A new Serbian government is a well-guarded secret, with a lot of speculation and second guessing in the weeks and months before. Since president Vučić first came to power a decade ago as “first deputy prime minister”, there have been new governments in 2014, 2016, 2020 and now in 2022.
That is a new government every two years on average and only one parliament served the full term. Besides the frequent early elections, all of which have nothing to do with a breakdown of the coalition or the lack of a majority, the president has discovered the pleasure of not having a government.
The new government was announced just short of the six month deadline since the elections in April. First, the naming of the candidate for prime minister took months, in the end it was Brnabić, who held the job since 2017, then once more the maximum time was nearly exhausted to name the lineup of ministers, based on the coalition with the Socialist Party, a coalition that has been the bedrock of the regime since 2012.
The long wait had nothing to do with the reasons that these periods are included in the constitution or required in other countries. The ruling Progressive Party was only short 6 of 250 seats to form the government. The coalition talks were never to be a seriously difficult endeavor. So why the long wait of nearly six months? There are two key reasons. First, it allows the regime to claim that it lacks an effective government to take decisions. To a domestic audience it can stop the clock on electoral promises and argue that what should have been done had to wait until the government is formed.
To the external partners, especially in the West, it could argue that it lacked the government to take decisions. In brief, a convenient, if transparent delaying tactic. Second, it extends the nearly constant state of exception in Serbia. The periods of ‘normal’ governance have shrunken. Periods in which a government governs, takes decisions, and does the things democratically elected governments do. With election campaigns and fake post-election uncertainty, Serbia has spent more time over the past decade anticipating new elections or governments than just dealing with how good (or bad) it is government. That nearly permanent campaigning puts the opposition on a backfoot and creates a nearly constant sense of uncertainty.
The fact that the president announced the lineup of ministers was revealing. In a parliamentary system, that Serbia formally is, the nominated prime minister would make the announcement. However, Serbia is not a parliamentary democracy, irrespective of what the constitution states. The announcement by the president serves to remind domestic and international observers that the ministers serve at the pleasure of the president, not of the prime minister or the parliament.
Outside observers take the lineup of ministers often as an exercise in what would have been called Kremlinology in the 1980s, i.e., interpretation of a few visible manifestations of the will of those in charge. However, those in charge also know that the choice of ministers is watched and thus an exercise in signaling. Who gets what post is a combination of ensuring the control of the president over the party and others in the coalition to ensure that nobody is strong or independent, but it is also about signaling to outside partners. However, signals are not the same at policy shifts.
How to read the signs? At first glance, the government signals a more pro-Western orientation. Most importantly Jadranka Joksimović, the long-standing Minister for European Integration has been replaced by Tanja Miščević. Joksimović joined the Radical Party and followed Vučić to the Progressive Party and thus took a similarly cynical view of European Integration as he did. Miščević on the other hand is a respective scholar and headed the negotiations with the EU between 2013 and 2019, before joining the RCC.
However, the Vučić regime has a long track record of including ‘experts’, ‘reforms’ and ‘professionals’ in ministries, but they have been replaced and had little impact, from Kori Udovički to Gordana Čomić, these were often highly respected and had a past track record of pro-EU and progressive agendas, but their impact has been low. There is no reason this will change. The new government also doesn’t include some of the most nationalist and pro-Russian ministers, such as Aleksandar Vulin who dreamt up the idea of the Serbian world—greater Serbia with a Russian pedigree—or Ratko Dmitrović a nationalist journalist in charge of demography with little to show. However, Ivica Dačić, Milošević spokesperson and a fiercely pro-Russian head of the Socialist Party returned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His anti-reformist is more jovial, packaged in singing songs and comical reading of English written Cyrillic. In essence, he holds the anti-Western line. Besides other professionals who have been recruited to ministerial posts, there is no major shift in the government. The new minister for minorities and human rights, is the long-time representative of the Croat minority, Tomislav Žigmanov. While this might signal the goal of improving tense relations with Croatia, there is little reason to expect a more substantial shift.
The ministers, whether reforms, established SNS loyalists or pro-Russian Socialists, are just pawns for Vučić’s agenda and the process of their nomination just highlight the authority wielded by the president in disregard to the constitution and democracy. They are dispensable and reiterate the goal to maintain good ties with Russia, the EU, China and other partners, as long as this serves the interest of the regime. The tabloid Kurir noted that Miščević is a message to the EU, Žigmanov in the region and Dačić to Russia. The notion that this government is not the government of a foreign power but of Serbia, promoted by regime media, just confirms that the government composition serves symbolic, not substantial goals.
As such, the government indicates that the regime, led by one man and one party, will continue to dominate Serbia very much like it has done for the past decade. The government in its formation, announcement and composition represents a continuation of the status quo which represents continued authoritarianism at home and seeking to keep good ties with multiple external actors to enhance the authority of the regime.