Deconstructing Serbia and Macedonia’s 2016 elections

Deconstructing Serbia and Macedonia’s 2016 elections

Upcoming elections will consolidate the ruling party’s grip on power in Serbia and could well return a disgraced government to power in Macedonia. EU leaders will gloss over the former, and despair at the latter.

The Western Balkan countries of Serbia and Macedonia are due – for different reasons – to hold elections in spring 2016. Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić called fresh elections in January, to be held in March or April; while Macedonia was essentially strong-armed into a poll, scheduled for April 24th, in an EU-brokered agreement last summer.

Both countries’ relationship with the EU, corruption scandals, and attempts to consolidate – or hang on to – power, loom large.

Serbia’s election to maintain status-quo

Vučić’s stock is running high. Serbia was praised by EU leaders last year in its efforts to ‘normalize’ relations with Kosovo, despite numerous protests in Pristina and tear gas incidents in the Kosovar parliament over a separate EU deal to give the minority Serbs there more autonomy.

Vučić was able to claim a victory in December with the long hoped for start of EU accession talks. Soon after, a significant number of officials were arrested on corruption charges, again seen as a positive step by the EU.

With two years left in the current government’s term, the Prime Minister surprisingly called for a fresh election this spring. Having won almost 50% of the vote in 2014, and with similar opinion poll numbers now, critics have labelled the move a cynical ploy to consolidate the ruling Serbian Progressive Party’s (SNS) power.

Vučić himself claims it is in the country’s best interests to provide governing continuity while Serbia negotiates with the EU over membership. Other European leaders may agree and have a vested interest in Serbia’s integration. Repelling Russian influence in the Western Balkans, as well as assistance in coping with the migration crisis, have accelerated Serbia’s transition from outcast to the EU’s waiting room.

Despite progress in the Balkans, there are, however, still signs of the nationality-based politics that has dogged the region. Serbia has said that it will allow Serbs in Northern Kosovo to vote in the election. This unlikely to go down well in Pristina, already under pressure from having acquiesced, in principle, to more autonomy for the province.

Meanwhile, in the Republika Srpska (RS) – the Serb-dominated segment of Bosnia – President Milorad Dodik defied the Federation’s Constitutional Court by marking January 9th as the RS’s ‘Statehood Day’. Vučić managed to antagonise Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) in the rest of the country by attending the celebrations.

Nevertheless, the EU appears to be pursuing a strategy in the Western Balkans that seems set on walking these unpredictable – and often volatile – countries closer down the path of integration. In other words, they are increasing the dose of Realpolitik.

Election uncertainty for Macedonia in 2016

Another example of this is the current crisis in Macedonia. Long-standing Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski was forced to resign in January ahead of elections due on April 24th as a result of wide-ranging corruption and wiretapping claims.

As the crisis deepened, the EU has closely supervised the country in the past year, most notably European Commissioner Johannes Hahn. Nevertheless, progress on reforms – including a new media law – has been too slow for many, both in Macedonia and observers outside the country.

Opposition leaders are calling for April’s elections to be delayed to allow time for the unity government to implement reforms and to distance itself from the old regime. Gruevski himself seems likely to regain power if the April vote goes ahead. If opposition parties boycott the poll, or deem it unfair, the country could be plunged into new tumult.

Finally, the government in another former Yugoslav state, Montenegro, has recently survived a vote of no confidence. Veteran Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic has been dogged by corruption scandals and – similarly to Macedonia – of restricting the freedom of the media.

Outside interest in the tiny country – unusually for the region it is a stable multi-ethnic unitary state – has increased since it was offered NATO membership in December. The NATO issue has divided the country and many in Serbia have called for the Montenegrins to hold a referendum on membership.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently attacked NATO’s move, also calling for a referendum. In an attempt to invoke the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, Lavrov said: “They know that most likely the people whom NATO bombarded a couple of decades ago have not forgotten it, and that will be difficult to accept with enthusiasm the idea of their leadership to forget many things by joining NATO.”

Some commentators see Russian interference and mischief-making at every turn in the Western Balkans, in an attempt to block EU integration in the region. This underestimates the political will, and capital that the EU has invested there. Specifically, the EU desires aspiring Balkan countries to have access to EU funds and its single market as Brussels and Berlin are seeking assistance over the migration crisis, and need the Balkans in order to impose controls over refugee flows.

If elections this year in the Western Balkans are even vaguely to the EU’s liking, we can expect further movement on integration issues.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Robert Ledger

Robert Ledger is an analyst on European affairs, with a particular focus on the Balkan and Caucasus regions. He has an MA in International Relations from Brunel University and a PhD in political science from Queen Mary University London.