For Serbia’s Vučić comes the big challenge after the election day – POLITICO

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BELGRADE – There is no suspense over who will win Sunday’s Serbian elections – President Aleksandar Vučić will triumph again. But a great question hangs over the Balkan country: Can Vučić to stay on friendly terms with Moscow and the EU after Russia invaded Ukraine?

opinion poll shows Vučić and his conservative The Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) is dozens of percentage points ahead of its rivals as the country holds presidential, parliamentary and local elections on the same day.

Vučić has been the dominant political figure in Serbia for the past decade. During this period, he was increasingly accused of an autocratic rule fostered by pro-government mass media and widespread nepotism.

But while his command of the domestic scene is near absolute, Vučić finds himself in an extremely uncomfortable position on the international stage due to the Russian war in Ukraine.

Throughout his tenure Vučić has maintained close ties with both the EU and Russia, shifting his allegiance between the two whenever he saw an opportunity to gain greater benefits and support for Serbia.

Now he’s under pressure to choose sides.

After initially be silent In the Ukraine crisis, Belgrade finally backed a UN resolution condemning Vladimir Putin’s invasion, but it has refused to go along with it Western sanctions against the Kremlin.

The EU has made it clear that it expects candidate countries like Serbia to follow its line on sanctions and foreign policy in general.

how Vučić’s navigation of this geopolitical landscape will be the key challenge of his forthcoming tenure.

Outsiders often take Belgrade’s close ties to Moscow as evidence of persistent Russophilia in Serbia’s political class and society at large. But the truth is much more pragmatic: Serbia is almost completely dependent on Russian gas, which it gets at a particularly cheap price. Enthusiastic pro-Russians are a vocal minority who receive disproportionate media coverage.

This is reflected in a study Released earlier this week by Belgrade-based polling institute Demostat.

When asked whether Serbia should side with Russia or the EU in the Ukraine crisis, 50 percent of respondents said the country should remain neutral, even if such a stance on sanctions and shortages of goods is on a similar scale to that seen during the Balkan wars should lead the 1990s. Only 21 and 13 percent supported Russia and Europe, respectively.

Demostat senior researcher Srećko Mihailović said this preference for neutrality reflected a deep-rooted, long-term trend that dates back to Yugoslavia’s leadership of the non-aligned movement during the Cold War.

“The concept of neutrality and non-alignment sticks in the minds of Serbian citizens, regardless of everything that has happened in the meantime,” he said Mihailovic. “A significant number have always advocated neutrality, regardless of the consequences.”

Some analysts have suggested that pro-Russian sentiment among the general population is largely the result of rabid pro-Kremlin media coverage in pro-government tabloids, TV stations and other media outlets.

If true, this sentiment could theoretically be reduced if the government orders its media channels to broadcast a different message.

But whether Actually, Vučić would want to accept the EU and the West completely, but that remains a very open question.

Brussels could test its readiness in a number of ways – by offering Serbia greater incentives to make progress on its long-running EU accession talks and by providing support to free the country from its energy dependency on Russia.

Earlier this month, the EU took steps on the latter front by offering Western Balkans countries the opportunity to join their voluntary joint purchases of liquefied natural gas.

On the political front, a more realistic prospect of EU membership would emerge Vučić a positive narrative to sell to his voters. And locking a key country in its neighborhood into its camp could be a big win for the bloc.

“I think it is in the interest of the EU to do things wisely and ensure that Serbia is anchored in the EU,” he said Tena Preelec, research fellow at the University of Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations, specializing in the Western Balkans.

“The carrot has to be bigger than the stick, the positive message has to come first and it has to reach the Serbian people,” Preelec said.

However, Preelec added that the bloc must also make it clear to potential members that it will not turn a blind eye if they fail to meet key democratic standards.

“There must also be a signal that EU enlargement is for those who comply and not for those who don’t – clear rewards and penalties – which we haven’t had for a long time,” Preelec said . For Serbia's Vučić comes the big challenge after the election day - POLITICO

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