OPINION: Serbia’s Vucic sends the same old message with his new cabinet

OPINION: Serbia’s Vucic sends the same old message with his new cabinet
The composition of the new government indicates Serbia will keep trying to maintain ‘neutrality’ in the increasingly polarised global circumstances. / parlament.gov.rs
By Ann Smith in New York November 2, 2022

In the days after their appointment to the third cabinet of Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, Serbia’s new ministers met with representatives of the EU, the US and Nato, aiming to prove Belgrade’s continued commitment to balancing between Russia and the West. 

First Deputy Prime Minister and newly reappointed Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dacic met with the chairman of the Nato Military Committee, Admiral Rob Bauer. New/old Minister of Finance Sinisa Mali and the very fresh Minister of Defence Milos Vucevic had a tête-à-tête meeting with the US ambassador to Serbia Christopher Hill. All the sessions happened on October 28, the day when the ministers officially started their terms. 

On the same day, Brnabic and new Minister of Energy Dubravka Djedovic Negre joined the president of the country and the leader of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), Aleksandar Vucic, in hosting European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. This was a historic visit by von der Leyen that focussed on the progress of the interconnector between Serbia and Bulgaria, which will carry gas from Azerbaijan to Greece — a first step toward lowering Serbia’s 100% dependence on Russian gas. 

None of this would be news if just a couple days ago the announcement of the composition of the new government hadn’t indicated that Serbia will keep trying to maintain ‘neutrality’ in the increasingly polarised global circumstances. 

The Balkan country has been resisting suggestions from the West to join sanctions against Russia (even though it ultimately backs Ukrainian sovereignty). That’s the price for the Russian support for Serbia’s territorial integrity and veto in the United Nations Security Council on Kosovo’s application to join the UN. Selling national oil company NIS to Gazprom for ‘pocket money’ had the same political purpose that only put chains around Serbia’s neck and gave room for the Kremlin to access the market through its intelligence network and spread its malign influence. These moves resulted in the Serbian political leadership’s inability to say no to Russian President Vladimir Putin even when it causes direct damage to the citizens because a significant part of those citizens believe that the only true friend of Serbia is “mother Russia”.

Knowing that pro-Russian sentiment is spread throughout Serbian society (and also in his own party) almost as much as EU investments, Vucic needed a half a year to decide who he was going to propose to lead ministries in the cabinet that he says will be in power for just two years. Among the 28 ministers are some old names that just changed ministries as well as some new names. Some moves signalled a stepping away from EU and the Western world; some a distancing from Russia and dictatorship and aggression. 

However, none of the appointments provided the long-awaited answer to the question of whether the country is going to the East or to the West. The only clear sign is that this is going to be the government of continuity for Serbia’s attempts to be a ‘small Switzerland’ (if WWIII starts). Thus, no one will be surprised if tomorrow some new minister goes for dinner with the Russian ambassador to Serbia or has a phone consultation with some officials from Moscow.

Prominent experts

Despite some surprising changes and disappointing appointments, Brnabic will have a few prominent experts in her team until 2024, starting with new the ministers for EU integration, energy and human rights — Tanja Miscevic, Dubravka Djedovic Negre and Tomislav Zigmanov, respectively.

Miscevic’s appointment as minister for EU integration is a move that has been positively accepted even by the anti-government media. It comes at a moment when the country’s accession process is halted.

According to the new methodology for the EU accession process, currently two of the six clusters of chapters are opened; the latest being Cluster 4 on the green agenda and sustainable interconnectivity which opened under former minister Jadranka Joksimovic in December 2021. 

However, the EU’s reputation in Serbia has been constantly a target of pro-Russian politicians and media that try to present the EU as constantly supporting the Albanian side in Belgrade’s longstanding dispute with Pristina and blackmailing Serbia to officially recognise Kosovo (the EU cannot and does not request this since its five of its own members do not recognise Kosovo as an independent state). 

I believe Miscevic is better suited to this position than anyone else, as she led the team handling Serbia’s EU accession negotiations from 2013 to 2019 and since then was deputy secretary general of the Regional Cooperation Council.

She replaces Jadranka Joksimovic, who previously headed the ministry. Joksimovic served as minister without portfolio responsible for EU integration, chief negotiator and National IPA coordinator from 2014 to 2017. That year the Ministry for EU Integration was established, which Joksimovic headed until 2022.

Joksimovic was a member of the far-right Serbian Radical Party (SRS) where she worked on the party’s magazine “The Greater Serbia”. She left the SRS together with Vucic to form the SNS in 2008, and went on to receive a “Rainbow” award from the Gay Straight Alliance for her contribution to the promotion and improvement of LGBT+ rights. Despite this about turn, it is still not certain to me how much she believes in the EU and its values. 

