Prof. Ivan Vujačić, President of the Forum for International Relations of the European Movement in Serbia: The political situation in the country is stressful for all

The opposition has lost what voice it had in the institutions as well as the sources of government finance for parliamentary parties at the national and local level. This was a result of the boycott of the elections. The result is also a parliament without an opposition
Prof. Ivan Vujačić, President of the Forum for International Relations of the European Movement in Serbia

For the September issue we spoke with prof Ivan Vujačić about the overall political situation, EU accession, US elections etc. “The big difference was the EU Commission report on Serbia that used less diplomatic language than before and more openly criticized the state of the rule of law and the state of the media. The European Parliament was involved in an effort to mediate between the government and the opposition, which had decided to boycott the parliamentary and local elections, a mediation that should not be happening in a country on the road to EU integration. This I believe was the beginning of the end of treating the state of affairs in Serbia as being normal”, he pointed out.

How would you evaluate the last year in terms of reform undertaken on Serbia’s accession path to EU membership?

Both the EU and Serbia have been sitting dead in the water over the last year in terms of the process of integration. The EU had engineered a very slow process to accession, while the government of Serbia has been dragging its feet on reforms. The result is that not a single chapter has been opened this year. The whole process lacked both push (Serbia) and pull (EU). Serbia should have pushed harder as the process of integration has been declared to have top priority. Let me add that opening chapters really does not have much substance. They are rather a public relations activity to show that things are supposedly moving. The important part is closing chapters. Serbia has only closed a few temporarily.  Somehow, the public at large does not really comprehend this as we live in a world in which images dominate over substance. Still, the fact that Serbia has not appointed the Head of Serbia’s EU negotiating team in the last eight months after the departure of Tanja Miščević who held that position since the beginning of negotiations on accession, makes people wonder if the EU accession process is really a priority for this government.

On a broader plane, the whole process looked immensely tiresome and began to lose credibility in the public at large. It started looking more and more as “game” of pretense with one side pretending to want to join a club and reforming and the other side pretending that it believes the applicant and that it would actually accept it as a member. To this “game of pretend” we should add the extend part, where everything ends with the extension of the conceivable date of full membership.  So, in short, in looked like a “game” of “pretend and extend”, a negotiation process that had already been played out in the Greek debt crisis. I am not saying that this was a deliberate thought out “game”, but the problem is that it could be seen that way by people who put their faith in this process. I personally think it was more a matter of bureaucratic procedure on the accession process and political interest on another issue that preoccupied the actors and that was the negotiation regarding Kosovo.

The good news is that a change of methodology of accession has been adopted at the insistence of France. This methodology is designed to be more efficient, quicker, more practical and more political, so as to breathe dynamism in the process. This new methodology is much more demanding. However, the overall situation now is not conducive to the enlargement process.

What is your opinion of the political situation in terms of the pandemic, June elections, the positions taken up by the opposition parties and the ruling coalition?

Aleksandar Vučić’s party has obtained a majority slightly larger than Putin’s party in Russia. The only larger parliamentary majority on the territory Europe is the one of Lukashenko in Belarus. This is certainly detrimental to the position of Serbia and casts a dark shadow on the proclaimed goal of EU membership. What makes this worse is the fact that the boycott itself cannot be written off as a whim of opposition parties because some of the reasons cited for the boycott can be found in the EU commission report (media, rule of law etc.). The ruling party has foregone the chance to be truly forthcoming on improving the electoral process quickly, substituting this by reducing the threshold (illegally, by the way) for the entry into parliament. The election has polarized society further. In short, the result could not be worse for the ruling party and its leadership.

Furthermore, the credibility of the government is probably lower than ever given its handling of the virus pandemic. The measures undertaken went from the extreme lockdown to practically nothing, with no interim transition period. Serbia was the only country that allowed crowds at soccer games in June. On May 12th the government proclaimed that travelers to Serbia would require a negative test not older than 72 hours or face a quarantine of two weeks. On May 20th the government lifted all restrictions for those entering Serbia. This was just a week later and it illustrates the wild oscillations in terms of policy. Now the first restrictions are back again for some countries.

Summing up the result of the election and the handling of the pandemic have both significantly negatively affected the legitimacy of the government both at home and abroad. In that respect, I think going ahead with the election was the wrong move. The only people that I know who had a positive view of the election were some diplomats who cynically said that after this “resounding” victory, the president Aleksandar Vučić, has no more excuses in terms of the negotiations on Kosovo.

In your opinion what should be the priorities of the next Serbian government?

