Vucic takes hits from all-comers, but still stands firm

A difficult week—which has followed similar weeks—found still more criticism aimed at Serbia by the ranks for foreign diplomats and the foreign press, yet an object observer simply has to make one thing clear:

When it comes to beleaguered Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, love him or hate him but this man knows how to dig in and hold the line.

In fact, wars of words have long been a staple of Serbian foreign relations, not to mention Vucic’s various reigns as a politician. But perhaps it’s the years or perhaps it’s the background of the changing tide in the war in Ukraine, but the tightrope is clearly evident—even if Vucic has ample experience with trusting it for a walk.

Take the past seven days—which could be said to be dizzying for any government leader. While history may not always be kind, the head-butting between Kosovo and Serbia may for once be considered unfair (and certainly Vucic, considering where he is sitting, must feel this is the case).

While somehow managing to weather the storm of aggressive moves in Kosovo to de facto force independence (and force citizens of Serbian enclaves to accept this with new Kosovo IDs and registration plates), Serbia and Vucic were in for a battering by not only Kovoso’s pro-Albanian leadership, but also the EU.

The latter sent special envoys to pressure Vucic to work for better dialogue and “normalize” current relations. The former, however, began increased border patrols (including that of a border lake), labelled Kosovo Serbs worried over their future as criminals and pressed for EU membership.

Meanwhile, there was also the twist of Turkish strongman Recep Erdogan arriving to much fanfare, being lauded as a true friend of Serbia but also doing little to aid Kosovo-Serbian relations.  Admittedly, Erdogan may not be a fan favorite among EU leaders, but more could be expected here—and certainly Turkish meddling in a new Armenia-Azerbaijan Nagorno Karabakh conflict.

And then there was Europride. Much has been said about this already, and despite lauded EU protections for minorities, this does seem like a set-up. Not that Europride organizers should be expected to have Ph.D.s in international relations, but scheduling this year’s event for Belgrade…
It does make you wonder. Especially, as Vucic’s decision—if anything, quite realistic—to cancel the event based on security concerns (i.e. nobody needs participants to tangle with right wing rioters in the public eye) may not have been politically correct, but pragmatic? It’s hard to argue here.

Still, the cancellation was immediately voiced as a reason to ban Serbia from theoretical (emphasis on the word) EU accession.

Which—again, objectively speaking—has somewhat limited Vucic’s room to manoeuvre. For (and again, here is that word) the reality of his position, Serbian politics and Serbian history demand that he stand firm on Kosovo. And stand firm he has, stating that Serbia will not give up “one inch” of territory; that it will oppose further recognition of Kosovo independence by, well, anybody, and that Serbia is quite capable of defending its citizens (within Kosovo or without).

And all of this in the face of 1) dependency on Russian gas 2) the spectre of a winter where EU support (if there is support to give) could be critical as well as recent new stories referring to everything from Newsweek’s comparison of Russian torture to Serbian camps during the war in Yugoslavia to revelations of Russian meddling (and cash) in the Balkans to heightened instability in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Which means Vucic is sitting on a political tinderbox. Just as he always has been. And hopefully, the tinderbox of the region just remains political and does not go further than that.

Which also means… love him or hate him, but his experience is difficult to deny.

Or in other words, maybe not the president you deserve, but very well the one you need.

Photo credit: Medija Centar Beograd, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

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