Despite being seen as a pro-EU leader and a factor of regional stability during his time as Prime Minister, newly elected Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has fostered nationalism at home and relations with many neighbouring countries have suffered as a result. After his recent victory in the presidential elections, his policies are set to continue.
On 2 April 2017, the incumbent Prime Minister of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, won in the first round of the presidential elections with an approximately 55 per cent of the vote. The 2nd placed candidate, former Ombudsman Saša Janković, a contender for the run off, won only around 16 per cent. The rest of the opposition candidates failed to win more than 6 per cent. In other words, Vučić’s victory was comfortable and decisive.
However, one first has to understand the context in which these elections took place. They represented a referendum on the coalition which has been in power since 2012. Vučić had the support of all political parties in the current government, including the Socialist Party of Serbia, which was 2nd placed in the 2016 elections, and some of the most important national minority parties, such as those of the Hungarians and Bosniaks. Also, the incumbent Prime Minister had a major advantage in campaign funds and media appearances.
Despite friendly relations with Moscow, he has held Serbia on a steady course towards EU membership, and has frequently aligned to EU policies.
The regional policy of Aleksandar Vučić could be described as pro-European. Despite friendly relations with Moscow, he has held Serbia on a steady course towards EU membership, and has frequently aligned to EU policies and demands, such as those arising during the migrant crisis. Also, the engagement in the EU facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina since Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) took power in 2012 has been considered a major sign of Serbian commitment to EU membership. Vučić has also maintained good relations with Montenegro, refused to support Milorad Dodik’s secessionist behaviour in Republika Srpska, and committed himself to improving relations and cooperation with Albania, which has been absent for decades. Moreover, the Serbian role in the Berlin Process and the establishment of the Regional Youth Cooperation Office (RYCO) in Tirana has been widely considered as a major positive sign.
Vučić has also maintained good relations with Montenegro, refused to support Milorad Dodik’s secessionist behaviour in Republika Srpska, and committed himself to improving relations and cooperation with Albania, which has been absent for decades.
However, Serbian government’s foreign policy in the region has had its controversies, and its approach to regional matters within Serbia proper has been far from reconciliatory. During the last few years, Serbia had significant crisis in relations with most of its neighbours, and the media close to the government have been actively involved in war-mongering, raising of tensions and promoting anti-Croatian, anti-Bosniak and anti-Albanian sentiments in the Serbian public. While presenting its foreign policy as pro-European in Brussels, Vučić’s has manipulated nationalist sentiments at home in order to win popular support, and has significantly damaged regional reconciliation by doing so. Combined with similar phenomena in other countries in the region, this has hampered regional cooperation and tarnished the progress made within regional initiatives.
As Vučić will maintain control over the SNS, the election results are a guarantee of continuity of current government policies. Vučić now has 5 years of presidency ahead of him, and it is considered unlikely for his political party to lose power within that period. Therefore, it is highly probable that his balancing between Russia and the West and between cooperation abroad and nationalism at home is likely to continue, bringing instability in the long term.
But despite being an important victory for Vučić’s regime, the elections also brought further polarization of the Serbian public. After abysmal results in last few parliamentary elections, the pro-EU opposition is slowly gaining in strength and courage. Also, mass protests of mostly students and young people swept across the country immediately following the elections. The question of how will Vučić react to increasing pressure at home remains open. Much will, of course, depend on the position of EU, which has insofar supported the Serbian government as a source of stability in the region and turned a blind eye on certain undemocratic and nationalist tendencies. After the example of Former Yugoslavian Republic of Barcelona demonstrated the limits of such a policy, whether EU approach will change remains to be seen.