Serbia’s stance on foreign policy at stake in the early elections

Serbia will hold its second early parliamentary election in a row. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has stated that they will take place on December 17.

Simultaneously, local elections will be held in the Serbian capital and other towns.

Although Vucic can rely on a coalition of his Serbian Progressive Party (SPS) and Socialist Party supporters in the present parliament, the clash with the opposition led him to call early elections.

For six months, the country has seen large-scale opposition marches under the slogan “Serbia Against Violence.”

Simultaneously, the elections provide an excuse for the Serbian government to postpone negotiations with the EU on a compromise with Kosovo and sanctions against Russia.

The elections, however, may become highly challenging for Vucic. The pro-government coalition will likely lose Belgrade, where the pro-EU opposition is gaining power.

To tackle this, Vucic has taken a risk he had previously avoided: the SPS will participate in municipal elections alongside the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), led by war criminal Vojislav Šešelj.

“We are living in difficult times for the whole world, in times of global challenges, wars and conflicts, in times when we all need to be united in the struggle to preserve vital national and state interests, in times when we will face numerous pressures due to relations with Kosovo and Metohija and other regional and global issues,” Aleksandar Vucic said in a speech about the new elections.

Simultaneously, Serbia’s recent parliamentary elections were held only a year and a half ago, in April 2022. Vucic’s SPS party lost its legislative majority in these elections, forcing it to form a coalition with its longtime partners, the Socialists.

Nonetheless, it took six months after the elections to form a full-fledged government, which was finally completed at the end of last year.

Unlike a full-fledged administration, a technical government in Serbia lacks the authority to impose sanctions or negotiate a solution with the partially recognized state of Kosovo (which Serbia still believes to be part of its country).

So, thanks to the protracted coalition, the Serbian government got a considerable pause, allowing itself to continue not to impose sanctions against Russia and not to make concessions to Kosovo.

The desire to repeat this trick is one of the reasons for the new early elections – Vucic still believes that the West will get tired of the war in Ukraine and push for peace talks with Moscow. This means that there is an opportunity to stall and not impose sanctions against Russia for its war in order not to break relations with the Kremlin.

Using the early elections, the Serbian government can postpone unpleasant issues until the middle of next year. However, there are other reasons for the decision to hold early elections.

Protests in Serbia started in May this year after several mass shootings in the country. The opposition believes that the reason for these tragic incidents is the environment of hatred cultivated by the leading state-controlled TV channels.

These rallies continue to this day, negatively affecting the ratings of the Serbian government. And in such a situation, holding early elections without waiting for further deterioration in ratings seems reasonable.

However, the Serbian opposition has the most excellent chance of winning in the last decade.

The parties in the “Serbia Against Violence” rallies have already announced that they will go to the polls as a united political force. The Freedom and Justice Party, the Serbian People’s Movement, the Green Left Front, Heart, Ecological Uprising, the Democratic Party, the Free Citizens’ Movement, and the Razom Party have already joined this statement.

This synergy can strengthen the position of the pro-Western opposition, especially if a scandal over the possible recognition of Kosovo hits the Serbian government’s ratings.

According to the Serbian newspaper N1, Serbia and Kosovo are close to reaching a compromise agreement with the EU, under which Vucic agreed to the draft and roadmap for implementing the Ohrid Agreement (i.e., Kosovo’s membership in international organizations), with the only condition that the signing be postponed until after the elections.

This is one of many issues that might seriously harm Vucic’s and his party’s ratings.

We must recall that Vucic once was a Srboan Radial Party member who even served as vice president of the party that Šešelj formed. However, realizing that a political force affiliated with a war criminal convicted in The Hague has a toxic image and will always be seen adversely in the West, Vucic abandoned this political force and created the SPS.

Although the SRP and SPS are running separately in the parliamentary elections, the alliance in the local polls reflects Vucic’s uncertainty about victory and the risk that pro-Russian and anti-Western radicals (far more radical than the socialists) will begin to exert influence on the government.

This is a scenario that Vucic has avoided at all costs since it would stop his program of balancing the West and Russia.

Since the start of Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine, Aleksandar Vucic has adopted an evident approach: delay for time without finally falling out with either the EU, the US, or Russia.

Vucic is pleased to meet with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and to write about the positive relations with Ukraine, everything to relieve Western pressure to join the sanctions.

Simultaneously, Serbia’s president pledged to Putin that he would not join the sanctions against Russia, portraying his country as a steadfast Russian ally.

In the West, criticism and proposals for sanctions against Serbia are mounting. They have grown in intensity in the aftermath of the failure of politicians close to Vucic to organize “armed protests” in northern Kosovo, which could ignite a wider conflict.

Within Serbia, the pro-Western opposition has grown stronger, seeking a genuine, not a phony, path to EU membership.

That is why the elections on December 17 could halt Belgrad’s policy of balancing between the West and Moscow and its tactics of escaping and postponing hard decisions. However, it is unclear which stance the next Serbian government will take: a pro-Western or a pro-Russian one.

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