The bar for political success in the Balkans has been set very low indeed. It seems that all you need to do is to refrain from threatening to start a war and you are fit to govern. This thought was foremost in my mind as I sat up this weekend watching the returns from the Serbian parliamentary elections.
I don't think Serbian voters looked too carefully at incumbent Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic's track record. No one seemed to remember his promises on fighting corruption or how little he has delivered on them. No one was fact-checking his statements on media freedom or contrasting them with the ever-shrinking space for free expression in Serbia over the last two years.
Since Vucic became prime minister two years ago, there has been some progress in the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. But Vucic has continued to block Kosovo's efforts to integrate into international organizations. This is an old trick taken from the handbook of Slobodan Milosevic. The former Yugoslav president was a master at conducting war with one hand while negotiating peace with the other.
With almost 98.5 percent of the votes counted and official results due at the end of the week, Vucic's center-right Progressive Party has declared itself the winner. In his television appearance on election night, Vucic repeated his familiar mantra of remaining on the path toward European Union membership while simultaneously affirming Serbia's historical friendship with Russia. This time, he threw in China and the United States for good measure, apparently just so that no one would feel left out.
Vucic's greatest achievement so far is his ability to say the right thing at the right time, whether it is to convince foreign leaders that he is the embodiment of stability in the Balkans or to persuade domestic audiences to direct their grievances elsewhere. In a nutshell, it seems the Serbian elections were held merely to confirm that Vucic has a free hand in running the country.
"Put simply, I can imagine Serbia making progress on EU membership [over the next four years], but at the same time taking steps backward on democratic reforms and diverging from EU norms," Serbian journalist Teofil Pancic told RFE/RL after the vote.
"I would never have said something like that five years ago," Pancic added, explaining the paradox. "It would not have been possible then. But today, we have [Prime Minister Viktor] Orban's Hungary or Poland, both of which are seen as respectable EU partners. In other words, it seems possible to have people in power who are undermining basic democratic principles, and yet this has no consequences for their standing in the EU. So we can no longer think of Europe as a beacon of freedom and democracy. Today, it is a bit more complicated."
By swinging right and choosing a populist leader, Serbia is very much following a European trend. Even if Vucic can be trusted on his declared policy of EU integration, many in his party do not share this opinion. Moreover, extreme right-wing parties may have as many as 34 deputies in the new Serbian parliament. From now on, Vucic will not be stretching the truth when he claims he faces a strong opposition that opposes reforms and European integration.
Former Hague tribunal inmate Vojislav Seselj -- fresh from his triumphant return to Serbian politics after being acquitted of all war-crimes charges earlier this month -- is an open advocate of an alliance with Russia. Seselj's party won 8 percent of the popular vote. Seselj duly presented himself as the man who "conquered The Hague," which immediately boosted his popularity.
Some analysts believe that Vucic may well use Seselj as a bogeyman -- that he may say to Brussels: If you don't support me, look who could take my place.
For too many in present-day Serbia, Seselj represents a convenient interpretation of the past. Many Serbs continue to see their country as the victim of an international conspiracy, and they blame the West for everything from the wars fought and lost 20 years ago to The Hague tribunal today. The fact that Serbia never had a figure like West Germany's Willy Brandt and thus never faced up to its own actions in the early 1990s is what made this election result possible.
This climate will likely continue to shape Serbian politics for the foreseeable future. Since much of the truth about the Balkan wars has been swept under the carpet, that past continues to haunt the Serbian present. It is no accident that three politicians from the Milosevic era were the victors, in their own way, in this election: Vucic, the reformed radical (nationalist); Seselj, the real radical; and then there is Ivica Dacic.
Dacic's Socialist Party of Serbia will be the second-largest in the new parliament, with more than 30 seats in the 250-seat parliament. In his campaign, Dacic exploited the grandchildren of both Milosevic and Tito. Like Vucic, he knows the game. The trick is to be all things to all people: a Titoist, a socialist, a Yugoslav, and a nationalist.
And always, always promise to redeem Serbia's past. Denial is the key -- for both the past and the present.