The government of Alexandre Vučić is trying to improve his image, Lily Lynch writes, without having to put her actions in order.
August 20, Tucker Carlson published a video on the “social media” platform formerly known as Twitter. The 3:30 p.m. clip follows a jovial Carlson as he visits the Serbian Embassy in Budapest to meet Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. The former Fox News host describes Vučić as “intelligent and aware,” with “a perspective you don’t get that often in the United States.”
The video shows Carlson in the embassy, vigorously shaking hands with Serbian Sports Minister Zoran Gajić and Finance Minister Siniša Mali. Carlson engages in chatter, punctuated by his characteristic bursts of laughter. A wide-eyed and stunned Mali tells Carlson that his eldest son is his “biggest fan,” while a more reserved Gajić briefly recounts the highlights of his storied career as a high-level volleyball coach. Vučić remains in the background, intervening only occasionally, with the light and deferential attitude he adopts in the presence of powerful Western visitors.
The exchange seems so pleasant that it is possible to forget, momentarily, that the Serbian government feels entirely at home on an American broadcast – and yet, by all accounts, Serbia is the most anti-american countries in Europe. Although Washington is generally a hospitable place for visitors from the United States, the sentiment towards politics in Washington is completely different.
The legacy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 1999 bombing of Serbia, as well as US support for Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence (Belgrade still considers Kosovo its southern province) have seriously hurt relationships. According to a poll, almost 60 percent of Serbs to oppose cooperation with the United States.
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But a charm offensive is underway. The U.S. Embassy in Serbia is eager to deepen its relationship with Vučić, despite the authoritarian nature of his decade-long rule and his dark political history as Serbia’s information minister, when Slobodan Milošević was president of Yugoslavia , at the end of the 1990s.
For Americans, Vučić is someone they can do business with. They see him as having been eager to implement “much-needed economic reforms” – as a revision of labor law to the benefit of foreign investors and to the detriment of Serbian workers. They see him as willing to do almost anything to maintain his personal power and therefore willing to make unpopular deals encouraged by the West, even on Kosovo. And they believe him to be autocratic enough to contain unseemly elements within the Serbian far right, while powerful enough to rein in the more openly pro-Russian leader of the Serbian far right. Republika SrpskaMilorad Dodik, who periodically raises the specter of his secession from Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Since scaling up invasion of Ukrainé in February 2022, the US embassy in Belgrade embarked on a blitzkrieg to compete with Russia for Serbia’s affections. Serbia has so far refused to impose sanctions on Russia, despite sending conflicting messages in other forums: at the United Nations, Serbia has repeatedly voted to condemn the invasion and violations of the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
More importantly, Serbian-produced munitions have quietly found their way to the Ukrainian battlefield, although arms shipments have recently been stopped after the US Treasury placed Aleksandar Vulin, the head of the Serbian intelligence agency, BIA, under sanctions. Vučić shyly said THE Financial Times in June: “Is this possible? I have no doubt that this could happen. What is the alternative for us? Not produce it? Not sell it?
Additionally, the US embassies in Belgrade and Pristina have largely placed responsibility for recent events. spasms of violence in northern Kosovo against its Prime Minister, Albin Kurti. Much of the media followed suit, as in this not-so-subtle case teasing in the Economist: “This time, ethnic Albanians from Kosovo are largely responsible.” Such a harsh and unusual condemnation of Pristina was interpreted by many as another attempt to curry favor with the Serbs.
Cleaning up images
While the United States seeks to improve relations with Serbia, Belgrade is paying to improve its image on the other side of the Atlantic. In recent weeks, the Serbian government has recruited a new roster of well-positioned lobbyists to promote its interests in the United States. The names and backgrounds of the recruits suggest a multi-pronged approach: changing public perceptions, managing the media and influencing decision-makers.
At the end of July, the Serbian government retained the services from KARV communications, a public relations firm based in New York. Over the past month, a number of “registered foreign agents” working for Serbia have been added to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act database – the law requires that individuals representing foreign interests publicly disclose this information. These new registrants, all of whom work with KARV Communications, will “help promote and explain various policy initiatives of the Government of the Republic of Serbia by raising awareness among media and relevant groups based in the United States.”
Among the new registrants, there is one Alana AbramsonA diploma from the Columbia Journalism School who most recently worked as a producer for CNN. Previously, she was a White House and Congressional reporter for Time. We can assume that she will now use her extensive contacts in the media and politics to advance the interests of the Serbian government. The government also retained Adrien Karatnyckya non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center, a frequent contributor to Foreign policy And Foreign Affairs and former director of Freedom House. Karatnycky has long served as a controversial lobbyist for client governments of questionable integrity. A few years ago, his group Myrmidon worked for Dodik In Republika Srpska.
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Some of the newly registered Serbian lobbyists are perhaps a little better known to the Balkan public. Gordon Bardos formerly served as deputy director of the Harriman Institute at Columbia. He is a major supporter of the idea that Muslim-majority Balkan countries are incubators of Islamist violence. In a 2021 opinion article for the National interest, Bardos chastised the US government for “consistently supporting the worst numbers in the Balkans.” Obviously, for Bardos, Vučić is not one of them.
Serbia has long employed top foreign lobbyists and advisers: disgraced British PR firm Bell-Pottingerformer Italian foreign minister Franco Frattinithe former Austrian chancellor Alfred Gussenbauerformer British prime minister Tony Blair as well as Sweetheart Blairthe former United States ambassador to Serbia and Montenegro Bill Montgomery and the former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani. These celebrities have given Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party the credibility they crave on the world stage and a redemptive narrative arc, without having to engage in any redemptive action.
The trailer for a film called The Halyard Hero. The already controversial film was finance directly and indirectly by the Serbian government and constitutes the perfect propaganda film for this moment of warming in Serbian-American relations.
Halyard tells the story of a rescue during World War II in which Serbs Chetniks helped evacuate downed American airmen from German-occupied territory. This serves important functions: it highlights a positive moment in the history of Serbian-American relations, encouraging the United States to show gratitude; he whitens the Chetniks, who collaborated with the Nazis but are presented as heroes, and he eliminates the real heroes, the partisans, who ultimately defeated the Nazis. With the added anti-communism, the film seems tailor-made to appeal to nationalist (but pro-West) audiences in Serbia and conservative viewers in the United States.
Which brings us back to Vučić’s appearance on Tucker Carlson. The clip was released just days before the first Republican presidential debate. It provides insight into the Serbian government’s likely audience for its image rehabilitation: the Western populist right, with hopes that one of its candidates will win the 2024 US presidential election.
Critics of much Western policy towards Serbia often forget that this is what reconciliation what Serbia will look like, not integrated into a much-vaunted rules-based order of liberal democracies (with the adoption of human rights rhetoric and associated foreign policy preferences), but at home among the illiberal populists of the American and European far right. Those who have long dreamed that Serbia would one day change and become “a normal Western country” may soon realize their wish – but what it means to be “a normal Western country” may have fundamentally changed in the meantime.
This is a joint publication of Social Europe And IPS log