After reaching a pinnacle in the 1990s under Slobodan Milošević, populism has remained an integral part of Serbian politics, drawing on ethnic nationalism, right-wing extremism, anti-globalism, Euroscepticism, and Russophillia. The populisms of the Milošević era and subsequent periods have portrayed international institutions like the EU, NATO, and OSCE as enemies of the Serbian nation. The trials of Serbian war criminals (including Miloševi) by the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) are often a flashpoint. This controversy was reignited by the secession of Kosovo in 2008. The painful history of the disintegration of Yugoslavia continues to fuel nationalist, right-wing, and populist parties and discourses in Serbian politics.
Serbia, located in the Balkans, is a unitary parliamentary republic aspiring to EU membership. Aided and protected by Russia since the early 19th century, Serbia first gained autonomy within the Ottoman Empire towards the mid-19th century and became an independent state under the terms of the 1878 Congress of Berlin. In 1918, the Serbian monarchy formed the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes in order to unite the southern Slavic peoples and renamed the kingdom Yugoslavia, the land of southern Slavs, in 1929. Designed as a Serb-led imperial project, Yugoslavia included modern-day Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina, and parts of North Macedonia. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Yugoslavia under Tito’s Communist Party became a socialist one-party state with an increasingly decentralized economy. Tito established bureaucratic socialist control over the constituent republics and managed to maintain the federal union despite the weak supranational Yugoslav identity while remaining independent from the Soviet-dominated eastern bloc.
Coupled with the so-called “weak Serbia-strong Yugoslavia” order of the 1974 Constitution, the unrest between ethnic Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo led to an upsurge of Serbian nationalism and populism during the 1980s. Exploiting the budding conflict in Kosovo, Slobodan Milošević, an ardent Serbian nationalist, first became president of the constituent Republic of Serbia and subsequently served as president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1997 to 2000. Opposing the autonomy of the Vojvodina and Kosovo provinces, Milošević developed a nationalist-populist agenda by pursuing an aggressive centralization policy aimed towards creating a “Greater Serbia” in the form of a united Serbian nation-state, which was to ultimately replace socialist Yugoslavia. “Greater Serbia” was going to come into existence by connecting the Serb-populated regions of Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo – and through the forced removal of the non-Serb peoples of these areas.
To this ultimate end, Milošević engineered a populist anti-bureaucratic revolution through a series of revolt-like street protests against the “corrupt” governing structures of the Communist era. The protests toppled the rulers of the Republic of Montenegro and of the autonomous provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo; pro-Milošević figures were assigned to their positions, and Kosovo’s provincial autonomy was reduced. Milošević’s populist push for centralization while also mobilizing Serbian nationalists ruled out a negotiated settlement and triggered an anti-Serb backlash in other Yugoslav republics, which one by one declared independence from the federation in 1991 and 1992. Milošević supported the Serbian militias engaging in ethnic cleansing campaigns against Muslims and Croats within Bosnia Herzegovina and ordered a similar program to depopulate the Kosovar Albanians when the conflict in Kosovo was rekindled in 1998. Eventually, NATO airstrikes ended Serbia’s aggression in Kosovo in 1999 and led to the demise of the Milošević regime a year later.
Milošević stirred Serbian ethnic nationalism and manipulated the Kosovo question to create a sense of extreme crisis, which enabled him to cultivate an authoritarian populism, repress his rivals, and cling to power despite a dramatic economic downturn through the 1990s.
Populism has remained an integral part of Serbian politics in subsequent periods, drawing on ethnic nationalism, right-wing extremism, Islamophobia, Euroscepticism, and Russophillia. The populisms of the Milošević era and subsequent periods have portrayed international institutions like the EU, NATO, and OSCE as enemies of the Serbian nation. The trials of Serbian war criminals (including Miloševi) by the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) are often a flashpoint. This controversy was reignited by the secession of Kosovo in 2008. The painful history of the disintegration of Yugoslavia continues to fuel nationalist, right-wing, and populist parties and discourses in Serbian politics.
The incumbent President Aleksandar Vučić’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska Napredna Stranka, the SNS) is the leading populist party in the country. The center-right SNS was established by reformist members of Parliament that split from Vojislav Šešelj’s Serbian Radical Party in 2008. Under Tomislav Nikolić and Vučić, the party adopted a pro-European stance and successfully maintained the Serbian nationalist outlook while pursuing the goal of accession to the EU. An SNS-led coalition came to power in 2012 and increased its voting share to 48 percent in a 2014 snap election, gaining a sizeable majority of the unicameral 250-seat National Assembly. In another early parliamentary election in 2016, the SNS-led coalition retained its majority in the legislature with 131 seats. The former SNS leader Tomislav Nikolić served as the president of Serbia from 2012 to 2017, while party leader Vučić became prime minister first in 2014 and then president in 2017.
