Aleksandar Vucic has been sworn in as Serbia's president, taking office amid protests against his increasingly tight grip on power in the Balkan state.
Vucic, 47, took the oath of office to succeed outgoing President Tomislav Nikolic at a brief ceremony at parliament on May 31, hours after "Against Dictatorship" protesters, supported by the majority of opposition parties and leaders, tried to make their way to the front of the building in Belgrade before briefly skirmishing with police who blocked their way.
Later on May 31, several thousand people participated in a second rally against Vucic in Belgrade that ended without incident.
"I promise I will keep peace and stability, guard and protect the future of our children," Vucic, who is shifting to the presidency after three years as prime minister, said before leaving the parliament and wading into a crowd of thousands cheering outside the building.
Once an ultranationalist who served as information minister in the administration of strongman Slobodan Milosevic, Vucic has solidified his grip on power by reinventing himself as a reformer committed to Serbia's drive toward European Union membership.
His first-round presidential election victory on April 2 came nearly a year after his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) won parliamentary elections and gives them control over the entire legislative and governing process, which some critics warn could push the Balkan country back into the autocracy Milosevic symbolized during his decade in power.
"Vucic will retain de facto control over Serbian politics," the political risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence said in a May 30 note on the country. "The new prime minister is expected to stay the policy course and keep most of the cabinet members in place."
With tensions simmering between ethnic Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, an ethnically charged political stalemate in Macedonia, and accusations of Russian interference in Montenegro’s move into the NATO military alliance and toward the EU, concerns have grown over Serbia’s direction and how it could reignite the Balkan powder keg.
While Vucic pledges to prepare the nation of 7.3 million people for EU accession by 2019, he also opposes joining NATO. Simultaneously, Vucic has also pushed for deeper economic and diplomatic ties with longtime ally Russia, and he has condemned Western sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine, including the occupation and annexation of Crimea.
This has set off alarm bells in Washington and Brussels over the government’s true policy direction, with officials decrying what they call attempts by Moscow to exploit tensions in the Balkans to hinder progress toward integration in structures such as the EU and NATO.
Moscow has also long curried favor in Serbia with its staunch opposition to the 1999 NATO bombing campaign to drive Milosevic's forces from Kosovo. The Kremlin, like Serbia itself, still does not recognize an independent Kosovo.
"We plan to further keep traditional friendly relations with Russia despite all the pressure on us. Over the past years, we have managed to achieve a lot in relations both with the Russian people and its leaders," Vucic said after taking the oath on a special copy of the constitution.
Serbia has seen dozens of peaceful protests since Vucic’s first-round election victory, which demonstrators say came amid major irregularities in the campaign, including stifling the media, voter intimidation, and bribes.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, TASS, and B92