The election of prime minister Aleksandar Vučić’s as the new Serbian president was almost unanimosly greeted in Brussels. His triumph, though, cannot be simply defined as a “European victory”: despite his pro-EU stance, Vučić cultivates strong ties with Moscow, while under his rule democratic standards and freedom of the press in the country significantly declined.

 

On April 2nd 2017, when the then Prime minister Aleksandar Vučić triumphed in the Serbian presidential election by a landslide, winning the 55% of the votes, many in the EU greeted his election as a “victory for the European future of Serbia”: among the first to congratulate Vučić for his large success were European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and German chancellor Angela Merkel.

Vučić, a former ultra-nationalist who served as an information minister under Slobodan Milošević, broke away in 2008 from the Radicals and formed the moderate Serbian Progressive Party. Since then he embraced a pro-EU stance and turned the European integration of Serbia into a pillar of his political program, a strategy that helped him becoming the dominant figure of Serbian politics.

Today Serbia’s eventual accession remains a distant perspective (despite Vučić’s aim to “make the country ready” by 2019), but some progress can’t be denied: the country, after becoming an official EU candidate in 2012, managed to start negotiations in 2014 and has currently opened eight chapters while successfully closing two (out of 35).

Today Serbia’s eventual accession remains a distant perspective (despite Vučić’s aim to “make the country ready” by 2019), but some progress can’t be denied.

While strengthening his power at home, Vučić has been increasingly seen in Brussels and in key EU capitals (especially in Berlin) as a crucial factor to maintain stability not only in Serbia but in the Balkans as a whole, a region that after the visible slowing down of the EU enlargement process has been marked by growing volatility and a sharp decline of its democratic standards.

The leader of the Serbian Progressive Party has proven especially cooperative on an issue that is particularly important to Brussels: the ongoing dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo. Although Vučić never repudiated Belgrade’s official stance that Serbia will never recognize an independent Kosovo, he kept the dialogue with Pristina alive. Talks produced only limited results until now, but for Brussels – which currently deploys in Kosovo its largest mission “abroad” (Eulex) – what is crucial is that the negotiations remain open in order to minimize the possibility of renewed conflicts.

Vučić is seen as a stabilizing factor also in the Bosnia-Herzegovina puzzle and lately won new supporters in the EU after launching the very “European” idea of creating a regional market in the Western Balkans, an initiative met with some skepticism in the region but warmly encouraged by Brussels.

At first sight, therefore, Vučić’s renewed power is an extremely good news for both Serbia and the EU: to a more careful look, however, the picture could be much less glittering.

Vučić is seen as a stabilizing factor also in the Bosnia-Herzegovina puzzle and lately won new supporters in the EU after launching the very “European” idea of creating a regional market in the Western Balkans,

While in Brussels Vučić is welcomed as a pro-Western reformist, determined to bring Serbia into the EU, he never gave up on Belgrade’s long-term alliance with Moscow. After the eruption of Ukraine’s crisis in 2014, Vučić refused to join Western sanctions towards Russia. Shortly before being elected president, he paid visit to president Putin in Moscow, where he finalized the purchase of Russian military jets, tanks and armoured vehicles, a move confirming that Serbia is to remain the closest ally of Russia in the Balkans for the time being.

At the same time, Vučić’s stability at home came with a high price. Since he came to power, press freedom has sharply declined and many media outlets are directly or indirectly controlled by the government: during the 2017 electoral campaign he was granted an astonishing 92% of the Serbian national TV programming devoted to politics, while almost all the Serbian newspaper agreed to publish his electoral flyers ahead of election day.

In these years Vučić brought many state institutions, especially the judiciary, into line with the position of his ruling party while continuously attacking opposition leaders, NGOs or anybody questioning his rule. It is therefore not so surprising that since 2012 the share of Serbian population supporting EU accession dropped dramatically, from 70% to 43% in 2017.

Many in Serbia feel betrayed by a European Union which has put stability far ahead of European values and democracy. Thousands of Serbian citizens took to the streets for days after Vučić’s election, not only protesting against what they consider rigged elections, but asking for a real European model of governance. If the EU doesn’t listen to them, it risks losing the European soul of Serbia long before the country is given a chance to became a fully fledged member.