When the newly reelected Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic promised to form a new government by mid June, few surprises were expected. Speculation was muted as the usual suspects were widely expected to land the most important ministerial positions. That is until Vucic’s trip to Moscow on May 26, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. All of a sudden, the composition of the new cabinet emerged as the hot topic of conversation in Belgrade.
Vucic’s trip was initially described as being private in nature. The Belgrade-based daily Blic quoted official sources saying that the prime minister was in Moscow for some medical tests. Yet the word from Moscow suggested otherwise. On the Russian president’s official website, Putin congratulated Vucic on his party’s recent election victory, and made pointed comments about the makeup of Serbia’s next government. All of a sudden the risks inherent in Vucic’s “balanced” foreign policy were exposed.
Vucic continues to insist that there is no contradiction between his commitment to the European Union and friendly relations with Russia. But with the formation of the new government imminent, there are more questions than answers. Is Serbia obliged to follow the dictates of Moscow? What are Putin’s primary interests in Belgrade, and how will these be reflected in the new government? How long will Vucic be able to walk the tightrope between Moscow and Brussels?
It has not escaped anyone’s attention that in 2012, Vucic also followed up his election victory with an unannounced trip to Moscow. Just like this time, it was later explained that he was there for a medical checkup. That prompted the chief editor of the Belgrade political magazine Danas, Draza Petrovic, to wonder if perhaps the EU is raising Vucic’s blood pressure -- and he needs Putin to bring it down.
This year, speaking at the Kremlin after meeting with Vucic, the Russian president said he hoped that “whatever the makeup of the new government, there will be a prominent place in it for those committed to nurturing relations between the Russian Federation and Serbia.”
This statement may be read as a thinly veiled request to give pro-Russian politicians three key posts: the Foreign, Defense, and Energy ministries.
Dragan Petrovic, an expert on Russia, told RFE/RL in Belgrade that Moscow is doing its best to protect its interests in Serbia and in the region. “In my opinion, Russia would prefer to see some other parties in power in Serbia, like [the far-right] Dveri [party], but as this is currently not possible, they want to see [Ivica] Dacic’s Socialists and possibly the Serb Populist Party of Nenad Popovic included in the government as a minimum guarantee of Russian interests.”
Vladimir Gligorov, a Vienna-based economist, told RFE/RL that as a result of Vucic’s meeting with Putin, the Socialists may indeed be included in the new government.
Commenting on why Vucic would allow the Russians to have a major say in the final shape of the Serbian government, Gligorov said: “Russian influence is strong in Serbia and it is strong within Vucic’s own party as well. Vucic is aware that he needs the support of Russian officials -- and that support has a price.”
Jelica Minic, from the pro-EU European Movement In Serbia, was struck by Vucic’s habit of visiting Moscow in the wake of his electoral victories (in both 2012 and 2016):
“If an event repeats itself, then we have a pattern. This time, whatever is said about it, the message is clear: Russia has a role in the formation of the Serbian government,” Minic said.
Minic highlighted Russia’s economic interests in Serbia and linked these to its growing political interests. Meanwhile, the EU has promised to help Serbia in diversifying its energy sources -- and reducing its dependence on Russia -- but it has been very slow in putting this into practice, in Serbia or within the EU itself.
Vucic may thus feel that he has little choice but to follow the Russian prescriptions, but the cost of his “medical consultations” in Moscow is rising. If Putin’s sway extends to the makeup of the Serbian government, the country’s sovereignty is surely at stake -- and staying on track for EU membership may prove even harder.