A Putin or Erdoğan Scenario for Serbia After the Elections?

Adelina Marini, Zagreb

The big news of the presidential elections in Serbia is that now there is opposition. After five years reign of Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), the opposition was virtually gone. It was divided into dozens of parties and movements with different ideologies – from ultra-nationalism to moderate pro-European liberalism, the former prevailing. It was not expected that the elections of April 2 will bear this result because, just as in Bulgaria, the opposition failed to unite and come up with a common candidate to end the monopoly reign of Aleksandar Vučić. Therefore, in these elections the candidates were 11 – for the first time so many in years, though not for the first time without a single woman among the candidates.

In many ways, these elections were a turning point for Serbia and its future. It is yet to be seen whether Serbia will go even faster towards authoritarianism or it will begin to move towards democratisation and the rule of law. First of all, the elections provided an opportunity for the ruling party with its authoritarian tendencies to consolidate power and eliminate intra-party competition. In the weeks before the elections were scheduled and the candidates announced, there was a fierce internal party race between Aleksandar Vučić and his companion from the times of the Serbian Radical Party of Vojislav Šešelj and current President Tomislav Nikolić. To Vučić, the former gravedigger had become a burden, but Tomislav Nikolić felt that he had more political life left in him, so he announced that regardless of whether he will be the candidate of the SNS, he will stand. Nikolić took advantage of the fact that on the road to monocracy Aleksandar Vučić left no strong personalities around him and the party practically had no recognisable candidate to face Nikolić, or someone else from the weaker opposition candidates.

So Vučić was faced with a difficult choice – to leave the executive branch (temporarily or permanently) to prevent a president who will be his institutional opposition and work at ruining his halo of a saviour of the nation. The breakthrough came after an agreement with Nikolić, who withdrew his candidacy and Vučić announced his. The price tag on this deal is not yet known. Indeed, this is a dilemma, faced by the Bulgarian equivalent of Vučić – Boyko Borisov, who was also considering taking advantage of its high rating and run for president because of the lack of another strong candidate in his party GERB (member of the EPP). The situation in Bulgaria, however, is different as Boyko Borisov had competition outside the party, while the SNS had none until Sunday. Borisov chose to give the ceremonial presidential post to someone he considered a pawn, instead of leaving executive power in the hands of someone who could be emancipated from him.

Aleksandar Vučić was in the same situation, but chose the not less ceremonial presidential post. Now the main question is who will take his place as prime minister and whether a Putin or Erdoğan scenario will unfold in Serbia. In a Putin, scenario Vučić will install for prime minister a trusted person and for months the name of his deputy Zorana Mihajlović has been surfacing, who is also minister of transport and construction. A very influential woman, who however denies that there has been any discussion about her appointment as a PM. The trusted person will need to “keep warm” the seat for Vučić, until his presidency term finishes, or until another opportunity for a switch arises. In an Erdoğan scenario, Vučić may attempt to expand the presidential powers, in order to retain power for a longer period.

Counting chickens before the eggs have hatched

That would have been possible if a strong opposition had not appeared, since his emphatic victory in the presidential election (over 55%) opens up this possibility at a possible next snap elections – since 2012, when the SNS came to power, there had been two snap elections. The latter were last year, when the SNS began to decline as the party won 131 seats. At the previous snap elections in 2014 the SNS won 158 seats.

The government counted on possible early elections providing to the SNS, with the help of the current coalition with the Socialists of Ivica Dačić and the Movement of Socialists of Alexandar Vulin, a sufficient majority to make the necessary constitutional changes. After the vote on Sunday, however, snap elections already represent a huge risk, as recognised by Aleksandar Vučić himself  on election night. He congratulated the other candidates and said that their achievement is great and in a possible parliamentary election they could gain a lot. Ergo, probably the dilemma to have or not to have snap elections, which has been hovering for months in Serbian public domain, is dismissed.

The surprise candidate of these elections is human rights activist Saša Janković. He is a former journalist who worked in the Beta news agency right at the time of the bloody disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. From 2007 to the beginning of the campaign he was ombudsman of Serbia. Saša Janković appeared by himself in the elections, nominated by 100 public figures, including writers, journalists, actors, musicians. His candidacy was supported by the Democratic Party, the New Party, the Social Democratic Union Party and the Vojvodina party. Polls gave him third place with less than 10% of the vote, but he finished in second place with almost double the projected support – 16.2%. Not accidentally, Janković declared victory on election night, despite being second. According to him, this is a victory for integrity, rules, and principles.

