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Analyses / Where the double game of government with European integration has brought us

We continue the series of articles in which we analyze the foreign policy orientations of Serbian citizens

Where the double game of government with European integration has brought us

Analyses / Where the double game of government with European integration has brought us

We continue the series of articles in which we analyze the foreign policy orientations of Serbian citizens

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Ivana Petronijević Terzić | Demostat | Beograd 13. Aug 2022 | Analyses

It is illusory to expect the government to lead a pro-European campaign at this moment to change the image of public opinion in Serbia, which, as shown by the June Demostat survey, is largely favorable to Russia. The current government, embodied in the Serbian Progressive Party and its leader Aleksandar Vucic, has for years played a double game when it comes to European integration, declaratively calling the EU the main foreign policy goal, while at the same time sending anti-European messages to citizens and glorifying cooperation with Russia and China. The war in Ukraine and the consequences it has already caused in the world, from high inflation to the energy crisis, through the strengthening of the right and the crisis of governments in certain EU countries, have led to the fact that the EU is once again concerned with itself and its problems and does not show the political will to accelerate of the expansion process. And we should not expect any kind of momentum in that direction from the government and the president who, instead of counting the days of the war in Ukraine, count how many days Serbia did not impose sanctions on Russia.

The Demostat survey showed that only a third of Serbian citizens would vote for joining the European Union, while 51 percent of citizens are against it. 80 percent of citizens polled voted for military neutrality at any cost and against the introduction of sanctions against Russia, and Vladimir Putin is still the most popular foreign politician. Such foreign-political attitudes of the citizens are the result of decades of untrustworthy determination of the ruling structures for the European Union, the pro-Russian and pro-Putin propaganda that the current government has been conducting for many years, but also the fact that the EU does not have a clear plan on when and whether Serbia will join the union, they say. interlocutors of Demostatus. When the war in Ukraine started, for a moment it seemed that the government was ready to change its mind, but soon it returned to the old track and now we are tapping in place, waiting for the unfolding of global events.

Jovan Komsic/foto:mc.rs

Facts buried in propaganda

Jovan Komsic, a retired professor of sociology at the University of Novi Sad, believes that the opposition of the majority of citizens to joining the EU is the result of decades of untrustworthy determination of the ruling structures, headed by SNS and Aleksandar Vucic, for the European Union.

As he states, the government is declaratively committed to the EU, but the media controlled by the regime, the public service, and television with national frequencies, which produce the mood of the citizens, constantly send anti-European messages.

"This attitude of citizens towards the European Union is a direct consequence of the double game played by the Serbian authorities when it comes to European integration," says Komsic. As he explains, the government is hiding from citizens the concrete effects of European aid and cooperation with the EU, from the economic sector to EU support for improving the quality of governance in Serbia. These facts are buried in propaganda because cooperation with Russia and China is glorified in Serbia.

The war in Ukraine is an additional factor influencing these sentiments. "Just as the attitude towards the EU is polyvalent because we are declaratively for the EU, and when it comes to principles - we would go the other way, so is the attitude towards war." Serbias condemnation and agreement in principle with the condemnation of the aggression against Ukraine in the UN on the one hand, and on the other hand the opening of space for the dominant media space to be pro-Russian oriented. This influenced the reproduction of an already established stereotype in the minds of the majority of Serbian citizens, which is not in favor of the pro-European sentiment", Komsic believes.

He states that, in principle, the government would have a certain room for maneuver to influence the reactivation of the pro-European mood of the citizens, if it opts for a more consistent pro-European policy, and this would entail several measures, including a certain selective choice of sanctions against Russia.

"I think that the government and the media under its control could present it to the citizens in a sophisticated way, as an authentic defense of Serbias interests, so that the citizens would understand that the right path is the continuation of European integration." In that way, a relevant percentage would change the mood in favor of cooperation with the EU", said Komsic.

A possible change in mood can also be influenced by convincing indicators of benefits from European integration, such as new investments, support from European funds, and progress in opening new clusters. "Something that the tabloid regime propaganda structure of media influence could present in the classic pattern of a major victory of the leading leader and the party in the direction of strengthening the national interest," adds Komsic.

