Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic gestures next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as they give a joint statement at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, September 7, 2015.
Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

At the end of the Cold War, it seemed like the line between the so-called international Left and international Right would disappear. It hasn’t. In fact, as Russia reasserts its spheres of influence and the United States and European powers scramble to build their own coalition, global politics is now more polarized than at any time since 1989.

Several countries on the European periphery, such as Greece, Hungary, Macedonia, and Slovenia, have leaned toward Russia. Several others are enticed by the economic boost that Russia promises to deliver through its revitalized Balkan Stream oil pipeline project. So it must come as a welcome surprise to Western leaders that Serbia, a traditional Russia ally, looks ready to go West. Whether early signals will become reality, though, remains to be seen.

During a June visit to Washington, Serbian Prime Minister Alexandar Vucic, publicly spoke of his plan to partner with the United States and Europe. During the speech, given at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, Vucic explained that he had made Serbia’s economic recovery a priority. Since transitioning from a communist system to a market-based one, Serbia’s economy encountered a severe decline during the 1990s and the Balkan wars, and it most recently took a hard hit with the post-2008 crisis that engulfed the whole region. In addition to economic reform Vucic stated that creating “an open and dynamic society” would be a central component of his reforms. Even more telling, he then reiterated what he has repeatedly told his European colleagues over the last year: that he plans for Serbia to join the European Union.

Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic sits alone before the speeches during a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in Potocari, near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina July 11, 2015.
Dado Ruvic / Reuters

Speaking about Serbia’s EU accession, Vucic discussed the economic reforms that he initiated while in office, including austerity measures and pension cuts. In light of the Greek crisis, his attempts to rein in spending, fight corruption, revamp the nation’s judicial system, and promote the country as a promising business opportunity have been crucial. With a new pro-Western foreign policy now apparently in tow, Vucic is already proclaimed in Europe as the man who has “brought Belgrade in from the cold.” Vucic’s plans for a new Serbia have likewise been met with a warm welcome from the United States.

But Western governments should pause before they fully embrace Vucic. His speeches and actions in the last year are full of mixed messages. He might be signaling a Westward shift, but his actions and words have not always aligned with this view.

TALK IS CHEAP

Vucic has been careful to emphasize the steps he has taken to normalize Serbia’s relations with its neighbors. During his speech in Washington, he talked about his first trip to Bosnia as Serbia’s head of state in May of 2014, and his latest February visit to Croatia for the inauguration of that country’s new president. Serbia has been at war with both countries at points during the past two decades. Vucic also mentioned his meeting with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama in Tirana last May, which marked the first visit by a Serbian head of state to Albania in almost 70 years.

Vucic’s visit to Washington this summer was also groundbreaking: It marked the first official visit by a Serbian head of state to the United States in 16 years. Speaking to an audience of U.S. diplomats, he proclaimed that the West would have “no problems with [Serbia] of any of [its] neighbors,” and that his goal is for the nation “to be a reliable partner to the United States.” He impressed upon the audience that turning around Serbia’s domestic and foreign policies after decades of mismanagement would be a herculean task, and that he was the only man for the job.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic places flowers during a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in Potocari, near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina July 11, 2015.
Antonio Bronic / Reuters

With Vucic’s government waiting for approval on 74 million dollar World Bank loan, there are plenty of reasons for him to play up his reform credentials and win friends in the West.   In fact, Vucic needs foreign support despite the fact that his approval rating is much higher than his opponents’; in a poll last January, roughly 53 percent of Serbs said they trusted his leadership, while the approval rating of other politicians was in the single digits.

Vucic is nevertheless caught in a domestic battle for power with current Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, a co-founder of Serbia’s Progressive Party who lost power within the party to Vucic, and former Prime Minister, Ivica Dacic, who was Prime Minister before Vucic and now reports to him. Also waiting in the wings is Vojislav Seselj, a former colleague from the Radical party and now a political rival, who, having been released from the Hague War Crimes Tribunal on medical grounds, has once again taken the helm of Serbia Radical Party and promised to politically take on Vucic and other former allies who left him in the Hague for a decade.

Like many European leaders, Vucic is also under pressure from the public, since some of the painful economic reforms he implemented have not yet yielded meaningful results. The prime minister’s critics have decried these reforms as a means for establishing false credibility with the West and accuse him of using the fight against corruption to eliminate his opponents. Serbia’s weak democratic mechanisms and its strong patronage system mean that Vucic approval ratings alone are not enough to secure his grip on power. To stay politically viable, he needs foreign support to legitimize and solidify his authority.

Serbia's Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic stands under pictures of Jews killed in the Holocaust during his visit to the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem's Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem December 1, 2014.
Ammar Awad / Reuters

UPON CLOSER INSPECTION

Western leaders, happy with Vucic’s pro-Western rhetoric, sense that he is a potential bulwark against Serbia’s radical voices and may be less inclined to look carefully at how he runs the country. Few may care that Vucic, now a staunch moderate and pro-Western leader, was one of the nation’s most radical anti-Western voices only ten years ago—so long as he steers the country away from Russia and toward the West.

The question remains, however, if he really is. When Vucic was asked if he would use Serbia’s special relationship with Russia to mediate against escalation in Ukraine, his answer was less than convincing. “Our strategic goal is joining the EU, but we want to preserve a good relationship with Russia. Serbia is a small country and has no influence on Russia,” he said. “We know our place.”

Further, Serbia, supposedly on a path to EU membership, has declined to join the European coalition’s Russian sanctions. Moscow promised a five-year $800 million loan to upgrade Serbian railways in 2013, and Belgrade enjoys millions in revenue from exports to Russia. When asked why Serbia did not join Europe’s sanctions, he said, “We cannot impose sanctions: we have to eat. We do not mean to play both sides.” And yet, contradictory signals have created this very effect.

Meanwhile, Vucic has been careful to court Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prior to Vucic’s visit to Washington in May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Belgrade. Last summer, Vucic visited Putin in Moscow to discuss Serbia’s close economic ties to Russia. And last October, Putin traveled to Belgrade to sign agreements with Serbia on trade, military, and technical cooperation, among other areas. When Putin arrived in Belgrade, he was invited to a military paradethat commemorated the Soviet Union’s participation in the liberation of Yugoslavia during WWII. By contrast, when invited to a July 4 celebration at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade this summer, Vucic refused to postpone a parliamentary session that prevented many government officials from attending.

To understand where Vucic is taking Serbia, Western leaders must realize that self-preservation tops his political agenda. Although he is now in favor of democracy, as minister of information under former Yugoslavian leader Slobodan Milosevic, Vucic was known for the harsh suppression of opposition voices within the media. He has been called a Russophile by The Economist, and once protested the arrest of war criminals Radovan Karadjic and Ratko Mladic.

Vucic has explained his decision to leave radical politics in 2008 to form the moderate Serbian Progressive party as part of his political maturation. More likely, Serbia’s radical end of political spectrum, crowded with rivals such as Nikolic, Dacic, and Seselj, would have left Vucic with little room to distinguish himself. Vucic’s shift toward moderate politics has allowed him to both carve out a distinct place in Serbia’s politics, and to also receive the personal attention and support of global powers. His drastic political repositioning, both domestically and internationally, is likely just pragmatism. U.S. policymakers should be equally pragmatic when it comes to dealing with Vucic, and be a little more sceptical of his geopolitical stance.

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