Given what I said previously, the priority of the government should be restoring credibility, both home and abroad. Abroad it should be in the direction of putting the EU accession process above everything else. This would mean substantial and tangible reforms. This would also mean opening a serious and sincere dialogue with the opposition, addressing the issues raised in the last EU commission report directly, honestly and without false excuses and negotiating in earnest a comprehensive agreement with Kosovo. Aside of these issues that spill over into domestic issues, the government needs to restore its credibility in terms of dealing with the pandemic and its economic fallout. Frankly, I am not certain that the government has the will or the capacity to deal with all of these issues.

Will the economic measures undertaken be able to prevent or at least mitigate the drop in economic activity in Serbia?

Concerning the measures to address the economic consequences of the pandemic, some of them were good, especially the ones aimed at preventing a radical rise in unemployment. How long these efforts can be sustained remains to be seen. Some of the measures were linear meaning that they were not aimed at the most affected sectors of the economy. Finally, some were downright counterproductive like the giveaway of 100 euro to all citizen. Not only was this last measure unselective, it also wasted resources that could have been used and targeted differently. Since Serbia like all other countries will go into debt, it is of utmost importance to use these resources in the most effective way.

Furthermore, the government should reconsider and cut some of its spending plans (like purchase of arms, or building stadiums, etc.). Supporting employment would be my priority above all others. The effects of this pandemic are going to be felt all throughout the next year. This is not a regular cyclical or bubble induced recession. It is not inherent to the economy. Rather it is like a natural disaster and preserving life and livelihood is all that can be done till circumstances that allow rebuilding come around.

The European parliament threatens to block the long term budget deal reached at the EU summit if it is not “improved”. Can this really happen?

The European Parliament has been gaining importance over the years, and is not just a rubber stumping institution anymore. I think that the resolution adopted in July will be important in the sense that there will be a call for further improvements in the budget especially in terms of not allowing long-term goals to fall by the wayside (environment, sustainability etc.). Furthermore, insistence on the rule of law and other democratic values, which the EU considers to be part of its identity, will be taken up by the European parliament as issues relevant to the budgetary process, including monitoring. The discussions will go on all through September. I personally think that this is healthy, because the parliament will not allow the neglect of fundamental issues in the fog of crisis management regardless of the fact that it is a severe worldwide health crisis that we are facing. However, I do expect the budget to pass with few fundamental  changes.

Losing credibility

After proclaiming victory, the virus has come back with the number infected more than twice the number than during the lockdown. As the public became aware, even the elementary figures relating to the pandemic could not be trusted. What is worse is that it is not just the politicians but also the doctors who were on the government crisis team that have lost their credibility. The revolt of a large number of doctors who have expressed a lack of confidence in the crisis team asking for its resignation shows just how low the credibility of the government is regarding the pandemic. In other words, the general impression is that the government has lost control of the situation in terms of the spread of the pandemic and that at this point it can only deal with the consequences i.e. hospitalizing the sick.

This year is not just the year of the pandemic, but also serious turbulences on the world political scene. What will happen after all these shifts?

Large political shifts had occurred before the pandemic. The first important shift came with the United States moving away from multilateralism and the international order that was created over the years following WWII. It had a huge role in creating this order taking a position of leadership within it, so that the way it questioned it and the way it treated the institutions of this order with disparagement came as a shock to most of its allies and partners.

The second big shift came with the trade war between the US and China culminating in the inauguration of a technological cold war between these countries. Technological containment because of this will draw in the rest of the world with Europe siding with the US. Brexit has changed the EU fundamentally. For the first time, the EU has also realized that it needs to define its own geopolitical role and will have to adjust economically and politically in order to preserve its core values including the welfare state. Russia will also have to adjust to these new realities.

How will the forthcoming US presidential election influence the Western Balkans and the solution to the Kosovo issue?

A great number of policy makers (especially in the EU) are looking at the next US election hoping for a change in the US administration. If Biden wins as everyone at this point expects, things will change. However, things will not go back all the way to what they were. The US will still be in a confrontation with China. It will demand more from its EU allies and it will try to redefine some parts of the international order.

One should, however, expect a much closer relationship between the US and Europe. This will affect Serbia as the US and the EU will again speak with one voice on many issues including the WB and this will have implications on the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. I expect that we will be back to where we were in this process before the Trump presidency. I also, expect a stronger push for things to move faster towards a comprehensive agreement. So, although there will be major changes on the huge international scene, things in our part of the world will remain pretty much the same. The US and the EU will push for reform, regional stability and membership in the EU.

We have seen these efforts before and they did not amount to much. We should realize that the future of the region and Serbia within it, depend on us more than we think. This, however, means getting our priorities clearly defined and building a long-term strategy for attaining those goals.

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