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Poised For Big Win, Vucic Highlights Serbian 'Paradox'

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade in January
Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade in January

Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, a rebranded ultranationalist who shed his incendiary rhetoric after the overthrow of Balkan strongman Slobodan Milosevic, is comfortably in the driver's seat as Serbia goes to the polls this weekend.

Vucic has brought his allies to the brink of a hefty majority in the Serbian legislature by appealing in often seemingly contradictory ways to multiple segments of Serbia's broad political spectrum. He has praised Serbian war criminals yet also expressed "pride" in becoming a self-described moderate. And he promises to lead Serbia into the EU while simultaneously maintaining Serbia's deep historical ties with Russia.

But as the country goes to the polls on April 24, Vucic's carefully crafted messages could leave many Serbs, and indeed Brussels and Moscow, guessing as to which way the opportunistic 46-year-old former firebrand for the Radical right plans to steer the most populous ex-Yugoslav republic: East. West. Forward. Or Backward.

"When Vucic says to choose between past and present, he means choose between my past and my future," says Olga Beckovic, an independent political commentator in Serbia. "He is saying, 'I can again become [an ultranationalist like Vojislav] Seselj if you don't want me to be European.'"

Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj at a rally in Novi Sad on April 20.
Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj at a rally in Novi Sad on April 20.

Vucic is sufficiently confident of his popularity to have scheduled the elections two years early in a bid to strengthen his dominance of Serbia's political scene. His Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and its coalition partners fell just short of a two-thirds majority in the last election, in 2014.

A trained lawyer and former information minister for wartime Yugoslav President Milosevic, Vucic has billed the April 24 poll as the moment for Serbs to choose whether they want to return to the past or move forward to a new future. He has suggested he would use a stronger parliamentary base to bolster his efforts to lead the country into the European Union by 2020.

But what Vucic would in fact do is difficult to gauge because his first two years as prime minister have been filled with contradictions.

Since becoming prime minister in 2014 on promises of tackling endemic corruption and leading Serbia westward, Vucic has overseen formal negotiations with Brussels over Serbia's EU aspirations, including vowing to cooperate in defusing tensions with Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008, as part of the process.

But he has maintained his appeal for those suspicious of the West by simultaneously vowing to keep Serbia close to its historical partner, Russia. He has also fostered close relations with Moscow by refusing to join EU sanctions over its actions in Ukraine -- where it forcibly annexed Crimea and continues to support armed separatism -- raising questions as to whether he values relations with Brussels or Moscow more.

So far, Vucic's balancing act seems to have paid off by giving him maximum maneuvering room to build up his power base. But it also may have sown confusion among Serbs, many of whom are torn over whether the country's future lies east or west.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade in December
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Aleksandar Vucic in Belgrade in December

In an opinion poll in February profiling younger Serbs, 70 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 35 said they would like to work in the EU and enjoy the kind of health benefits people have there. Yet at the same time, 65 percent said they approved of Russia's foreign policy and more than half said they would favor having a Russian military base in Serbia.

Some of the reasons for such mixed feelings may be historical, including reservations about the West that remain from NATO's bombing of Serbia over Kosovo in 1999. Some of the rising Euro-skepticism also may simply mirror that in the EU itself amid the bloc's economic woes, migrant crisis, and the specter of "Brexit."

But many observers blame Vucic's own personal failure to unequivocally champion EU values.

"In Serbia, public opinion is formed top-down," says Jelena Milic of the Belgrade-based Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies. "Now we have this paradoxical situation in which for [the past] two years all the political parties have been formally in favor of EU integration but public support has dropped down significantly."

An opinion poll in February found 48 percent of Serbs would support membership in the EU, down from 51 percent in 2014.

Vucic's ambiguity may also help explain the rising political fortunes of ultranationalist parties, which are highly hostile to the West and now look poised to return to the Serbian legislature for the first time since 2012.

The ultranationalist parties are predicted to take 5-10 percent of parliamentary seats, enough to give them a pulpit from which to denounce Serbia's official EU aspirations but not enough to significantly affect government policy.

Jelena Milic
Jelena Milic

One of these parties is led by Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the Serbian Radical Party from which Vucic broke away to help found the Progressive Party in 2008 along with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic.

Seselj, who was acquitted by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in March, is running for a parliamentary seat on a virulently anti-EU platform, claiming he has defeated Western efforts to punish Serbian nationalists over the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

"In Serbia, Euro-skepticism is rising and that is helping our chauvinistic, pro-Russian-oriented, and anti-European parties like Seselj's party," says Dusan Janjic, founder of the Belgrade-based Forum for Ethnic Relations.

But it is not just old-guard nationalist movements that are making gains. Serbia is also seeing a mushrooming of new fledgling political parties and civic organizations that seek to directly tie Serbia's future to Russia as an alternative to the EU.

Some such parties have names that include references to Russia, such as the Serbo-Russian Movement and the Russian Party. Barely large enough to field candidates for parliament, their rise nevertheless suggests the competition over whether Serbia moves east or west will only get tougher in the future.

Where the funding for the new pro-Russia parties comes from is a mystery.

Milic, who believes they are a projection of Russian soft power, has tried to investigate their financing and was immediately subjected to anonymous cyberbullying and death threats. The threats were serious enough to warrant police protection.

The question now is whether Vucic will continue to leave open a wide window for Serbia's anti-EU forces or use his likely stronger mandate after April 24 to try to close that window before it seriously threatens his own declared EU ambitions.

Some Belgrade observers predict that so long as the EU itself fails to give Serbia clear assurances it will indeed one day join the bloc, Vucic will continue to keep his own political options open by balancing Brussels and Moscow.

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