Foto: eupro.org.rs

When it comes to the period in which the mood of citizens can change, Komsic believes that at least a year is needed. Cycles cannot be extremely short because it is about opinions, stereotypes, and prejudices, rather than information. In addition, it is unknown what problems will arise this winter and how Serbia will solve them when it comes to key existential issues, such as heating and inflation because that too can induce the moods and moods of citizens.

Public opinion is divided half way

If the government strengthens the pro-European course, then the structure of the government, both in the personal sense and from the point of view of the beliefs of the key holders of the executive power, cannot retain pronounced individuals who have beliefs, interests, and strong ties with Russias strategic, security, political or intelligence interests, Komsic believes.

Asked if the government currently wants to change the image of public opinion, Komsic assesses that the situation is half-and-half. 

"If we look at the interviews of the ambassadors of the great powers, the announcements and some old or new ideas and foggy propaganda that are inserted into the public space, there is still an open possibility that Serbia will return to the European track, but at the same time, the possibility of keeping in the place, in the waiting room of history, where we will see how the Ukrainian conflict and other situations will unfold, and then lets decide", he said.

Standing in a place with countries like Serbia never goes unpunished, warns Komsic. "It can lead us into the wake of global trends." There is always a risk in the ruling establishments decision, the risk at this moment is not small, especially since in that political calculation there is always a factor of assessing ones perspectives and existential political or party commitments for one direction or another", he states.

Komsic believes that at the moment the possibilities for playing the card of four pillars are reduced, although, as he assesses, it has not yet reached the point where Serbia has to pay a high price if it chooses the East or the West.

The danger of the strengthening of the right-wing in Europe

Komsic points to another danger that may arise if the war in Ukraine continues.

"Putins strategic policy is to weaken the subjectivity of the European Union." He did it by supporting right-wing parties in the EU, we see that new ambitions of the right-wing political option with Salvini and Berlusconi are awakening in Italy, who can easily play on the alternative card of cooperation with Putin", he states.

The regrouping of political forces in the European Union depends on many different factors, such as the effect of the upcoming winter, the effects of inflation, possible stagflation, and the reaction of ambitious opposition forces that can destabilize the political field.

"In this context, when it comes to the European integration of Serbia, those of us who are not authentically and credibly convinced of the need to effectively build living standards according to EU standards, will hardly wait to say that it is a good thing that we were not so determined, but played the card equidistance because it turned out that there is nothing from the EU", said Komsic.

He believes that we should wait for the formation of the new government, which will be the first signal of what the executive powers program will be. "The representative for the composition of the government will still have to say what the president thinks", he states.

Komsic concludes that the government must take care to defend the perspective of a normal life of citizens because the inhabitants of this country, even, as he states, are the most deluded non-thinking subjects who wear signs of aggression against Ukraine on their shirts, have no intention of moving to Russia. "If this government wants to prevent the rapid deterioration of the state and the people into collective misery, it cannot go on another track, except for Europe," concludes Komsic.

Serbias path to the EU, which officially began in 2005 with the signing of the Stabilization and Association Agreement, had various stages, and the support of citizens varied. The highest support, more than 70 percent, was recorded in 2009 when Serbia received visa liberalization. Now there has been a dramatic decline and for the first time in 20 years, more people are opposed to joining.

Jovic: The EU is responsible for the reduced popularity of the EU in Serbia

Professor of the Faculty of Political Sciences in Zagreb, Dejan Jovic, believes that the decreased popularity of the European Union in Serbia is primarily a consequence of citizens perception that Serbias entry into the EU is not realistic, neither now nor in the future. "There is no clear plan of the European Union on when and if Serbia will enter the EU," Jovic told Demostat.

This caused disappointment, indifference, resistance, and a sense of humiliation among the citizens, for which, in Jovics opinion, the EU is largely to blame because it does not provide a clear perspective that could make the state community popular in Serbia.

Dejan Jovic/foto: mc.rs

However, the professor reminds us that in Croatia, which joined the EU in 2013, only a year earlier there was a similar situation as it is now in Serbia. Namely, 58 percent of the citizens of that country did not even go to the referendum on Croatias entry into the EU. Of those who came out, two-thirds voted in favor, and a third of those who came out were against. This means, notes Jovic, that only 28 percent of the total population of Croatia voted for the EU in the referendum.

Therefore, there was no enthusiasm even at the moment when it was certain that Croatia would enter the EU. For two reasons, according to Jovic.

