Read below the interview given by Tonino Picula to Euractiv about the recent elections in neighboring Serbia, as well as the broader geopolitical events in the region and Croatia.
EURACTIV: What is your assessment of the elections in Serbia and the protests that erupted after them?
PICULA: First of all, the campaign itself in Serbia was indicative of the events that occurred after the polling stations closed. Just to remind you that this was a campaign in which the ruling group, led by President Aleksandar Vučić, claimed that there was a high level of involvement of foreign intelligence services in the internal affairs of Serbia. There was talk of a real invasion of spies, representatives of intelligence services of Western countries, which of course favor opposition groups and, like never before, call for the overthrow of the constitutional order in Serbia. Indicative in this regard was the expulsion of the Croatian diplomat Hrvoje Šnajder, accused of stepping out of the bounds of his job.
EURACTIV: Do you think that Šnajder's expulsion was connected to the upcoming elections in Serbia?
PICULA: In any case, it was part of such a devised campaign. If you followed Serbian media, which are largely under the direct influence of Serbian authorities, it was clear that Vučić sought additional legitimacy among his voters in the fact that he remains on the political course of action that guarantees, as he claims, the independence of Serbia in its foreign policy. Meanwhile, he did not question the great influence of China and Russia on Serbian politics, but paradoxically, the influence of the West, as if he is not the president of a country negotiating entry into the EU. The events after the elections themselves were only a continuation of this long-term media repression over the Serbian population and the deprivation of space for the Serbian opposition, independent media, judiciary, and other institutions. Vučić made it very clear that the army was on his side, which could have been an announcement that he would not hesitate to use all means to preserve power, regardless of the protests of those who noticed numerous irregularities in the electoral process. So, this kind of violence probably took the regime by surprise, but they were actually prepared for it. The question now is how to get out of this situation and how Vučić can consolidate his power, given the much higher level of articulation of those who think that Serbia is not going in the right direction. For me, the real question is whether and how the EU will change its policy towards Aleksandar Vučić because he, unlike the leaders of all surrounding countries, with the exception of Hungary, has been in power for more than ten years. I have repeatedly warned in the European Parliament that the policy of appeasing Vučić should be stopped because he is not an interlocutor whose actions can help consolidate the situation in Serbia itself, let alone in the Serbian environment. Especially he cannot be the one to complete the negotiation process with the authorities in Pristina so that both countries can finally end this dispute over the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state. So now, not only Vučić is on the test, but also the EU. It has to decide whether and how to react to what is happening in Belgrade.
EURACTIV: In your opinion, can the elections held in Serbia on December 17th be considered free and fair? On one hand, we have the authorities claiming that the elections were democratic and that everyone could choose on the ballot who they wanted. They even claim that the number of complaints about the electoral process was relatively small and that everyone signed the records after the polling stations closed. On the other hand, the opposition claims it was robbed and that people with dual citizenship from BiH and Montenegro were brought in by buses to the elections. The opposition has also initiated protests, but it seems that they have hardly reached for legal mechanisms to challenge the elections…
PICULA: We will see what time and events will show. But this is the first time that the opposition is acting more decisively and somewhat cohesively. Some of its leaders have even resorted to a hunger strike, which is the ultimate form of expressing dissatisfaction. This is indeed a strong form of pressure on the regime that we have not seen before. After all, I would not underestimate the duration of such opposition dissatisfaction in Serbia. This dissatisfaction did not start a day or two after the elections, which initially appeared to be clearly won by the ruling parties, but dates back to May, since mass murders have shaken Serbia and subsequent massive protests ensued, thereby initially articulating the resistance movement. Then the opposition accepted the challenge, pointing out the malignancy of many elements of Vučić's rule, where violence becomes a form of political action since the government generated such a social climate. All this suggests that this time we may have the opportunity to witness a process that will seriously shake Vučić and his rule. Whether this movement will be successful in doing so is hard to predict at this moment. However, it shows that Belgrade, as a city of special significance, does not reconcile with the election results. Whether this will lead to the formation of a more permanent opposition formation is not visible at this moment. When it comes to fair and free elections, we cannot talk about that. So many people on the streets, especially in Belgrade, and so many complaints make one think about how regular these elections were. The campaign certainly was not, as Vučić put himself at the forefront of the campaign promoting his party, although the elections were not presidential but parliamentary and local. He actually personalized the campaign again and reduced the elections to a referendum with the message "If you do not choose mine, I leave too", thereby assuming personal responsibility for everything that happens. His model of governance has obviously reached its limits. I have already said in a media appearance that Vučić is doing everything to not lose power regularly in the elections.
EURACTIV: Speaking of reactions from abroad, it is noticeable that the EU has so far not commented on the elections in Serbia. The only exception is the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has stated that such elections are not appropriate for a candidate country for EU membership. How do you comment on that?
