European policy, stand in favour of rapprochement with Russia, as well as of clericalising society. 

In these conditions there are no conditions to take part in real parliamentary elections, because they wouldn’t bring real change, as the opposition fears.    

Another rally was held in support of the president. Who, on the other hand, assembled there?

At the rally in support of President Aleksandar Vucic, which I had the immediate opportunity to follow in Belgrade, the people who came were organised by the state machine. They were, for the most part, members of the ruling party who work… because they are members of the ruling party. Most of them refused to answer when I was trying to make a survey of what they were here for and which of Aleksandar Vucic’s policies they supported. They were hiding their faces behind posters and umbrellas because of the rain pouring down on Belgrade.

A very small number of people, mostly elderly, came to this rally unorganised. However, they were all united by their conviction that the West hated them, did not understand them, humiliated them because of Kosovo. That is why, they said, they supported political orientation towards Russia and were against sanctions against Moscow because of its military invasion of Ukraine.      

The protests in northern Kosovo erupted at a time when there were major protests in Belgrade against Aleksandar Vucic. To what extent are the two events linked? 

This connection you are making is not without logic if you look at the processes in their depth. The Serbs from Kosovo who came to the rally in support of President Vucic were actually brought in by buses of Kosovo Albanian companies. Their coming was paid for with money from the Serbian state and its institutions. A direct link cannot be proven, but there are sidelines that cross, and this makes it possible to reason along these lines.

On the other hand, a growing number of independent analysts in the Western Balkans region believe that Vucic and Kurti are spilling crises on each other in order to hold on to power in Belgrade and Pristina. I remember when I worked as a correspondent for BNR in Belgrade there was an exhibition of cartoons of the then leaders of Serbia (Boris Tadic) and Kosovo (Hashim Thaçi), which after 2008 had already declared independence. In one of the cartoons, the now former presidents of Serbia and Kosovo are having a telephone conversation and agreeing which international forum they will not go to, so as not to interfere with each other. At the time, Belgrade was pursuing a policy of boycotting international forums where Pristina’s official representatives came. And today, 15 years later, the situation has largely not changed.

In recent years, Serbia and its diplomacy have pursued a policy that comprised pushing the African countries to withdraw their recognition of Kosovo, behind which are the financial resources of Russian foreign policy. But after the Washington agreement in the summer of 2020 and the Ohrid agreement in the early spring of 2023, Belgrade has frozen these actions.      

How will the clashes in northern Kosovo affect the reconciliation between Belgrade and Pristina in which France and Germany, i.e. the EU, are investing diplomatic efforts?

For now, it is clear that the implementation of the Ohrid agreement, which was reached two months ago with the help of the European foreign policy service, will be very difficult. The reason for this is the holding of the local by-elections in Serb-dominated northern Kosovo and the election of Albanians in those localities.

The ensuing tensions in northern Kosovo and the attempt by the authorities in Pristina to install the newly elected mayors led to the clash between local Serbs and KFOR troops that we saw on the TV screen. At the meeting in Bratislava, the leaders of Germany and France, Olaf Scholz and Emmanuel Macron, organised a meeting between the presidents of Serbia and Kosovo, Aleksandar Vucic and Vjosa Osmani, who were taking part in the international forum. The EU’s representative for the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue, Miroslav Lajček, is again launching a series of visits between the two Balkan capitals in an attempt to reconcile the situation. Because of Pristina’s firmness, the US reacted very strongly and excluded the country from participating in military exercises in the Western Balkans that were planned long ago. The Kosovo opposition has called on Prime Minister Kurti to leave office because he has scolded Pristina’s biggest ally, Washington.

Under Western pressure, Kurti and Osmani have signalled they may call new by-elections in the north. But we must not forget that the local Serbs are not represented in the elections held in Kosovo because of their boycott after leaving the institutions following the crisis of late autumn last year caused by the car number plate crisis.      

What is happening to Serbia’s foreign policy course in an increasingly multi-polar world? With which part of the West does Vucic’s Serbia feel closer?

The US and EU want to find a long-term solution to the Kosovo issue 15 years after Pristina declared independence after the 1999 war over Milosevic’s policies. Today, in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the West increasingly understands the importance of resolving this open question, which takes some of the attention of Brussels, Paris, Berlin, London and Washington. Vucic’s hardening of tone and refusal to accede to EU sanctions against Moscow is precisely in this direction.

Vucic is playing a particularly dangerous dance on a razor’s edge in trying to get more from the EU in the accession process and to secure resolution of the issue of the Association of Serbs in northern Kosovo. He is trying to win on both fronts by playing the Russian card. But the truth is that Vucic has long been disliked by Moscow for his willingness to go over the EU’s side. Last autumn’s mass protests in Belgrade in support of family values and anti-Western policies towards the EU and the US, according to analyst Dusko Janic, were clearly organised by Russian services to show Vucic that the public in his country would not accept a possible change of course.

