The Serbian Gambit

After the 3 April Elections

30 March 2022

Tetiana Poliak-Grujić

EU Neighbourhood Programme Director

The time to make a choice is coming. Hopefully, this time the Serbian government makes the right one.

On 3 April 2022 Serbians will head to the polling stations to vote in the presidential, parliamentary and in some cases local elections including in Belgrade. A wide variety of parties and candidates representing political programmes of all spectra are competing. 

Almost all of them face significant hardships trying to win the hearts and minds of potential voters. The campaign is conducted in an environment of weakened media freedom and a climate of disparagement of voices critical of the government. 

Recent polls suggest another win for President Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) party with a projected 45 per cent, well above the projected 20 per cent of United Serbia (US).

Captured Media Sphere

The media sector is polarised and mainly populated by (pro)governmental speakers, including President Aleksandar Vučić himself. Thus, the diversity of views is limited, despite a large number of outlets. Besides, the misuse of administrative resources, abuse of office and allocations from the state budget to incentivise the voters happen on an extensive scale.

Nevertheless, President Vučić together with his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) face hardships during their campaign, too, but of a different nature. 

The predicament lies in accommodating Serbia’s claimed geopolitical choice of joining the EU and very strong political, economic but also personal connections to Russia, now in the context of the war in Ukraine and the upcoming 3 April elections. 

Pressure From Both Sides

One of the main reasons for the Serbian government, but also for the population, to stick with the European Union is its financial support. The EU has been the largest donor in the country, which during the last twenty years provided over 3 billion euros in grants in order to support the reforms in Serbia. Besides, the EU remains Serbia’s largest trade partner — more than 61 per cent of Serbian trade is with the EU member states.

On the other hand, Russia continues to be one of the four biggest trade partners for Serbia. It also depends on Russian gas and getting it at the reduced price which was ‘granted’ by Putin as a ‘gesture of friendship’ towards President Vučić during his trip to Moscow in November 2021. This cheap gas is vital for the Serbian economy. 

Russia’s political support in the UN with regard to Kosovo is another reason why Serbia so far did not join EU sanctions against Russia after its aggression against Ukraine, despite numerous messages from Brussels that the EU candidate countries are expected to act in line with the EU foreign policy and that taking the wrong side — meaning Russia’s side — could come with consequences. Apparently, only condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine at its own National Security Council and the UN General Assembly was not sufficient. 

Russian ‘Friendship’ With Serbia

For Serbia, imposing sanctions on Russia would probably mean dismantling relations with it. Once Serbia does it, Russia will not hesitate to sack its ‘friend’ economically by making Serbia pay normal market prices as ‘revenge’ and politically by changing their mind in the UN on Kosovo. 

Russian support to anyone in the world, including to them, has never been a goodwill gesture, but rather guided by a purely pragmatic approach, depending on Russia’s needs and interests, also those ad hoc

Current Serbian elites will not shoot themselves in the foot by severing relations with Russia. If they were to, the results of the retaliatory Russian sanctions amidst the electoral campaign would be catastrophic for their campaign. 

Although Serbian society is profoundly divided on a number of issues, including the war in Ukraine and relations with Russia, its general stance on the war is reserved and the support for Russia and Putin remains high. 

An overwhelming number of people supporting such pro-Russian views are Aleksandar Vučić and SNS voters, therefore, there will be no revolutionary decisions on sanctions against Russia prior to elections. Otherwise, it may very well cost the elections for both the President and the party. 

Post Election Strategy

But what will happen after the 3 April elections? As polls show, Vučić and SNS under the current status quo may very well win the elections again. If it happens, how long will it take the new government to game out the country’s prospects and what will the decision be? 

From the point of view of geopolitics, remaining on Russia’s side makes very little sense for Serbia. Historically, Russian political support hardly ever resulted in anything meaningful for Serbia. 

On the subject of Kosovo, no matter how controversial and heartbreaking it is for Serbians, it is time to start facing reality: the province has moved away from its metropole. Focusing on close cooperation with the Kosovo authorities on maintaining minority rights for Serbians living there and protecting Serbian historical and religious sites remains a pertinent issue. 

Moreover, taking the side of Russia these days is a grand mauvais ton, as it means aligning with evil itself. If it sticks to Russia, Serbia will lose its reputation beyond what it currently is and will be hit by economic consequences, too. Apart from potential EU financial cuts in such a case, let us not forget that the Russian economy will crash rather sooner than later due to the unprecedented sanctions imposed on it as a result of its aggression against Ukraine.  

Rewards for Compliance

Additionally, both the EU and the U.S. should recognise that cutting strings with Russia will impact Serbia’s economic stability for some time, too. Therefore, they would need to be ready to compensate for the country’s economic losses if they want it fully in their orbit. 

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s recent statement that any delay of the EU accession talks with Western Balkans would make the region vulnerable to outside influence may signal this very support. 

In this context, Visegrad Insight’s most recent ‘Five Western Balkans Scenarios for 2030’ report provides an excellent overview of what the future could bring for the region and Serbia in particular. Depending on how the situation will evolve upon 3 April elections, Serbia might have either a chance of a realistic EU accession or will have to continue struggling with stagnating status quo. 

The time to make a choice is coming. Hopefully, this time the Serbian government makes the right one. 

Picture: Kremlin.ruВстреча с Председателем Правительства Сербии Александром ВучичемCC BY 4.0


This article is part of the Western Balkans Futures project supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

The Polish version of the article was published at ONET.PL and Res Publica.

Tetiana Poliak-Grujić

EU Neighbourhood Programme Director

Programme Director for EU Neighbourhood at Visegrad Insight, Res Publica Foundation. Tetiana’s professional experience includes working in both corporate and non-profit sectors. She participated in design, implementation and reporting on several projects related to human rights and democracy development. Tetiana holds a Master in European Integration diploma from Belgrade University and her thesis focused on the status of political rights in the Eastern Partnership countries. She also has degrees in Law and Business Administration.


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