ZOiS Spotlight 12/2022

The Ambiguous Impact of the War in Ukraine on Serbia’s Elections

by Florian Bieber 30/03/2022
Russian president Putin is welcome with military honours by Serbian president Vučić in Belgrade (archive photo 2019). IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

In the decade since Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić came to power, hardly a year has gone by in which Serbia’s citizens have not been called to vote for either the country’s president or its parliament. The legislature has completed only one full term. This has little to do with political instability, as the dominant Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has had a majority of parliamentary seats since 2014. Instead, the frequent elections have served to relegitimise Serbia’s increasingly authoritarian regime and prevent the emergence of a coherent opposition.

The elections scheduled for 3 April were promised shortly after the last parliamentary election, which was held in June 2020 after the first wave of Covid-19. As most of the opposition had boycotted that election, the parliament contained only a handful of independent members, giving it not even a veneer of democratic legitimacy. April’s presidential, parliamentary, and Belgrade local elections, in which all key opposition parties and groups are participating, are supposed to restore an illusion of democracy.

Russia’s long shadow

The Russian invasion of Ukraine looms large over the elections, yet its impact remains unclear. During his rule, Vučić has continued and deepened Serbia’s foreign policy, which rests on four pillars: good ties with the EU, the United States, Russia, and China. Relations with Moscow and Beijing in particular have flourished and been heavily promoted by the Serbian yellow press and TV channels close to the regime. Russian president Vladimir Putin has made regular appearances in these media outlets as a hero and protector of Serbs, whereas the West is generally mocked and maligned. Shortly before the war began, the notorious muckraking tabloid Informer claimed that Ukraine had attacked Russia in a distortion of the truth that has become common on the paper’s front pages.

It is thus little surprise that Belgrade has witnessed some of the few pro-Russian protests in Europe since the outbreak of the war. The largest one, on 4 March, was dominated by Vučić’s critics, who accused him of selling out to the West for supporting the condemnation of the war in the UN General Assembly. This aligns with a poll conducted for the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) in summer 2021, which showed that Putin is by far the most popular world leader, with 66 per cent of respondents in Serbia holding a very positive view of him. The West received greater blame than Russia for the two sides’ mutual antagonism: 5 per cent blamed Russia, 34 per cent the West, and 53 per cent both.

Positive views of Russia and Putin are stronger among supporters of the ruling SNS and its junior coalition partner, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), but still considerable among opposition supporters. While far-right parties have been taking vocal pro-Russian stances, their support remains insignificant. Polls conducted since the beginning of the war suggest that all the five nationalist and far-right coalitions and parties running in the elections achieve support levels around the 3 percent threshold. The parties of the largest opposition coalition “United Serbia” condemned the war, but mostly refused to support sanctions. Only the green opposition movement “Moramo” and several smaller opposition parties also called for sanctions against Russia.

Among the ruling parties, there are important differences between the SNS and the SPS. The Socialists have close political and economic ties to Russia, including through their control of Srbijagas, Serbia’s state-owned gas provider. The head of the party and parliamentary speaker Ivica Dačić has openly opposed siding against Russia. His argument is based less on an endorsement of Russian policies than on the line that without Russian support, Kosovo would consolidate its independence and that the 1999 NATO intervention was an illegal Western-led war.

Vučić has been more careful in hedging his bets. After an initial silence at the outset of the war, a convoluted declaration by Serbia’s National Security Council, which the president chairs, supported Ukraine’s territorial integrity but refrained from identifying Russia as the culprit. Rather, the declaration stated that ‘Serbia most sincerely regrets everything that takes place in the east of Europe. Russia and Ukraine have always been friendly countries to the Republic of Serbia, and Serbian people think of Russians and Ukrainians as of fraternal nations. We see loss of life of each man in Ukraine as a true tragedy.’

The Serbian government has preserved this ambiguity by not introducing sanctions against Russia while supporting resolutions in various international organisations that condemn the violation of Ukrainian territorial integrity. Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabić has been arguing – somewhat disingenuously – that Serbia has not imposed sanctions because of its own experience with heavy sanctions in the 1990s, rather than for economic or political expedience. This position allows Vučić and his party to convince Western allies not to exert more pressure while keeping the door open to Russia.

What next after victory for Vučić?

In the current electoral campaign, Vučić has been promoted with the slogan ‘Peace. Stability. Vučić’, which focuses on the threat of war, insecurity, and rising prices and depicts the president as the best protector of Serbian citizens. Thus, Vučić is presented not as an ally of Russia but as a stateman who is carefully negotiating a difficult international environment to protect Serbia. The opposition is hard pressed to capitalise on Vučić’s pro-Russian policies. This is in part because some opposition parties and candidates share the government’s uncritical view of Russia and because open condemnation of Moscow would gain fewer votes than it would lose.

Currently, a victory for Vučić in the presidential election seems certain, and his party is likely to dominate in parliament, save a last-minute upset. A key question after the elections is whether Vučić and his party will move away from Russia if Western pressure increases. This might be possible, as the regime will no longer be facing a test of public opinion. Closer ties with China also have the potential to serve as a surrogate for relations with Russia, including when it comes to protecting Serbian interests in the UN.

Florian Bieber is Jean Monnet Chair and Professor for Southeast European History and Politics at the University of Graz and coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG).