Second European country refusing to sanction Russia — a challenge to democracy

The Associated Press

Correction: An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect spelling for COVID-19.

While attention is properly focused on Putin’s Russia and Ukraine, there is another battle for democratic values that has been flying under the radar. Political developments in Serbia may seem far away, but Americans ignore developments in the Balkans at their peril. Battles between autocrats and those in favor of democracy, plus intercommunal strife, have had seismic impacts on the rest of the world — from World War I to the horrific Balkan wars of the 1990s. 

Under autocratic President Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia is the only country in Eastern Europe outside of Russian ally Belarus, not to impose economic sanctions on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

This should come as no surprise to those who follow developments in the Balkans. Putin has been arming Vucic with tanks, fighter jets and air defense systems. With all Western eyes on Ukraine, Vucic could initiate yet another deadly Balkan conflict by supporting Bosnian Serbs’ long-standing desire to secede and join Serbia.

In 2020, the World Press Freedom Index ranked Vucic’s Serbia 93rd. According to Freedom House, “At some media outlets, journalists are implicitly aware of which topics they can and cannot discuss freely.” A media watchdog calculated that between December 2020 and April 2021, Vucic racked up 50 hours of on-screen time — 85 percent positive. In April of 2020, journalist Ana Lalić was arrested after reporting negatively on the country’s response to COVID-19.  

When I was in Belgrade, in conversation with the manager at a German-owned newspaper, she confided to me that if they wrote critically about Vucic, they would instantly lose all of their advertising income. They choose not to do it.

Vucic’s slick pro-Western demeanor abroad has too often allowed his anti-democratic actions at home to escape notice. But the United States government has begun to take notice. In August of last year, a letter signed by six members of Congress called on President Biden to consider imposing sanctions on those destabilizing the Western Balkans in Serbia and to continue to engage the Serbian government about rooting out corruption and ending repression of the press.

It went on to say that freedom of the press “has reached a new low point in Serbia … Serbia is a country where journalists are subjected to almost daily attacks that increasingly come from the ruling elite and pro-government media.” 

In the run-up to the Serbian elections next month, the New York Times and MSNBC have reported that Vucic’s government and ruling party are using funds from publicly owned companies, mainly Serbian Telecom, to pressure the few remaining independent media companies and shut them down. 

In early December, the Biden administration took action, ordering tough sanctions on a close Vucic ally — Zvonko Veselinovic — and his organized crime group (OCG). The U.S Treasury Department imposed sanctions and issued its statement sending shock waves through Serbia.

Vucic has an impeccably authoritarian pedigree. As minister of information for Serbia’s former authoritarian leader and war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, he pushed through massive press censorship decrees in the 1990s.

Earlier in the 1990s, Vucic served as second-in-command of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party where he helped organize paramilitary volunteer units to fight in Croatia and Bosnia, where they had a reputation for plunder and killing.

After Milosevic and Serbian Radical Party leader, Vojislav Seselj, were indicted for war crimes, Vucic launched the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). Like Putin, Vucic sought to empower a cadre of oligarchs who helped fuel his rise. As deputy prime minister, and then as president, he built an SNS patronage army, and, like former President Donald Trump, used grievance to mobilize public support. 

Vucic’s cadre of oligarchs have benefited by protection, privatization and state contracts. They now control the energy, telecommunications, infrastructure and media. Vucic’s brother Andrej Vucic, his closest confidant, has reputed ties to powerful criminal syndicates. In August, France’s LeMonde, published a long investigative report alleging that another Vucic ally, Veljko Breviuk, had been involved in a brutal series of murders.

The United States should continue to sanction the Serbian government to end corruption, ensure a free press and fair elections. And it should help mobilize American allies to do the same. Americans cannot afford to ignore the battle for democratic values in Serbia.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book  “Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win.” He is a partner in Democracy Partners.

Tags Aleksandar Vučić Democracy Donald Trump Europe Joe Biden NATO Robert Creamer Russia Serbia Ukraine

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