"Croats believed that Croatia was left to unfairly wait too long for entry, which created the same type of feeling of humiliation, injustice, misunderstanding that is created in the countries of the Western Balkans." Another reason was the fear of losing sovereignty, of foreigners buying up Croatian land, and of living worse. None of the fears turned out to be justified, because Croatia has increased its sovereignty, has much more power and opportunities than when it was not in the EU, people do not live worse than before, and the country has not been sold out to foreigners", Jovic believes.

Playing with alternatives

In Serbia, however, there are other reasons for this attitude towards the EU. It is the feeling that Serbia is stigmatized because of the nineties, but also that it has an alternative - Russia or China, which never existed in the case of Croatia.

"Quite a large number of people see an alternative to the European Union, and its not so much for Russia as they believe that a signal of dissatisfaction should be sent," says Jovic.

The authorities in Serbia insist on playing with alternatives, relying on the map of military neutrality and the well-known "four pillars of cooperation". "That narrative has flared up further now and I would say that it is causing a large number of people to be skeptical or openly against the EU," he says.

Jovic: I am not sure that Vucic was ever in favor of the EU and the West

Asked if he sees in Vucic a desire to change that, Jovic states that it seems to him that the president of Serbia is leading a policy he believes in.

"I am not sure that Vucic was ever in favor of the EU and the West." In that sense, I dont know why he would personally change that particular course unless he has to. If there is a great danger or if the alternative disappears, Russia suffers a military defeat or additional sanctions are threatened against Serbia... Only in those situations would he be ready to change it. This current policy is going quite well for him and he is successfully winning," says Jovic.

This caused disappointment, indifference, resistance, and a sense of humiliation among the citizens, for which, in Jovics opinion, the EU is largely to blame because it does not provide a clear perspective that could make the state community popular in Serbia.

However, the professor reminds us that in Croatia, which joined the EU in 2013, only a year earlier there was a similar situation as it is now in Serbia. Namely, 58 percent of the citizens of that country did not even go to the referendum on Croatias entry into the EU. Of those who came out, two-thirds voted in favor, and a third of those who came out were against. This means, notes Jovic, that only 28 percent of the total population of Croatia voted for the EU in the referendum.

Therefore, there was no enthusiasm even at the moment when it was certain that Croatia would enter the EU. For two reasons, according to Jovic.

"Croats believed that Croatia was left to unfairly wait too long for entry, which created the same type of feeling of humiliation, injustice, misunderstanding that is created in the countries of the Western Balkans." Another reason was the fear of losing sovereignty, of foreigners buying up Croatian land, and of living worse. None of the fears turned out to be justified, because Croatia has increased its sovereignty, has much more power and opportunities than when it was not in the EU, people do not live worse than before, and the country has not been sold out to foreigners", Jovic believes.

Playing with alternatives

In Serbia, however, there are other reasons for this attitude towards the EU. It is the feeling that Serbia is stigmatized because of the nineties, but also that it has an alternative - Russia or China, which never existed in the case of Croatia.

"Quite a large number of people see an alternative to the European Union, and its not so much for Russia as they believe that a signal of dissatisfaction should be sent," says Jovic.

The authorities in Serbia insist on playing with alternatives, relying on the map of military neutrality and the well-known "four pillars of cooperation". "That narrative has flared up further now and I would say that it is causing a large number of people to be skeptical or openly against the EU," he says.

PODNASLOV U TEKSTU: Jovic: I am not sure that Vucic was ever in favor of the EU and the West

Asked if he sees in Vucic a desire to change that, Jovic states that it seems to him that the president of Serbia is leading a policy he believes in.

"I am not sure that Vucic was ever in favor of the EU and the West." In that sense, I dont know why he would personally change that particular course unless he has to. If there is a great danger or if the alternative disappears, Russia suffers a military defeat or additional sanctions are threatened against Serbia... Only in those situations would he be ready to change it. This current policy is going quite well for him and he is successfully winning," says Jovic.

Foto: Eden87, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Jovic assesses that Vucic is in some way a hostage of the narrative that he has been creating since 2012 when the SNS came to power. According to Jovic, Vucic brought back to the media and political scene those who, it seemed, experienced defeat in 2000 and relativized the interpretation of the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. That goes hand in hand with Russophilia, the obsession with China, and the anti-Western and anti-NATO narrative, which has now flared up in a large number of media in Serbia and the political space.

