Vucic’s Serbia is Waging Political War Against its Neighbours

Aleksandar Vucic’s Serbia is a revanchist regime trying to remake the balance of power in the Western Balkans. And for the moment, Vucic has a free hand to do as he pleases.

While the global coronavirus pandemic understandably continues to suck up virtually all media attention on both sides of the Atlantic – and what little is left is consumed by the US presidential campaign – politics in the Western Balkans continues. Nowhere more so than in the halls of power in Belgrade.

The lay reader could be forgiven for losing sight of the big picture in the region, given the state of world affairs. Unfortunately, much the same appears to be true of policymakers in Washington, Brussels and key European capitals. So a reminder seems in order.

Aleksandar Vucic’s rule in Serbia is not merely veering towards autocracy, nor is the government he controls merely a revisionist regime negating the historical facts of Belgrade’s role in the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the subsequent wars launched by its then strongman leader Slobodan Milosevic.

It is a revanchist regime, seeking deliberately to remake the Western Balkan balance of power and even the contours of the region’s state system in its own image. To that end, Belgrade is presently involved in a series of political warfare campaigns in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Montenegro, while in the recent past it has been involved in similar projects in Croatia and North Macedonia.

Greater Serbia dream not dead

For political scientists and scholars of grand strategy, political warfare has a precise definition.

The one provided in 1948 by George Keenan, arguably the most influential American diplomat of the 20th century, remains paradigmatic: “political warfare is the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives. Such operations are both overt and covert. They range from such overt actions as political alliances, economic measures…and ‘white’ propaganda to such covert operations as clandestine support of ‘friendly’ foreign elements, ‘black’ psychological warfare and even encouragement of underground resistance in hostile states.”

Let us break down Keenan’s account in order.

What are Serbia’s “national objectives”? Vucic’s Belgrade is concerned with: i. establishing strongman rule at home to address the perceived loss of stature following the fall of Milosevic; ii. positioning itself as the key military and political power in the Western Balkans, iii. undermining the political and territorial integrity of neighbouring states – primarily Bosnia and Kosovo – by using local actors in those states to maintain a controlling stake in these polities’ internal politics, with an eye toward eventually “re-incorporating” portions of their territory into a “renewed” greater Serbian state.

Enough has been written on Serbia’s democratic retreat under Vucic’s tenure that for the purposes of this discussion that point can be taken at face value.

Likewise, the literature of Serbia’s aggressive re-armament programme – which has seen the country spend tens of millions of dollars on modern Russian, Chinese, and even French weapons systems – is well established. Between 2019 and 2020, Serbia saw the 5th biggest increase in military spending in the world (a remarkable year-on-year gain of 43 per cent), and the highest in the region. And recent comments by Vucic stating that Belgrade is in the market for at least 20 new fighter jets suggest his government is far from done.

The third point is no more difficult to prove. Milorad Dodik, the secessionist chieftain of the long-dominant Alliance of Independent Social Democrats in Bosnia’s mainly Serb Republika Srpska entity, is Vucic’s closest foreign associate, and Vucic is the primary sponsor of Dodik’s near daily political adventurism in Bosnia.

In Kosovo, Serbia maintains a de facto occupation of the country’s mainly Serb populated north via a hub of local political actors and a network of criminal groups, under the control of the Belgrade regime. Vucic has also made clear his desire to formally incorporate Kosovo’s north in Serbia proper.

In Montenegro, proxies of the Vucic government are involved in a concerted campaign to topple the long-ruling Milo Djukanovic through a combination of street protests and media disinformation (i.e. “white propaganda”). Moreover, in 2016, elements linked to Belgrade and Moscow attempted an ill-conceived coup against Montenegro’s government, and there are reasons to suspect that a similar attempt may have, at least, been tested in North Macedonia in 2017.

Serbia projecting influence far beyond its borders

As it continues to engage in these operations in neighbouring states, Belgrade adeptly balances the competing interests of the US, the EU, Russia, and China in the region.

In so doing, it creates the perception that Serbia is the central powerbroker in Western Balkan affairs. As such, Serbia must be cajoled and encouraged rather than confronted and rebuffed by these foreign powers because, according to the classical realist calculus to which Vucic appeals, the former Yugoslavia is Serbia’s natural sphere of influence.

In this sense, and to quote the former British Ambassador Ivor Roberts’ account of Milosevic, Vucic plays both pyromaniac and firefighter in regional affairs. Along with the robust Serbian intelligence apparatus, Vucic’s expansive network of proxy actors (of both the institutional and extra-institutional variety) gives him the ability to foment crisis virtually anywhere in the Western Balkans with a sizeable ethnic Serb community, much as Russia has done with ethnic Russian minorities in the former Soviet Union.

But by maintaining a (nearly translucent) veneer of plausible deniability as to his links with these groups, he can also avoid direct culpability for such ploys, especially the ones that backfire (e.g. the Montenegro coup attempt).

Better still, he can sell Western capitals on the specious idea that he is willing to expend his own precious political resources to “try” to rein in wild men like Dodik – in exchange for a favour or two. Perhaps another opened EU accession chapter, or a veil of silence by Brussels and Washington on Serbia’s deepening democratic deficits.

It is not a difficult modus operandi to figure out but it is practical, and it has allowed a small state like Serbia to project influence not only across its entire Western Balkans region but even as far as Ukraine and Belarus.

Even as his actions threaten NATO allies, there is no reason to expect any meaningful reaction from the EU or its member states. Nor would a second Trump administration be at all concerned with continuing escalation by Vucic. A Biden presidency would likely take a different tack but even so it is doubtful that the region would be high on the agenda of the new administration.

For the moment then, it seems Vucic’s hands are free to light brushfires – and to dream of the raging infernos to come.

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