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Alexander Pivovarenko

Ph.D. in History, Senior Research Associate, RAS Institute of Slavonic Studies, RIAC Expert

The new cabinet was elected by 163 votes out of 225 delegates present at the Skupstina (parliament) in the evening of 11 August. The vote was preceded by a three-day marathon with over 20-hour hearings where the government presented its 68-page programme. Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic’s presentation of the programme took six hours.

Problems of the Current Convocation

Aleksandar Vucic failed to keep the promise that he made during his visit to Moscow on May 2016 to form a new government by mid-June. The government was formed 14 weeks after the snap elections that were held from April 24 to May 4, 2016.

 

There is little doubt that the procedure was delayed due to the complex political situation in Serbia and the ambivalent position of Aleksandar Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). On the one hand, if the opinion polls are to be believed, the Prime Minister’s approval rating is considerable and he has the support of nearly half of the population. His trump card is his dramatic, expansive and emotional style, coupled with confidence, a command of the facts and a knack for turning a patently losing situation into an attractive ideologeme.

 

REUTERS/Djordje Kojadinovic
Serbia's Prime minister Aleksandar Vucic signs a document during a swearing-in ceremony for new government members at parliament in Belgrade, Serbia, August 11, 2016.

 

On the other hand, the actions of the last government ran counter to the values and perceptions that the politically active segment of society has formed since October 5, 2000. As a result, despite some successes, the last two years have seen mounting criticism of Vucic. Anti-government rallies have become a regular phenomenon in Belgrade. The opposition berates the Prime Minister for his populism, authoritarianism and cult of personality. He is also accused of garbling facts, following a defeatist foreign policy, enacting a face-value only rapprochement with Russia, discrediting traditional values, evading political debate and refusing to hold a referendum on key issues (the Brussels Agreement on Kosovo, agreements with NATO, the opening of the Serbian market to genetically modified products and the privatisation of state-owned enterprises). It is worth noting that opponents of the current Prime Minister include both pro-Russian and pro-Western parties who dream of a European Serbia, but without Vucic [1].

 

Under these circumstances, the snap election called by Vucic in January 2016 turned into a referendum on confidence in the government. The problem is that the referendum did not work out as planned. The ruling coalition of course won the election, garnering 48.25 per cent of the votes. But it received 27 fewer seats in parliament (131 instead of 158). What is more, several opposition parties made it to the Skupstina – the pro-Russian Serbian Movement Dveri and the Serbian Radical Party, and the pro-Western Enough is Enough party led by the former Minister of Economy of Serbia Sasa Radulovic. “Vucic today is weaker than he was on 23 April 23,” Belgrade columnist Slobodan Antonic said immediately after the election.

Illusion of Change

Although the government has eight new members, it does not differ greatly from the previous cabinet in terms of its composition. Of the 20 seats, 10 went to the Serbian Progressive Party and members of its party bloc [2]. As per tradition, the First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Internal Affairs is the leader of the Socialist Party, Ivica Dacic.

 

As before, a third of the cabinet members do not belong to the party. Bringing in seven non-party “professionals” is an interesting technocratic move: it sidesteps the issue of a global redistribution of ministerial portfolios between the winning coalition parties (11 parties in all) and helps avoid a collapse of the coalition should one of the ministers is sacked.

 

As a result, the new government does not include the businessman Nenad Popovic, leader of the Serbian People’s Party who is in favour of broader economic ties with Russia. His appointment to the cabinet was discussed in 2014 and again in 2016, but both times the expectations did not pan out. By contrast, Zorana Mikhailovic, Minister of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure, who leapt into prominence due to her attempts to block the South Stream project, her row with Dmitry Rogozin and her public support of the British draft of the resolution on Srebrenica in 2015, has kept her job.

 

The opposition notes that more than half of the new cabinet held various governmental posts in the 2000s, including in the government of the “democratic opposition” or implicated in corruption scandals of the time. Significantly, the Progressive Party made much of its political capital by portraying its rule as “the time of hope” and achievement, in contrast to the “dark past.” Facts show, however, that the current government is not the antithesis, but rather a continuation of the regime established in Serbia after October 5, 2000.

Social and Professional Profile

Six ministers were born after 1975. In other words, six ministers are around 40 years of age. In terms of their main professions, the government consists of seven economists, five lawyers, three doctors, two political scientists, one geography teacher and two athletes. The Ministry of Youth and Sports will be headed by Vanja Udovicic, a Serbian water polo player of international standing. The Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Management will be Goran Knezevic, a famous basketball player in the 1970s and a member of the board of directors of the Naftna Industrija Srbije (NIS) oil and gas company, a major partner of Russia’s Gazprom.