"Now it is more difficult, even if he wanted to, to move away from that thesis he created himself. She may now be a hindrance to Serbian foreign policy. It is difficult to put the genie from Aladdin back in the bottle, even if he wanted to because it is his product, which he created with his ten-year policy".

Vucic is the main factor in creating such a narrative, which now places him in an ever-increasing conflict with the West, and, pragmatically speaking, the big question is whether he will manage to find a solution.

"For ten years you have been speaking against NATO, how it broke up Yugoslavia, against the West." Even if he were to go against Russia now, the popularity of the narrative he created is great, he would have to invest ten years of effort to change it. Im not sure that people in politics can change so much and, additionally, be twice as successful", Professor Jovic concludes.

Svarm: It is illusory to expect that the government will launch a pro-European campaign

The government has long determined EU membership as a strategic goal, and yet, Serbia, along with Turkey, is the only EU candidate country that has not imposed sanctions on Russia due to its invasion of Ukraine. Vucic repeats that Serbia will not do that, although, as he says, the West only wants to hear that.

Filip Švarm/foto: mc.rs

The editor of the weekly magazine "Vreme" Filip Svarm believes that it is illusory to expect that this government is currently leading a pro-European campaign. "If it were to lead an anti-Russian campaign and a campaign for European values, this government would shoot itself in the knee, because many of the methods of this government have nothing to do with the EU, but with Russia, the Kremlin, Putin, and the like," Svarm told Demostat.

Although he does not believe that the government will move in that direction, he believes that it would take several months to half a year to change their minds.

"They havent done anything similar so far, but we know for sure that when they turn the campaign around, it goes very well." We saw it in the case of Dijana Hrkalovic when overnight the head of the mafia became the main witness of the prosecution", points out Svarm.

The principle of deception would be similar, news and analyzes that have a pro-European tone should be in all media, electronic ones above all, and Vucic and other officials should speak affirmatively about the EU.

"If they started to lead a different policy, especially through television, tabloids, public addresses, I am convinced that public opinion could change, not exactly one hundred percent, but to a large extent - yes," says Svarm.

Svarm notes that when the war in Ukraine began, the regime panicked, and perhaps for a short time it looked like they could move towards Europe. However, as the war progresses, the government continues with its current policy that Serbia is the only country in Europe that has not introduced sanctions.

"The regime media still wholeheartedly support the Russian side, they fully support Russia, influential private television stations broadcast Russian-Serbian propaganda without any hesitation, when we look at what the high-ranking officials of this government, including Vucic, say, we see that they always emphasize how many days Serbia has not introduced sanctions against Russia. While others are counting the days of the war, they are counting the days they havent imposed sanctions. This is a clear message to their electorate and the public opinion of Serbia, but also the international community", assesses Svarm.

Svarm: Consequences of pro-Russian and pro-Putin propaganda

Svarm assesses that the low support of the EU is a consequence of the pro-Russian and pro-Putin propaganda that the government has been conducting for many years.

"It is propaganda showing that Vucic and Putin are best friends, that what Putin is in Moscow, Vucic is in Belgrade." The card of sentimental relations between Serbia and Russia is being played... No one in the world has welcomed Putin as we did in Serbia, when you have such a push of Russia to the forefront, when you have such a negative attitude towards the West, this is what you get.", says Svarm.

Svarm estimates that if the government started a campaign for European values now, it would lose some of its ratings, and the votes would probably flow to the pro-Russian parties, Dveri and Zavetnici.

When asked what the international community could do, Svarm says that it could primarily be to speed up the EU accession process, as well as certain guarantees when it comes to energy.

"The most important thing is to speed up the accession to the European Union", he states, but he points out that even that is not realistic. "Because the EU is dealing with itself at the moment, the war in Ukraine, which is causing strong reprisals, but also because one part of the EU, precisely because Serbia supported Russia, has an extremely rigid attitude towards Serbia." Im thinking of Poland and the Baltic republics, which would certainly block any acceleration at this moment", concludes Svarm.

Svarm assesses that the low support of the EU is a consequence of the pro-Russian and pro-Putin propaganda that the government has been conducting for many years.

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