PICULA: This is not the first time that the West - both the USA and the EU - have reacted lukewarmly to obvious electoral and other irregularities in Serbia. Such a policy has been ongoing since Vučić came to power. Vučić came to power with applause from the EU, which hoped that he was the man who could lead to Serbia's rapprochement with the EU and the end of negotiations with Pristina and mutual recognition, and relaxation of relations in the region where Serbia has a certain influence, at least in part of those states. However, I think that these events should now represent a turning point. Especially after the incident in Banjska in northern Kosovo, when Serbian paramilitary groups were caught with their fingers on the triggers, and Belgrade weakly tried to amnestize itself from these events, which few believed. It seems to me that this should be an alarm for the West's reaction because Vučić has been supported and tolerated for too long due to expectations that only he in Belgrade is capable of stabilizing and normalizing relations with Pristina. However, this is not happening. In addition, the EU is having more and more problems with populists and autocrats within its own ranks. Therefore, there is a certain kind of strategic blindness of the Union, which still thinks that Vučić is the one who can do the part of the job that is expected of him. However, I think that this model is exhausted, but also that the EU does not know how to change its long-standing wrong policy.
EURACTIV: When we talk about foreign services, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić stated that they received information about the opposition protests in Belgrade from Russian intelligence services. Vučić, on the other hand, assessed that one large Western country is behind everything, not specifying which, although everyone believes it is Germany. Do the Serbian authorities see everything as a "new Maidan"?
PICULA: First of all, it is good that Germany reacted in such a way. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has criticized Vučić's policy on several occasions. I think this is expected as Olaf Scholz's government is trying to shake off Angela Merkel's legacy, during whose reign Vučić was far more protected than he is now. It would be good if the signal from Berlin that something needs to be done and change the policy towards Belgrade is adopted by the EU because it is an illusion to expect Vučić wants and can relax relations in the Western Balkans. But as long as we have some kind of "stabilocracy priesthood" in some key EU institutions that shape its foreign policy, this will not happen. Therefore, I think the example of Germany is still isolated and it will be a pity if it remains so. Regarding the Russian influence in Serbia, it is clear and I think a far greater effort is needed to not see it than to explain it. Serbia is a country where Russian propaganda media banned in the EU freely broadcast, and where the prime minister thanks Russian intelligence services that have been present there for a long time. Actually, the real question is how much Serbia itself, even if it had the strength to do so, is able to break free from the influence of the Kremlin, without facing problems. But there is always the question of how the West would react to that, given that Vučić has developed a chameleonic policy and the art of sitting on several chairs. It's an open secret that he supplies weapons to Ukraine and does favors for the authorities in Kyiv, which is honored both by Washington and Brussels. This is one of the codes for deciphering the West's benevolent attitude towards him.
EURACTIV: Will Vučić still be able to sit on two chairs? On one hand, we see that Moscow delivers data on protests, while on the other hand, analysts point out that one of his first messages on election night was an announcement of accelerating Serbia's European path. Moreover, we see that Belgrade starts recognizing Kosovo's car plates from January 1st, which almost caused a war a year ago. Even the US Ambassador to Belgrade Christopher Hill condemned the destruction of state property during the Belgrade protests a few days ago in a lukewarm reaction, which many interpreted as a slap to the protesters. It seems, therefore, that official Belgrade still manages to sit on several chairs?
PICULA: Vučić will do everything to ease the bad position in which his regime currently finds itself. These are various small or medium-sized concessions, which would prevent what he fears the most, any form of economic sanctions against Serbia, regardless of his political closeness to various dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. The Serbian economy crucially depends on economic relations with the EU. If the EU seriously threatened economic sanctions against Belgrade, then the regime would simply find itself in real problems, which would turn into a political drama. To prevent this, Vučić will, when he assesses that the political mood of the West is changing to his detriment, make certain concessions, but strategically nothing significant will change. He has created a part of the electorate in Serbia that is not ready to take on the fundamental European values and do what is necessary for the country to approach EU membership. That's why he is ready to do everything to stay in power, even occasionally reasonable and positive things.
EURACTIV: Do you think he is ready to normalize relations with Pristina in this context?
PICULA: He will only do that if he is forced to by ultimate means, and the messages that are now coming from Washington and Brussels at this moment are not such; they are just mild reprimands. I think he will continue with the policy of obstructing negotiations with Pristina. The question is whether he could politically survive the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state.
EURACTIV: It seems that the EU has finally put enlargement policy, which has been stagnant for 10 years since Croatia's accession, back on the agenda. European Council President Charles Michel said at the end of summer that the goal is for the EU to expand by 2030. How realistic is this deadline and which countries could be the first to join the EU?
