They thought the pandemic had ended. Then, a second wave. Not just a second wave, but one much stronger than the first. Rather than being instructed to hunker down in their homes, the people of Croatia and Serbia were asked to do something else by their respective governments: go to the polls.

In both cases the deeply entrenched ruling parties won huge victories. Beyond the fates of these two small but regionally important countries, many were left wondering, what do these results mean for the future of the Balkans?

Political Stability in the Balkans?

Political stability certainly sounded like the answer after the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) won over sixty percent of the vote on the June 21. That overwhelming victory gave the party 188 seats in the 250 seat Parliament, with close to fifty more being won by its allies. The man giving the victory speech on election night – Aleksandar Vučić. Serbia’s most personally powerful President since notorious dictator Slobodan Milošević, and the SNS’ unchallenged leader.

At 1.99 m, Vučić towers over anyone else in the room. He also towers over the opposition, but that has nothing to do with his height. With heavily controlled print and TV showering the country’s weary citizens with endless positive coverage of the President and his party, many are sick of his personalized rule. So sick of it, they have turned their backs on Serbia’s stillborn democracy.

Serbia’s Opposition Parties Shut Out of Power

This year’s election saw a boycott by the country’s main opposition parties. Of the few that participated, only one entered Parliament. Shut out of the political process yet again, many have taken to the streets. The entire region has watched with shock at chaotic scenes unfolding in Belgrade as those taking to the streets have been met with a brutal police response.

In a strange twist, Vučić deflected blame for the protests not onto NATO or America – Serbia’s classic bogeymen – but rather on its popular “ally” Russia. A shocking betrayal? Not exactly. Vučić’s greatest success as Serbian President has been his ability to manipulate opinions not just at home, but abroad as well. That is how, despite ever-growing accusations of authoritarianism as well as open public discontent with his rule, he receives glowing praise and support from European leaders.

The European People’s Party

This is mostly thanks to his party’s membership in European People’s Party (EPP) – by far the most powerful political group in the EU. EPP politicians head the European Council, the European Commission, and the EU’s most powerful country – Germany. Beyond that, it is by far the most powerful trans-national political force in central and eastern Europe. When it comes to European enlargement and integration of the Balkans, the EPP may be Europe’s most important institution.

In the run-up to Croatia’s Parliamentary election, held a couple weeks after the Serbian one, a campaign spot was released in which EPP leaders read out “Sigurna Hrvatska” (Safe Croatia), the ruling HDZ’s campaign slogan. The figures giving their personal support included the head of Germany’s ruling CDU, Austria’s Chancellor Kurz, European Council President Donald Tusk, and the PMs and Presidents of numerous other countries. But the real controversy came from the presence in the video of President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, accused of meddling in Croatia’s election through the advert.

Croatia’s Future Entry into the Schengen Area

But it is easy to understand von der Leyen’s giddy support of Croatian PM Andrej Plenković and his HDZ when you consider that within a week of the HDZ’s strong victory Croatia entered ERM II, the “waiting room” for adoption of the Euro. This means within the next 5 years Croatia is likely to enter the Euro as well as finally joining the Schengen Area. While Hungary and Poland cause headaches in Brussels, Croatia under the HDZ happily pushes for European integration so long as it is free to act as a local mafia within Croatia’s borders.

The same implicit deal is being offered to Vučić by his European colleagues, and it is a deal he is happy to take. As he strangles his political opposition and establishes dictator-like control over the country EPP politicians either stay silent or cheer him on. The political calculation is clear, EU leaders give Vučić support and legitimacy in exchange for the assurance that Serbia will enter the EU. With that the added assurance that somehow the most important prerequisite will be resolved – recognition of Kosovo.

The Importance of the Balkans for the EU

The EU is bad at geopolitics, but the EPP may not be.

Without the currently non-EU Balkan states of Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, and Kosovo integrated into the European Union, the Balkans are for Europe a political and geopolitical vortex. In 2015 that vortex produced one of the EU’s most polarizing crises to date as millions of migrants and refugees arrived on Germany’s borders seemingly overnight though they had been moving through the Balkans for months beforehand.

Besides the geopolitical black hole in the form of uncontrolled external borders too close for comfort to the EU’s core, there is the issue of malicious foreign influence as well. Russian, Chinese, and Arab investors have found in Serbia, Montenegro, and elsewhere in the Balkans a highly welcoming atmosphere for trading in both economic and political influence. A situation tolerated for now, but not one that could comfortably last forever.

Vučić: European Solidarity is a ‘Fairytale’

In a prominent show at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic Vučić received a planeload of Chinese medical equipment at the airport to much fanfare. He called European solidarity a “fairytale” that “does not exist” while praising China and the Chinese government as the only ones that can save Serbia. It is concerning for EU leaders to hear, but they are in many ways backed into a corner. They have already decided they want Serbia in the EU, and they see Vučić as the one to realize that membership.

For Serbia and others it is a simple choice because there is nothing else on offer. The fates of those small Balkan countries are already so tied up with decisions made in Brussels that they have nothing to lose by being inside the club rather than outside it. Russia and China can offer symbolic victories. By treating countries like Serbia as equals they give them some pride, but little else. For now at least.

Can Serbian and Croatian Leaders Follow Through on Their Promises?

With ruling parties in both Serbia and Croatia thoroughly dominating their respective countries with the approval of Europe, the question will be whether those leaders can deliver on their promises. Another question remains as to whether Russia, China, Turkey, or others see an opening in the Balkans for their own European ambitions. With their power seemingly rising, and the power of Europe supposedly on the decline, it will be a race to the finish line for Brussels.

Friendly and familiar politicians at the heads of the former Yugoslavia’s two most important nations make political conditions brighter than ever for the region’s European future. That may seem cynical given the questionable democratic credentials of the parties at the heads of those two countries, but geopolitical considerations are hardly about democracy.

The US not only tolerated but supported more than a few dictatorships in its Cold War. How many will Europe be willing to support to play at geopolitics in the Balkans?

The answer will be the difference between a “European” Balkans, and something else entirely.

It's a tough moment
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