And he’s correct. It really is a great victory for forces whose voice has so far been stifled by ultra nationalist and moderate nationalist cries. The main emphasis in the campaign of Janković was the rule of law, compliance with rules, democracy. If you look for an equivalent in Bulgaria, which is very similar to Serbia, it would be the newly formed Bulgarian party “Yes, Bulgaria”, whose platform is also based on the rule of law, fight against corruption and respect for rules and principles. The difference is that the young Bulgarian party, mainly composed of completely new faces to the Bulgarian political scene, appeared at parliamentary elections, which are always more difficult to win than the presidential ones, where there is only one candidate playing. It is important to note, however, that on the other very important issues for Serbia, Saša Janković is in the mainstream. He is for good relations with Russia, would not sign Kosovo’s independence, and sees no military future for Serbia in NATO.

Janković’s result is a symbolic victory, which showed that in Serbia there is a fairly large niche of people who want exactly what Janković has to offer. A niche, which no one filled until now. He announced in a statement on election night that the presidential elections are only the beginning of his fight, which is a commitment to work precisely this niche, whose potential is great, as in Serbia, just as in Bulgaria, half of the voters are not voting or as they are called in Serbia abstinenti.

It is also a victory, because in the current controlled media environment, where the ruling party SNS has complete monopoly, managing to break through and reach more than half a million people is really a great achievement. Media, independent of the government, reported that this campaign was extremely dirty and dishonest. All candidates complained of the same, including Aleksandar Vučić. All the tabloids and other media were engaged in this campaign to destroy the reputation of the most dangerous competitors. Vreme magazine came out [in Serbian] with a large material shortly before election day, in which it says that for the first time in this election the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media (REM) – the Serbian council for electronic media – has refused to monitor the election campaign and prepare a report. REM announced that it will respond only to individual signals for violations, but will not monitor the media and report irregularities.

One of the reasons for Janković’s win is that he was not considered a serious competition and therefore the efforts of pro-government media were aimed at undermining the prestige of Vuk Jeremić, who finished with less than 6% support. Jeremić, a former foreign minister of Serbia at the time of Boris Tadić’s presidency, and then president of the 67th session of the UN General Assembly. He was one of the candidates in the race for the post of UN Secretary General. The reason it is exactly him, who was considered the main competition, is that he is practically not much different in his views and values ​​than Aleksandar Vučić. His positions regarding Kosovo, Russia and the EU are the same as those of Vučić and he had directed his entire campaign towards criticising Vučić and his governance.

Serbia is not ready to break the taboos of Russia, Kosovo, and NATO

These elections abounded of innovations. Besides the above mentioned, another novelty was the nomination of Nenad Čanak, who is not a new face to the Serbian political and public scene, but came out with a whole new narrative which, hitherto, was taboo and no one had ever allowed himself to even think about raising. He is the leader of the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina (LSV), was chairman of the Vojvodina Skupshtina. Čanak based his campaign on four taboos: recognition of Kosovo, membership in NATO, anti-Russian rhetoric, and lustration.

His results at the elections show that Serbia is still not ready for any of those things. Nenad Čanak barely made it to 1% support.

Besides Serbia still not being ready to break these taboos, according to Serbian analysts Mr Čanak’s campaign was quite passive. However, the main reason remains that there is still no fertile ground for a separation with Kosovo, accession to NATO, and breaking away from Russia. In one of his last interviews [in Serbian] before the election Nenad Čanak said that Russia sees Serbia as a zone of influence, which serves for negotiations with the international community about the recognition of Crimea. He stated that if elected, his first order of business would be to break the energy agreement with Russia and work to end the energy dependence on Russia. According to him the sale of the Serbian oil company NIS to the Russians was a big mistake, as they bought it for the price of oil, which that company derives only for one year. He also said that Russian influence is currently extremely dangerous and Serbia should join the EU as soon as possible.

