Serbia: Setting sail for Brussels, tying up in Moscow

Until recently the EU overlooked the Serbian regime’s disregard for democratic standards, preferring to trust assurances about the country’s commitment to the European path. But support for Russia’s war has made Vučić’s dissimulation impossible to ignore.

Eleven years ago, Serbia was granted candidate status for European Union membership. Negotiations on 25 of the 35 chapters of the acquis opened in 2014, but only chapters 25 and 26 have been closed so far. The first covers science and research, the second education and culture. Even this is due not to the efforts of the Serbian authorities, but to EU rules that allow its members broad autonomy in such matters.

Although the process has been on hold for a while, Serbia is still officially on the road to European integration. The European Commission’s progress reports have become increasingly negative, especially when it comes to rule of law and freedom of expression. Nevertheless, in meetings with EU officials, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić continues to stress Serbia’s firm commitment to the membership path. We may be advancing at the speed of a decrepit snail, but the finish line is still formally unchanged.

Graffiti in Belgrade, 2017. Image: Marija Zaric / Source: Wikimedia Commons

Illusion of independence

At the latest since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, it became clear that Serbia’s professions of commitment to European integration were not entirely sincere. Differences betwveen supposedly official policy and what was happening on the ground were impossible to ignore. But what really made onlookers rub their eyes was that, along with Belarus, Serbia was the only European country not to introduce sanctions against Russia. Vučić has announced that the country’s official stance on the war on Ukraine is neutral, knowing full well that neutrality means being on the side of the aggressor.

Vučić constantly complains that western nations are exerting unprecedented pressure on him to introduce sanctions on Russia, but that he is standing firm. ‘Serbia might change its position on sanctions against Russia, but only when a literal sword of Damocles is not hung over our heads’, Vučić proclaimed dramatically. It is a situation for which he has no one to blame but himself. It was Serbia that made the commitment to harmonise its foreign policy with the foreign policy of the European Union.

The Serbian president pretends to conduct an independent, sovereign policy. One of his favourite mantras is that ‘foreign delegations will not decide the path that Serbia travels’. In his clashes with opponents, Vučić frequently points out that previous administrations were assembled by foreign ambassadors, while the head of the Serbian Progressive Party conducts an independent policy. What Vučić means by ‘foreign delegations’ are the diplomatic representatives of the USA and EU countries, not the Russian Federation, to which he takes a quite different attitude. Vučić has a close relationship with Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, the Russian ambassador in Belgrade, frequently consulting him on matters ranging from Kosovo to maintaining good Russian-Serbian relations.

Vučić’s pretensions to an independent position occasionally veer on the absurd. Using one of his favourite comparisons, he told attendees at hustings in Požarevac in March last year that ‘just as in the Asterix and Obelix comics, there is a small tribe of Gauls holding out and defending their state within the territory of Europe. And I am proud that this little tribe are the citizens of Serbia, our country, conducting their own independent policies.’

Despite official neutrality, the sympathies of the Serbian authorities sometimes become eminently clear. Last September, on the sidelines of a session of the United Nations General Assembly, the foreign ministers of Serbia and the Russian Federation, Nikola Selaković and Sergey Lavrov, signed a Consultation Plan for the next two years. As UN investigators in New York were submitting a report on war crimes committed by the Russian Army in Ukraine, the Serbian minister was signing a document on cooperation with one of the mainstays of Putin’s regime in the organisation’s premises in Geneva. While world statesmen isolate Lavrov as a pariah and member of a criminal group, Serbian politicians flock to greet him. On one side are the states of the democratic world; on the other side is Serbia, flanked by Belarus and North Korea. 

A compliant media

Vučić’s pretence of neutrality and independence becomes more transparent still when seen against the Serbian media landscape. The Russian propaganda channel Sputnik continues to operate without hindrance, while RT Balkan was launched last November. Both channels are sanctioned in the EU. Vučić responded to criticisms of him opening of a new outlet for Putin’s propaganda by appealing to the freedom of the press: ‘Some would like those of us who have a different point of view to sit on our hands at home, they would prevent us from speaking out.’ In the Serbian president’s vocabulary, ‘a different point of view’ means endorsing Kremlin propaganda.

