Jelena Milić, Balkan Insight, 14.5.2014.
EU officials may be too preoccupied to criticize what is happening in Serbia right now but they can’t ignore its ‘Putinization’ forever.
Leaving aside the events surrounding October 5, 2000, from the very beginning the process of democratization in Serbia suffered some aggravating circumstances.
The Serbian and international public had forgotten that the beginning of the process of dismantling Slobodan Milošević’s murderous regime had only just begun - and had been carried out by consciously nonviolent methods of struggle.
This strategy also implied challenging compromises with representatives of the former regime, not only with those who had violated people’s human rights while working in the system but also with the creators and implementers of war crimes in the region and of political murders in Serbia.
We also shouldn’t forget that the October 5 changes were mainly carried out because people were discontented with the negative economic effects of Milošević’s politics, not because of any deeper awareness and acceptance of the reasons why the UN introduced economic sanctions in the first place.
This is why internal political support for seriously confronting the non-democratic methods of former regime’s representatives wasn’t that strong, while pressure from the international community focused primarily on cooperation with The Hague war crimes tribunal.
The process of Serbia’s true democratization was from the start also hindered by the fact that the new regime of Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić only held power only at national level.
Owing to a combination of circumstances surrounding Montenegro’s participation in the federal elections and the nature of Vojislav Koštunica’s politics, a core formed at federal level that cannot be described as ever having been devoted to Serbia’s true democratization. Such a constellation of factors required years of focus on the further dismantling of the Milošević regime, which Serbia did not have.
Along with pressure exerted from the outside for Serbia to meet its obligations to The Hague court, which internal factors often abused, Serbia faced yet more challenges than other countries in transition and in the process of consolidating democracy.
These included an insurgency in southern Serbia, the process of privatization and financial consolidation, Đinđić’s assassination, Montenegro’s independence and the new status of Kosovo.
Having all this in mind, it proved a good thing that - when the Bosnian Serb leader Ratko Mladić still hadn’t been arrested - the international community switched from the politics of conditionality to the politics of encouraging formal steps in the European integration process, expecting Serbia to meet its remaining obligations as it made progress.
If this hadn’t happened, under the weight of expectations on the one side and amid strong resistance to democratization on the other, Serbia would have probably given up on the European integration process altogether.
Following the 2012 elections, when supposedly reformed representatives of the Milošević regime took power, guided by its interests and priorities - one of which was the formal normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo - the international community further lowered the criteria that a candidate country had to meet to obtain EU candidate status.
The idea that Kosovo’s new status was more than Serbia could digest wasn’t unfounded, but the methodology behind the implementation of this decision was wrong. The new government, led by the Vučić – Nikolić – Dačić threesome, was proclaimed reformist and pro-European even before it did anything.
This demoralized the previous factors behind some kind of democratization in Serbia. At the same time it gave the new authorities a green light to overplay the process of normalizing relations with Kosovo both internally and in Serbia’s foreign policy, all the time showing their true authoritarian face.
In mid-2014, as a candidate country awaiting the start of accession negotiations with the EU, Aleksandar Vučić’s Serbia is manifesting all the classic characteristics of Putinization.
There is oppression and control of the media, partisan rather than democratic control of the security system, a dependent judiciary, abuse of intelligence and other information that is supposed to be confidential, an unpredictable foreign policy, centralization of power in the hands of one man parallel with the decomposition of institutions, criminalization of free thinking and a strengthening of the cult of personality.
The Putinization process would have probably taken a similar course in Serbia even without any direct Russian influence. However, in the past year, even before conflict erupted in Ukraine, it became so noticeable in Serbia, and in almost all spheres of social life, that it is fascinating the West did not notice it and take it into account.
It would be dangerous to think that this Putinization process does not enjoy the support of at least the Vučić-Dačić twosome. As for President Tomislav Nikolić, having in mind the frequent antidemocratic character of his statements that are becoming a trend, it is clear that he wants Serbia to end up on the side of Russia.
Dačić and Vučić have done nothing to prevent or condemn these or other phenomena, or send messages from the top about what is socially acceptable and what isn’t, which is almost always the case in Croatia, for example.
What is heard at most are empty phrases, such as, “We condemn every kind of violence”.
However, the rhetoric in the media, starting with the attitude towards political rivals, the glorification of Putin, the presence of non-democratic factors in the media, the criminalization of civil society and everything else could not be possible without the influence of Vučić’s and Dačić’s invisible hand.
To make things more absurd, the implementation of the agreement on normalizing relations with Kosovo is slowing down, although the Serbian side is not only to blame for this.
EU representatives recently visited Serbia to congratulate the new-old team in power and offer support in a tone of voice and a fashion that surprised many, expressing somewhat clearer expectations only as regards economic reform.
The understanding shown by the EU during Ashton’s and Fule’s visit for Serbia’s zigzags and for its refusal to condemn Putin’s aggression against Ukraine - or even impose symbolic sanctions against Russia because of the fear of reprisals over energy - was repaid by Serbia as follows: with the highest honours it welcomed the speaker of the Russian parliament, one of the people under the aforementioned sanctions.
Still, we should not fool ourselves thinking that the EU doesn’t see what the situation in Serbia is really like, even if nothing is shown.
Meanwhile, Serbia under Vučić- Dačić will probably continue to strike a balance between the EU and Russia and between superficial democratization and deeper retrograde processes.
In the coming period, the EU will probably focus more on the European Parliament elections, on the make-up of the new European Commission and even on Kosovo elections, while dealing with the crisis in Ukraine and relations with Russia. It has already made significant political and economic commitment to Serbia and, in return has gotten some kind of a trend towards normalized relations with Kosovo.
However, a more realistic picture of Serbia will reach voters in member countries at some stage, and without their support it won’t be easy for anyone to promote further EU enlargement.
If Serbia does not truly want to move toward the EU, that is its problem, and the EU will not and cannot conduct Serbia’s battles for it. Nor will it repeat its experience with Bulgaria and Romania. This is the real message of the EU’s silence which, I fear, very few in power in Serbia understand.
This is why the ball is in Serbia’s court. Either the true pro-democracy options will wake up and do something, if there are any left, or the Vučić –Dačić twosome will continue their policy of building a more pro-Russian than pro-EU Serbia, and put a full stop to the process of the country’s democratization.