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Some 'Pro-Russian' Voices Tamed In Serbia, But Vucic Keeping His Options Open

The new Serbian government is notable for its exclusion of two powerful former ministers with extensive dealings with Russia. Does that suggest that President Aleksandar Vucic has turned a corner?
The new Serbian government is notable for its exclusion of two powerful former ministers with extensive dealings with Russia. Does that suggest that President Aleksandar Vucic has turned a corner?

When a new government finally got near-unanimous support from lawmakers in Serbia's overwhelmingly one-party parliament late last month, there were a lot of familiar faces.

President Aleksandar Vucic had once again designated fellow Progressive Party member Ana Brnabic as prime minister after being noncommittal toward her ahead of a much-maligned election.

And despite taking four months to put together after a heavily boycotted landslide vote, the 23-member cabinet was mainly shuffled ministers and deputy ministers, a smattering of newcomers from the populist presidential party, two ministers from a chastened junior party, and Serbia's richest outlier politician.

Apart from the widely discussed inclusion of more women, there was a buzz around at least two notable exclusions.

Aleksandar Antic
Aleksandar Antic

"It is certainly striking that some key pro-Russian voices are out, in particular [Aleksandar] Antic for energy [minister] and [Foreign Minister Ivica] Dacic," said Florian Bieber, director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at Austria's University of Graz.

Dacic, 54, is a former prime minister and foreign minister who was awarded the Pushkin Medal two years ago by Russian President Vladimir Putin for his contributions to Serbian-Russian friendship.

Ivica Dacic
Ivica Dacic

Antic, 51, was thrust into national prominence from the city government in Belgrade in 2013 to lead the Transport and then Energy ministries.

Both are veterans of the Socialist Party, which has been in government since 2012 and is widely regarded as the most influential pro-Russian party in Serbia.

"The new government without Ivica Dacic cannot be considered a government in which there is a strong Russian player," Belgrade-based political commentator Cvijetin Milivojevic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "Certainly Moscow is not pleased by that."

A genuine move away from Moscow could have significant ramifications for Serbia, which relies on crucial Kremlin support to oppose statehood for its former province, Kosovo, and for much of its natural gas supplies.

But it could also undercut Moscow's political and economic clout.

Serbia is Russia's most consistent political and economic partner in the Balkans, where pan-Slavism is still a thing in some corners. It is also an ally in Russian efforts to build alternative pipelines to ship energy to Western Europe. And it has been a notable holdout in the postcommunist embrace of NATO, whose 1999 bombing campaign in Serbia is still reviled by many.

If anyone can change things for Serbia today, it's Vucic."
-- Margarita Assenova, Jamestown Foundation

But some analysts say that while the absence of a few Moscow-friendly voices is notable, they are wary of describing it as a realignment or assigning any long-term significance to it.

Instead, they mostly attribute it to Vucic's domestic political battles as he angles for a second five-year term or a doubling down on efforts to sway Western perceptions of Belgrade as being an aspiring EU member state amid creeping doubt about its commitments to democracy.

'Limiting Influence' At Home

Socialist leader Dacic and Antic are the highest-profile casualties of their junior coalition party's diminished status within the new cabinet.

Dacic, who was nicknamed "Little Sloba" as an acolyte of authoritarian leader Slobodan Milosevic in the '90s, hasn't been sidelined completely. But observers say his new role as parliament speaker is a clear demotion.

Antic, who as head of the energy portfolio dealt extensively with Russia and gas giant Gazprom to keep natural gas flowing to Serbia, was passed over completely.

A direct inheritor of the communist mantle after 1990, their Socialist Party (SPS) now controls just two seats in the cabinet instead of the previous five.

Dejan Bursac, a research associate at Belgrade's Institute for Political Studies, called it a "significant demotion" of a party that is "considered a main pro-Russian party in Serbia."

"But this could also be viewed as Vucic's move to limit the [Socialist Party's] influence, having in mind that [Vucic's Progressive Party] alone won 75 percent of seats in the parliament," Bursac said.

