[Opinion] : The Americans are satisfied with less rather than more

Daniel Serwer - Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies


By Daniel Serwer,  @DanielSerwer 

Washington, 09 July 2023, / – The United States sanctioned Serbia’s intelligence chief last week for arms and drug dealing as well as facilitating malign Russian influence in the Balkans. I’ve applauded that move.

Vulin is a symptom

But stopping there will be less than half a loaf. Aleksandar Vulin is symptomatic of far deeper maladies. There is no way he could have engaged in drug trafficking without at least the tacit nulla osta of President Vucic. Any arms dealing he has done would have required something more than that, including the cooperation of his intel people. It would be hard to miss his loud advocacy of Russian interests in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Vulin is also Serbia’s prime exponent of “the Serbian world,” the idea that Serb populations in neighboring countries should at least all respect Belgrade’s direction. He would prefer to see them all incorporated into the Serbian state. This is indistinguishable from the Greater Serbia Slobodan Milosevic sought in the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

President Vucic is his top cover

Vulin has served in government with Vucic for the past 11 years. He started with the Kosovo portfolio in 2012 and moved on to Social Affairs, Defense, and Interior before becoming the intel director last year. Though they belong to different political parties that are coalition partners, Vulin and Serbian President Vucic are like peas in a pod: politically far more similar than different. Vulin made his way during the Milosevic regime affiliated with Mira Markovic, Milosevic’s wife. Vucic was tied more to Milosevic himself.

Now Vucic is Vulin’s protector. In reaction to the sanctions, Vucic has asserted the US is really concerned with the Russia connection, not with the arms and drug dealing. This is convenient for him, as it makes the issue not one of legality and morality but rather politics. In Serbia, both the government and public opinion regard wanting good relations with Moscow as a virtue, not a vice.

No action yet

There is no sign yet of what, if anything, Vucic is going to do about Vulin. He has announced an investigation, but it would be surprising if one were really needed. Vucic has tight control of his government and no doubt has known whatever business Vulin is involved in. Vucic has publicly backed Vulin’s advocacy of the “Serbian world,” though he is careful not to mention the idea often.

The American Ambassador has been mincing his words about the sanctions, emphasizing that they target Vulin, not on Serbia’s institutions:

No need for @USAmbSerbia to justify himself. Vulin’s designation was the right thing to do. If he’s in any way serious about ‘bringing Serbia into Western institutions’, he’ll still have a long list of sanctioned individuals to communicate in this

— Jakub Bielamowicz (@KubaBielamowicz) July 13, 2023

Vulin wouldn’t want to visit the US anyway and no doubt keeps his ill-gotten gains far from the dollar.

That presumably means Washington intends to try to preserve its intelligence liaison relationship with Belgrade. The US may want to see Vulin fired, but it won’t be seeking any more far-reaching reform.

Now what?

That is too bad. “Serbian institutions” unquestionably have known what Vulin is up and have failed to act against him. They are still failing, though of course it is only days since the sanctions announcement. Washington should be pressing for Vucic to fire not only Vulin but all his cronies. The US should also be seeking a much wider reform that frees Serbian media from state dominance, ensures independence of the judiciary, makes space for a serious opposition, and detaches the country from its strong intelligence, political, and military connections to Moscow. How about starting with alignment to the EU Ukraine-related sanctions?

There are lots of other opportunities in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Montenegro for Serbia to signal serious changes in Serbian policy that would bring Belgrade closer to the West. But the Americans seem satisfied these days with less rather than more.


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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