But it is not just Russian media that diffuse the Kremlin’s narrative; the majority of the Serbian media, under Aleksandar Vučić’s immediate control, have united to do the job. All five television stations with a national reach, the newspapers with the widest circulation including Politika and Večernjih novosti, and many tabloids publish content that appears to have been edited for them by Margarita Simonyan and Vladimir Solovyov. The notorious headline ‘Ukraine Attacks Russia’, first printed by the tabloid Informer at the very start of the invasion, was followed by a joint propaganda effort in the same spirit.

The media are dominated by the narrative that Ukraine is a nest of Nazis and that the West, above all NATO, is responsible for the war. ‘Analysts’ appear daily on nationwide television, repeating Kremlin propaganda as the official version of reality. Experts often have controversial pasts, to put it mildly. One regular guest on TV Happy is Veselin Šljivančanin, a former Yugoslav People’s Army officer sentenced by the Hague tribunal to 10 years imprisonment for crimes at Ovčara, near Vukovar in Croatia.

Šljivančanin’s experience as a war criminal certainly seems to qualify him to comment on military operations in Ukraine. There is no doubt that it served to secure him membership of the board of the Serbian Progressive Party after serving his sentence. According to Šljivančanin, ‘Nazism has taken control everywhere’; he regrets that ‘two Slav nations are fighting and killing one another’, although it is the West that has ignited the conflict: ‘NATO has seized every country and Ukraine alone remains. This is Russia’s final chance to halt them, for they are at the gates.’

Film director Dragoslav Bokan, leader of the White Eagles paramilitary group during the war in Croatia, is another talk show regular. On one occasion, also on TV Happy, Bokan expounded a view of the situation that bore a remarkable resemblance to the slogans rehearsed repeatedly by Putin’s propagandists: ‘This war was launched against Russia by the West, not the other way round.’ Bokan went on to clarify his position, claiming on TV Pink that ‘the West is engaged in a crusade against Russia, like Hitler in World War II.’

A Russian view of the world

But local contractors cannot do the job of disseminating the Kremlin’s propaganda alone, so they supplement the disinformation they dole out with Russian originals. At the forefront of the media portals transmitting a ‘Russian truth about the world’ stands Iskra, headed by the celebrated film director Emir Kusturica. One of the authors whose texts are regularly translated is Andrey Korobov Latyntsev, a ‘candidate in philosophical sciences, Second Lieutenant’, who took part in the assault against Ukraine. In one article, entitled ‘The philosophy of the common task’, the philosopher in uniform frames the military invasion as a ‘war of Being with Non-Being’. The people in Ukraine, he writes, ‘seemed to be living in Non-Being, and then – Being returned! Russian, unbearably Russian, luckless, dramatic, of one blood!’

When Russian soldiers slaughter civilians, raze towns and villages, burn settlements, rape and loot, destroy schools, churches, hospitals, cultural monuments, holocaust memorials, when they participate in genocide – this is a strange kind of being, one reminiscent of the biblical Destroying Angel. If we follow the logic of this philosophically inclined Second Lieutenant, the final triumph of the Russian Being would be a nuclear war in which the whole of humanity perishes.

The weekly Pečat – owned by Milorad Vučelić, Slobodan Milošević´s former propaganda chief – has published hundreds of articles pushing a Putin fan’s version of events. For example, he reports the words of Colonel General Vladimir Shamanov, a member of the Russian Duma who sees the creation of a territorial defence in Ukraine as ‘a criminal, and truly inhuman decision’, one that confirms Putin’s statement that the Ukrainian government is ‘a gang of junkies and Nazis’. The Ukrainians have the cheek to defend themselves from a fraternal Russian army killing their civilian population, flattening their cities and pulverising their country? How dare they! The degree to which Russian propagandists feel at home in Serbia is sufficiently illustrated by the fact the RT Balkan has published an advertisement seeking volunteers for Yevgeny Prigozhin’s paramilitary Wagner Group.

But it is not only the media that is infected by the virus of Putinophilia; broad sections of Serbian society are in thrall to the Kremlin’s view of the world. Demonstrations in support of Russia have been held in Belgrade on several occasions, with demonstrators scrawling the letter ‘Z’ on the streets. Unlike Vučić, who claims to be neutral, the rightwing opposition does not attempt to hide its allegiance to Russia. A considerable number of Bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church have publicly expressed their adoration for Vladimir Putin, who they believe is the protector of Orthodox Christianity.

