Aleksandar Vučić Aleksandar Vučić. Photo: Bundesministerium für Europa / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0, license linked below article

There should be a lesson here for the radical left in the region, argues Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

On Sunday 3 April, Serbia held presidential, parliamentary and local elections. The ruling right-wing coalition held its grip on power, but the election saw the rise of more openly pro-Russian parties.

The timing of the election meant that the Ukraine war was a major topic of debate. This proved tricky for President Aleskandar Vučić and his ruling Progressive Party of Serbia.

The party has been in power for a decade, during which time it has consolidated a major grip on all levers of power.

But a key element of Vučić’s reign has been his success in balancing between West and East. Serbia is a candidate to join the EU, but it also has close ties with Russia.

The Ukraine war has brought that balancing act under the spotlight. Many Serbs see entry in the EU as a road to a better life. Serbia is a poor country, with the highest rate of inequality in Europe.

Serbia between East and West

But many ordinary Serbs resent the West on account of its role in the region in the 1990s and 2000s. The West took the sides against Serbs in the wars of Yugoslav dissolution in the 1990s.

This meant imposing crippling sanctions on Serbia during the 1990s, and then the Kosovo War in 1999. The latter was an aerial bombing campaign of the rump Yugoslavia, comprising Serbia and Montenegro, conducted by Nato without a UN mandate for 78 days.

Following the fall of Slobodan Milošević, Serbia’s nationalist authoritarian leader, after a popular uprising in October 2000, pro-Western parties pushed through shock therapy and privatisation, which continue to be reviled by ordinary people.

For many, the West’s role in the collapse of Yugoslavia and after is symbolic of their loss of control. The failure of the pro-Western liberal parties in the period 2000-2012 to rebuild the country, amid the 2008 global capitalist crisis, rubbed salt into the wounds.

Since no opposition came from any force on the left, it was a populist right that came to power following the 2012 elections. It articulated many popular grievances through a national lens, as has happened across much of Europe since 1989.

Scepticism of the West

Vučić’s time in power has been characterised by slow progress towards the EU, as Serbia has refused to recognise the independence of Kosovo, declared in 2008.

He has also resisted joining Nato, even though Serbia has developed closer links with the alliance, participating in multiple joint military exercises.

Nevertheless, to maintain its claim to Kosovo, Serbia relies on Russia’s veto power in the UN Security Council to block Kosovo’s membership of international organisations.

Moreover, Serbia has cultivated closer links with China, becoming the principal site of Chinese investment in the Western Balkans.

Over the last two years, polling has revealed that most Serbs now see Russia and China as Serbia’s closest allies, even though a waning majority still supports joining the EU.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine tested Serbia’s ability to balance between East and West. Vučić ensured that Serbia remained the only European country that refused to impose sanctions on Russia.

But Serbia also voted to condemn the Russian invasion in the UN General Assembly vote in March, symbolising just how Janus-faced the country’s foreign policy has been.

Elections in the shadow of Ukraine

Vučić’s stances in international affairs made him appear like he was equivocating during the election campaign.

But he appears to have done just enough to maintain high levels of public support, which are also based on years of incoming FDI, a strong grip on the media, and major clientelist networks – as well as voter intimidation.

He increased his presidential vote, which stood at just over 2 million in 2017, to over 2,14 million in 2022, after more than 96% of votes were counted. He won in the first round.

Nonetheless, his strong personal rating did not translate into support for his party. It garnered 1,566 million votes, down from almost 2 million in 2020 and just over 1,8 million in 2016.

Yet this vote did not go to the pro-Western liberal opposition. Its candidate for president garnered just 670,000 votes, while it won just short of 500,000 votes in the parliamentary elections.

Greens disappoint

Many had pinned their hopes on the self-described ’green-left’ alliance called ’Moramo’, which was spearheaded by the municipalist Ne davimo Beograd (Let’s not drown Belgrade), and which included a small left group called Solidarnost.

Elements of ’Moramo’ had taken part in many street battles of the last few years, including the massive movement against Rio Tinto’s plans to build a lithium mine in Serbia.

But Ne davimo Beograd’s candidate for mayor, Dobrica Veselinović, not only condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but supported EU sanctions against Russia.

Although this might have been calculated at increasing the coalition’s vote in the capital Belgrade, by appealing to disenchanted liberal voters, it would not have gone down well with many more citizens who might have been tempted to vote for a new, vaguely left-sounding formation.

Indeed, the Greens, who had been widely expected to take up to 7 percent, ended with a disappointing 4.6 percent, though they did cross the 3 percent threshold for the first time.

The rise of the pro-Russian parties

By contrast, those more vocally sceptical of the West or more pro-Russian did well.

Vučić’s principal governmental ally, the Socialist Party of Serbia, formerly led by Slobodan Milošević, and now led by Ivica Dačić, took a strongly pro-Russian stance and improved its vote from just over 413,000 votes in 2016 and 334,000 in 2020 to almost 420,000 in 2022.

Three other conservative or right-wing coalitions and parties entered parliament, garnering between them almost 13 percent of the vote. Several others stood but failed to get over the 3 percent threshold.

While none of these groups is a strong challenger to Vučić’s Progressives, the situation now is such that no party holds a majority in the new parliament.

Local election results are still to come through, but indications are that the ruling party has performed badly in Belgrade, so these elections are not a resounding triumph for Vučić.

They underline that there are limits to Serbia’s international balancing act, and show Vučić will have to rely on pro-Russian parties to hold on to power.

And above all they show a deep scepticism for the West in Serbia. Sadly, that sentiment has almost entirely been channelled by right-wing, reactionary forces.

Lessons for the radical left in Serbia

There was in fact no radical left or anticapitalist pole in Serbia’s election. Had ’Moramo’ as a whole not taken a pro-Western line, and had it attempted to articulate scepticism towards the West’s role in Ukraine in a progressive direction, it could have improved its standing.

However, the decision of Ne davimo Beograd to take a leaf out of the politics of the European Greens, and almost entirely ignore the existence of Western imperialism in the Ukraine crisis, reflects a major weakness which is characteristic of much of Europe’s establishment ’left’.

Such slavish loyalty to the EU drowned the more balanced approach to the war quietly taken by Solidarnost, which condemned both Russia and the West.

Should Solidarnost be more vocal and more openly break its subordination to its green and liberal allies in ’Moramo’ in public, it may help re-fashion an internationalist left in Serbia.

For a radical break to the left to happen, however, the forces of the extra-parliamentary radical and anti-capitalist left will have to forge wider unity with more popular layers in Serbian society in real struggles.

The radical right has so far failed to make major headway in recent social, environmental or workers’ movements, suggesting that this terrain could be more amenable to leftist forces than elections have been.

With the cost of living rising likely to continue to rise, and the ruling regime looking weaker after these elections, there will be opportunities for advances. But these will need to involve a break with establishment ideas at all levels.

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Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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