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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.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic's greatest achievement so far is his ability to say the right thing at the right time.

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.

Vojislav Seselj
Vojislav Seselj

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.

Ivica Dacic
Ivica Dacic

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.

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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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