Miscevic is a professor specialising in international organisations at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade, where Joksimovic graduated. In her interview with European Western Balkans, Miscevic said the “European Union is and continues to be strong support and assistance to the region, our best and most loyal partner!” 

Tomislav Zigmanov, an ethnic Croat who lives and works in the northern city of Subotica, has become the new minister for human and minority rights and social dialogue, in one of the big surprises of the new cabinet, being the country’s first Croat minister. He is president of the Democratic Union of Croats in Vojvodina (DSHV) and was an MP from 2016 until 2020. He replaced Gordana Comic, one of the main actors in the country’s first democratic government. Even though not having Comic in the cabinet is disappointing, adding Zigmanov could improve relations with Croatia and eventually secure its support on Serbia’s EU path. He is one of very few politicians in the country that has been openly advocating sanctions on Russia, saying: “that is a mandatory thing if we want to be part of politics synchronised with the EU and the political West!”

The hot energy potato 

When people in Serbia want to say ‘you throw me under the bus’, they actually say: ‘you throw a hot potato in my hands’. In politics, that ‘hot potato’ is the energy sector. With complete dependence on Russian gas, it has been a hot potato since 2008, when NIS was gifted to Gazprom. Back in 2012, when Vucic’s SNS formed its first government with the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and he was first deputy prime minister — a newly created position that earned him the nickname PPV (Prvi Potpredsednik Vlade) — and minister of defence, gas diversification was a topic of every international conference and PPV announced talks with Azerbaijan. The Kremlin obviously didn’t like the idea and did everything to obstruct it. 10 years later, diversification is just about to start — thanks to the EU. 

Meanwhile, maintaining energy and political stability was a hot potato in hands of Zorana Mihajlovic at the beginning of the SNS’ time in power and again during the last two years. She joined the SNS in 2010 after previously working as an adviser on energy to then deputy PM Miroljub Labus. From 2014 until 2020, she served as minister for infrastructure in the cabinets of Vucic and Brnabic. In that period, the minister of energy was an SPS official, Aleksandar Antic. It was believed that his appointment was a result of pressure from Moscow. Mihajlovic was always openly pro-EU and pro-US and her political opponents, mainly from her own party, the SNS, would say that “she goes to the US embassy to get an opinion”. Despite this, she was always one of Vucic’s most loyal people, always standing by his side — that’s why the public was shocked when she wasn’t selected by Vucic for any ministry, especially since she has the most experience and knowledge about energy of any top politician, which is currently much needed. 

Leaving Mihajlovic out of the new cabinet was initially seen as a bad message for the EU and US because it just looked like pleasing Moscow (again). Appointing Negre, a name completely unknown to the public, was another shock. It indicated that the decision was made at the last moment and under pressure because somebody wanted to see the back of Mihajlovic. Negre is an expert in the banking industry — she spent five years as director of the regional office for the Western Balkans at the European Investment Bank (EIB) and a year as a member of the executive board of NLB Komercijalna banka. Based on publicly available information, it is hard to see what her qualifications are for her new job, though she did gain education and professional experience in the West. 

Kicking Mihajlovic out of the cabinet is a victory for the far-right wing of the SNS, for politicians like Vladimir Djukanovic. He was always openly critical of Mihajlovic and threatened that he would not stay on as an MP if she remained in the government. He was an angry critic of her stance on the need to impose sanctions on Russia. Djukanovic not only opposes sanctions (a common position in Serbia), he went even further in support of Russia; back in 2014, he was an observer in the so called ‘parliamentary elections’ in Donetsk and Luhansk, organised by Russia. 

Mihajlovic said she is not going to leave politics and that she will keep fighting for “Serbia in the West”. Some believe this is an announcement of the eventual formation of a new party or her plans to join some in the current opposition (even though no parties hold that position as openly and loudly as she does). However, her chances are not high because she was constantly a target of negative narrative in pro-Kremlin media, which significantly degraded her reputation. 

Alongside Mihajlovic, Nebojsa Stefanovic, who led the ministry of defence and was also seen as “a US player”, also lost his job as minister. He didn’t leave on bad terms and Vucic said he was never going to behave like Mihajlovic. 

Point man for Moscow 

It is interesting that it is not easy to predict who among the new ministers, besides Dacic and his predecessor Nikola Selakovic, who now leads the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Policy, could be the one to welcome Russian colleagues. Fanatic admirer of Russia and big hater of the EU, Aleksandar Vulin is out of the new team. Another Russophile, Nenad Popovic, who served as minister without portfolio, is also out. 

It is unlikely that Vulin will remain unemployed and local media speculate that he will take over the Security Intelligence Agency (BIA). The last BIA director, Bratislav Gasic, is now minister of interior, Vulin’s previous assignment. Gasic served as minister of defence until early 2016 when Vucic had to fire him because of his sexist comments to a female journalist. Gasic hasn’t (yet) publicly articulated his geopolitical preferences.  

