As Ukraine’s government totters, another eastern European nation is preparing to undergo a quieter reshuffle. Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic dissolved parliament Wednesday, and called for early elections, which will be held on March 16. The ballot is expected to consolidate the power of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) — and boost Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic to the premiership.
Vucic’s SNS party has been pushing for snap elections for months in the hopes that a strong popular mandate will clear the way for tough economic reforms needed to reinvigorate the country’s weak economy. Here, the party is banking on broad support for its role in launching long-anticipated E.U. integration talks, which debuted on January 21. (This despite lingering resentment over key concessions made by Belgrade to historic foe Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008.) Polls indicate that the gamble will pay off: 48% of voters support the SNS. Vucic, a keen advocate of accession who has pushed for rapprochement with Kosovo (despite his political start as a radical nationalist), is expected to replace Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, who may also see his Socialist party — expected to win around 10% of the vote — lose its spot in the ruling coalition.
Analysts warn that early elections may only add to Serbia’s economic misery by further delaying needed reforms like cuts to the country’s swollen bureaucracy – all at the estimated price tag of $13.5 million. But the cost may be worth it if the vote furthers the current momentum towards accession and the financial gains represented by E.U. membership. A strengthened SNS party could also herald improved relations with Kosovo, a lynchpin of Serbia’s accession. Good news for Brussels, who needs a victory after fielding an embarrassing rejection by Ukraine this winter. The struggling bloc has already relied on Vucic to guide Serbia towards integration, calling in the deputy P.M. when talks to normalize relations with Kosovo stalled in 2013.
But Vucic’s ascension won’t change facts on the ground. Namely in Serb-dominated provinces in northern Kosovo that were under Belgrade’s de facto control until an E.U.-mediated accord upset the status quo. (Under the agreement, Serbia agreed to relinquish its parallel institutions.) Vucic himself received a frosty welcome during his last trip to Mitrovica from Kosovo Serbs, many of whom feel abandoned by Belgrade (which, in essence, they were.) Despite loud optimism from Kosovo, Serbia and the E.U. about the Brussels Agreement, Serb municipalities in northern Kosovo continue to resist Pristina’s attempts to integrate them. Case in point: a mayoral election in the flashpoint town of northern Mitrovica, which was rescheduled for February 23 after the winner — a Kosovar Serb — refused to take the oath of office in protest of the presence of Kosovo’s coat of arms on the document.
As of Wednesday, the deadline to register for the ballot, no candidate had emerged — a portent, perhaps, that normalized ties with Kosovo are still far away. If Vucic wants to assure Serbia’s accession — and his own political legacy — he will have to nudge recalcitrant Serbian communities in line. Starting with Mitrovica.