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Serbia Votes to Continue Its EU Integration Path

The Serbian parliamentary snap elections held yesterday were always going to be about consolidating the incumbent Prime Minister’s position and the strategic goal of taking the country forward toward full EU membership writes Ivan Vejvoda. The result was more than convincing with 48% of the votes won and a full parliamentary majority. With this, Serbia continues full steam ahead into the EU accession process and opening the next key negotiation chapters 23 and 24 on justice and home affairs. And some would say most importantly, the Serbian electorate has once again demonstrated that it chooses the West.

Since the democratic, peaceful, electoral victory over the Milosevic regime in 2000, pundits continue to ask whether Serbia has finally chosen between the EU (the West) and Russia. But every election in the past 15 years has produced pro-EU majorities. Occasionally these majorities have translated into governing coalitions with somewhat murky orientations, but every government since 2000 has contributed to and led, sometimes admittedly at a snail’s pace, the country toward the EU.

Ahead of the election, some opinion polls showed rising pro-Russian, or anti-western, sentiments. This trend reflects a certain discontentment, as opposed to genuine attachment to the Kremlin. Serbia’s economy is struggling with high unemployment and stagnant, if not sinking, standards of living, and uncertainty about tomorrow is undermining people’s confidence.

In the light of this, what do these elections confirm? The Eurosceptic or blatantly anti-western, far-right parties garner overall less than 15% of the vote. Only two anti-EU parties secured a place in parliament: Vojisslav Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party (8%) and coalition of the Democratic Party of Serbia-Dveri (5%).  The remaining 87% of party representatives are pro-EU. Serbia is thus at low-end of European countries with a far-right vote.

Given the travails of the EU currently and growing Euroscepticism across the continent, Serbia’s choice may seem paradoxical. However, despite everything, the EU still attracts as a peace project – and being inside seems to offer somewhat more certainty, predictability, and prosperity than is offered outside. After all, Serbia, as part of former Yugoslavia, “did” war in the 1990s. No one, neither citizens nor politicians, wish to return to that, despite the sometimes heightened political rhetoric.

The promise of potential full membership given to the countries of the Western Balkans in 2003 in Thessaloniki by the EU has proven to be a key incentive and attraction. Negotiations were transparent in December 2015. The government’s plan is to fulfill all the required conditions by 2020.

The voters’ endorsement of the EU, the Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, and his party obliges him to move toward the 2020 goal. This challenge is undeniably huge, especially given the taxing economic situation and low growth in Europe. Vucic has to continue to attract investments. The recent deal with a Chinese company to keep the biggest steel mill in Serbia operational has been welcomed. The IMF and the World Bank have recently praised the macro-economic achievements, but difficult structural reforms still lie ahead, as does the necessary furthering of judicial reform and overall strengthening of the rule of law.

The Prime Minister made his mark by tackling corruption head on and has won votes and retained them. Systemic corruption will continue to be a major challenge and test of the success of reforms. Also the freedom of the media and the general openness for public debate will need to be both fought for and defended by government and citizens alike to dispel any doubts of possible authoritarian tendencies.

On the European and international domain, the Prime Minister has developed a close and strong relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In the continuing migration crisis Serbia has proven itself as a reliable partner in going the extra-mile, understanding that only a comprehensive and concerted solution with active participation is the way forward. Relations with the United States have been significantly enhanced as has the relationship with NATO during the past year.

One only has to look at a geographic map of Europe to see where Serbia belongs, as it’s fully surrounded by EU and NATO member-states in a region that is anchored in the euro-atlantic arena. It is now incumbent upon this government to take Serbia where its place is waiting.

 Ivan Vejvoda is senior vice president for programs at The German Marshall Fund (GMF) based in Washington, D.C. This article was first published by the GMF.

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