PICULA: First of all, I welcome the expansion of the enlargement policy, as it encompassed the Eastern Partnership countries last year. However, the enlargement policy has come into question already this year because relatively little good news has come from this circle of now 10 countries in the "waiting room". This only shows how fragile the enlargement policy is because it faces a series of problems that the EU as a model, and individual member states, are dealing with. Talking about 2030 as a year when the first members after Croatia could join the EU, in my opinion, is not entirely realistic. If we tried to determine the timeline of what could happen, it would be good if the enlargement negotiations were concluded by that year. I wrote this in my report to the European Parliament on the new enlargement strategy, which the European Parliament confirmed. However, Charles Michel is a politician entering the final phase of his mandate at the head of the European Council and obviously wanted to mark it more strongly with his personal contribution. However, this met with a cold reception from the European Commission, which diplomatically disavowed the optimism of the President of the European Council. The example of Montenegro tells us how fragile the expectations of candidate countries can be in new geopolitical circumstances. Montenegro was a convincing leader of enlargement until a few years ago, but for years, due to internal turbulence, it has not closed any chapter and is now trying to get back on the enlargement agenda. Not to mention the case of North Macedonia, which was a convincing leader of that policy when Croatia was just beginning its European journey! So, who will be the first to join the EU after Croatia remains an open question. The question is also what the 2024 election will look like, how the European Parliament will be composed, then the European Commission, and how the EU will deal with a whole series of internal problems that are not at all trivial, and how it will react to geopolitical pressures. The EU is extremely sensitive to processes in its immediate neighborhood, much more so than the USA, Russia, or China. The enlargement policy undoubtedly has a perspective. However, whether it will be able to be realized in the next few years depends on a number of factors. From this perspective, 2030 seems a bit too optimistic as the year of admitting a larger number of new members. I would only like it not to lead to a more permanent standstill again.
EURACTIV: How to explain that at the recent European Council summit, Ukraine and Moldova opened accession negotiations, while BiH was denied? This is perceived as an injustice in Croatia, while Sarajevo is very disappointed.
PICULA: BiH rightly expected to be given a date for the start of negotiations. However, this did not happen. To be cynical, it's because Ukraine had only seven conditions to start negotiations, while BiH had twice as many, the known 14 priorities. Of course, we cannot stay with that frivolous argument. Geopolitical reality decided. The EU currently feels more threatened by the war that Vladimir Putin waged against Ukraine than by the potential disappointment of the public in BiH.
EURACTIV: Is it realistic to open negotiations with BiH in March next year, as announced, or could things "stuck" somewhere again?
PICULA: The EU has invested heavily in BiH for years, and BiH eventually got the status of a candidate. I think it would be good if this type of promise was realized before the dissolution of the European Parliament, that is, the end of the activities of the European Commission in this convocation. Now, in December, it was not possible to do so because part of the EU member states strongly advocated starting negotiations with Ukraine, but these same countries were far more skeptical of BiH, probably because of internal problems in BiH itself. However, I believe that BiH could open negotiations in March. Anything else would be a new stall in the enlargement policy. The Western Balkans cannot remain in the shadow of the countries of the now former Eastern Partnership. Southeast Europe has vital geopolitical importance for the EU. Russia, China, Turkey, and the Gulf countries would take advantage of this kind of weakening of the EU's influence in the region, which would then be a much more serious threat to the Union than the risks it now faces.
EURACTIV: Croatia is also entering a super-election year. What results do you expect from the parliamentary elections?
PICULA: Of course, I cannot estimate that. We do not even know the date of the elections yet, which then needs to be linked to the circumstances that will prevail and affect the mood of the voters. At the moment, I think it is important to stop the devaluation of Croatian politics. In the last elections in 2020, less than 50 percent of voters went to the polling stations for the first time. This shows that Croatian voters are losing interest in elections. Just remember that turnout in the elections on January 3, 2000, was almost 75 percent. This means that in twenty years, a quarter of the electorate has practically given up on choosing their representatives. I am not quite sure that the citizens are to blame for that. Therefore, it is difficult to assess the results if the trend of declining interest of citizens in elections continues. It is to be assumed that in such circumstances, the ruling party and its coalition partners could again be overrepresented because their interest groups will certainly go to the elections because they have a tangible benefit from the government. On the other hand, the model offered by Andrej Plenković is now quite worn out. All the main foreign policy goals of Croatia have been achieved, of course not only thanks to the ruling parties, and now there is no longer a reason for a state of emergency, which practically prevailed in 2020 under corona conditions and which helped HDZ win the elections. Moreover, everything depends on the political counter-proposal and whether the opposition will be able to motivate voters to go to the polls and choose them. But that is a job that opposition parties must do.
EURACTIV: Do you plan to run again in the elections next year, either in the European or in the parliamentary elections in Croatia?
PICULA: I cannot answer that publicly before serious discussions in my party, the SDP. I can only say that I remain very interested in participating in political processes in the EU, but also in Croatia.