The Together for Serbia leader, Mayor of Sabac Nebojsa Zelenovic, has offered a platform of sorts to shape future activities of the Serbian opposition. Zelenovic wants the West to be defined as the sole pillar of Serbia’s foreign policy, the opposition to be involved in resolving the Kosovo issue (insisting that the problem needs to be solved as soon as possible) and new faces to be presented to voters. The proposal is significant insofar as after several years it is practically the first attempt to make the opposition voice its stance on two very delicate issues – Serbia’s relationship with the West and Kosovo. Brussels and Washington haven’t reacted to Zelenovic’s idea yet. Initial reactions by some opposition parties are negative, but there haven’t been any clear-cut, final views either.
Zelenovic’s new idea wasn’t presented pompously, he didn’t hold a special press conference to promote it or run a media campaign. He simply shared his views as a guest in a TV show, where he largely spoke about local elections in Sabac, where his Together for Serbia had refused to accept the defeat, accusing the authorities of an election fraud. Clearly it was just a trial balloon, which Zelenovic and his party used to see how other opposition parties, as well as potential partners in the West, would react. As there were no public reactions, Zelenovic is now trying to find a way to present the idea to Brussels and Washington, while contacting the rest of the opposition as well.
Simply put, Zelenovic believes that the opposition can’t expect to be able to come to grips with the ruling bloc, unless it can handle a crucial political issue like Kosovo. Defining the West as the only foreign-policy pillar comes from a belief that what we might colloquially call the region’s geopolitical reality could be unfavorable for a different option in the long run. At any rate, the theme has been opened and there’s now a chance of having serious talks, assessments and conclusions, provided that the opposition is prepared for that level of debate.
Having in mind the initial reaction by the opposition, it is clear that Zelenovic’s position is not the result of previous alignment with potential opposition partners, but rather a belief shared by his party and allies at home and abroad. The Together for Serbia was unable to win the local polls in Sabac alone, and it’s unrealistic to expect from it an ambition to address the Kosovo crisis on its own. The latest move by the party can’t make it a chief adversary to the ruling bloc, but it will certainly change its political profile, either by instilling some new strength in it, or by alienating it from potential partners.
Zelenovic probably wants to caution his political partners at home that time passes and that they need to catch up with the political reality in the region, showing potential allies in the West that he is a firm advocate of European values. As no clear answer has come from either side, it is too early to say if the Sabac mayor’s unexpected move might actually pay off, or get him in trouble. Equally important is a reaction by the ruling bloc, holding a kind of political monopoly on the Kosovo agenda for years.
The first reactions from the opposition boil down to a view that the initiative might actually be good for President Aleksandar Vucic, helping him out of a tight spot that Kosovo-related requests have pushed him into. Zelenovic was criticized for suggesting that the democratic opposition could sign anything Serbia had been asked to sign, and particularly for a position that Kosovo should not remain in the state of a frozen conflict, but resolved promptly instead. Opposition officials also believe that Zelenovic, advocating that the opposition be involved in the normalization processes with Kosovo, has created an impression that there is a national consensus in Serbia based on the Western view of the Kosovo problem.
It is possible that opposition parties do share a strong belief that it is best to wait for Vucic to trip over Kosovo, making it possible for his opponents to accuse him of treason and take over. To say that this is a naïve strategy is certainly an understatement, as it implies Vucic doing absolutely nothing and Brussels and Washington sitting and watching the parties criticizing their decisions and plans for Kosovo taking power in Serbia. Zelenovic has decided it might be a deadlock his party and the opposition (and Serbia, too) might remain stuck in, while a possibility of losing power in Sabac was an additional incentive for him to take initiative and cross the municipal boundaries.
The move actually reflects two conflicting views within the opposition. One is that Kosovo is part of Serbia under the Constitution, and that it is not good to make any move that might undermine the fact, whereas the other is that a new geopolitical balance in the region has been created, which cannot be ignored, and that Serbia can only lose more if it refuses to adjust. No one has mentioned explicitly the recognition of Kosovo’s independence by Belgrade, but the phrase has been used abundantly in political wars between the government and the opposition, as well as between the opposition and other government opponents.
The supporters of the first school of thought, still a majority in the opposition, insist that a solution to the Kosovo problem cannot be reached unless both sides (Belgrade and Pristina) are democratized. In other words, the rule of law and true democracy need to be established before problems like Kosovo can be handled. They feel that the opposition parties that boycotted the last election already have partners in the West, and that there is no need to use the Kosovo agenda to strengthen their position in Brussels and Washington. The advocates of the other believe that the regional geopolitical status is not temporary, but that it rather reflects a long-term process Serbia should fit into, or preferably embrace.
Either way, a new idea has emerged, and as tardy as it may be, it is still a step further from a hollow strategy to unite the opposition with the purpose of toppling Vucic. This is the idea worthy of debate, but after all divisions and conflicts, the question is if there are many opposition parties left to connect, unite and create new platforms for action. Merger plans had sprung up earlier involving the Democratic Party, Zelenovic’s Together for Serbia and Boris Tadic’s Social Democratic Party, but were put on hold as the Democratic Party, supposedly the core of unification, started a new cycle of divisions, facing a real danger of being completely marginalized.
The ruling bloc can certainly understand the importance of new proposals, and is probably discussing possible responses. The authorities want the support of the opposition when it comes to Kosovo, but on their own terms and within the frameworks they find acceptable. Had he ever believed the opposition could be a desirable partner whose views he would respect, Vucic would have found a way to involve it in the processes related to Kosovo. Hence the logical assumption that if he decides to pay attention to a suggestion like Zelenovic’s, Vucic may well try to use it as proof that he respects his opponents.
Zelenovic, or any other opposition leader or party for that matter, must be careful, given the bad experience of a so-called internal dialogue launched ahead of the previous election. The only place the opposition can hope for some serious support from is the West, more precisely, Brussels and Washington, that is, the exact same centers of power that expect Vucic to normalize relations with Kosovo.
Accordingly, future developments will largely depend on whether the West decides it’s time to bring into play some new actors, i.e. the opposition parties ready to negotiate about Kosovo, or to keep up the existing strategy.