“Serbian World” – A Threat to European Integration and Stability of the Western Balkans

“Serbian World” – A Threat to European Integration and Stability of the Western Balkans

Igor Bandović, Director, BCSP

On June 8, 2024, the ‘All-Serbian Assembly’ took place. Organized in Belgrade by the President of the Republic of Serbia, the Government of the Republic of Serbia, the President and Government of Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Serbian Orthodox Church, it received significant media support from outlets in Belgrade and Banja Luka. The event aimed to showcase the unity of the Serbian people living throughout the Western Balkans. During the gathering, a Declaration on the Protection of National Interests and Political Rights of the Serbian People and a Shared Future for the Serbian People was adopted. 

This event followed local elections in Serbia, and the elections for the city of Belgrade, which were repeated on June 2 due to reported electoral irregularities observed by both the OSCE and independent domestic monitors, and addressed by a European Parliament resolution. The ruling Serbian Progressive Party’s (SNS) campaign focused on mobilizing their voters by opposing the adoption of the UN Srebrenica Resolution, which condemns the genocide against Bosniaks and calls for July 11 to be declared a day of remembrance for the victims, as established by international court rulings.

However, President Aleksandar Vučić leveraged the passing of this resolution to misrepresent it as being anti-Serbian, falsely claiming that the resolution labeled Serbs as a genocidal people. Consequently, the main slogan for these elections became “Serbs are not a genocidal people.”

In the June 2 elections, the ruling SNS defeated the fragmented opposition amidst electoral irregularities and malpractices such as vote-buying, duplicate voter lists, voter intimidation, and overwhelming media dominance by the authorities—irregularities also seen in the December 2023 elections. One new tactic observed both in December and June was the “migration of voters,” where citizens from Bosnia and Herzegovina were illegally mass-registered in voter lists in Serbia and then transported to polling stations on election day to secure victory for Vučić’s party. It was also noted that officials from Republika Srpska, including President Milorad Dodik and some ministers, voted in these local elections although they clearly do not live in municipalities where they are unlawfully registered.

The political idea of the “Serbian World” was first widely used by Aleksandar Vulin, a close ally and political partner of Vučić, who has held significant positions in various governments under Vučić, such as Minister of Internal Affairs, Head of the Security Information Agency, and currently Deputy Prime Minister of Serbia. Vulin is known for his close ties with the Kremlin and his persecution of the opposition and civil society. While it was not initially clear that there was a broader concept behind the “Serbian World,” it is now known that the territorial exchange between Kosovo and Serbia was part of this larger strategy. This exchange, almost agreed upon in 2017 between then-Kosovo Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi and Aleksandar Vučić, had the support of certain international community members and some EU officials. Essentially, it meant changing the borders of Kosovo and Serbia to incorporate the northern part of Kosovo into Serbia, and souther part of Serbia bordering Kosovo into Kosovo. Although this idea did not receive support from the EU, Serbia’s main international partner, it gave Vučić the impetus to pursue the idea in practice, albeit without war (like he did in the 1990s) and through political irredentism, fomenting unrest in neighbouring states.

By extending influence over political events in Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina through local political parties, movements, and public figures, the idea of the “Serbian World” aims to create a Serbian demos—a political entity in these states that are politically and culturally loyal primarily to President Vučić and his regime in Serbia, disregarding the national borders and states they reside in.

Hence, the declaration adopted at the All-Serbian Assembly states that Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia; mandates all state institutions to exclusively use the term “Kosovo and Metohija” as used in the Serbian Constitution; professes the endangerment of Republika Srpska and demands political representation for Serbs in Montenegro proportional to the size of their population in the country.

The wider picture

After more than 15 years of European integration for the countries of the Western Balkans, it is striking that an idea rooted in the wars of the 1990s is again relevant and tangible. Why does Serbia’s most significant political figure promote this idea?

For a politician who began his career in the extreme Serbian Radical Party with a similar agenda of uniting all Serbs into one state, this is despite later political transformations in his political DNA. For keen observers of Balkan affairs, the authoritarian tendencies of Aleksandar Vučić have been evident for some time, but they likely became more pronounced with the 2020 pandemic. Vučić has increasingly become an official who undermines, discredits, and diminishes the European integration of Serbia, particularly in areas where it should have a transformative impact: fundamental issues of the rule of law, freedoms, and the pillars of democracy in a country. The fraudulent elections of December 2023 and June 2024 represent the latest push towards authoritarianism. According to the Freedom House Nations in Transit, 2024 report, in 2023 Serbia experienced a historic democratic decline. 

While the process of European integration has been slow and essentially transactional, it has been favourable for Vučić. Although it did not offer membership nor achieved any progress in the accession talks for years, it provided a trade-off between stabilitocracy and economic benefits. However, after the onset of the war in Ukraine, the integration process became fundamentally geopolitical and existential for the future of the European project. Vučić could not fit into this vision of Europe—a Europe of fundamental values and adherence to the principles on which it was founded. This Europe stands as a fundamental barrier to the “Russian World,” a similar political project of Vladimir Putin.

Cultivating close ties with Putin and his security structures is no longer a secret kept by Dodik and Vučić. Today, they are the only politicians in Europe who meet with the President of the Russian Federation directly or through their associates. Despite this, the dangerous idea of an anti-European Balkans continues to materialize. Vučić is preparing several scenarios for the future, closely watching developments in Brussels and Washington. He intends to exploit every weakness and disunity in the West to better position himself in relation to Beijing and Moscow. He hopes for the complete disintegration of the Western order to establish his “Serbian World” in the Balkans, which would grant him uncontrollable power and enable him to emulate the governance style of his Eastern role models. In a scenario where the West is weak enough in the Balkans, all possibilities are on the table, including the nightmare of a recurrence of the wars from the 1990s.