A group of public figures launched a petition against the introduction of sanctions against Russia, including Matija Bećković, Kosta Čavoški, Ljubodrag Dimić and Vasilije Krestić, all members of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Orthodox bishops Irinej Bulović and David Perović, the film director Emir Kusturica, Serbia’s former ambassador to Russia Slavenko Terzić, university professors Milo Lompar and Miloš Ković, and over 200 others. The petition contained no mention whatsoever of Ukrainian victims, but the signatories expressed ‘utter solidarity with the Russian people’ and offered them their ‘support in their decisive struggle for the right to life, freedom, political, economic and civilizational autonomy and national unity’.

This selfless propaganda activity by political, intellectual, religious and media figures has borne fruit, filling citizens’ heads with a parallel reality lacking much relation to the real world. According to a survey by the Bureau of Social Research from February 2023, 71.8 per cent of Serbs believe that the country ought not to introduce sanctions against Russia, the dominant opinion being that ‘anyone but Russia’ is to be blamed for the war in Ukraine.

The great protector

Serbia did not start clinging to Russia on 24 February 2022. This has been a far longer process. The spread of Russian influence began when the Democratic Party (DS) was in government (from 2008 to 2012) and reached its zenith when Aleksandar Vučić and the Serbian Progressive Party came to power in 2012. It was then that Manichaean narratives began to circulate on a grand scale among the Serbian media.  The source of all evil was now to be found in the West, human rights and liberalism, while Russia was the only barrier to globalisation and defender of Orthodox Christianity and traditional values.

The Kremlin played skilfully on Serbian frustration at its military defeat, and about the international response to the Srebrenica massacre in particular. Serbian officials have refused to recognise that what happened in July 1995 was genocide, at best admitting that Srebrenica was a ‘grave crime’, in the words of the current prime minister Ana Brnabić.

In 2015 Russia blocked a UN Security Council resolution on Srebrenica condemning the genocide, drafted by the United Kingdom and supported by the USA and the countries of the EU. In Serbia, the Russian veto was perceived as a major diplomatic victory and Russia was portrayed as the protector of Serbia’s interests in the international arena. This functioned as an additional argument for an antagonistic relationship with the West. In ‘Srebenica: Russia defends a historic right’ an interview with Nikita Bondarev published in Geopolitika in August 2015, we read that the West has a clear-cut objective – ‘to alter the path of development of Republika Srpska and its orientation towards Serbia and Russia, and impose its total subordination to the West’. The former province of Serbia is treated not as an actual existing state or a subject of pragmatic policy, but as a mythic territory, ‘holy Serbian land’ or ‘the dearest Serbian word’, as the nationalist poet Matika Bečković wrote at the end of the 1980s.

After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Russian influence on Serbia went into overdrive. Local admirers of the Putin regime began fostering hope of a final showdown between Russia and the West, a breakdown of the international order that would allow Serbia to relaunch armed conflict in the region. These Putin fans have written hundreds, maybe thousands of articles on how they are waiting for the Russian emperor to declare war on the West, so that we can finally finish what we began in 1991: liberate the Serbian lands, integrate Serbian territory, and rebuild Dušan’s mediaeval empire in the form of Greater Serbia.

That both Russia and NATO are nuclear powers, and that there is a chance that conflict between them might bring about the end of the world, is a minor detail. The important thing is that the hour of historic transformation is approaching. Vladimir Dimitrijević‚ an Orthodox Christian essayist and chair of the Policy Commission of the right-wing Dveri party, wrote in a survey of Orthodox prophecies about a Third World War that ‘the future of the entire Orthodox world, upon which they want to impose the rule of the Antichrist, depends on the war in Novorossiya and around Crimea.’ It’s not his own idea, but one adopted from the Kremlin ideologue Alexander Dugin, whose writings are regularly translated and published in the Serbian media outlets that see Moscow as the ‘Third Rome’.

Anti-liberal alliance

Russian propaganda in Serbia is no alien incursion; it has no need to radically change local outlooks, or to struggle against a predilection for European values in the main intellectual currents. The idea of Europe lives on the margins, in the occasional public thinker and the non-governmental sector, while the dominant line of thought is expressly anti-European and anti-liberal.

There is a clear line of continuity running through the resistance to European values seen over the last few decades. It was perhaps best expressed by the former president of the Democratic Party and president of Serbia Boris Tadić, who never tired of repeating that we would enter the European Union, but with our own identity. Translated into plain language, this meant that we want to become part of the European Union, but without making any adjustments to our way of life. We want to be part of Europe, but we do not want to follow rules alien to our being; we do not want the rule of law, a separation of powers, a media free of state influence, a free market; we do not want to abolish rule by party or our corrupt habits.

