President Aleksandar Vučić used to have it all.

In last year’s parliamentary election, his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) secured over 60 percent of the vote. Assorted allies and clients took the rest, after the opposition boycotted the polls.

Dimitar Bechev
Dimitar Bechev is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, where he focuses on Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe.
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Throughout 2021, Vučić made political mileage, both domestically and in the region, with the speedy rollout of COVID-19 vaccines procured from the West as well as from Russia and China. That is a testament to the fact that the Serbian president gets the red carpet rolled out for him in Brussels, Moscow, and Beijing—a latter-day Josip Broz Tito of sorts.

Back in September 2021, former German chancellor Angela Merkel chose Belgrade as the first stop in her farewell tour of the Balkans. A chorus of loyal media in Belgrade sang the praises of Vučić, dismissing his critics as fifth columnists beholden to hostile foreign powers.

Yet these days Vučić is coming to terms with the fact that absolute power carries risks. As much as he controls the media, he cannot avoid blame for unpopular decisions. For a third weekend in a row, tens of thousands of citizens are out in the streets protesting, blocking roads, highways, and bridges across the country. This is a response to controversial amendments to the Expropriation Act and the Referendums Act passed by Serbia’s rubber-stamp parliament.

For many Serbs across the political spectrum, from urban liberals to hardcore nationalists, the legislation gives the authorities a carte blanche to seize private property and to make the initiation of popular plebiscites next to impossible.

Detractors allege that the legislation serves the mining multinational Rio Tinto. The company’s proposed venture for a lithium mine and processing plant threatens, in their view, the Jadar River valley in western Serbia. And they are irked by the government’s apparent disregard of public opinion.

Indeed, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić and Zorana Mihajlović, minister for energy, development, and environmental protection, have been highly supportive of the Rio Tinto project, which could eventually account for over 1 percent of Serbia’s GDP. The Balkan country holds Europe’s largest deposits of the metal, an essential component in batteries and therefore key to the so-called green transition.

Vučić appears to have come to realize that Rio Tinto is a major liability. The protests have spread all over small-town Serbia, months ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for April 2022. The pro-government thugs attacking the protestors the first weekend made things worse.

Faced with mounting anger, Vučić changed tack. On December 8, the president sent the new laws back to parliament for reconsideration. The cabinet duly dropped the bills from the parliament’s agenda, no doubt on Vučić’s instructions. In all likelihood, they will be shelved until after the April polls. In the short term, the move has reduced the pressure on Vučić. Protests on December 11-12 attracted much smaller crowds than those in the preceding weekends.

Though the U-turn could prove solely a tactical win for the protestors, it shows that people power works. Environmentalists and local associations mobilized the anti-Vučić sentiment to force the omnipotent president to back off. Yet what is conspicuous is the absence of the Serbian opposition. It is very unclear whether it will be able to capitalize on the momentum by fielding a joint presidential candidate capable of challenging Vučić.

Even making it to a runoff and denying the incumbent an outright victory in the first round would constitute a success in such an uneven race. Vučić’s domination over the media, the administration, and the public sector puts him well ahead of any contender, even if he or she happens to be a popular figure with a broad appeal across the ideological spectrum in society.

Whatever the outcome, what happens in Serbia affects the stability and future direction of the Western Balkans. Its sheer size, its nationalist politics, and the elites’ ties to Russia and China give Serbia an influence that goes far beyond the republic.

What is also striking is the irrelevance of the EU in this story.

In the old days when Serbs rallied against former president Slobodan Milošević there was no doubt about whose side Brussels was on. Now it is not as clear. It is not as if EU leaders are unaware of Vučić’s authoritarian ways. He does get the odd lecture about the rule of law, too, albeit in a muted voice.

But what Serbian citizens see is the EU’s warm acceptance of him. “I welcome that Serbia places a strong focus on fundamental reforms,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in Belgrade on September 30, 2021, “I commend you for the steps you have taken. This is enormous. You have done a lot of hard work.”

The EU opts for a pragmatic approach focusing on the economy, infrastructure, and connectivity, and of course the Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. As for the Rio Tinto crisis, Merkel went on record saying that Germany is interested in Serbia’s lithium. Hardly a surprise given the strategic challenges associated with decarbonization.

The main takeaway is the time-tested truth that the fate of Serbian democracy is in the hands of the citizens themselves. The EU might be good at setting normative benchmarks, but the political imperatives of the day often take precedence over lofty principles.

If Serbia is to make progress toward democratic accountability, it will be achieved through bottom-up action, not the EU’s membership conditionality. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that the public pressure on authorities doesn’t fizzle out as was so often the case in the past.