As a grotesque, albeit limited, conflict in Ukraine sows fear across the West, some are wondering who could be capable of sparking all-out war across Europe. It might well be Aleksander Vučić, the current President of Serbia. Standing at 6’6”, Vučić has a unique resume compared to other European leaders: He’s a chess pro; he once yelled at a 7-year-old Croat for not supporting a Belgrade soccer team; and in February 2022, he presented Johnny Depp with the Gold Medal of Merit, a ceremony that moved Depp so much that it prompted him to say that he was “right now on the verge of a new life.”
But when he is not bonding with Johnny Depp or screaming at children, Vučić rules Serbia with an iron fist. Despite Serbia’s recent turn to democracy after a century of authoritarian control, Vučić has relentlessly curtailed press freedoms and consolidated powersince his 2017 election. This democratic backsliding caused Freedom House, a nonprofit that monitors political liberties, to designate Serbia in “the gray zone” between pure autocracy and free democracy in 2020. Even so, Vučić scored a major landslide victory in the April 3 elections at all levels of government, securing his dominance over Serbia.
While there are plenty of autocrats to go around Europe, Serbia’s political reality puts Vučić in a unique position. While Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán leads a NATO country without serious geopolitical enemies, Vučić commands Serbia—a nation with long-standing hatred for its neighbors. And while Vučić, like Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, is friendly with President Putin, he does not need Russian approval to start a war against his neighbors. So while many outlets dub Orbán and Lukashenko as “the twenty-first century dictator[s],” Vučić may actually hold the keys to continental bloodshed. Military action against a NATO neighbor like Croatia, as Serbia has done before, could trigger a united Western military response previously unseen in Ukraine. In his second term, Vučić is poised to continue squeezing democratic institutions, complicating relations with the EU, and inflaming regional hostilities, posing perhaps the greatest current internal threat to European peace and stability. After all, one should never count out Serbia to start a world war.
Aleksander Vučić is no stranger to the war on free press. From 1998 until 2000, Vučić served as Information Minister under the brutal Milošević regime where he implemented the infamous Information Lawto crush local media. Vučić oversaw profound crackdowns on news outlets and mandated personal approval of all articles by Serbian “opposition” media. Yet, rather than replicating Milošević’s use of murder, imprisonment, and banishment, Vučić has attempted the softer, more durable approach of undermining media credibility. Vučić has orchestrated carefully coordinated smear campaigns against unsupportive media outlets, drawing widespread criticism from the international community. While he is not immune to popular dissent, an emboldened second-term Vučić is well positioned to continue his crackdown on press freedoms and shutdown of domestic opposition.
While Vučić’s first term featured attempts to join the EU, recent developments indicate a second-term Vučić may have second thoughts. Vučić supported EU accession at the start of his presidency while maintaining good relations with Russia and China as part of his strategy to prevent Serbian isolation. But as Vučić launched his re-election campaign, he changed course. “We were very enthusiastic about the accession process—today we are not,” Vučić told a panel of EU and Balkan leaders. “We don’t care anymore.” Vučić may wager that in a second term, fellow Russian and Chinese autocrats could make better friends than pesky Westerners obsessed with international law. Russia may have noticed the same thing, evidenced by Putin’s decision to send his top security envoy to Serbia days before invading Ukraine. Indeed, Serbia is the only country in Europe to keep its skies open to Russia and one of just two such nations not on Russia’s official enemy list. That Vučić failed to capitulate to Western pressure one month from his re-election demonstrates his newfound willingness to blow off European security concerns in favor of his own interests. Vučić’s pivot away from the West and towards global autocrats during the war in Ukraine underscores his tolerance for international condemnation and sets the stage for Serbia to host a geopolitical crisis of its own.
"That Vučić failed to capitulate to Western pressure one month from his re-election demonstrates his newfound willingness to blow off European security concerns in favor of his own interests"
Perhaps most importantly, after five years of moderate diplomacy with Kosovo, Vučić is slowly building hostility towards the new nation that Serbia still refuses to recognize. Kosovo, an autonomous region of Serbia from 1963, faced brutal conflict after the dissolution of Yugoslavia until its 2008 declaration of independence. When discussing Kosovo, Vučić tries to play the victim, portraying his nation as the target of a relentless Western humiliation campaign. Vučić has applied this logic to recent multilateral negotiations; after EU-led talks last July, Vučić claimed—incorrectly—to have accepted all three major negotiating points while Kosovo accepted none.
WWI parallels aside, it’s not outlandish to assume fervent Serbian nationalism could spark a world war. EU High Representative Josep Borrell and Kosovar president Vjosa Osmani have both explicitly warned of the increased threat of Serbian aggression. Concerningly, Vučić is carefully positioning Kosovo’s NATO prospects as a fundamental attack on Serbia. After Osmani requested expedited NATO membership this February, Vučić was outraged, arguing the request was merely the result of “pressures and blackmail” from “[Kosovo’s] lobbyists’ in the EU and the [United States].” But Vučić did not stop there: “Serbia will preserve its territorial integrity,” he affirmed immediately afterwards, reiterating his insistence that Kosovo is a part of Serbia. While Vučić has twice saidthat the Kosovo situation will remain a “frozen conflict” without compromise, he is pushing Serbia away from the EU and towards Russia, away from negotiation and towards the very conflict of which he warns.
Should Kosovo attain NATO membership, Vučić has positioned Serbia to act militarily against its neighbor, potentially sparking a continental or global bloodbath. Admitting Kosovo to NATO would symbolize in no uncertain terms that much of the West intends to protect the region from a Serbian attack. But Kosovo’s accession to NATO would not be the nightmare scenario, since doing so would likely provoke significant public warnings from Serbia. The true nightmare scenario is one in which Vučić does not send clear signals of the threat of invasion months before its occurrence, as Putin did with Ukraine. The nightmare scenario is one in which Vučić, emboldened by his second term landslide and lack of international attention to the Balkans, decides to act unexpectedly and, in so doing, launches the next world war. Given his tremendous power to instigate significant regional volatility with little warning, Vučić may soon be the most dangerous man in Europe.
(c) 2023, Brown Political Review