Dispute over Serbia’s course

Kosovo protests - April 2013

Serbian President has allowed an extract of his Kosovo platform announced long ago leak in the press. Therein he affirms Serbia‘s territorial claims to northern Kosovo. This occurs in direct correlation with the events in Macedonia which are presented by the Serbian Government and its press as the prelude to the creation of a Greater Albania. What are the intentions behind President Nikolić’s political initiative which questions the hitherto prevalent narrative of Serbia’s task to ensure stability in the Balkans?

The 2012 double election victory of the Progressive Party which made Tomislav Nikolić President and Aleksandar Vučić initially the First Deputy Prime Minister and as of 2014 Prime Minister, in a coalition government with Ivica Dačić’s Socialists (and other smaller groups), was followed by an agreement over a distribution of tasks between Nikolić and Vučić: Nikolić, as he had promised during the election campaign, handed over the Progressive Party leadership to the power-seeking Vučić, also allowing the latter to take control over Serbian secret services which, formally, is part of a president’s jurisdictions. Nikolić was supposed to constrain his scope of activities to the representative and symbolic role of a president who continually ties the nationalist and revisionist part of the electorate to the Progressive Party, by means of symbolic gestures and speeches. The three issues that he was supposed to address and which play a major role in terms of the electorate’s loyalty, are declarations of friendship to Russia, denial of Serbia’s special responsibility for the 1990s wars and massacres and the adherence to the dream of a Greater Serbia and, finally, the insistence on the “EU and Kosovo“ formula which had been already used by his predecessor Tadić.

Vučić, on the other hand, equipped with considerable power, was supposed – through this form of ideological backing – to acquire enough maneuvering space to tackle at least three tasks: 1) securing a government majority for the Progressive Party for many years to come, by destroying the opposition (persecution of corrupt politicians from the ranks of the previous government, intimidation, control over the media); 2) approximation to the EU through observance of technical agreements the previous government had struck with the Government of Kosovo and stipulation of the next steps towards the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo which, even though they do not imply recognition of Kosovo’s independence de jure, still could mean it de facto; 3) stabilization of Serbia’s dramatically deteriorating fiscal situation by means of savings on wages in the public sector and pensions, as well as through privatization of state-owned enterprises operating at a loss. Vučić has been highly successful with regard to item 1): He controls an overwhelming majority in the Parliament, one that could also introduce changes to the Constitution, degrading the Parliament to a mere voting machine, humiliating the minuscule and fragmented opposition, controlling the lion’s share of the media who are eagerly soaking up his cues for the purpose of their campaigns and has used this foundation to add a Serbian variant to a model of illiberal state and authoritarian rule also entrenched in other countries in the region. In relation to item 2) there were surprisingly swift successes in form of the April 19 2013 Brussels Agreement on the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo and the EU’s decision to open accession negotiations with Serbia as of January 2014. The task summarized in item 3) proves to be the most difficult one. Namely, it holds the very bases supporting partocracy, a feature of transitional countries, which accommodates ruling party members in the public sector and state-owned enterprises in exchange for their loyalty and expansion of political control. As shown by the statements on the recently completed IMF review, the Vučić government is hesitating with the implementation of saving measures in the public sector agreed upon with the IMF, as it fears rising unemployment, protests and a visible decline in voters’ loyalty.

Vučić’s pragmatic government course did not go uncontested in the Progressive Party from the very beginning. He also had to deal with influential minders installed by party founder Nikolić in the Serbian Progressive Party: most notably Nikolić‘s son Radomir Nikolić, head of the Progressives‘ Executive Committee and Mayor of Kragujevac. In order to overcome inner-party resistance, Vučić called a snap election in 2014, and the overwhelming success allowing him to cater for many a discontent party member with seats and posts. This helped him buy some time. However, this time is now running out. Negotiations with Kosovo are stagnant; they require a willingness to make a compromise and thus to reach wide-ranging decisions about the association of municipalities with Serb majority in northern Kosovo and about property issues – in the medium term, the question emerges concerning amendments to the Serbian Constitution whose preamble declares Kosovo an integral part of Serbia. The Ukraine conflict and the new US and EU foreign and security policy towards Russia call for Serbia to take a stand and be prepared to adopt the decisions to place sanctions on Russia, as was, for example, promptly done by another accession country – Montenegro. Against the backdrop of rising interest rates, the national debt which has increased to some 75 percent of GDP requires a departure from the extremely unprofitable economy dominated by parties and a transformation into a functioning private economy and thus a massive limitation of the ruling party’s business model.