Former Serbia Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin is now interior minister, in a move seen as a de facto demotion.
Former Serbia Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin is now interior minister, in a move seen as a de facto demotion.

Another cabinet member who has had considerable direct contact with Russia, fellow Progressive Aleksandar Vulin, swapped his defense portfolio for the Interior Ministry in what many are describing as a de facto promotion.

Either way, Vucic appears to be laying the groundwork for greater political consolidation to accompany his expected reelection effort after his current five-year term.

He has already clipped the new Brnabic government's wings, announcing ahead of time that national voting will be held again in 2022 to coincide with the next presidential and local elections.

With his schedule already set ahead of the triple-election in two years, Vucic might also be keen to avoid rivalries like the one that split a Progressive-Socialist coalition and forced national elections in 2014.

There are some indications that Vucic is putting more space between himself and Russia. [But] I would not think this to be a long-term move but more a tactical shift."
-- Florian Bieber, Centre for Southeast European Studies

"This is pretty much a temporary government" that controls 230 of the parliament's 250 seats, noted Margarita Assenova, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.

It faces major "questions of the day" on reforming the rule of law, judicial reforms, countering corruption and crime, and infrastructure projects, she said, in addition to an economy hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

"The last thing they need is, in a dominated parliament, to have problems within the government," Assenova said.

A Bumpy Year

Few would dispute that the normally tight Belgrade-Moscow relationship has seen some rough patches in the past year.

A Russian spy scandal last November embarrassed the Serbian defense and intelligence communities, although Vucic dismissed it as just one example of the "strong intelligence work of many countries that sometimes extends beyond decency."

The Serbian president and other senior officials have more aggressively touted relations with China -- including Vucic's pronouncement of an "iron-clad" friendship as Beijing exercised damage control from the coronavirus pandemic -- prompting speculation that China might be supplanting Russia in some of Belgrade's plans.

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After postelection protests that erupted in Belgrade and other cities in July were met with heavy police force, government-friendly tabloids in Serbia publicly hinted that Moscow was somehow behind the unrest.

In September, Serbia signed a U.S.-brokered economic-normalization deal for Kosovo that some observers said could lead to curbed Moscow influence in Belgrade and the Balkans.

The resulting tensions with Moscow were on display when Serbia's new ambassador to the United States, Marko Djuric, leaned into a Twitter and media spat two days later with Russia's Foreign Ministry.

Then, beyond Dacic's and Antic's exclusion from the new government, an initial list of proposed cabinet ministers was said to have kept out a third minister, wealthy People's Party founder Nenad Popovic, who has deep ties to Moscow.

"There are some indications that Vucic is putting more space between himself and Russia," Bieber said. Still, he added, "I would not think this to be a long-term move but more a tactical shift."

Author of The Rise Of Authoritarianism In The Western Balkans, Bieber likened Vucic's public cooling toward Moscow to the "example of Milo Djukanovic," who has led neighboring Montenegro through independence and Western integration as its president or prime minister for nearly three decades (although he suffered an electoral blow in August).

"[Vucic] needed it after the flawed elections and democratic backsliding. A more pro-Western 'look' helps him get support that can cover up these deficiencies," Bieber said.

Closer To Washington?

Vucic has international credibility problems, given mounting European concerns about democratic backsliding and an election in June in which Serbia's ruling parties ran virtually unopposed.

The pandemic had already interrupted a year of anti-government rallies against unpunished attacks on the opposition and tighter checks on dissent, and the West condemned the brutal police response to an eruption of public anger over anti-coronavirus measures after the vote.

The EU's special representative for the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue, Miroslav Lajcak (left) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic shake hands after their meeting in Belgrade on October 15.
The EU's special representative for the Pristina-Belgrade dialogue, Miroslav Lajcak (left) and Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic shake hands after their meeting in Belgrade on October 15.

One of the ways Serbia's president could believe he stands to gain from perceptions he is edging further from the Russian orbit is in nudging Brussels to be more accepting of flaws in Belgrade.

