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Everything you need to know about Serbian sentiments: from economic worries to foreign policy

Opinions within Serbian society are shaped by a complex interplay of historical perceptions, national propaganda, and actual circumstances. A new poll underscores the nation’s multifaced anxieties and highlights the persistent fissures within Serbian society. While the majority of Serbs voice socio-economic concerns shared across Europe, their foreign policy outlook remains sceptical of western integration.

May 29, 2024 - Leon Hartwell - Articles and Commentary

East gate of Belgrade. Photo: Gideon Ikigai / Shutterstock

A new survey conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI) illuminates the prevailing sentiments among Serbian citizens today. In a milieu rife with multifaceted worries, ranging from economic instability to geopolitical factors, the Serbian populace has articulated their concerns with a blend of apprehension and nuanced outlooks.

Economic anxieties at the forefront

When confronted with a multifaceted array of potential worries, ranging from electricity shortages to the spectre of natural disasters, the Serbian populace resoundingly voiced their top three preoccupations: soaring prices, entrenched corruption, and the persistent scourge of unemployment.

High prices emerged as the paramount concern, resonating with 28 per cent of respondents. This is emblematic of the economic pressures bearing down on everyday livelihoods. Following closely behind, corruption cast a shadow over public trust, with eight per cent of respondents highlighting its corrosive effects on the population. Meanwhile, unemployment, perennially looming as a spectre of economic insecurity, weighed heavily on the minds of seven per cent of respondents, underscoring the profound impact of joblessness on individual welfare and national prosperity.

Despite a prevailing optimism among 55 per cent of respondents regarding the economic prospects for their households, a notable cohort of 44 per cent harboured a sombre assessment, viewing the economic landscape through a lens tinted with shades of uncertainty and adversity.

Zooming out to a macro level, when Serbians were asked to describe the current status of the economy, the majority of respondents – 69 per cent – gave negative answers, while only 30 per cent expressed satisfaction. However, it should be noted that Serbians exhibited a less pessimistic outlook compared to their regional counterparts.

Yearning for stability amidst calls for change

According to a substantial portion of respondents (approximately 57 per cent), the imperative of “stability and continuity” stands out as the thing that Serbia needs most at present. Conversely, around 40 per cent of those surveyed advocate for “change” as the critical need of the hour.

Delving further into the notion of change, insights from the IRI poll reveal that for 43 per cent of respondents, the most crucial change entails a shift in the top political leadership and ruling parties. Close behind, approximately 35 per cent of respondents emphasize the urgency of addressing the economic situation and enhancing social justice, signalling a demand for tangible reforms to uplift livelihoods and ensure equitable opportunities.

Furthermore, around 12 per cent of respondents underscore the importance of a change in administrative standards, advocating for measures to combat corruption and elevate professionalism within institutions. A smaller yet notable contingent, comprising approximately ten per cent of respondents, noted the necessity for a shift in cultural standards and practices, encompassing realms such as media ethics, educational paradigms and the reduction of violence.

Despite these varied perspectives on the need for change, the survey reveals divided sentiments regarding the likelihood of a significant transformation in the near future. Approximately 49 per cent of respondents express optimism, deeming it somewhat or very likely that substantial change can materialize in Serbia. Conversely, an equal proportion harbour reservations, considering such change somewhat or very unlikely. This dichotomy underscores the complex dynamics shaping public expectations and apprehensions regarding the trajectory of Serbia’s evolution in the coming years.

On governance and trust

When tasked with assessing the current state of “human rights”, “freedom of expression” and “media freedom”, a significant majority of respondents, constituting approximately 60, 62 and 59 per cent respectively, conveyed a positive outlook. However, notable segments, comprising 39, 36 and 44 per cent of the populace respectively, voiced reservations, signalling a discernible undercurrent of concern regarding the robustness of protections for fundamental liberties within the Serbian polity.

As for attitudes toward the state of “law and order”, while a minority of Serbians, constituting 44 per cent, express scepticism about it, a majority, comprising 53 per cent, view it positively. Similarly, when it comes to perceptions of democracy, while a majority (58 per cent) espouse optimism, a significant segment of society (39 per cent) possesses reservations, reflecting a divided landscape of public sentiment towards democratic governance.

In terms of institutional confidence, the army commands a significant level of trust, with 80 per cent of respondents expressing confidence in its integrity, followed closely by religious institutions, which enjoy a trust rating of 71 per cent. The police, though to a lesser extent, still garner a noteworthy level of trust, with 68 per cent of respondents placing faith in their efficacy. However, confidence in the independence of the media remains somewhat tepid, with only 60 per cent of Serbians expressing trust in its autonomy.

Turning to political figures, the president emerges as a focal point of trust, with 58 per cent of respondents placing their faith in his leadership. This is compared to the prime minister, who only garners the trust of 50 per cent of respondents. Notably, when asked about specific personalities, Aleksandar Vučić commands a significant lead, with 38 per cent of respondents signalling their preference for him. Meanwhile, Ivica Dačić and Ana Brnabić emerge as the favoured secondary choices, with both figures tied, each garnering 19 per cent of respondents’ preferences.

However, a pervasive sentiment of distrust pervades perceptions of parliamentary efficacy and political party integrity, with a majority of Serbians (54 and 69 per cent respectively) expressing explicit cynicism in these institutions. Moreover, confidence in the national electoral commission remains divided, with only 50 per cent of respondents expressing trust, while 43 per cent remain explicitly distrustful. This is unsurprising given the serious questions that persist regarding the last parliamentary election. Such sentiments underscore a notable erosion of public trust in the mechanisms underpinning Serbia’s democratic processes.

Finally, confidence in the country’s judicial system remains relatively low, with only 52 per cent of Serbian respondents expressing trust, while 46 per cent remain expressly distrustful. This reflects enduring apprehensions regarding the efficacy and impartiality of the judiciary.

Navigating international relations

In the realm of international relations, Serbia’s strongest ally, as per prevailing public sentiment, is resoundingly Russia (46 per cent), followed by China (14 per cent) and Hungary (five per cent). In stark contrast, the United States finds itself an unpopular option, with a staggering 80 per cent of Serbian respondents expressing unfavourable views toward US President Joe Biden. Conversely, Russia and China enjoy overwhelming favourability ratings, with 88 per cent of respondents viewing both nations in positive terms. Their authoritarian leaders, President Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping, enjoy widespread support in Serbia, boasting approval ratings of 80 and 73 per cent respectively.

The IRI poll vividly illustrates a notable scepticism in Serbia towards the West. When queried about Serbia’s foreign policy trajectory, only a minority, comprising ten per cent, advocate for an exclusively pro-EU and western orientation, while 14 per cent espouse a pro-western stance while maintaining relations with Russia. A substantial portion of respondents, totalling 31 per cent, buy into Vučić’s attempt to promote a Titoist Yugoslav policy of non-alignment, balancing Serbia between pro-western and pro-Russian affiliations. Nonetheless, a substantial segment, constituting 27 per cent, assert that Serbia should prioritize relations with Russia while maintaining ties with the EU and the West, and 12 per cent advocate for an exclusive alignment with Russia.

Meanwhile, sentiments towards EU membership remain tepid. If a referendum were held today, only 40 per cent of Serbian respondents said they would vote in favour of joining the EU, while 34 per cent would explicitly vote against it. A notable proportion, comprising 17 per cent, expresses apathy towards the issue, with a minority (seven per cent) claiming uncertainty regarding their voting preference. Moreover, scepticism regarding the EU’s sincerity in offering membership to Western Balkan countries is palpable, with only 30 per cent of Serbians expressing trust in the EU’s intentions.

Turning to NATO, a notable aversion is evident, with nearly four out of ten Serbians (39 per cent) advocating for no relationship whatsoever with the military alliance, and 30 per cent advocating for increased communication but no cooperation. Furthermore, NATO’s global role is viewed unfavourably by an overwhelming 84 per cent of Serbian respondents, underscoring deep-seated perceptions regarding the alliance.

So what?

While the Vučić regime is becoming increasingly authoritarian, the latest IRI poll exposes fissures within Serbian society, indicating growing discontent with the status quo. Despite Vučić’s enduring popularity, the survey unveils a populace increasingly conscious of institutional flaws and dissatisfied with the trajectory of governance.

To some extent, one could argue that the majority of Serbians accept the Vučić regime, at least for as long as the economy is growing. Nonetheless, socio-economic concerns – notably soaring prices, corruption and unemployment – dominate public discourse, underlining the delicate balance between economic stability and political complacency. Amidst these worries, discontent brews over issues of the rule of law, democracy and media freedom, signalling a growing awareness of Serbia’s democratic deficit and human rights challenges.

Furthermore, the IRI poll underscores waning enthusiasm for EU membership, despite substantial investments and engagement on the part of Brussels. Over the years, the EU has fallen short in effectively leveraging its economic tools to incentivize Belgrade’s positive behaviour and deter undesirable actions.

Meanwhile, the Vučić regime’s strategic alignment with Russia and China further complicates Serbia’s relationship with the West. By promoting ties with Moscow and Beijing while downplaying western support for Serbia, the regime perpetuates a narrative of geopolitical diversification. Over time, this poses serious challenges for both Serbia’s EU aspirations as well as its democratization.

Moreover, the lack of enthusiasm for EU membership complicates efforts to resolve the ongoing Serbia-Kosovo conflict. The IRI poll reinforces the perspective that the primary tool that once propelled the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue – the so-called “EU carrot” – is by and large a fantasy. As a result, the EU must recalibrate its approach and explore alternative strategies to address the conflict outside the confines of the traditional negotiation framework.

Dr. Leon Hartwell is a Senior Associate at LSE IDEAS, London School of Economics (LSE), a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington D.C., and a Visiting Fellow at the European Leadership Network (ELN) in London. @LeonHartwell

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