Another novelty of these elections was the emergence of comedian Luka Maksimović, who ran with his artistic nickname Ljubiša Preletačević “White”. In opinion polls before the elections he appeared as a second force after Aleksandar Vučić with about 13% support, but managed to win just under 10 percent. The young satirist did not run with serious intentions, but rather to ridicule and caricature the current system in Serbia and its key players. According to Serbian analysts, White is the cartoon image of Vučić, so he was spared from media attacks, as it would practically mean Vučić to attack himself. His good performance in the elections raises the question whether he represents the protest vote. This question has yet to find an answer, but the fact that he failed to raise voter turnout shows that the abstinenti would not come out to vote even as a joke. Just as in Bulgaria, non-voters remain a major challenge for all candidates and parties.

Now what?

Because of all these innovations, the elections on Sunday were a breakthrough. From now on we will see if Saša Janković will be able to become the long-awaited Serbian opposition and whether he will be allowed to do this after establishing himself as serious competition to the government. This is a question that must be posed to the EU as well, which has so far tolerated Aleksandar Vučić and his authoritarian behaviour, as well as his double play with Russia. After the elections, the EU congratulated the preordained winner Vučić. In a joint statement [in English], European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (Luxembourg, EPP) and the European Council President Donald Tusk (Poland, EPP) congratulated Vučić on his victory. “This vote of confidence shows that the people of Serbia fully endorse the European path you have chosen and which will lead to EU membership,” said the letter, whose tone has nothing to do with the sentiment inside Serbia.

On election night absolutely all candidates, except Vučić, spoke of unprecedented irregularities and outrages – from changing the rules at the last moment, to the short duration of the campaign (less than a month) and complete media monopoly of the government. Most of them talked about a media blackout on opposition candidates, media attacks, and electoral violations. Again there was a mention of the “Bulgarian train” phenomenon, which appeared as a byword namely during the reign of Aleksandar Vučić in the last five years. Bulgarian train is a byword for vote manipulation and means an organised transportation of voters to vote in several different places. Individual candidates spoke of vote-buying too – everything which already is a trademark

of the Bulgarian electoral process, despite Bulgaria being a EU member for 10 years already, which acceded with “just” judiciary problems.

Against this background, the words of Messrs Tusk and Juncker “We wish you success in further pursuing this path by promoting the reforms associated with the ongoing accession process which will bring a better life to all citizens” sound inappropriate, more so with the fact that in Rome leaders of the member states and the European institutions, including Tusk and Juncker, signed a declaration, which clearly states that the EU’s door is open only to those candidates who not only share European values, but also promote them.

The Šešelj era is over

The other piece of good news from the presidential elections is that ultra nationalists lost, and lost by much. Noisy radical Vojislav Šešelj failed to reach even five percent of the vote and refused to address the public after the election. His performance in the election is significantly worse than the results he got in the parliamentary election last year. Then the Serbian Radical Party won 22 seats in the Skupshtina. It seems that his time in politics is over. The leader of the Dveri, Boško Obradović, who has almost the same rhetoric and views as Šešelj, fared even worse, winning just 2.3 percent of the vote, for which he blamed everyone, including the non-governmental organisations that were involved in election observation and parallel counting. Last year Dveri managed to score 13 MPs. The rest of the candidates with a stronger or weaker form of nationalism revolve around 1%. This clearly shows that, currently, the monopoly on nationalism is held by the SNS who, after disposing of Tomislav Nikolić, have rather moderate nationalist views.

What lies ahead in Serbia is the battle between the old generation, which embodies the nationalistic and radical past of the Milošević era, and a new generation of pro-European democratic forces. In this battle, the EU’s role will be extremely important, because the fight will be fierce. Vučić will bet on anything to win it, and as the months before the presidential election demonstrated, it will affect the stability of the entire region of the Western Balkans. While he competed with Nikolić, the relations with Kosovo got strained considerably, tensions rose dramatically in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and there was turmoil in tiny Montenegro as well. Relations with the EU member Croatia remained tense and with no perspective. So Serbia is facing a forthcoming struggle for the survival of the Milošević, allegedly disguised as pro-European, heritage and for the consolidation of an opposition around the advocates of the rule of law. Regardless of who will be the winner, however, Russia remains a priority for both camps, which should be telling us something important.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

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