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Guest: Majda Ruge, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations

While President Vučić’s hold on Serbia has strengthened, geopolitical challenges linger. The war in Ukraine strains Serbia’s alliances – is Belgrade with the EU, or is it with Russia?

The conservative Serbian Progressive Party easily won the elections at the presidential, parliamentary, and municipal levels. Vučić and his party have already ruled for over ten years. He now stays in power with a comfortable mandate, but with a difficult geopolitical agenda, stuck between Russia and the EU. Serbia has been an EU candidate since 2009, while also maintaining strong ties to Russia. The tightrope act is hard to continue; the War in Ukraine puts Vučić in a difficult position. Serbia voted in favor of a UN resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine but has declined to impose sanctions. Is Serbia moving West or East?

We explore these themes with Majda Ruge, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. President Vučić seems to be strengthening his hold on the country, with increasingly authoritarian tendencies. We asked if his party was as comfortably in power as they seem. Our guest responded, “Vucic as a candidate got about 59%, according to some news outlets, almost 800,000 more than all the other candidates combined. However, his party got about 42% of the vote, which gives them 120 seats, and they will need 126 in the parliament to form a government […] They will definitely need a coalition partner.”

Comparisons have been made between Aleksandar Vučić and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Altamar’s Muni Jensen asked, “Is that a simplistic view?”  Ruge explained, “Not really. There are many similarities between the two. They both fit it into this autocrat/nationalist image, and they follow a very similar script for the consolidation of power. […] They’re both using tactics where they create enemies of Hungarian or Serbian people in order to distract from or to legitimize consolidation of unchecked political power.” However, they choose different enemies to create. Orbán vilifies Muslim immigrants and Western figures or institutions. Vučić uses a “typical regional enemy image – the Bosniaks and Bakir Izetbegovic, the Kosovars, NATO, et cetera.”

Ruge points out that Serbia is non-compliant in a lot of EU policy areas, beyond just its ties to Russia. For example, Chinese infrastructure projects fail to meet European procurement and environmental standards. Similarly, the “installation of facial recognition cameras was always problematic in relation to EU privacy laws, data protection and national security perspective.” But Russia’s military action did change something, according to our guest – “The EU is no longer willing to tolerate [noncompliance] to the same extent. The pressure on Serbia is much more significant than it was before.”

Serbia remains linked to Russia through its cultural, historical, and economic ties. A significant one is that Serbia imports 80% of natural gas from Russia, at a quarter of the market price. Altamar’s Peter Schechter asked about additional issues that may keep Serbia closer aligned with Russia: “His base is nationalist. It is quite anti-NATO, and pro-Russia. How much does he have to worry about offending his base?” Ruge thinks he does. “He shapes public opinion through the government control of media. He has pushed public opinion in such a direction that it’s going to be very difficult to get himself out. 61% of Serbia’s citizens when asked in the polls believe that Russia’s aggression on Ukraine is not an aggression, that it is a war that was brought about by The West and NATO. […] Then again, if he’s pushed against the wall, I think he could skillfully turn the narrative and start driving it in the other direction.”

Does Ruge think there is a carrot that could be offered to persuade Serbia to align closer to the EU and away from Russia? ” They’ve been giving them too many carrots, to be quite honest. The EU has failed to insist on the implementation of its membership conditionality. And it has purposefully, closed one eye and ignored, huge violations of rule of law and democratic norms.” So, there should be less wavering on membership conditionality and less flexibility with countries showing anti-democratic tendencies. However, she notes that “the inevitable carrot that the EU will have to give is including Serbia in whatever the future energy arrangements they will set up for themselves.” Serbia is very unlikely to turn on Russia while they are so dependent on natural gas. To win Serbia’s allegiance, the EU will have to provide an alternative.

In “Téa’s Take” a segment of the show focused on youth and social justice-related issues, Téa asks about the Progressive Party’s courting the far-right, using nationalist rhetoric. Ruge commented on the dangers of the messaging around “a greater Serbia and a Serbian world.” She is concerned that “huge percentages of the Serbian population are still intoxicated by this idea,” causing alarm in the region. Ruge further adds, “at the moment, I simply don’t see any structural conditions in place to move to a more moderate politics and moderate public opinion.”

We ended by discussing Serbia’s current role in the region. What do Serbia’s relationships with its neighbors look like? Despite some rising tensions and Serbia’s geopolitically problematic role, Ruge noted that Vučić’s government had “opened up its vaccination program to all of the countries [in the region]. Exactly this time last year […] you could find more citizens of Sarajevo on the streets in Belgrade than ever because everyone traveled to Serbia to get vaccinated.”As always, the Balkans remain complicated.

Who will Vučić choose as a coalition partner? Will his choice influence his government towards Russia or the EU?   Find out more by listening to the latest Altamar episode, available wherever you get your podcasts. You can download the episode here.

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Episode 124