[Opinion] : Big fish caught in Serbia, lots of questions unanswered

Daniel Serwer - Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

By Daniel Serwer, @DanielSerwer 

Washington, 09 July 2023, / – Yes: the US Treasury has sanctioned Aleksandar Vulin, the head of Serbia’s Security Intelligence Agency, former Defense and Interior Minister, and bestie to President Aleksandar Vucic. His misdeeds, according to the US, include drug and arms trafficking as well as facilitating malign Russian influence. This is a big step. I heartily welcome it.


Then come the questions. Why wasn’t this done earlier? The world has known about Vulin’s misdeeds for years. The US did not just discover that Vulin has been trafficking in drugs and arms. Maybe he trafficked in the wrong directions recently? His subservience to Russian objectives is also well known. Did he send some weapons to Russia, to compensate for the much-ballyhooed Serbian munitions going to Ukraine?

Vulin is, among other things, the leading advocate for “the Serbian world.” That is a concept hard to distinguish from Greater Serbia, Milosevic’s aim in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. It is also an analogue to “the Russian world,” the banner under which Putin is trying to carve out parts of Ukraine. President Vucic has avoided associating himself too closely with the concept, though he has pursued it in practice in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Montenegro.

That raises the question of whether Vucic knew about the sanctions move before they happened. Did he object? Did he welcome them as a way of dissociating himself from someone who had become a liability in dealing with the Americans and the Europeans? And how will he react now that it is done? Will he fire Vulin or keep him on? Or will he shifted elsewhere to keep him out of the way until the time comes for resurrection?

No answers yet

I can’t answer any of these questions yet. The Americans aren’t likely to comment on the timing of this move. But an enterprising journalist might get them to link a bit more derogatory information. Vucic is unlikely to fire Vulin outright, unless he has reason to believe that Vulin, like Yevgeny Prigozhin, was planning to contest his hold on power. If Vulin is kept on, it will be a clear sign of where Vucic stands: not with the West. If he is shunted off someplace, the signal may remain ambiguous.

We’ll need to wait and see how things shake out.

What if Vucic turns westward?

This moment is an opportunity for Vucic. If he really wants to turn westward and embrace Serbia’s European prospect, he could use the occasion of US sanctions on Vulin to good effect. That would mean not only firing him but expelling the extensive Russian intelligence service presence in Serbia, aligning Serbia with EU sanctions on Russia, closing Moscow’s supposedly humanitarian base near Nis, ending support for Serbia’s agents inside Kosovo and Montenegro, and disowning Milorad Dodik’s efforts to separate Republika Srpska from the authority of Sarajevo’s institutions.

Vucic could also mend democracy in Serbia. That would entail freeing the media from government domination, respecting the independence of the judiciary, restraining the police, favoring gun control, and encouraging freedom of expression and association. Not to mention moving quickly to implement the acquis communautaire requirements for EU admission.

First to applaud

I’ll be the first to applaud if anything like that happens. But it won’t. Whatever happened with Vulin, Serbia’s broader turn westward still seems far off.


Daniel Serwer is a Professor of the Practice of Conflict Management as well as director of the Conflict Management and American Foreign Policy Programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. This opinion was first published at his website.               

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of .  

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