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Anything but a “Little Putin”: why Serbia under Vučić is not Russia under Putin

Western media often compares Serbia under Aleksandar Vučić to Putin’s Russia. While both states may often embrace authoritarian rhetoric, it is clear that Moscow is the only one to act on it at all times. This reality is especially important when considering Belgrade’s relations with the EU and NATO.

November 6, 2023 - Stefan Mandic - Articles and Commentary

President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić speaking at a press conference in Belgrade in August 2022. Photo: Dragan Mujan / Shutterstock

One of the most important pillars in NATO’s current geopolitical interests is the upholding of liberal democratic values among governments internationally. Since the fall of the USSR, a major established obstacle to such success has been the resurgence of Russia and China, which have promoted their own alternatives to western liberal values on the international stage. Russia, China and a few other nations have joined together to criticise and decry the western liberal democratic world order as weak and feeble. One of the nations that has undoubtably more diplomatic and political ties to this group of western-sceptic countries is Serbia under Aleksandar Vučić.

Almost every country in the Balkans has placed itself firmly within the EU/NATO camp, with Serbia being one of the strongest exceptions. Serbia, unlike other former Yugoslav states in the Balkans, is the most receptive to Russian diplomatic and political overtures and many Serbian citizens view Russia as a close ally. These close relations with Russia and the much criticised “authoritarian” policies of the Serbian government in recent years have caused many to link Russia and Serbia as kindred anti-western nations, working together for some greater anti-western cause. These sentiments even go as far as casting Serbia’s president, Aleksandar Vučić, as a “Little Putin”. As much as it is easy to make such a tantalising and charged assertion, the presidents of Russia and Serbia have both demonstrated that they have a lot of differences as both leaders and individuals. If westerners want to properly address the political and diplomatic issues concerning Serbia and the Balkans, there must be recognition that Vučić and Putin are not the same.

Considering the person that makes the politics

Before considering the grander politics of the current day, it is very important to examine the previous activities that made both leaders who they are. Putin, for most of his life, was an operative and high-ranking officer within the Soviet KGB. As an intelligence agent within an organisation as ruthless as the KGB, the use of intrigue, blackmail, cruelty, murder and other extra-legal activities were established and encouraged practices. His stay within the KGB for decades cemented, even though it is not publicly admitted, a style of politics that carries on into the modern Russian Federation. Within the current Russian government, former or current members of the security apparatus hold strong influence over a variety of offices. Putin and his compatriots in the FSB, many being former KGB agents like him, are not afraid to practice their tradecraft once more on the Russian people. They do this with a level of precision and ruthlessness only seen within organisations like the KGB. As seen with the assassinations of Boris Nemtsov, Anna Politkovskaya and Alexander Litvinenko, Putin and the Russian state security apparatus are quite willing to permanently silence anyone that even dares to criticise the government.

Alexandar Vučić, on the other hand, never had such experiences or indoctrination regarding such conduct. His first major role in politics was as minister of information in the 1990s under the Milosevic regime. Being a regular civilian in a non-military and non-intelligence role, he had no intense or long duration of time to be immersed in the culture of an organisation like the KGB. The Milosevic government was far from democratic or respectful of human rights and conducted its own abuses, but for Vučić at the time, his suppression of the opposition was done through pen and paper rather than with a rifle or poison, as seen with operatives in the KGB. His job was silencing television programmes and newspapers and not the lives of individuals who opposed the government. If someone in the Milosevic government was going to kill or harm someone, it would be members of the mafia or Yugoslav intelligence agencies like KOS or SDB.

His role as a professional career politician in Serbian national politics has not changed much since the fall of the Milosevic regime. Although Serbian politics can get quite “dirty” compared to western nations, he does not come close to Putin’s willingness to use violence and repression. If any kind of action was to be taken to thwart the efforts of opposition parties and activists, it is done through methods that are much less bloodthirsty and have strong plausible deniability. Many of these approaches involve the use of individuals and organisations outside of government and law enforcement, such as media companies, private individuals and private companies. These can all publicly claim that they have little or no connections with the government or Vučić. These tactics revolve around careful public relations campaigns, misinformation, the clandestine usage of patronage networks, the intimidation or blackmail of opposition figures and organisations through private individuals, and the misuse of state power by friendly individuals and associates. If there are attempts to physically harm or kill opposition activists, they are extremely rare to non-existent and done with a high level of secrecy by individuals barely connected with the government.

Status of the opposition

The existence of opposition candidates and parties are an important indicator of a nation’s level of democracy. In Russia, political opposition to the Putin administration has been all but eliminated or reduced to underground movements. The political parties that hold some power in government are puppet parties, such as the LDPR, CPRF, A Just Russia, and others. These all pledge loyalty to Putin and the current agenda of the Russian state. Outside of political parties, if citizens attempt to protest or mobilise against the state, they are met with arrests, violence, targeted assassinations, espionage and other tactics openly embraced by the most autocratic of states. The mass protests by the Russian public against the war in Ukraine were met with waves of violence and arrests by the Russian government under new harsh blanket laws. These outright state that criticising or “discrediting” the Russian state or armed forces is illegal. Many Russian opposition activists and groups have fled the country to continue their work, with some even coming to Serbia.

