No Change of Policy | Beta Briefing

No Change of Policy

Source: Beta
Analysis / Analysis | 21.02.24 | access_time 20:47


The reactions to, but also absence of reactions in Serbia to the death of Alexei Navalny in a Russian prison, show that Belgrade has no intention of changing its policy on Moscow and is not considering sanctions, despite Western pressure. President Aleksandar Vucic, who could not avoid it, was the only official to react to the death, along with three political parties that belong to the Serbia Against Violence opposition bloc and two parties that do not have representatives in parliament.

Vucic Improvises in Munich

The news of Navalny’s death found Vucic in Munich where he was attending a traditional conference on security, dominated by Western leaders. Western representatives almost unanimously accused Russian leader Vladimir Putin of being behind the death, given the fact that the Kremlin’s most outspoken opponent was a political prisoner. Unlike them, Vucic did his best not to link Putin and his regime to Navalny’s death.

Navalny’s wife, Yulia Navalnaya, made an unplanned address and was greeted with a long, standing ovation as she walked to the podium stand. Vucic, who was seated in the first row, was among the last to stand up and did not join in the applause. After the N1 TV station reported that Vucic did not applaud Yulia Navalnaya, Vucic began “damage control,” and tried to justify his behavior with inarticulate excuses. “I did not go to a soccer game. I came to a serious conference and no one is going to tell me whether to stand or sit. My actions are very disciplined, which I am known for around the world,” Vucic said, among other things. Munich Security Conference 2024 (Photo: PrintScreen YouTube)

During Yulia Navalnaya’s speech Vucic was evidently trying not to offend Putin, which is why he did not applaud, nor to offend the West, which is why he stood up. Still, that Vucic was above all striving not to sour relations with Moscow, can be seen in a later statement in which he said that an investigation would establish the cause of Navalny’s death. “I am not an investigative body. I am not as smart as everyone else in the world, who know everything in advance. I have no doubt that our position will be more difficult (following Navalny’s death),” Vucic said.

Vucic’s statement is disputable because it is clear that there can be no genuine investigation in an undemocratic country like Putin’s Russia and that the regime is responsible for his death by way of the fact that it sent him to prison. Similar messages were sent over the past several days by other representatives of the Serbian Progressive Party like MP Vladimir Djukanovic, who said, “I believe Navalny died of natural causes given that he had heart trouble in the past.”  Messages like this from Vucic and his comrades are in accordance with the dominant stance of the Progressive party’s voters, a vast majority of whom are extremely inclined toward Putin.

The Serbian president’s behavior is not unexpected and is in accordance with the policy that Belgrade has been leading towards Russia since its invasion of Ukraine two years ago. Several days later, Vucic took another step toward Moscow by giving an interview to the Russian state TASS news agency. He reiterated that he would not introduce sanctions against Russia and intended to maintain “an independent policy,” “despite colossal pressure from the West.”

Vucic Against the EU

While maintaining friendly relations with Russia, over the past several days Vucic has continued a rhetoric that is essentially anti-Western and directed against the EU. At a Statehood Day celebration on Feb. 15, Vucic said that Serbia “needs Europe, but maybe not its hypocrisy,” adding that Belgrade would not give up its ties to Russia and China.

After his stay in Munich, Vucic made a statement that cannot be checked – that the number of Serbian citizens who definitely or probably support joining the EU fell from 43 to 33 percent “in one day,” due to the European Parliament’s adoption of a resolution on the situation in Serbia after elections. Vucic said that the percentage of people who would definitely vote for joining the EU was only 24 percent as opposed to 26 percent who were definitely against. Aleksandar Vucic, Josep Borrell , Hotel Bayerischer Hof München, Feb. 17 2024 (Photo: PrintScreen Instagram/buducnostsrbijeav)

This is a classic example of avoiding the essence of the subject because the EU’s popularity among voters dominantly depends on the way that the Union is reported on by TV stations with national broadcasting frequencies and tabloids. Since the adoption of the EP resolution, these outlets have featured countless articles and pieces depicting the EU in a negative light. The possible drop in popularity of the EU should above all be attributed to the rhetoric of representatives of the government and pro-government outlets. To add to that, the Progressives’ government has in the past ten years systematically been creating a narrative that speaks of the EU mostly neutrally or negatively, while glorifying the “brotherhood” with China and Russia. One of the reasons for the weak support of citizens for Serbia’s bid for membership in the EU is definitely a result of that.

The Union’s popularity is not helped by the Vucic administration’s untruthful and empty rhetoric on membership in the EU being “Serbia’s strategic interest.” An increasing number of observers are claiming that this rhetoric on the part of the government is a screen for its motive to obtain funding from the EU, and not an actual desire for Serbia to join the EU.

The Opposition and Russia

The ruling parties and rightist parties failed to issue any official statements on Navalny’s death, as expected given their positive stance toward Putin, whom they do not want to offend. Only three parties with representatives in parliament which belong to the Serbia Against Violence coalition – the Freedom and Justice Party led by Dragan Djilas, Zoran Lutovac’s Democratic Party and the Together Party led by Nebojsa Zelenovic and Biljana Stojkovic, along with two parties without representatives in parliament, Cedomir Jovanovic’s Liberal Democratic party and Bojan Kostres’s League of Vojvodina Social Democrats reacted to the death of the Russian oppositionist. All of them strongly criticized the Putin regime.

Djilas, whose party favors introducing sanctions against Russia, said that Navalny’s death “is a snapshot of Russia today” and “what Vucic wants to turn Serbia into.” The Democratic Party said that Putin and his regime were to blame for Navalny’s death even if it was of natural causes. The Together Party said that Navalny’s death “has once again laid bare Vladimir Putin’s anti-civilizational regime.”

Cedomir Jovanovic, who no longer has any political weight in Serbia, said that Navalny’s death “is a great defeat of Russian society that will cost Putin dearly.” The League of Vojvodina Social Democrats, also a party that no longer has the significance that it once had, went the farthest and accused Vucic’s regime of “being a direct accomplice to Putin’s murder of his political opponents.”

This is a reference to the surveillance of a group of Russian oppositionists in Belgrade in 2021 including Vladimir Kara-Murza and Andrei Pivovarov, who received lengthy prison sentences in Russia later on. Prior to his arrest, Kara-Murza accused Aleksandar Vulin, then the interior minister of Serbia, who later became the director of the Security and Information Agency, of personally delivering transcripts of recorded conversations by the Russian oppositionists to the secretary of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, after which they were prosecuted.

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