Serbia is pursuing a policy similar to that of Russia and China. Serbia works quite well with its northern neighbour Hungary and Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and in terms of investment Serbia has quite good relations with Germany, which gives Berlin an advantage in leading part of the dialogue on stabilising the Western Balkans. My view is that Belgrade is going to keep the ball rolling with an uninterrupted series of crises in northern Kosovo until the US presidential elections, expecting Donald Trump to return to power in the White House.     

To what extent does belonging to the Yugoslav-era non-alignment movement allow Serbia today to develop relations with the BRICS group?             

Serbia’s president is trying to copy the policies of Yugoslav leader Tito, who was the informal leader of the non-aligned countries that created this movement in Belgrade in 1961. But Vucic seems to have forgotten that we live in 2023, when globalisation with all its pros and cons has occurred in a very large part of the world and a return to the bloc division is almost impossible. Serbia is part of a bigger game on the chessboard led by Russia, and Belgrade is a pawn in this policy, keeping the Balkans in the open so that Russians can use the conflicts in the region to divert attention from its actions in Ukraine.

 Despite Belgrade’s desire to pursue an independent economic policy, 90% of the investment in Serbia comes not from Russia or China, but from the EU and, in particular, from Germany.

Furthermore, independent economic analysts in Belgrade are talking about the great dependence their country has fallen into on so-called cheap Chinese credits, which have shown the serious problems they have caused for Serbia. Serbia’s attempts to build a strong economy have led to the creation of the so-called Serbian World plan and the Open Balkans project. Leading to an enhanced economic partnership, they strengthen Serbia’s attempts to build a common space where Belgrade can play a key role, not only through its economy, but also through the soft power it uses in the Western Balkans to achieve its goals.  

What are the political and economic results of the existence of the mini-Schengen Open Balkans area, created a few years ago when Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania realised that they were unlikely to join the EU any time soon?

Belgrade created this project on the back of the frustration of a number of countries in the Western Balkans related to their European integration and the lack of serious progress in this direction in the last three years. Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic used the so-called Bulgarian veto on North Macedonia to explain that the EU is hypocritical and does not respect the countries of the region that aspire to become members of the richest union.

Open Balkans has held a number of high-level meetings not only between leaders from its member states, but also at ministerial level. Belgrade, Tirana and Skopje have signed a number of agreements in the area of facilitating the movement of goods and people between them. But independent observers note that, for example, there is no separate lane on the Serbian-Macedonian border for goods trucks travelling from Belgrade to Skopje and Tirana, and vice versa. This hampers business especially in the summer months when perishable products are transported. Citizens of this format also wait at the borders, which shows that the initiative is not working in this segment. 

However, the biggest success in it is the winemaking, its promotion and bringing together its producers from the three countries. The impression remains that Vucic, who is a passionate wine collector, created this initiative so that he could have access to wines from Serbia as well as Albania and North Macedonia. But this is, of course, a joke.

The project has the ambition to have a common airline to help tourism and business travel in the region, but whether it will become a reality remains to be seen. Attempts to join Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro in the initiative have so far not met with understanding in their governments. Kosovo is strongly opposed to Open Balkans, despite urging from Tirana and calls from Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama, because Prishtina considers it a pro-Serb project, embodying Belgrade’s aims to return to Kosovo. In Bosnia and Herzegovina the situation is more complicated because decisions have to be taken by consensus and the Serbian representative cannot fight with the representatives of the local Bosniaks and Croats on Open Balkans.   

Regarding Montenegro, it remains to be seen what happens after the fall from power of President Milo Djukanovic. After the snap parliamentary elections on 11 June, an overall political change might take place with the coming to power of parties that emerged after the 2019-2020 protests. We do not know if they plan to orient the country towards the Open Balkans or whether they maintain Podgorica’s pro-European orientation. It is to be noted, though, that the first visit of the newly elected president, Jacob Milatovic, was not to Belgrade but to Brussels.

Increasingly, the feeling is that this project wants to unite those dissatisfied with the EU and through it to create an alternative in the Western Balkans, with Belgrade’s and Moscow’s ambitions behind it to strengthen the rift between the countries of the region and the EU and their project for political and economic integration – the Berlin Process. There are still some voices in Tirana and Skopje who are against the deepening of the initiative because they believe it only distances them from the EU. But either way, this is an opportunity for Belgrade to spread its soft power and influence the countries of the region and divert them from the path to the EU. The feeling is that this project is rather political and rests not so much on pragmatism and business interests, but on other interests that reinforce the concerns of observers in the region about security and the European perspective.

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