Since it came to power in 2012, Vučić’s center-right SNS has dominated Serbian national politics with an increasing tendency for authoritarian populism. Aleksandar Vučić, once a hardline nationalist and a member of Šešelj’s far-right Serbian Radical Party, is known for his role as Minister of Information (1998-2000), where he muzzled dissent and broadcasted propaganda for the Milošević regime during the war in Kosovo. Vučić admits his previous radical nationalist ideas were wrong and claims that he has changed and now is concerned primarily with maintaining economic stability, raising living conditions, and bringing Serbia closer to the European fold. Vučić conforms to Brussel’s guidance for continued dialogue with Kosovo and strikes a good balance between Belgrade’s orientation towards EU membership and its close ties with Russia (Tait, 2017).
On the other hand, Vučić has concentrated executive power at his disposal, going far beyond the otherwise constitutionally weak powers accorded the presidency. In the Serbian parliamentary system, the office of prime minister is the most powerful position while the presidency is largely ceremonial. However, by both appointing a technocrat-like figure as prime minister and holding his post as the party leader, President Vučić continues to wield an enormous amount of de facto executive and legislative power. Vučić presents himself as the “embodiment of stability” in the fragile Balkans (Knezevic, 2016) and compares his achievements with the “president for life” Tito’s terms in the former Yugoslavia (Pantovic, 2016). Vučić uses his efforts to tackle corruption, fix the high unemployment rate, and join the EU as populist window dressing; but behind that screen, he’s been undermining Serbia’s fledgling democracy. The SNS-led coalition government resorts to emergency procedures to pass laws and frequently blocks the opposition’s effective participation in the legislative process. The state and pro-government business control most of the media, which provide highly-biased coverage and target critical journalists.
The Serbian Radical Party (Srpska Radikalna Stranka-the SRS) and Serbian Movement Dveri (Srpski Pokret Dveri) are the two populist parties in the opposition. Founded in 1991, the SRS is a far-right nationalist party and was a coalition partner of the former Yugoslavian President Milošević’s Socialist Party of Serbia in the late 1990s. The founding leader of the party, Vojislav Šešelj, was indicted and tried by the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague. As a leader of the Serbian militia, he took part in the wars for a Greater Serbia in Croatia and Bosnia. Šešelj, after more than 10 years of detention and being acquitted of war crimes, returned to active politics and reassumed SRS leadership. Having been outside Parliament since 2012, the party, under Šešelj’s leadership, gained 22 seats in the 2016 election.
From 2003-2008, while Vojislav Šešelj was on trial, the SRS was led by Tomislav Nikolić and focused more on issues like fighting poverty and corruption; with Šešelj’s return, the focus shifted back to radical nationalistic goals. The party still calls for establishing a Greater Serbia, which means Belgrade’s literal annexation of all Serb-populated areas, including Kosovo, Montenegro, Republika Srpska (one of the two entities making up Bosnia-Herzegovina), and Republika Srpska Krajina, a self-declared but never recognized Serb state in Croatia. The SRS assumes Serbs and Montenegrins as one people and views the Croatians as Roman-Catholic Serbs, denying the existence of a separate Croatian nation. The SRS claims that the ICTY was not an independent court and was politically motivated to demonize and punish the Serbian nation (Stojarová & Vykoupilová, 2008) and views the former Serbian generals, Radovan Karadzić and Ratko Mladić, as national heroes. The party advocates an alliance with Russia and categorically opposes Serbia’s accession to the EU.
Established in 1999 as a right-wing Christian youth organization, the Serbian Movement Dveri operated as a movement until the 2010s and promoted Serbian nationalism, social conservatism, and anti-globalism. After organizing as a full-fledged political party, Dveri began to participate in elections in 2012 but failed to exceed the five percent threshold for representation in Parliament until 2016. The party, under the leadership of Boško Obradović, made an alliance with the Democratic Party of Serbia for the 2016 election and garnered slightly more than five percent of the total votes, gaining seven seats in the National Assembly. The party supports closer relations with Russia and opposes Serbia’s expected integration with the EU.
In terms of civil liberties, Serbia is partially free – at best. Though there is an expectation that Serbia might be an EU member by 2025, Belgrade seems to be moving away from European norms as the SNS-led coalition government has been undermining the rule of law and reversing the democratization reforms of the post-Milošević era. Under President Vučić’s growing authoritarian populism, democratization has been stalled, as the effective participation of opposition parties in the legislative process is hindered and critical voices in the media are largely silenced.
July 8, 2020.
Knezevic, Gordana. (2016). “By electing a populist, Serbia is more European than ever”. Radio Free Europe. April 26, 2016, https://www.rferl.org/a/serbia-vucic-populist-more-european-than-ever-balkans-blog/27699547.html.
Pantovic, Milivoje. (2016). “Serbs Ponder Vučić’s Claim to Tito’s Legacy”. Balkan Insight. Nov. 10, 2016, https://balkaninsight.com/2016/11/10/experts-said-serbian-pm-revoking-better-past-for-personal-gain-11-08-2016/.
Stojarová, Věra & Vykoupilová, Hana. (2008). “Populism in the Balkans: The Case of Serbia”, Central European Political Studies Review 10, no: 2-3: 99, 101.
Tait, Robert. (2017). “Only donkeys don’t change: Serbian PM says he’s ready to be president”. The Guardian. March 31, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/31/serbian-pm-aleksandar-vucic-ready-to-be-president.