Apr 11, 2016 | 09:30 GMT

11 mins read

In Serbian Politics, Current Problems Hail From the Past

Serbian members of parliament attend the National assembly during of a parliamentary session in Belgrade on July 26, 2012. AFP PHOTO / ANDREJ ISAKOVIC (Photo credit should read ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/GettyImages)
Forecast Highlights

  • The next Serbian government will remain committed to its seemingly contradictory goals of joining the European Union and maintaining good ties with Russia.
  • Belgrade will continue to introduce institutional and economic reforms to qualify for EU accession and to attract foreign investment, at least under the next government.
  • In the long term, as the likelihood that Serbia will join the European Union decreases, institutional reform could slow, increasing the threat of ethnic violence in the country and the Western Balkan region in general. 

Serbia will hold parliamentary elections April 24, but they will do little to change the country's domestic and foreign policy. According to opinion polls, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic's Serbian Progressive Party will be re-elected, an outcome of which Vucic is fairly confident. In fact, parliamentary elections were not due until 2018, but Vucic called for early elections to consolidate his party's position in parliament. Opinion polls also show that nationalist parties will perform relatively well, which is a reminder of Serbia's complex political landscape. Regardless, the next government in Belgrade will have to operate within Serbia's traditional geopolitical constraints.

Because of Serbia's position at the heart of the Western Balkans, it has traditionally fallen under the influence of its powerful neighbors, including Austria in the northwest, Turkey in the southeast and Russia in the east. A Serbian kingdom existed in the 13th and 14th centuries, but the subsequent Ottoman conquest of the Balkans led to the fall of Belgrade in 1521 and to Ottoman expansion in Central Europe. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the Ottomans and the Habsburg Empire competed for control of the Balkans, and Serbia became one of their many battlegrounds. The Serbians spent most of the 19th century revolting against the Ottomans, and the country's independence was internationally recognized in 1878.

However, this did not end the competition among foreign powers for domination of the region. The fragile Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes emerged after World War I, only to be invaded by the Axis powers in 1941. During the Cold War, Serbia was at the center of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a non-aligned country comprising most of the nations in the Western Balkans. The collapse of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s led to ethnic violence across the region and severely strained Belgrade's relations with the United States and Europe. Belgrade and the West slowly improved their ties during the first decade of the 21st century, and Serbia was formally declared a candidate for EU accession in 2012.

The Delicate Balance

As a Christian and Western nation, Serbia feels it belongs in Europe. This sentiment is partly a result of Ottoman rule because many Serbians opposed to the Turks turned to the Habsburg Empire. The Ottoman siege of Belgrade in the early 16th century plays a key role in Serbia's history, and Serbian nationalists have traditionally claimed that the country is a bulwark of Christianity against Muslim expansion. But Serbia is also a Slavic and Orthodox country with strong cultural and economic ties to Russia. In the late 1870s, Serbia joined Russia to fight against Turkey. Eventually, the alliance helped trigger World War I, when a Serbian nationalist assassinated the heir to the Habsburg crown, prompting a complex network of military pacts across Europe.

Serbia's balancing act between Russia and the West was tested once again during the Cold War, when Yugoslavia refused to align with the Soviet Union. Yugoslav President Tito never fully broke with Moscow but sought to maintain cordial relations with the United States and with Western Europe as well. Yugoslavia's geographic position was key for denying Moscow access to the Adriatic Sea. Tito used this to his advantage, playing Moscow and Washington against each other to extract concessions from both.

To a certain extent, the strategy continues to this day. The collapse of Yugoslavia temporarily isolated Serbia from the West, but the fall of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 led to a slow rapprochement with the West. During the 2000s, Serbia improved its relations with NATO and applied for EU membership. In December 2015, the country opened the first two policy chapters of the accession negotiations with the European Union. Belgrade is under pressure from the European Union to introduce political and economic reforms before it will be allowed to join the Continental bloc, but it is receiving pre-accession funds from Brussels. The European Union has allocated 1.5 billion euros in financial assistance to Serbia for the 2014-2020 period.

At the same time, Serbia also keeps close economic and political ties with Russia, and the two are parties to a free trade agreement. Serbia is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas, and Moscow has promised Belgrade that it will be a part of Russia's multiple projects to build pipelines in the Western Balkans. (Serbia was supposed to be a transit country for both the South Stream and the Turkish Stream projects, which are currently on hold.) Russia is Serbia's third-largest source of imports and fourth-largest destination for exports. Russia is also a key political ally for Serbia: Moscow does not recognize Kosovo's independence and is a main supporter in Belgrade's claims to the breakaway territory.

This balancing act has mostly worked, although the crisis in Ukraine put Serbia in an awkward position. Belgrade continues its accession talks with Europe while also refusing to introduce sanctions against Russia. Serbian officials persistently send reassuring messages to both Brussels and Moscow about their intentions to keep both alliances alive. Russia does not necessarily see Serbia's accession to the European Union as a threat. If anything, it could be an opportunity because Moscow is interested in keeping good ties with certain EU members as it tries to shape EU policy on issues such as energy and trade (and, more recently, sanctions). Over the years, Russia has fostered good political ties with countries including Italy and Hungary, and if Serbia were to join the union, it would give Moscow an additional avenue by which to influence the bloc. Russia would probably be more worried if Serbia joined NATO, but at this point Belgrade is not looking to enter the military alliance.

