The outcome of Serbia’s parliamentary elections on December 17 will have profound implications for peace in Europe. Though somewhat obscured by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and more recently the crisis in Gaza, tensions in the Balkans have risen sharply in recent months. Should Serbs reelect the main party of government, the likelihood of regional conflict will increase.
The Serbian Progressive Party (SPP) has been in government since 2012. Formed in 2008, the SPP was initially seen as a pro-EU-integration party that would lead Serbia towards the west.
The SPP, however, became increasingly authoritarian and Serbia is today widely regarded as an example of state capture. This is where a small number of influential actors in the public and private sectors have colluded to change rules, sponsor legislation and co-opt institutions to further their own narrow interests at the expense of the broader public interest.
The SPP has, according to the US-based advocacy group, Freedom House, “steadily eroded political rights and civil liberties, putting pressure on independent media, the political opposition, and civil society organizations”. Press freedom advocates, Reporters Without Borders, recently noted that the dominant state-run media perpetuates “rampant fake news and propaganda” where “journalists are threatened by political pressures”.
Corruption has also increased since 2012 and the Global Organized Crime Index reported that “criminal networks are widespread”. An in-depth investigation by the New York Times alleged that Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić – a founding member of the SPP – and his inner circle were closely linked to these criminal gangs.
Since 2012, Serbia’s government has stoked regional tensions to the extent that many fear 2024 may see renewed war with neighbouring Kosovo.
Given Vučić’s past – and that of many of the SPP’s leading figures – this was hardly a surprise. Throughout the 1990s Vučić supported aggressive Serbian nationalism. Just days after the Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia in July 1995, he declared: “Kill one Serb and we will kill 100 Muslims.”
Between 1998 and 2000, he was Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević’s “minister for information” during which time the war in Kosovo erupted. During that conflict, roughly 10,000 Kosovo Albanians were killed and over 90% of the population were displaced.
In 2018 Vučić described Milošević as “a great Serbian leader who undoubtedly had the best intentions”.
Destabilising Kosovo and Bosnia
The SPP has stoked nationalist sentiments among Serbs living outside Serbia. Their attempts to redraw the borders of Yugoslavia’s successor states along demographic lines – to create what they call a “Serbian world” – would almost certainly lead to war in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Indeed, Vučić recently stated that 2024 “will bring us much more conflict and unrest than the previous one” specifically highlighting Bosnia and Kosovo as likely to erupt.
Vučić exercises near complete control over the main Serb parties in Bosnia and Kosovo and has encouraged each to undermine the authority of the central government in both states.
Milorad Dodik – the president of the Serb-majority Republika Srpska federation within Bosnia – now openly talks about seceding from Bosnia. Kosovo Serbs in favour of integration in Kosovo have been bullied into submission or murdered.
In addition to regularly vowing to never recognise Kosovo’s independence, Vučić has denied that Serb-perpetrated massacres occurred in Kosovo. He has also threatened Nato troops stationed there and branded the prime minister of Kosovo, Albin Kurti, as “terrorist scum”.
Vučić and the SPP prime minister, Ana Brnabić, have repeatedly claimed – without supporting evidence – that the government of Kosovo is engaged in “brutal ethnic cleansing” against Serbs. In September, close Vučić ally Milan Radoičić, the deputy leader of the Belgrade-controlled Serbian List party, was part of a militia group that attacked the Kosovo Police – killing one officer – in what many believe was a Belgrade-orchestrated attempt to spark a war.
Despite the SPP’s record, western leaders have sought to maintain that Serbia is, as the US ambassador to Serbia recently stated, “headed towards the west”. Many have posed with Vučić, celebrated his electoral victories and “turned a blind eye” to his government’s policies at home and abroad.
The logic behind this appeasement stems from a determination to coax Serbia away from its traditional ally, Russia. This has evidently failed.
The Serbian government has also cultivated links with other likeminded autocrats throughout Europe – particularly Hungary’s Viktor Orbán – who openly reject democratic values.
There is little to suggest the SPP will change; they have signed an election pact with the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party – led by convicted war criminal Vojislav Šešelj – and are likely to again seek to form a coalition with the Socialist Party of Serbia, led by Ivica Dačić. Known as “little Slobo”, he was Milošević’s spokesman in the 1990s.
There are signs that a more progressive movement – the Serbia Against Violence coalition – will increase its share of the vote. It seeks to capitalise on the public anger which boiled over in June when a series of mass protests were held against gun violence and corruption.
But the SPP has sought to steer the election campaign away from domestic concerns – especially the high inflation, which stands at 8.5% – towards nationalist issues, such as the plight of Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo.
In this, it has been successful due to its near monopoly over the media in Serbia and targeted cyberattacks and smear campaigns against critics of the government. The prospects of the SPP being removed thus appear remote and the spectre of regional conflict looms.
However, this could yet be averted. Despite the SPP’s nationalistic and anti-western rhetoric, realistically, Serbia cannot prosper outside the west. Russia’s ability to support its allies since the invasion of Ukraine has decreased, as Armenia recently discovered in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Serbia is surrounded by EU and Nato member states and thus vulnerable to western sanctions. As such, a forceful stance by the west would probably compel the SPP to change course and prevent renewed conflict. Whether the west has the unity and will to do so, however, remains to be seen.