Vučić could be running out of time

26 April 2019

The Serbian president has built up unrealistic domestic expectations about a deal with Kosovo. He may face a public backlash as a result.

By Vladimir Gligorov

  • A meeting of leaders from the Western Balkans, France and Germany in Berlin on April 29th is probably the last chance to achieve meaningful progress on Serbia-Kosovo relations this year.
  • “Normalisation” of relations, meaning in practice Serbian recognition of Kosovan independence, is crucial for Serbia’s EU accession.
  • Serbia’s government is in a difficult position, and is facing regular and fairly large-scale domestic demonstrations against it.
  • Ahead of the Berlin meeting, in an attempt to shore-up domestic support and make a point to foreign leaders, the administration organised a big pro-government demonstration in Belgrade. It has also met with key allies Russia and China.
  • However, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić is unlikely to be able to deliver something at the Berlin meeting that he can also sell domestically. He may as a result face a further public backlash.

A major meeting of Western Balkan leaders with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron will take place in Berlin on April 29th. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, as well as Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaci and Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, will all be in attendance.

Although other Western Balkan leaders will also be present, the meeting has been billed by leaders and the press in Belgrade as an attempt to pressure Serbia to recognise Kosovo, and even to present it with an ultimatum. This alleged ultimatum would mean accepting Kosovo’s independence, and the signing of a legally binding agreement of mutual recognition. In addition, the meeting is supposedly being convened to put to rest the idea of territorial swap (which has at least not been ruled out by High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, and European Commissioner for European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, Johannes Hahn). This was also reported to be an option acceptable to the US at one point, although seemingly not any more.

Ahead of the meeting, the Serbian government has taken two steps in an attempt to strengthen its position. First, Mr Vučić’s administration organised a huge demonstration in Belgrade. Second, the Serbian president is meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, both allies of Serbia and sympathetic to its position on Kosovo. Meanwhile Ivica Dačić, the Serbian Foreign Minister, has already met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov.

Demonstration for both domestic and foreign audience

Mr Vučić is under big domestic pressure. The opposition has been organising regular demonstrations throughout the country, at least every Saturday, for over five months. To counter this, and to make a point to foreign leaders ahead of the Berlin meeting, Mr Vučić demonstrated his ability to mobilise a large number of counter-protestors. Officially 140,000 (unofficially 35,000) people turned up.

However, despite Mr Vučić’s ability to get a lot of people onto the streets, not only did it not increase his popularity, it may even have reduced it. Mobilising support to counter opposition protests raises the question of why such a thing is needed, in addition to all the power that controlling the government provides? The leader organising the counterdemonstration runs the risk of acknowledging that there is indeed a legitimacy crisis. Therefore, massive pro-government demonstrations can confirm that the government is indeed losing popular support, which appears to be the case now in Serbia.

In order to avoid this impression, the Serbian government made the demonstrations not about countering the opposition, but rather alleged about foreign ill will towards the country (in short, a patriotic and nationalistic demonstration). One of the inevitable speakers was Milorad Dodik, who runs Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Participants from all neighbouring countries in which there is Serbian minority, including Kosovo, were bussed in. The hope was to demonstrate to both the domestic and international audiences that Serbs all over the world support Mr. Vučić. Indeed, the whole affair was about Mr. Vučić and his leadership. And of course, about his patriotism and tireless work for the Serbian nation.

Why the demonstrations didn’t work

Unfortunately for Mr Vučić, it appears that the demonstration did not have the desired effect. There are effectively three reasons for this.

First, participants in a government-sponsored demonstration feel at least in part that they are being manipulated. This may well be the case in Serbia, where increasing evidence of authoritarianism and state capture can be observed, and where consequently the government is facing a growing legitimacy crisis. Bussing people in to protest in this context is likely to exacerbate rather than help to solve the legitimacy issue. It is true that the government wins elections: since 2012, when the current coalition took over, there have been two early parliamentary elections and one presidential election. Mr Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party won each of them handily. However, the government is not popular, and over the years issues of legitimacy emerged. This was both because Mr Vučić has concentrated power in his hands, and also because he uses the state’s and the media resources relentlessly to impose himself on practically everything. He has concentrated in his office, in violation of the constitution, not only executive, but also legislative and judicial powers.