Serbia's sluggish EU candidacy has failed so far this year to close a single negotiating chapter of the acquis communitaire, which is at the center of the accession process.

Bursac described it as an "incredible situation" that is "informally in full stop."

The European Union recently rekindled Balkan nonmembers' hopes for accession by opening negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, but few expect enlargement to proceed quickly or smoothly due to differences within the bloc itself.

Brnabic has described one of the aims of the new government as developing relations with Brussels while maintaining a balance in relations with China and Russia.

But EU officials have quietly insisted on a path to eventual recognition of Kosovo by Belgrade during a decade of negotiations on political normalization.

"I think Vucic is moving away from Russia, but with two important remarks: a) he's not moving to Brussels [but] rather to Washington; and b) he's leaving his options open," Bursac said.

He thinks any "new direction" on Serbia's part might reflect recent U.S. efforts to strike more limited deals like those that emerged from the Kosovo signing ceremony in Washington in September.

"Brussels," Bursac said, "are not as transactional as [outgoing U.S. President Donald] Trump, [and] they cannot offer something tangible in return for Serbian concessions regarding Kosovo."

He cited the appointment over the summer of Djuric, one of Vucic's top party colleagues, as the new ambassador to Washington as a nod to increasing U.S. engagement.

But Bursac also said Vucic is "a good strategist and he is keeping his cards open," while perhaps thinking that an administration under U.S. President-elect Joe Biden "will not be that 'soft' toward Serbia."

Keeping His Options Open

Whether toward Washington or Brussels, analyst Bieber called "a full and permanent pro-Western realignment" by Vucic "too risky."

It would force "real concessions on Kosovo [that] in turn would reduce his maneuvering space and also refocus Western attention on democracy," he said.

That leaves it as "only a last resort" for now.

"Otherwise, he will move back to closer ties with Russia or others as soon as possible to keep his options and space open," Bieber said.

Most observers think Vucic would face little resistance among his Progressive allies or their power base if he adopted a more pro-Russian stance.

And while reputed Russophiles within the Socialist Party might have been left outside Serbia's new cabinet, they are still close to power.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Vucic in Moscow on June 23.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Vucic in Moscow on June 23.

Meanwhile, Popovic -- Serbia's first-ever recipient of the Pushkin Medal -- was a last-minute addition to the cabinet before the final parliamentary vote, despite his exclusion from earlier proposals.

An electrical engineering tycoon who founded the pro-Russian People's Party in 2014, he has extensive commercial ties to Russia and presides over a friendship association of Serbian and Russian lawmakers.

Bursac described Popovic's presence as "an important signal to Moscow."

In the face of so many mixed signals, the only sure bet may be that Vucic is trying to ensure he doesn't box himself in domestically or internationally.

"Serbia's 'four pillars of diplomacy' foreign policy -- its relationship with the European Union, with the United States, with Russia, and China -- has not really changed since it was developed, so I don't expect that this balancing of relationships is going to change," Assenova said.

Vucic has long encouraged perceptions that Belgrade is less diplomatically reliant on Russia than Westerners tend to think, including since his election as president in 2017 with 55 percent of the vote.

"If anyone can change things for Serbia today, it's Vucic," Assenova said.

But while Russian economic assistance to Serbia is limited, ties remain strong in a number of other areas.

Belgrade has continued to buy Russian weapons, including purchases that the West has discouraged. It is cooperating on the Balkan Stream pipeline that the European Union has opposed. It has committed itself to free trade with the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union following more diplomatic signs that EU enlargement was on hold. And Serbian officials continue to allow a Russian "humanitarian center" that Western intelligence suspects is a diplomatic spying facility to operate in Nis, near Kosovo.

"[Are they] trying to isolate people that are more supportive of Russia?" Assenova pondered. "I think Vucic himself is pretty supportive of Russia."

With additional reporting by RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Zoran Glavonjic in Belgrade
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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden.