President Aleksandar Vucic would prefer think that dark forces beyond the borders are manipulating demonstrators in Serbia rather than acknowledge that protests in Belgrade are a sign of dissatisfaction with his government. After winning a landslide victory in "elections" that were boycotted by the opposition in June, Vucic now controls two-thirds of the seats in parliament.
Vucic has no explanation for how "foreign agents" could control tens of thousands of people all over Serbia. Nor does he name any names. He is simply spreading the same conspiracy theories that date back to Yugoslavia's ruling Communist party.
He learned how to do this from his mentor, the late President Slobodan Milosevic, who also mutated from Communist to nationalist. Vucic, too, claims to be a democratic ruler and has adopted his mentor's methods for holding onto power: clamping down on dissent, consolidating the media and keeping the judicial system under control.
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Serbs feel cheated
Serbs have gone out onto the streets to demonstrate because they feel cheated — and not just by the election results. The protests are also about the coronavirus pandemic. In the weeks leading up to the polls, Vucic lifted most of the measures put in place to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, claiming that the pandemic was under control.
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Suddenly, it seems as if the situation is much worse than Vucic had said. The virus continues to spread, and people are dying. The economy is in free fall. And the president refuses to take responsibility.
Vucic has responded to the demonstrations by sending in his henchmen — sometimes in uniform, sometimes as undercover agents provocateurs who initiate violence to discredit the peaceful protesters. Contrary to what Vucic has said, the police are not holding back. The internet is rife with footage of officers hitting men and women on the ground, even children. Domestic security forces have long been the country's shame.
EU must act
Serbia is not a democracy. And, until it is, it should not be considered a potential member of the European Union. The EU has enough to deal with with the autocratic leaders already in its ranks. It does not need another.
When Germany took over the presidency of the European Council last week, Chancellor Angela Merkel said some nice-sounding words about the state of law and democracy in the EU. However, words are not enough. Action is necessary. Serbia's accession negotiations should be suspended for as long as Vucic is in power. EU officials should call for an independent investigation into the brutal assaults on demonstrators. If Serbia refuses to cooperate, then its interior and defense ministers should be refused entry into EU countries.
The European Union cannot allow Serbia to get away with this. Merkel has supported Vucic for too long. He could cast a shadow on her successful chancellorship.
Vucic's strength is a weak and divided opposition. Despite the fact that he is an atheist, the president has managed to co-opt the Serbian Orthodox Church. Some bishops in the Vojvodina region were taken in by him. All the state apparatuses and resources are under his control. He could in theory stay in power as long as this remains the case.
What is even more tragic is that this is not necessarily a matter of alarm internationally. There is peace in the Balkans. Young well-educated Serbs have left the country in droves to try their luck in Canada, France and Germany. There were about 10 million Serbs living in the Balkans after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Now, there are about 7 million — and there might be less than half that many within a few decades at this rate.