Serbian political conundrum in 2022 – no Brussels Dialogue on site

Dušan Milenković

28 April 2022

Is commonplace to say that the internal political dynamics are influencing the Serbia-Kosovo dialogue and the prospects of it yielding results. This was amplified after the forming of second the Kurti government, whose “dialogue is not on my priority list” policy strongly induced the stagnation of this
process in the previous period. In parallel, his effort to win (or maintain) public support through actions that borderline oppression of Serbian population and turning a blind eye to the ethnic-based crimes against Serbians, further contributed to the impotence of the Brussels dialogue.
Nevertheless, let’s focus on the Serbian political environment and how it can affect the dialogue, regardless of the actions of Pristina. If we isolate the politics in Belgrade, for the purpose of this discussion, we can see trends that are highly unfavourable for the dialogue process.

Vucic’s diminishing potency

Up until recently, Vucic was powerful enough to sign and implement a deal with Kosovo. The situation changed in the second half of 2021 when his ability to influence the Serbian public dramatically declined after he failed to influence three major issues in Serbia: first, despite his campaign, only half of the
Serbian population got vaccinated against Covid; second, his support to lithium extraction in Serbia (and Rio Tinto project) ended in his spectacular defeat to angry citizens blocking the whole country for weeks; and last, the turnout for the constitutional referendum (he and his Government proposed the changes) was around 30%, which was a huge blow for someone who famously stated the Macedonian referendum on the name change “Imagine me inviting the people to get out on referendum and we end up with the turnout of 25% or 35%…that’s impossible…”.

Ukraine War

Thanks to the almost unlimited resources they have for the election campaign, Vucic and his team did manage to mitigate the sudden change of political discourse in Serbia when Russia invaded Ukraine. This allowed him to dodge the political consequences on Election Day, but his ship is still far from the safe harbour. He is under large pressure to align Serbia against Russia by introducing the sanctions, and it looks like he would have to do that very soon, even though he was given a “grace period” until the elections were over. The Ukrainian crisis overshadowed many global issues, and the same happened to
the Serbia-Kosovo issue on the regional level. The question of Russian influence in the region is, again, the highest priority of the Western powers, and as such we are likely to see this issue dominate the regional discourses in the following period, especially concerning Serbia’s foreign policy relations. I
would say we could even expect more concessions to Vucic when (not if) he introduces the sanctions to Russia, giving him fresh space not to engage with resolving the Kosovo issue and concluding the dialogue process.

Elections 2022

The April 3d elections in Serbia brought a new political environment, and further decreased Vucic’s power, even though it could look like a clean victory for someone who is not following the Serbian politics closely. Vucic won presidential elections with dominance, and his party won 120 MP seats (126 is
a majority). This is a major setback for his ability to implement political decisions, because for the first time since 2014. He doesn’t control the majority, and he is dependent on the coalition partners (and the current pool of potential partners are, mostly, pro-Russian and strongly against introducing sanctions on Russia). There is a chance we see political deadlock in Serbia and even new snap elections in the 12 months period. Many more pages of text are needed to explain this position in detail, but to put it shortly Vucic’s current position is very weak for any difficult political decision, either regarding Russia or Kosovo. This is why I think it is basically impossible to have both issues being addressed in the same year in parallel, especially because both are carrying risks which could significantly damage his power to the point he could no longer have it.
These three trends and events are intertwined, and together they are powerful enough to completely remove the Kosovo issue from the horizon of the decision-maker(s) in Serbia. Even if it is not removed from the site in the following year or two, it will become (again) an issue which is too difficult to be
addressed by any political actor in Serbia, with no clear prospect of when are we going to have a strong political mandate in anyone’s hands to deal with it efficiently.

This op-ed is originally written in English.

The op-ed is supported by the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Pristina. The opinions are of the authors and do not reflect the views of Balkans Policy Research Group and the donor.