[Opinion] : Something is stirring in Belgrade

Daniel Serwer - Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies


By Daniel Serwer , @DanielSerwer

Washington/Belgrade, 06 June 2023, / – Saturday’s fifth mass protest against Serbia’s President (Aleksandar) Vucic was the largest so far. People are “fed up.” Triggered by two mass shootings, the protests have widened their aim and now focus on getting rid of Vucic, freeing the media from government control, and ending a culture of violence.

They’ve got my sympathies, but…

I can’t help but be sympathetic with the peaceful protesters. Serbia re-elected Vucic with 60% of the vote just 14 months ago in a free but far from fair election. But it has been clear for some time that a large slice of Serbian society is displeased with his increasingly authoritarian rule, use of violence, and insensitivity to environmental concerns. While his political opposition is fragmented and ineffective, the protests are proving united and sustained so far.

The question is whether they are powerful enough to lead to his ouster. I doubt it. While it is common to cite the October 2000 ouster of Slobodan Milosevic, it is too often forgotten that those massive demonstrations were in support of election results. Milosevic had lost an election he had called early, thinking himself invulnerable. Vucic has talked about a September election, but he hasn’t called it yet. Before doing so, he will want to be certain he will win it. He is good at using state resources and jobs to ensure political support.

…Vucic still has cards to play

Vucic also knows well how to play the other usual cards of Serbian politics. He staged his own rent-a-crowd demonstration last weekend featuring ethnonationalist tirades. He at the same time provoked clashes in Kosovo intended to distract attention. These gave him an excuse to mobilize the Serbian Army and deploy units to the border/boundary with Kosovo, claiming he needed to protect Kosovo Serbs. Never mind that they were in danger because they attacked Kosovo police protecting non-Serb mayors elected in polls that the Serbs, under Vucic’s instructions, boycotted.

Vucic no doubt has other cards to play. He can arrest and harass protest organizers. He can stage clashes inside Serbia requiring the police to intervene. The Serbian media, which mostly ignores the protests, can sing his praises louder and longer. They can also amplify alleged threats to Serbs in Kosovo. Vucic can rely on his now well-established allies in Washington and Brussels to worry about what would happen if he were to fall, leaving the way open for an even more ethnonationalist right-winger to take power. Beijing’s surveillance technology and Moscow’s assistance to the Serbian security services will do what they can to protect him. Many Serbs already blame the American embassy for propping up Vucic.

Something is stirring that the Americans could help

All that said, something is stirring in Serbia that may prove in the long run stronger than Vucic and the hand he still has to play. To be successful, it will need somehow to undermine pillars that keep the Vucic elected autocracy in place: his own political party, the army and security services, the Church, and support from Washington, Brussels, Moscow and Beijing. There would need to be a split in the ruling elite that is not visible today. Still more courageous citizens and politicians would need to challenge the powers that be, likely with a popular political program as well as protests.

Of course the Americans could help if they would hold Vucic accountable, the way they have Kosovo Prime Minister Kurti for not yielding to State Department diktats. But Washington still wants to delude itself that Vucic will bring Serbia westward. Appeasement is the preferred approach with him. The chimera of Vucic choosing the West still has a strong hold on the State Department.


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 of his was originally 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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