Open Letter to Alexander Vucic, President of the Republic of Serbia
The following is an open letter written to the Serbian President, commenting upon his style of government and the extent to which he has achieved results in office; and also the matters for which he is criticised by western diplomats, together with an assessment of whether those criticisms are appropriate or not.
Dear Mr President,
I am writing as a British citizen to make some observations about your governance, for several years now, over the Republic of Serbia, a country that means a profound amount to me because my two young daughters are half-English, half-Serbian. In the past I was a relatively senior international official working in the region. Now I am nothing more than a private citizen. You should not assume that my opinions represent those of my country. I am free to say what I wish.
I am writing to inform you, and your electorate, that your job is widely perceived within the international community as one of the most difficult political positions in the Balkans. Your country is unruly, but that is not your fault; it was always so. However it has progressed substantially under your tenure; these are statistical realities, and not matters of mere opinion. When you came to power in 2014, the GDP per capita for Serbia was a paltry USD6,600. In 2021 Serbia’s GDP per capita is USD7,100. This is almost 10% higher. This is an extraordinary result. In the same period, my country’s GDP per capita fell from USD47,000 to USD41,100: some 15% lower. You have achieved an economic miracle in this country, and as far as I can tell it is mostly down to your competence. You have demonstrated yourself good at governing this country.
There are several other improvements I could point out during your tenure; I will choose two. Firstly this country is much more democratic than it used to be. By this I mean that the democratic procedures by which elected politicians are chosen are much less corrupt than they used to be. Under the tenure of your predecessors, the Democratic Party, so-called carousel voting was endemic. Carousel voting involves a person representing a political party standing outside the polling station with a pre-marked ballot paper that they put in the pockets of voters entering the polling station. The voter then give that place that pre-marked ballot paper in the polling box, and takes the blank ballot paper they were given by the polling official out of the polling station folded in their pocket. The corrupted voter is then given an honorarium, say 10-20 EUR, for passing the blank ballot paper to the corrupted party official. And so the game carries on as a carousel. Under your tenure, this practice has dramatically reduced; possibly as much as by 80%. Congratulations, Mr President. The reason your party wins the elections is because it is actually popular. This is true democracy at work.
You have done more. The newspapers are more free now. They are free to publish whatever they want about the ruling party and government, whereas under the Democratic Party they were not. You are criticised a lot by Belgrade media, and that is their right. But you win elections through your popularity with people outside the capital; and you are entitled to fight elections in this way. There are newspaper and internet media outlets that support you; and those that are against you. That is exactly how it should be in a modern European democracy. The population has available through the media a variety of political opinions which it can choose from. This is a standard pillar of American and European democratic representation.
You have done more still. When I knew this city ten years ago, a bribe to a Police Officer for a drink-driving offence or a drug crime (alas, your country remains awash not just with drugs but sadly with drug addicts) would be paid to get rid of the problem. I have noticed that this no longer works. You have begun to inculcate a sense of rule of law in the young and upcoming law enforcement officers of this country. Congratulations, Mr President.
The purpose of this article is not stroke your ego. You have enemies abroad. There are many governments in Europe - and your country aspires to be a member of the European Union, which is why you maintain so stable a macroeconomic policy with the Euro tied to to Serbian Dinar most constantly - who nonetheless harbour grudges against you. Because foreign diplomats exchange postings every two to three years, they lose track of the gradual successes. In politics all successes are gradual; all failures are fast, Hence the achievements you can legitimately place to your name are forgotten by successions of different western diplomats. Instead some of them blame you for various things that it is impossible to expect you to change gradually. I could name many; but I grasp the bull by the horns and name the main two.
Firstly, you are considered guilty by the international community in respect of the lack of law and order in Kosovo north of the Ibar. This is an unfair accusation against you. The disorder is Northern Kosovo is the result of a poorly managed period of international community intervention by UNMIK (a disastrous UN agency most people have long forgotten about) between 1999 and 2008, when the international community tried to borrow for Kosovo the models of international governance that had been enacted through Bosnia’s successive High Representatives since late 1996. It didn’t work, because as we are now seeing in Bosnia some 26 years after the end of that country’s war, you can’t run either a territory or a country using arbitrary international officials. They have no democratic legitimacy and not a shred of legality under international law. They are roundly derided. None of this is your fault. You weren’t in office when these officials were created. It is preposterous to blame you for the mess that recent history has caused to unfold north of the Ibar. It is a tragedy. It is a painful loss of the rule of law. But it can’t be put at your feet.
The other accusation made amidst the smoke-filled rooms of the West is that you are responsible for the collapse of Bosnia and Herzegovina. You are not. The problems arising in post-war Bosnia are the faults of a series of international officials the appointment of whom you had nothing to do with and the actions of which you have no influence over. These people are sent by Europe and the United States (Russia tends to dissent from their appointment) and they do what they please. I’m not aware that they even consult you. Bosnia’s constitution is a terrible mess. It was drafted by US constitutional lawyers in a town called Dayton, Ohio in November 1995. I don’t see why anything that happened there is attributable to you or can be said to be your fault.
Serbia has many problems. Her principal problem is that it is desperately poor. You are doing your best to improve this. How many international officials know that your salary is EUR1,083 per month? I don’t think many of them do; I think more of them ought to. You are struggling to hold together a political consensus mixed of reformers and old-school officials. Your job is acutely difficult. I admire you, for doing so difficult a job for so paltry salary; and for doing it in the name of your country.
You are one of the most competent politicians in the Western Balkan region. I do not say this to give you some sense of pride or arrogance. The minute you make a mistake or commit some wrongdoing, I assure you that I will be there, attacking you, biting on your coat-tails and calling for your improvement or removal. That is the way democracy works. For now, you deserve a lot more credit from the international community than in fact you receive.
Part of the reason for attacks upon you by western diplomats is that you must inevitably strike political deals with the President of the Russian Federation. For the benefit of your people during the cold winter, your need discounted Russian hydrocarbons, a favour the Russian President is withdrawing from his perceived western European enemies. It seems to me that you are playing the best hand you can in such difficult circumstances. In saying this, I am not commending the President of Russia for his actions. I am simply observing that you have policy choices to make that directly affect the welfare of your people. I cannot see a reason why the policy choices you are making, in engaging with the President of Russia, are the wrong ones for the Serbian people. You’re trying to get the best deal you can for your impoverished country.
Mr President, I commend you to keep doing as you are. Take care of your heath. Never forget the virtues of democracy or a free press. Take any criticisms I or others may level against your style of governance in good grace. You run things in an autocratic way; nobody would deny that. But you probably have to do so, to do the best for the people you serve. For as long as you approach the role of governance of the Republic of Serbia with an open mind, receptive of criticism, with a democratic impulse and above all with competence, you will have my support.
Matthew Parish is an international lawyer and scholar of international relations, and a former UN Balkan peacekeeper. He has written several books and several hundred articles about international law and international relations. He is the Managing Partner of the law, intelligence and security consultancy, The Paladins, www.the-paladins.com. He wishes to emphasise that nobody asked him to write this article or provided any input into its contents.