Minister of health Zlatibor Loncar is also out and his seat is taken by the neurosurgeon Danica Grujicic. Grujicic is openly a fan of the East and promoter of the SputnikV COVID-19 vaccine made in Serbia (but only if vaccination is a must). Despite her political opinions, she is still one of the highest rated doctors in the country. 

Comeback for ‘Little Sloba’?

One face on the Serbian political scene that is timeless is Ivica Dacic, popular as ‘Little Sloba’, a nickname he earned because he initially worked closely with the late dictator Slobodan Milosevic and then took over the SPS. 

The breakup of Yugoslavia, the wars and the awful years of the 1990s — years of international isolation, sanctions, mobilisation, electricity restrictions, hyperinflation and everything bad that could happen to a country — should have meant the faces from those days are no longer part of Serbian political life, but that didn’t happen. Dacic hasn’t moved from the top positions in the country. He is now back as minister of foreign affairs. 

This looks like an order from Moscow, where numerous SPS members escaped after the democratic changes in 2000, along with Milosevic’s family. But, their links with today’s party are weakening since most of them are either too old or already dead. It is unlikely that Dacic will have a lot of power in this position because Vucic himself controls Serbia’s foreign policy as president. Unless, just like in 2013, when Dacic was PM even though his SPS was a junior partner to the SNS, Vucic decides to drop a hot potato in his hands and task him to sign a new deal with Kosovo. In 2013, that was the Brussels Agreement.

Children of the SRS

The SNS was initially created by former members of the SRS and followers of its far-right leader Vojislav Seselj, who still proudly expresses his nationalism and hate. Vucic distanced himself from this narrative, claiming that he has changed since the 1990s, when Serbia was at war with its neighbours in former Yugoslavia, and that only a “donkey doesn’t change”. 

In the 14 years since he formed the SNS, more and more people from the SRS have joined him. One of the once passionate members of the SRS, Aleksandar Martinovic, transferred to the SNS in 2012 to become an MP in 2016. Despite switching parties, he continued the SRS behaviour pattern in the parliament — obstruction of any kind of speech that is not pleasant to his ears. He has been one of the loudest and rudest SNS representatives in the parliament. A few days ago, he became minister of public administration and local self-government. 

Another founder of the SRS who flew over to the SNS is new/old Minister of Culture and Information Maja Gojkovic. She has never left the political scene after siding with Seselj in the early 1990s. She has been well known in the country since she served as parliament speaker from 2014 until 2020. 

Following a similar path to Gojkovic, who was mayor of Novi Sad in 2004-2008, Milos Vucevic left the same position in the main city of the northern Vojvodina province to become minister of defence and deputy prime minister. Vucevic is another child of the SRS. Following the footsteps of his father, Vucevic joined the SRS in the nineties but followed Vucic out in 2008. 

Vucevic is one to watch as based on Vucic’s announcements, he will be Serbia’s next prime minister. Vucic picked Brnabic to remain as PM for the first half of the current parliamentary term for the sake of “continuity in the current complexity". 

Between the EU and Russia

This is the fifth government formed by the SNS since 2012. Brnabic claims her job is to stay on the EU path but not to impose sanctions on Russia. Maintaining this is not only hard in the international arena but also within the country. Serbian society has been sharply divided among those that would like to see their country democratised and closer to the developed economies (the political West), while the other side blindly believes in Russian propaganda and would rather ‘follow the heart’ even if the price is to live in autocracy and isolation. Both sides expect Vucic to act in line with their preferences and impose (or not impose) sanctions on Russia. There are many on both sides who hate him as well. 

Meanwhile, his goal is not to lose any of his power and to maintain the balance between global powers, and ordinary people are already paying a price for that. 

Vucic’s refusal to align with any side has jeopardised people’s freedom of speech, as it allowed the loudest voices in Serbia — typically belonging to fans of the Russian president or ‘Putinoids’ as they are dubbed — to drown out all others. 

Thus many refrain from expressing their opinions, trying to stay away from any potential trouble that speaking aloud about a personal political opinion can get them in. It is most likely that the ones who don’t dare to comment would rather see Serbia in company with the majority of the European continent instead of with Russia and Belarus. But they have been silent because the others are too loud and aggressive. Consequently, Vucic will only be able to hear the voices of ‘Putinoids’. Combined with his (absolutely justified) fear of Putin, Serbia is at high risk of regaining its bad reputation from the 90s or, even worse, international isolation. 

Ann Smith has been following and writing about transitional justice, war crimes, human rights, security (defence and terrorism), European and Euro-Atlantic aspirations and international relations in the Balkans since 2000. She holds a masters degree in humanitarian international law as well as in journalism/political sciences.

Editor's note: This article has been amended to update the information on Serbia's progress in its EU accession negotiations and to add more detail on former minister Jadranka Joksimovic's role at the Ministry for EU Integration.