Until now, Vučić has resisted the EU’s pressure to impose sanctions to Russia. However, this stance proves to be an obstacle for the approximation to the EU, as was clearly indicated by EU Council President Tusk during Vučić’s last visit to Brussels: he stated that Serbia has to show, through concrete deeds, that it has reached a strategic decision in favor of EU-accession. In such a situation, Nikolić, too, is increasing the pressure on Vučić. In case of constitutional changes which, according to official statements, currently envisage primarily alterations of the electoral law, size of parliament and referenda, but not the abolition of the wording concerning Kosovo in the preamble, Nikolić demands an extension of presidential prerogatives – something, he alleges, a president directly elected by the people already should be entitled to. And as proof that the President already possesses decision-making authority, placing him above the government, when it came to an issue which was controversial throughout Europe – namely attendance at the Moscow military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany – Nikolić chose his own path, explicitly resisting recommendations by the Serbian Government: Vučić and Foreign Minister Dačić did not accept the invitation to take part in the parade and they recommended that, other than the Serbian President, only representatives of Serb veterans should participate. Nikolić, on the other hand, reminded himself of the fact that he was the Commander-in-Chief of the Serbian Army and gave out the order that he would not be accompanied to the May 9 parade by veterans, but active Serbian elite corps. Nikolić’s Kosovo platform is expected to have even greater consequences. This paper – subject of months-long announcements – will allegedly formulate a joint stand by the president and government on the “EU and Kosovo“ course demanded by  Nikolić. The crucial passages of the paper (which, to this day, has never been published in its entirety) were leaked to the press, coinciding with the armed conflicts between Macedonian security forces and a group of armed Kosovar and Macedonian ethnic Albanians in the Macedonian town of Kumanovo close to the Serbian and Kosovar borders. Serbia was not taken aback by those events. The government and its loyal media were immediately on the spot buzzing about the beginning of an offensive for a Greater Albania. While Prime Minister Vučić described the incidents as Albanian provocation and threat to regional stability, the head of state seized the opportunity to bring into play ambitions of a Greater Serbia on his part. Vučić judges and acts in the framework of the narrative about Serbia’s task towards creating stability in the Balkans, something he expects to be reciprocated through concessions during the approximation to the EU. Nikolić questions this narrative. His platform calls for a complete integration of northern Kosovo in the Serbian state, according to the preamble of the Serbian Constitution, and autonomy within Serbian statehood for the Kosovar Albanian-majority part south of the Ibar River. These two cornerstones were the only ones to seep through. But they alone are very indicative. Nikolić claims that his concept of a Serbia-governed northern Kosovo is covered by the Brussels Agreement. The Agreement envisions the establishment of an association (depending on location: either a loose “association“ or a “community“ in terms of an independent political entity similar to Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina) of Serbian municipalities which are to obtain more or less comprehensive rights to self-government including financing. However, the Agreement stipulates that this association/community, too, becomes integrated in the Kosovo legal system by the Prishtina parliament. But that is the part of the Agreement ignored by Nikolić. He thereby stresses that Serbia to this day has failed to put on the table absolutely anything concerning the issue of this association/community. Apparently, Nikolić wants to leave it at that. From his perspective, northern Kosovo remains a part of Serbia. Period.

At this point, Nikolić’s initiative seems to pursue two goals:

On the one hand, he is signalizing his readiness for a new candidacy in the 2017 presidential election – possibly for a presidency equipped with more jurisdictions. He is thus reacting to already expressed or presumed ambitions by other persons from other political camps to run for this post – including the current Foreign Minister and chief of the Socialist Party of Serbia Dačić, but also the astonishingly popular and non-partisan Ombudsman Saša Janković. (The candidacy of a non-partisan would endanger the Serbian partocratic system. Some observers derive from this endangerment the immense aggressiveness employed by parts of the ruling structures in alliance with the government-friendly press in their efforts to destroy the Ombudsman, both personally and in his capacity as public official.)

On the other hand, however, Nikolić aims to hold back Serbia’s path towards the EU, restrict Vučić‘s space for maneuver and maintain Russian influence on Serbian politics in accordance with the wording used by Nikolić during Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s last visit: “When Russia is doing well, Serbia is doing well, too“. And Russia wants to fuel the conflict. This was most recently evident in Macedonia where Russian Foreign Minister firmly supported the current Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski to transform the internal political conflict over the latter‘s authoritative regime into an inter-ethnic conflict with the Albanians who allegedly strive towards a Greater Albania.

In his interviews and discussions with the civil society representatives, Vučić has revealed that Nikolić‘s move puts him under pressure. He cannot simply reject the Kosovo platform because it seems to be covered by the Constitution and voices the nationalist fundamental conviction of the Progressive Party. However, should he agree with it, it would bring him in an insurmountable conflict with the spirit of the Brussels Agreement and delay the actual start of the accession negotiations with the EU – namely, a step the Serbian government could declare a success in times of dwindling loyalties. No open conflict has broken out yet. He announced that the paper would be discussed and one would determine what is “realistic“ about it. But this fact already is a poke at Nikolić. The days and weeks to come will show whether Vučić succeeds in bringing back his President to perform tasks envisaged for him in the field of symbolic politics and at least salvages his peace- and stability-oriented policies. He maintains a firm grip on his authoritarian regime on the domestic scene and it seems that the EU, due to its current geostrategic priorities, will not seriously question it.