In Serbia, opposition parties and leaders are still alive and viable enough to secure political power. Since 2012, Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party have held a very strong majority in parliament and in the offices of government institutions, but they are not unopposed. Opposition parties and organisations have had the free, but still difficult, ability to organise and campaign for their causes. In 2018, the “1 of 5 Million” movement was able to successfully mobilise hundreds of thousands of people across the country to protest against the intimidation of opposition parties by state authorities. The mass mobilisation of politically conscious voters that occurred ranked as one of the largest in Serbia’s modern history. Even recently in the last year or so, the “Serbia Against Violence” movement also was able to mobilise tens of thousands of citizens to protest. A few sporadic scuffles with police occurred as expected but there was no massive violent crackdown as seen in Putin’s Russia. As much as it is difficult, opposition activists in Serbia can still conduct their activities, while in Russia they have all been chased out of the country or hunted out of existence.

In the 2022 parliamentary elections, the Serbian Progressive Party lost a significant number of seats to opposition parties and lost its “supermajority” status within parliament, something unheard of in Russia. The opposition parties that have successfully won seats are far from being “controlled” like in Russia. Especially in the last couple years or so, the opposition parties have ramped up their efforts to make themselves politically impactful within the country. Even as the establishment Serbian Progressive Party holds an advantage with its majority in parliament, the opposition remains a force to be reckoned with both now and in the future.

Two Orthodox Slavic nations, two very different geopolitical circumstances

One of Putin’s core political tenets is that Russia is a superpower that does not need to deal or cooperate heavily with the West. The Russian state has the clear ability to boast that it is a nuclear armed international power. The Russian military is one of the largest in Eurasia, while Russia’s nuclear arsenal is the largest in the world. Its economy is also in the global top 20 and it commands a whole military alliance in the form of the CSTO. Russia has displayed the ability to mobilise and influence other major states to support its interests, especially regarding the war in Ukraine. Serbia, on the other hand, is not even close regarding such capabilities.

Serbia does not have the political and military might to do what Russia does, a reality recognised by the Vučić administration. Unlike Russia, Serbia aims for EU integration and cooperation with western nations on a variety of grounds. When the EU and NATO have requested or pressured Serbia to act or respond in a certain way, negotiation and compliance was the result rather than outright resistance. During the multitude of political and diplomatic crises between Kosovo and Serbia, the Vučić administration was willing to heed the requests for negotiation and de-escalation from NATO and EU officials. Specifically, during the recent escalation of tensions this autumn, US State Department officials warned the Vučić administration about the military mobilisation on Kosovo’s border. Washington called for immediate demobilisation, to which the Serbian government complied and demobilised a large segment of its forces.

The Vučić administration knows that it cannot act in total independence and opposition to major powers within NATO and the EU. Even though pro-Russian talking points are a common sight in Serbian domestic politics, the foreign policy of the Serbian government is arguably not as puritanical in its “pro-Russian” label as assigned by western audiences. The Serbian military receives training from the US’s Ohio National Guard, while the country aspires to join the EU. At the same time, Western European businesses and economic investment are promoted as a cornerstone of Serbia’s economic objectives and most Serbs support better relations with the US and NATO aligned countries. It is also worth remembering that Serbia is a member of NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme. Cooperation and even integration with western institutions and nations is a significant segment of Vučić’s political agenda, while separation and independence from the West are the primary objectives for the Russians.

The issues with conflating two very different people with the same idea

It is quite easy and straightforward for many western officials and professionals within politics and diplomacy to put states displaying authoritarian traits into a single basket. However, many such states do not fall into a black and white categorisation of “democracy” versus “autocracy”. Not all states, regardless of how well they get along with each other, are built identically and run in identical fashion led by identical people. Especially with the Balkans, it is important that western leaders and audiences keep in mind that local political and diplomatic circumstances cannot be understood using the same lens that one would use with Russia. Both nations might be Slavic and Orthodox Christian, but they are not identical, from their populations at large to their well-dressed leaderships. Serbs are not Russians and Russians are not Serbs. Westerners should always keep in mind that there will always be nuance regarding a nation’s politics, no matter how easy it may be to conflate them together on the surface.

Stefan Mandic is a recent graduate of the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington DC with a degree in Political Science and a concentration in Comparative Politics. As the co-founder of the Student Association for Slavic Studies at AU, he actively contributed to fostering a deep understanding and appreciation for the cultural diversity and historical significance of the Slavic world. In pursuit of promoting diplomacy and cultural exchange, he founded the Ambassador Series at American UniversityBy hosting Ambassadors, the series aims to shed light on the contributions, cultural exchanges, and diplomatic relationships that have shaped the ties between the Slavic world and the United States. Currently a curator of conventional armaments from Central and Eastern Europe at the New Jersey National Guard Museum in Sea Girt, New Jersey. 

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