[Opinion] : Serbia is not a lost cause

Daniel Serwer - Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies


By Daniel Serwer,  @DanielSerwer , 

Washington, 21 January 2024, / – Today’s wars in Gaza and Ukraine are so dreadful they eclipse other bad news. In Serbia, the President (Aleksandar Vucic) and his security services (yes, they are his, though he shares control of them with his Moscow buddies) are agitated. Two opposition figures have dared to lay flowers on the grave of a Kosovo Albanian girl Serb forces murdered in 1999.

The security services arrested, beat, and tortured the first flower-layer, Nikola Sandulović. They have now prevented the second, lawyer Čedomir Stojković, from leaving Serbia. He writes:

Yesterday in Davos 2024, for the prime-time news of the most watched television, A. Vučić said the SAME WORDS about the graves of Albanians as Adolf Hitler and J. Goebbels about the graves of Jews: “Whoever lays flowers on the graves of Albanian children will bear eternal public disgrace because of that, because that is putting the face in the mud, about which the prosecution and the police should do their job….because I laid flowers on the grave of an Albanian child, the president publicly encouraged my public lynching and promised “the work of the prosecution and the police” on that gesture of mine.

Serbia is returning to autocracy

Serbia has repeatedly held elections since Slobodan Milosevic fell 2000. But its Freedom House scores have declined markedly since Vucic first came to power in 2014. Freedom House then ranked it a “semi-consolidated” democracy. In 2019 it degenerated to a “transitional or hybrid” regime.

Its ranking will no doubt decline further towards autocracy when last year’s events are considered. They include police violence against peaceful anti-violence demonstrators, a Belgrade-sponsored attempted insurrection inside Serb-majority northern Kosovo, mobilization of the Serbian army along the border with Kosovo, a free but unfair parliamentary election, and a blatantly fraudulent Belgrade election. Serbia is today what Freedom House terms a “semi-consolidated authoritarian regime” or worse.

The West is putting up with it

Parliamentarians throughout Europe are concerned. But many of its governments are turning a blind eye. So too is Washington, where officials overvalue minor bits of Serbian cooperation on weapons for Ukraine and acceptance of Kosovo documents and license plates. The European Commission continues negotiations with Belgrade on EU accession, but the process has crawled to a virtual halt.

Still, there is no concerted effort to counter Vucic or seek alternatives. In Europe, Hungary’s opposition neuters any effort to levy “consequences” on Serbia. In the US, the State Department is turning a blind eye. “Europe whole and free” is still the mantra there, despite Vucic’s slide towards autocracy. No one wants to point out that the emperor has no clothes. That would mean more work for America’s tired diplomats.

Serbia is not a lost cause

Serbia’s more liberal opposition is not everything I might like. It won’t give up on Kosovo. But it is a lot better than Vucic’s Serb nationalists and Russophiles. A relatively united opposition came close to winning the December 17 election in Belgrade, despite Vucic’s import of illegal voters from Bosnia and Herzegovina. The opposition performed less well in the country as a whole and captured only one-quarter of the parliament. But that is better than it has done at time in the past.

President Biden has long argued that it is better for Serbia to be in the EU accession process than outside it. I debated that issue with Senator Biden in a Congressional hearing in the 2000s. His preference prevailed. But I still think I was right: it was a mistake to turn a blind eye then and it is a mistake to continue to do it.

Washington needs to read Belgrade the riot act: no more goodies until we see a real turn towards democracy inside Serbia, de facto if not de jure acceptance of Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Real diplomats shouldn’t accept Serbia as a lost cause.


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 website.                     

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

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