The U.S. Treasury Department recently imposed sanctions on Serbia’s intelligence chief, Aleksandar Vulin, owing to his involvement “in transnational organized crime, illegal narcotics operations, and misuse of public office.” The sanctions also highlighted that Vulin had “used his public positions to support Russia, facilitating Russia’s malign activities that degrade the security and stability of the Western Balkans and providing Russia a platform to further its influence in the region.”
The move was widely hailed by regional observers, among whom Vulin has long been derided for his ultranationalist views. The most significant of these is his explicit promotion of the so-called “Serbian World” idea, which envisions the formal unification of all Serb-majority areas in the Western Balkans with Serbia proper, to create a version what was known during the Milosevic era as “Greater Serbia.”
Less than two weeks after the July 11 sanctioning of Vulin, however, the United States took an action that would seem to be directly contradictory: completing delivery of 66 Humvee light armored vehicles to the Serbian armed forces, with another 52 planned before the end of the year. Although Humvees are hardly decisive battlefield tech, the contrast between the two events was striking. Unfortunately, it is not merely the optics of the U.S. posture towards Serbia that are confusing; the Biden administration’s entire regional policy, with Serbia at its center, has been, as I’ve noted before, a mess.
To grasp this latest twist, it’s important to understand who Vulin is, and how intimately he is linked to the country’s strongman president, Aleksandar Vucic. Like Vucic, Vulin was part of the “next generation” of young Serbian nationalists Milosevic recruited into his regime on the eve of his ouster in October 2000, following a decade of war and a succession of fraudulent elections. Vucic served as propaganda minister in Milosevic’s last cabinet and spent the 1990s as a leading member of the far-right Serbia Radical Party. For his part, Vulin spent much of the same period as the leader of the youth wing of the Yugoslav Left, a front vehicle for Milosevic’s influential wife Mirjana Markovic.
After Milosevic’s fall, and the temporary advent of a moderate, democratic regime, both Vucic and Vulin were relegated to the political wilderness throughout the 2000s. They nevertheless continued to champion a hodgepodge of Serbian nationalist causes, included glorifying convicted war criminals like Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, while remaining unapologetic in their commitments to their former boss and his post-Yugoslav wars of conquest in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.
A New-Old Guard
In 2012, the nationalist right returned to power in Serbia, with Vucic and Vulin at the forefront of the new-old guard. Vucic quickly emerged as the architect of their collective return, while, at his direction, Vulin assumed a succession of influential posts. By the decade’s end, Vucic had moved from prime minister to president, while Vulin was eventually appointed defense minister, then minister of the interior (i.e., the country’s police chief), and finally director of the Security Intelligence Agency (BIA).
The modest democratic gains Serbia made in the decade after Milosevic’s departure evaporated quickly under Vucic’s tenure. Vucic adeptly used successive snap elections, which sapped the energy and resources of the regime’s critics, to decimate the country’s opposition. Between 2012 and 2022, Serbia held five parliamentary and three presidential elections. All of them were dominated by Vucic and his new Progressive Party and their handful of coalition partners, each of which are led by former Milosevic apparatchiks, including Vulin’s Movement of Socialists.
Media freedoms too have deteriorated rapidly. His experience as Milosevic’s information minister lead Vucic to quickly seize control of Serbia’s state telecom conglomerate, Telekom Srbija, and use its robust machinery to construct a regime-controlled media bubble that swiftly came to dominate the country’s media landscape, while also aggressively penetrating into regional media markets. In December 2022, Vucic has even expanded his reach into the European media market, with his close ally Igor Žeželj buying the Serbian franchise of Euractiv, an EU-focused online outlet. This is being used to support a charm offensive with the European Union to promote Serbia’s accession to the block, while Žeželj’s Serbian media outlets simultaneously publish misinformation and hate speach designed to inflame tensions with Kosovo.
The Serbian media environment has also enabled penetration of Russia’s malign influence throughout the region. Russian disinformation narratives are common in mainstream Serbian media and its regional subsidiaries. The propaganda outlet Russia Today (RT) even opened a Serbian-language outlet late last year, which is broadcast by Telekom Srbija.
As went Serbia’s media freedoms, so too followed the overall quality of the country’s governance and civil liberties. In recent weeks, for instance, tens of thousands of Serbian citizens have taken to the streets all over the country in opposition to widespread, state-sponsored glorification of violence and chauvinism, especially through Serbia’s regime-aligned tabloids, and popular reality TV programs, which often feature graphic scenes of violence, verbal and physical alike, and almost pornographic depictions of sexual encounters between assorted participants (which include known gangsters, other delinquents and Z-list celebrities).
Questioning Sovereignty and Territorial Integrity of Neighbors
Serbia has also reverted to its Milosevic-era foreign policy positions, frequently and explicitly questioning the sovereignty and territorial integrity of neighboring States, denying well-documented crimes against humanity committed by the previous regime, including the genocidal aggression against Bosnia, and deeply ingratiating itself with Russia and China. Vulin has often taken point on these ventures – as with his August 2022 visit to Moscow during which he lambasted the EU for peddling “anti-Russian hysteria” – but while U.S. officials see him as a Russian asset, nothing he does is without Vucic’s explicit instruction, including his deep links to the Kremlin.
Yet the Biden administration has consistently behaved in such fashion as to leave no doubt that it believes, especially since Russia’s February 2022 (re)invasion of Ukraine, that Belgrade is central to a stable and secure Western Balkans. This has meant that rather than confront the chief Russian ally in the region, the U.S. has sought to placate and appease the Vucic regime — even at the expense of stalwart pro-Western governments in, say, Kosovo’s capital Pristina and in Sarajevo.
The sanctions against Vulin are one quixotic illustration of this position. As U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), widely seen as a surrogate for the White House’s regional posture, said shortly after the Treasury Department’s decision: “I hope that Vucic will see that Vulin is a liability to his efforts to build a friendship with Europe and the United States.” Even as a diplomatic message, it was an absurd formulation, because far from seeing Vulin as a liability, Vucic had obviously succeeded in establishing himself as the simultaneous preferred partner of the United States, the EU, Russia, and China thanks precisely to his reliance on figures like Vulin. The United States implicitly acknowledged this fact with the subsequent Humvee transfer to Serbia. That, in turn, followed a turbulent period during which the White House had dramatically chilled its ties with Kosovo, following an assault on NATO peacekeepers by Serb nationalist militants closely linked to the Serbian security services, an incident for which the United States nevertheless blamed the Kosovo authorities.
Even if the sanctions against Vulin are an (in)direct and belated response by the United States to the events in Kosovo, they still belie a tremendous degree of deference for the Vucic regime. After all, while leading U.S. officials publicly and repeatedly lambasted the Albin Kurti government in Pristina in recent weeks, with Vulin, the White House and State Department have sought to put up conceptual walls between their sanctions against Serbia’s intelligence chief and their diplomatic commitments to the country’s president. This is contradictory and untenable.
The U.S. sanctions against Vulin will only have an impact if they part of a broader transformation in the Biden administration’s posture towards the Western Balkans and Serbia in particular. The United States needs to take a full, rather than partial, view of the situation: Vulin is not a bad apple; it is the entire project of Vucic’s regime in Serbia — its domestic and foreign policies alike — that is rotten.
As such, it is good that Vulin has been targeted by the United States. It would be more effective still for U.S. national security interests in the region if the Biden administration would understand that Vulin is only following his president’s directives and that it needs to act accordingly moving forward.