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Serbia And Self-Fulfilling Russian Prophecies

Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj in particular enjoys the support of some Moscow officials, and has received a disproportionate amount of attention among Russian media.

The dust has not yet settled on Serbia's April 24 elections. In most European capitals, the clear win by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and his Progressive Party is regarded as a sign that the pro-Western mood is dominant in Serbia.

This is partly true, but the reality is more complicated. Vucic's Progressives have seen their ranks in parliament reduced (by 27 seats at the time of writing) even though the prime minister called the snap election in an effort to strengthen his mandate. Moreover, for many in Vucic's party, the European Union is not a priority.

Russian media also see Serbia's elections as a referendum on that country joining the EU. They have noted the seemingly pro-European attitude of the majority, but Russian outlets prefer to focus on the success of two right-wing parties: the Radicals and Dveri. Both oppose Serbian integration into the EU and support closer ties to Russia. They are vehemently opposed to any dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. At the time of writing, Dveri is involved in a dispute with the Central Election Commission over the final vote count and may not win any seats in the new parliament, despite securing around 5 percent of the vote. Nationalist Vojislav Seselj's Radicals will control 22 seats, however, having had none the last time around.

Seselj in particular enjoys the support of some Moscow officials, and has received a disproportionate amount of attention among Russian media. When Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin visited Serbia in January, he caused a stir by holding a private meeting with Seselj. The resurgence of right-wing parties in Serbia, and Seselj's Radicals in particular, has been interpreted in some Russian media as a reaction to "Vucic's pro-European policy." On April 29 Russia's ambassador in Belgrade, Aleksandr Chepurin, came to the Radicals' party headquarters to congratulate Seselj on his election results.

As far as these Russian observers are concerned, the rise of the right -- and not Vucic's victory -- is the real upshot of these elections. They are still predicting a bumpy road to the EU for Serbia. Moscow certainly does not anticipate any "anti-Russian" turn in Serbian foreign policy because, according to their narrative, the parties "opposed to NATO and supportive of closer ties with Moscow" have gained ground.

The Moscow-based Kommersant newspaper writes that Serbia appears to be in a rush to secure EU membership but that it will never turn its back on Russia. The paper is already looking ahead to Serbia's 2017 presidential election, predicting that it will serve as a true test for Belgrade and its relations with the EU and Russia.

Kommersant suggests that Vucic's goal was to gain an absolute majority in parliament so that he could continue with EU-mandated reforms. But Serbia's new parliament may not be so amenable to the prime minister's plans, with the pro-Russian Radicals on course to win 22 seats, even if Dveri misses the cut by a whisker.

"Vucic's pro-European agenda will face serious obstacles," Kommersant warns. It sounds like a prediction, but it is actually a promise: Russian soft power will make your road to the EU as difficult as possible. According to research carried out by the Center for a Civil Society, an NGO, there are currently 40 Internet portals and organizations promoting Russia and its interests in Serbia, in addition to Radio Sputnik.

The Russian propaganda machine certainly can't be faulted for lack of effort, and Seselj is riding an unexpected wave of popularity following his acquittal by The Hague war crimes tribunal. However, if Seselj is seen as Russia's best bet to block Serbia's path to democratic reform and EU membership, Moscow is backing the wrong horse -- or rather, a lame one. He may ruffle a few feathers or scare the equine guardians in front of the Serbian parliament building, as a Serbian cartoonist has suggested. But he has neither the power nor the stamina to shape Serbia's foreign policy in the long run.

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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