Of course, Tadić was not the sole begetter of this school of thought. Resistance to liberalism has been the keystone of most political manifestos in Serbia since the collapse of socialism. At the end of the eighties, when the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, Yugoslavia and Serbia along with it threatened to become part of the western world. A powerful alliance forged from apparently irreconcilable ideologies saw Slobodan Milošević as the only salvation. This process was superbly described by the essayist and translator Vuk Perišić in his portrait of Milošević ‘Demon Nacionalisma’, published in his collection Od Weimara do Vardara.

Although Milošević never recanted anti-fascism, he created a space for the rehabilitation of the fascists and Nazi collaborators Milan Nedić, Draža Mihailović and Dimitrije Ljotić, while his rallies, the collapse of political culture and nationalist emotion were textbook examples of the rise of fascism. His adherents included those who saw in him the man who would revive the spirit of Comintern, tack to the East and unify Russophilia, religious Orthodoxy, Stalinism and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This unruly household of apparently irreconcilable ideologies was united in hatred of human rights, the free market, civil liberalism, individualism and cosmopolitanism. It was this farrago that homogenised Serbia, as was said at the time, in the late 1980s.

The anti-liberal alliance was never disbanded, but simply went on the defensive. Zoran Đinđić offered an alternative to the dominant political programme based on the Greater Serbian idea of territorial expansion and resistance to European integration. His idea was to abandon imperial claims on neighbouring countries and organise the state on western democratic lines, under the banner of ‘Serbia in Europe’. This genuinely pro-European course was a brief one, severed on 12 March 2003 by Đinđić’s assassination. The deed was carried out by elements of Milošević’s un-disbanded regime, working alongside Mafia organisations and under the auspices of political forces that had no desire to cooperate with the Hague or have Serbia join the EU. After Đinđić’s murder, the European idea faded and conservative society sought a new leader to replace Milošević, finally landing on Aleksandar Vučić.

Autocratic turn

Vučić has played a double game since becoming president. In his contacts with the international community, he has dissimulated cooperation, swearing that his goal is Serbia’s membership of the European Union and promising to fulfil all requirements, from resolving relations with Kosovo to introducing the rule of law and achieving European standards on media freedom, free elections, democratic culture and minority rights. Domestically, however, he has done everything within his power to take the state captive, to destroy fragile institutions that anyway failed to mount much resistance, to turn the entire country into his party’s private fiefdom, and to introduce a one-man autocracy. Hence his reliance on the Kremlin. Vučić sees Putinism as his own ideal but is unable to fully establish it.

If he could, Vučić would abandon European integration tomorrow and move Serbia even closer to Russia, and even enter an alliance with Russia and Belarus, as Slobodan Milošević attempted to do during the 1999 war. Half the opposition would not oppose him in this, nor the larger part of society that does not regard Serbia as part of the European family. To his chagrin, this is impossible, largely for economic reasons. The bulk of foreign investment comes directly from the European Union, Serbia’s largest economic partner with over 60 per cent of trade. Serbia has received over 3.7 billion euros from the EU via the accession programmes in order to strengthen the rule of law, reform public administration, protect the environment, and so on.

The provision of non-returnable financial assistance will continue as long as Serbia officially remains on the path to Europe. The country could receive more than 200 million Euros a year from Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) funding. This money is meant to equip hospitals and construct roads and bridges, as well as fund the construction of new municipal rubbish dumps. A halt to European integration would send Serbia into economic free-fall, with unemployment, increased levels of poverty and social unrest, and could ultimately lead to large-scale popular discontent and the Serbian Progressive Party’s loss of power. This is the only reason that Vučić pretends to be on the road to Europe.

The ruling caste loathes European standards, the rule of law, the protection of individuals, personal freedoms and similar western pipedreams. What Vučić and his oligarchs really want is Milošević’s Serbia, but without the sanctions, international isolation, empty shelves, miserable wages and even more miserable pensions, black-market money changers, petrol sold in plastic bottles and the other inevitable results of an unhinged politics. The Progressive Party would like to build Greater Serbia with the help of European investment and funds. This version of the state unavoidably recalls Putin’s Russia, with a touch less repression and a touch more democracy. Most ludicrous of all is that the West has so far played along. The Serbian leadership even had the support of Angela Merkel for this paradoxical project.