Economic and Institutional Reforms

The next Serbian government will be challenged politically and economically. In its latest report about Serbia's progress, the European Union warned Belgrade to "professionalize" and "depoliticize" its public administration, reduce its political influence over the judiciary, and improve efforts against corruption. Brussels also said Belgrade has made some headway in the fight against organized crime but warned that it needed to establish a "credible track record" on that front.

The Serbian economy is slowly recovering from recession. According to the International Monetary Fund, Serbia will grow by around 1.7 percent this year (having grown 0.5 percent in 2015), and fiscal consolidation measures have reduced the country's deficit. Still, Serbia is struggling to modernize its public sector and to privatize state-owned companies. Unemployment remains very high, at roughly 20 percent. In the coming years, Serbia will also have to deal with the impact of a shrinking workforce, caused by the country's low fertility rates and high levels of emigration. The combination of high unemployment and cuts in state spending could create fertile ground for social unrest and conflict with minority groups.

The Broader Implications

Serbia also has unfinished business with many of its neighbors. Under EU pressure, Serbia and Kosovo hold regular meetings to normalize relations, but problems remain. A particularly sensitive issue is the status of northern Kosovo, where ethnic Serbs represent the majority of the population. In late 2013, Kosovo and Serbia agreed to create the Community of Serb Municipalities to grant some autonomy to ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo, but its implementation has been slow. Nationalist forces in Kosovo argue that the agreement undermines the young country's independence. This has led to boycotts in the Kosovo parliament and to street protests against the deal with Serbia.

The European Union is not formally asking Serbia to recognize Kosovo, but it does ask that Serbia reach bilateral agreements on areas ranging from the judiciary to security forces. This means that the issue of Kosovo's sovereignty will continue to be problematic and could lead to sporadic episodes of violence. On April 3, a small explosion occurred outside a sports hall in northern Kosovo some 12 hours before Vucic visited it. Though nobody was hurt, the incident was a reminder of the animosity between some Kosovars and their Serbian neighbors.

Moreover, because of their long, tumultuous history, Serbia and Croatia have a fraught relationship. In 1999, Croatia filed a lawsuit against Serbia at the International Court of Justice, accusing Belgrade of genocide during the wars of the early 1990s. Serbia filed a countersuit in 2010, accusing Croatia of genocide against Serbs during the same period and making references to the killing of ethnic Serbs by Croatian forces in World War II. The International Court of Justice dismissed both cases in early 2015, but rancor over their common history lingers. Croatia, which is an EU member, has threatened to block Serbia's accession to the Continental bloc. Zagreb wants Belgrade to fully cooperate with the international tribunal against war crimes in The Hague and to withdraw its claim to jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes committed over the entire territory of the former Yugoslavia. Croatia also wants to sign a bilateral agreement recognizing the Croat minority's rights in Serbia.

And Serbia's relations with Albania, too, are complex, thanks to the Yugoslav wars, overlapping territorial aspirations and Albania's support for Kosovo. In late 2014, an incident during a soccer game in Belgrade played by both national teams revived tensions, as a drone carried a flag of the "Greater Albania" (an irredentist conception of Albania that includes Kosovo and parts of present-day Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Greece in its territory) over the field. A few months later, Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama visited Serbia, marking the first state visit to the country by an Albanian prime minister in 68 years. Though the meeting was meant to improve relations, Rama said Kosovo's independence was "undeniable," which caused Vucic to accuse Rama of provocation.

Finally, Serbia is also an important factor in stabilizing Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Dayton Accord, which put an end to the war in Bosnia two decades ago, has run its course, but nobody in the region or in the international community has a viable plan to replace it. Serbia has good ties with the Republika Srpska, a constituent legal entity of Bosnia mostly populated by ethnic Serbs. But last year the Serbian government opposed a proposal by Republika Srpska's president to hold a referendum that questioned the authority of the Bosnian judiciary. The proposal was eventually abandoned, but renewed secessionist pushes by Republika Srpska could once again trigger conflict in Bosnia, forcing Serbia to intervene. While this scenario is unlikely, Bosnia remains the most fragile of the former Yugoslav states.

Hope for Integration Fades

Since the end of the Yugoslav wars, the prospect of EU accession has contributed to the pacification of the Western Balkans. To different degrees, all of the countries in the region aspire to join the European Union one day (Slovenia and Croatia actually did so in 2004 and 2013, respectively). The European Union provides know-how and financing to its prospective members, which gives Brussels some degree of influence in the region.

But because the European Union is experiencing a political crisis, it is unlikely to expand in the next five to 10 years. This creates a potentially dangerous situation in the Western Balkans since the less likely the union is to accept new members, the less likely governments in the region are to introduce reforms and to work to ease ethnic tensions.

In Serbia's case, the political establishment will remain interested in introducing institutional and economic reforms to attract foreign investment. But the fading hope of EU integration could reduce popular and political support for reforms over time and even renew nationalist feelings in a country where the memories of the NATO bombings of the late 1990s are still fresh. While the region will probably not see a significant escalation of violence in the foreseeable future, the unlikely prospect of EU membership could fuel nationalist sentiments and lead to new conflicts in the historically volatile region. 

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