 

www.rs.n1info.com
Vlada Srbije 2016
 
Six members of the new government are fluent in Russian. Five have studied, completed internships or worked in Western Europe and the United States. Among them are two non-party ministers, both of whom stand out: the economist Dusan Vujovic, who worked at the World Bank starting in 1979 and is slated to become Minister of Finance; and the Minister of Public Administration and Local Self-Government Ana Brnabic, who previously worked as consultant for several American consultancy firms and has links with USAID.

 

The Minister of Mining and Energy Aleksandar Antic, holder of the Russian Order of St. Seraphim of Sarov (Second Class) which he received from Patriarch Kirill, will be in charge of Eurasian affairs. Antic was previously in charge of railway modernization and attracting Chinese and East European investments. Three more ministers have professional and personal ties to countries in the region: Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Greece.

The Government Programme

The new government will stay the course initiated in 2014. In fact, the programme is geared towards market-style industrialization and the creation of favourable external conditions. Most probably, this means attracting foreign investments (cheap production facilities) to Serbia and resolving political disputes by making certain concessions.

Specific provisions of the programme to 2020 include:

    A continued course for joining the EU; compliance with the 35 technical points required for membership.

    Continued economic reforms in consultation with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). Privatization and the restructuring of state enterprises and companies (banks, postal service, railways, Nikola Tesla Airport, Dunav insurance company, Red Star Belgrade, Partizan Belgrade, etc.). Reform of the employment system has been announced.

  • Maintaining macro-economic stability as a pre-condition for attracting foreign investments and production to Serbia. Cutting the budget deficit to 0.5 per cent of GDP, reducing foreign debt through budget cuts.
  • Continuation of the much-touted anti-corruption campaign pursued in the last two years.
  • Development of priority and spearhead sectors: IT, the food industry, machine-building, wood processing and the rubber, plastic and textile industries.
  • Continuation of transport infrastructure reconstruction projects (modernization of the Belgrade–Budapest, Belgrade–Bar and Belgrade–Nis railways, construction of the Corridor 10 and Corridor 11 motorways and the Batajnica cargo terminal, reconstruction of the airfield at Nis, building of river ports) [3].
  • Reform of the education system, developing a dual education system patterned on German, Swiss and Austrian models).
  • Reform of the defence and security system. By the end of 2016, a new long-term plan for the development of the Serbian Armed Forces until 2025 is to be elaborated, and a plan for the development of the defence industry until 2020 will also be adopted. The defence budget is to be increased. All this may be seen as a response to similar actions taken in Croatia today.
  • Continued adherence to a “multi-vectored” and neutral foreign policy. The EU, Russia, China, the United States and countries in Southeast Europe have been named as Serbia’s main partners.
  • Continued dialogue with Pristina and the protection of Serbs in neighbouring states. Support for national minorities inside Serbia.
  • Introducing European norms in social and family relations.

The new government is likely to change the constitution, an issue which has been mooted over several years. Above all, there is talk about downsizing parliament and reforming the justice system in accordance with EU requirements (the “de-politicization of justice”).

 

Looming on the horizon though are some other changes that are connected to the position of the Serbian people and ethnic minorities, the status of autonomous regions and the territorial integrity of Serbia.

 

That debate may trigger a new political crisis. First, after the strengthening of the opposition in the Skupsina, the debate promises to be heated as it takes two-thirds of the votes (167 out of 250) to amend the constitution. Secondly, preserving the constitution is the “red line” for the opposition, as one of the first steps may be reducing the size of parliament to 150 members, which would be grounds for holding fresh elections and for pushing the opposition onto the street. Finally, amendments may open a “Pandora’s box” for more dramatic changes related to the viability of the Serbian state.

 

1. For more detail, see: Bondarev N. Parliamentary Elections in Serbia: Facts and Fiction.

2. The Social Democratic Party of Serbia (Rasim Ljajic), the Party of United Pensioners of Serbia (Milan Krkobabic) and the Movement of Socialists (Aleksandar Vulin).

2. Corridor 10 is the motorway from the Hungarian to the Macedonian border. Corridor 11 runs from the border with Romania (Vrsac) to the border with Montenegro.

 

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