In Serbia, ‘stabilitocracy’ has been transformed into autocracy. Vučić has assumed control over the most prominent and most widely read media. The ruling party does treat the opposition not as legitimate political adversaries, but as an anomaly that must be excised from the social tissue. Demonisation of the opposition and any critics of the regime is a daily occurrence in the state-controlled media. Any well-argued criticism of the government is presented as an attack on the president, further strengthening the cult of personality developed by media propaganda and party officials. The MP Draginja Vlk has even gone so far as to speak of awarding Vučić a presidential mandate for life.

Crisis of democratic culture

Essentially, there is no democratic dialogue whatsoever; political debate is a chimera. Representatives of the opposition and critical public intellectuals are denied access to the important media, where they only appear as objects of obloquy. Since coming to power eleven years ago, Vučić has not had a single political confrontation with his opponents, nor participated in any debates, although his media presence is inescapable. These are always solo appearances, endless monologues on all possible subjects, whose length even the loquacious Fidel Castro would have envied.

Incitement of chauvinism and open hatred of neighbouring countries and peoples is an essential component of the editorial policy of media linked to the regime, along with the rehearsal of narratives from the Milošević years. Instances of corruption uncovered by independent investigative media are never resolved in the courts, because the prosecution service is also in the pocket of the ruling party. Chief prosecutor Zagorka Dolovac makes no public announcements of her own, nor does she think it necessary to explain why there have been no cases brought against members of the ruling oligarchy suspected of corruption.

Minorities fight for their rights with difficulty, especially the LGBTQ+ community. A law on same-sex couples that would have legally established the rights of LGBTQ+ couples was blocked, with prime minister Ana Brnabić saying that with matters such as Kosovo on the agenda, LGBTQ+  rights could wait for a while. Brnabić is lesbian herself, but this is of no help to the LGBTQ+ community. Last year’s Pride parade was first prohibited, and then following powerful external pressure held in a smaller form, under heavy police protection. Following pressure from the Serbian Orthodox Church, lessons about trans people and gender transition were removed from biology textbooks for 13–14-year-old school pupils. The Church and rightwing groups use the vocabularies and arguments adopted from Russian propaganda in their campaign against LGBTQ+ rights.

Although religious communities are equal under the law, the Serbian Orthodox Church has a privileged status. Hundreds of millions of euros were paid out of the state budget for the construction of St Sava’s cathedral in Belgrade and other church expenses. In return for responding generously to any Serbian Orthodox Church request, Patriarch Porfirije regularly supports Vučić and his policies.

The Serbian president is the only man with any real power. He selects the cabinet, fixes the date of elections, chooses personnel for publicly-owned enterprises, puts himself forward as the only authority capable of solving the problems of each and every social group that lobbies the authorities. Formally there is no presidential system in Serbia: supreme power is vested in the government. But in practice the reverse is true.

Except for the preamble that enshrines the fantasy that Kosovo is an integral part of the territory of Serbia, the Serbian Constitution is effectively a dead letter. Whenever there is any public discussion of the violation of the constitution being violated, it is usually regarding Kosovo. The cohesion of society is attempted solely along national lines, whether through the idea that Kosovo must be part of Serbia, that Montenegro is a temporarily estranged state, or that Republika Srpska was the greatest victory in the wars of the 1990w, in the words of the nationalist author and ideologue Dobrica Ćosić.

Nobody pays any attention to the ideas inscribed in the Constitution – for instance that human life is inviolable, that everyone shall have the right to free development of their personality, to freedom of thought and expression, to information, to a fair trial, to a healthy environment, to freedom of political or any other form of association.

Article 19 of the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia states that: ‘Guarantees for inalienable human and minority rights in the Constitution have the purpose of preserving human dignity and exercising full freedom and equality of each individual in a just, open, and democratic society based on the principle of the rule of law.’ But for Serbia’s ruling oligarchy, for most of the opposition and the public at large, these are just empty platitudes, copy-and-pasted from western prototypes.

Historically, we have not had a great deal of experience with democratic practices. It’s not so surprising then, that we officially set sail for Brussels, but tied up in Moscow.

Published 21 April 2023
Original in Serbian
First published by Eurozine

© Tomislav Markovic / Eurozine



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