Second, Mr Vučić had nothing new to say in the demonstration. Except for Péter Szijjártó, the Foreign Minister of Hungary, there were no new entertainers or speakers on the programme. And none of the speakers had anything new to say, given that they are in the news all day long, and none of them are good speakers. They all kept repeating familiar messages about Serbia, Kosovo, Western enemies and Eastern friends (Russia and China). However, their words sounded hollow given the political and economic realities. The country has been in (relative) economic decline and losing political influence for more than three decades now, and all the main speakers and some of the entertainers at the demonstration contributed quite a lot to this downfall.

The third reason for the failure of the pro-government demonstrations is that time is running out for them. Over the long term, periods of democracy are short and autocracy is unstable in Serbia. Typically, there will be a stabilisation period at the beginning, then centralisation of power in the hands of an autocrat, and finally a legitimacy crisis with a change in government, sometimes after elections, but more often in the streets. The average full cycle lasts about eight years, give or take a year or two depending on the length of the initial stabilisation period and on the circumstances, domestic and foreign, during the legitimacy crisis at the end. In any case, with current government and the current leader being in power since 2012, the expected remaining time in office is not much more than two years.

Mr Vučić hopes to extend his tenure in power by winning elections, increasingly turning to populism, and organising demonstrations all over the country to mobilise his base. However, the opposition is not going to participate in any new elections that are not free and fair, and Mr Vučić’s populism is not perceived as genuine. The latter was clearly on display in the Belgrade demonstration on April 19th.

Vučić in a bind over Kosovo

The meeting in Berlin is probably the last chance to move the negotiations between Serbia and Kosovo forward this year. Without de facto recognition of Kosovo by Serbia, no matter how many chapters of the acquis the latter opens, EU accession will remain off the table. The real question from the Serbian perspective is what the country can get in return for some kind of recognition of Kosovo. The EU, represented by the leaders of France and Germany, can offer protection for Serbia’s interests and for the rights of Serbs living in Kosovo, but no territories.

Mr Vučić will then face the problem that previous Serbian leaders faced in similar situations: how to get the domestic audience to accept a de facto recognition of Kosovo’s independence. However, he will be facing it with an added disadvantage. Previous Serbian leaders such as Slobodan Milošević or Vojislav Koštunica also achieved nothing in international negotiations over Kosovo. However, they were not expected to. Mr Vučić, by contrast, has raised expectations at home and abroad, both about what can be achieved, and also about what Serbia will get in return. This has been particularly the case since at least 2013 when the so-called Brussels Agreement was signed by Serbian and Kosovo leaders. Therefore, if Mr Vučić rejects whatever is going to be proposed at the upcoming meeting in Berlin, he will be going against expectations. He has found himself in that predicament because he has failed to come up with any plan for the solution to the Kosovo problem that he can present to anybody, including the Serbian public.

Nobody else to blame

The meeting with Ms Merkel and Mr Macron on April 29th is therefore quite risky for Mr Vučić, especially if he comes away empty handed (which looks reasonably likely). The Serbian president has invested a lot of political capital in taking Serbia towards the EU.

If nothing is agreed, Mr Vučić can always fall back on his usual tactic, which is to blame the leaders of Kosovo. However, that will not get him a lot of sympathy or support among the Serbian public or anywhere else, because nobody expects much from the Kosovan political class, which of course wants full recognition. The option used by previous Serbian leaders who failed to reach a deal over Kosovo—to blame the US or the EU—is not open to Mr Vučić. This worked for others, because as it fits with the predominant view among the Serbian public that the West is not on Serbia’s side (though even that did not save the previous Serbian leaders from losing power). However, Mr Vučić is not in a position to blame the West, because he has been cooperating with them on the normalisation plan and has been promising the Serbian public that the Kosovo issue will be solved.

A further option for Mr Vučić is to try to gain leverage in the talks with the help of powerful allies. He wants to go into the Berlin meeting with the backing of Mr Putin and Mr Xi, but aside from supportive words, it is not clear in concrete terms how Russia and China can help Serbia in this case. Moreover, in the recent weeks it has become clear that the US administration is not keen on taking any major role in the ongoing Serbia-Kosovo conflict, and certainly not on the Serbian side.

Mr Vučić, then, seems unable to deliver at home or abroad. As a result, after the Berlin meeting, as well as after the Belgrade demonstrations, he will be worse off whatever the outcome. More broadly, if history is anything to go by, his time is running out. Thus, the massive demonstration in support of Mr Vučić could be an ominous sign of his impending failure.