The absence of pro-EU opposition parties from the Serbian legislature for the first time in two decades testifies to long-term trends in the country that have worrying implications.
Serbia went to the polls on June 21, 2020, with the political menu mainly consisting of right-leaning political groups, which, as expected, caused the parliamentary pendulum to swing towards the right. For the first time since 2000, no pro-European opposition entered parliament.
Opinions about migrants and the slowdown in European integration have helped the spread of right-wing organisations and populist rhetoric. With Serbia facing an economic crisis, due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and with efforts accelerating to resolve the Kosovo issue, all politicians – especially those from the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, SNS – have an important responsibility to refrain from encouraging populism and ideologically motivated extremism.
The election was contested by 16 non-minority electoral lists, ten of which were on the right of the spectrum, not including the ethnic minority parties, which also leaned to the right. Together, these right-leaning parties won more than 77 per cent of the popular vote, with nine of the ten being more right wing than right-of-centre, a position prototypically occupied by the ruling SNS.
According to the election results, three non-minority lists gained seats in parliament, two of which represent the political right – the SNS and Aleksandar Sapic’s Serbian Patriotic Union, SPAS, as have four minority lists, all of which espouse principles that put them closer to the right than the left.
This state of affairs is only the final example of long-term trends in Serbian party politics that have been present ever since 2012, gaining more traction after 2016.
Shift caused by several factors
The growth of the political right and the increase in right-wing narratives can be attributed to a number of reasons. First, the 2015 migrant crisis stirred up the ghosts of authoritarianism and nationalism. Second, uncritical media outlets quickly recast the global advance of populism as a seductive story of countries “fighting the establishment in defence of national sovereignty”.
Third, one specifically Serbian reason has been the slowdown in the country’s European Union accession negotiations, which has created space for “alternative” political offerings and narratives.
Where locals come into close contact with migrants, such as in towns hosting reception centres, the Serbian public has exhibited social distance towards them. At the same time, social networks have been used to spread right-wing narratives about the alleged dangers that migrants pose to the local population.
These narratives are only sporadically condemned in public. By contrast, tabloids exploit them uncritically for sensationalist, attention-grabbing headlines.
The most fertile ground for right-wing ideas by far is found on social media – the source of populist policies throughout the world – where these narratives consistently walk the razor’s edge between legitimate ideas and conspiracy theories and fake news.
Finally, Serbia’s stalled EU membership negotiations and popular fatigue with the excessively long accession process have created an environment in which populist policies seem attractive.
Support for EU accession stood at 73 per cent in November 2009 and was over 60 per cent until early 2011, remaining stable until the 2020 election at slightly above 50 per cent, in spite of temporary dips, to 41 per cent in December 2012, for instance. Since mid-2013, EU membership was never opposed by more than 30 per cent of those polled.
The evolving political context is compounded by efforts to resolve the Kosovo issue, which have accelerated immediately since the election to a pace dictated by the US administration. A series of meetings have been scheduled to take place in Washington, following undoubtedly coordinated visits by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Belgrade and by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to Moscow.
These diplomatic exchanges matter not only as vehicles for political influence – or pressure, depending on the observer’s point of view. They are also powerful stimulants for conservative narratives, given that right-wing organisations in Serbia are, as a rule, pro-Russian.
Public opinion is also a major factor driving the influence of these groups: a recent survey showed that as many as 87 per cent of Serbians see Russia in a positive light [51 per cent have a “highly favourable” opinion, with another 36 per cent report a “somewhat favourable” view]. In the same poll, as many as 80 per cent saw Russia as Serbia’s most important political partner.
The growth of right-wing narratives is meanwhile somewhat restrained by the fact that the SNS, the leading political party, espouses a right-of-centre ideology. More importantly, the SNS is a catch-all party, a mainstream political organisation that captures the broadest range of socio-demographic strata and a wide variety of opinions. Its reach is so extensive that its supporters include both radical left-wingers and radical right-wingers, but the influence of both of these extremes remains limited.
Risk of growing extremism
The silent growth of populism and right-wing narratives has influenced all of political life at three levels. First, parliamentary politics have shifted to the right, with pro-European opposition parties absent from the legislature for the first time. Partial election reruns will not change the make-up of parliament as only right-wing groups stand a chance to gain seats.
Second, rising populism, stalled EU accession talks, and major differences between Serbia’s and the EU’s approaches to the Kosovo dialogue have affected Serbian public opinion of the EU. Even though support for EU membership has held steady at above half of the population, it may take nothing more than a minor obstacle or deterioration in relations – and Kosovo might be a strong trigger – for this support to be lost.
Third, these processes may strengthen forms of ideologically motivated extremist behaviour that are not imported but inherent to Serbian society, such as religious extremism. Young people, who form the core of football hooligan groups, are an important category at risk from such radicalisation, because although hooliganism is a separate form of extremism, in Serbia it is closely linked with right-wing narratives.