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Vucic's Bid To Cement Power In Serbia Raises Concerns Ahead Of Presidential Vote

A passerby walks past election posters of the Serbian Progressive Party's (SNS) top candidate for the presidential election, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, in Belgrade.

In the late 1990s, Aleksandar Vucic stood behind President Slobodan Milosevic as rump Yugoslavia's information minister. Now he is poised to become Serbia's most powerful leader since the late strongman relinquished power in 2000.

Serbian voters will cast their ballots on April 2 in a presidential election, and opinion polls show Vucic, currently prime minister, with about 55 percent support, enough for a first-round victory.

With his closest rivals, including a parody candidate whose only platform is to mock the country's political establishment, trailing far in his rearview mirror some 35 percentage points behind, Vucic's lead appears unassailable and a tricky second round of balloting on April 16 unlikely.

Victory would give the 46-year-old and his Progressive Party, which has a majority in parliament, control over the entire legislative and governing process, and some critics warn that could push the Balkan country back into the autocracy Milosevic symbolized during his decade in power.

A government led by his party could end up answering directly to Vucic instead of parliament, critics warn, adding that Vucic may even end up in a strong enough position during a five-year term to try to push through constitutional changes in his favor.

"If Vucic succeeds, he will be in a position to select a prime minister of his choice, [and] control the judiciary, and the election apparatus -- eliminating all checks and balances in the Serbian government," Robert Creamer, a political consultant at Democracy Partners, wrote in an editorial comment published by the Huffington Post on March 28.

Creamer argued that Vucic dominated the news media through state institutions and the control of major media assets through his allies.

That appears to be backed up by a recent survey showing that Vucic received almost 120 times more news coverage than his three most prominent presidential rivals combined.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) greets Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic during their meeting in Moscow in May 2016.
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) greets Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic during their meeting in Moscow in May 2016.

Once an ultranationalist, Vucic's rise to prominence in recent years came after he reinvented himself as a reformer who is committed to Serbia's drive toward European Union membership.

He has craftily strengthened his party's position through the ballot box, calling and winning two early elections since 2014. While he once opposed integration with the 28-country bloc, he now pledges to prepare the nation of 7.3 million people for EU accession by 2019.

Simultaneously, however, Vucic is also is pushing 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.

Vucic even visited Moscow in the waning days of the campaign, reportedly emerging from a meeting with Vladimir Putin with a promise of the Russian president's signature for delivery of six MiG-29 warplanes, 30 battle tanks, and military vehicles to Serbia in a move that exacerbates fears of an arms race in the Balkans.

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 toward NATO and the EU, concerns have grown over Serbia’s direction and how it could reignite the Balkan powder keg.

The West has decried what it calls attempts by Moscow to exploit tensions in the Balkans to hinder progress toward integration in structures such as the EU and the NATO security alliance.

The Kremlin has denied playing any role in the Serbian election campaign, even though Putin said on March 27 that he wished "success to the current authorities" amid "a certain deterioration" of the situation in the region.

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.

For his part, Vucic has played down the notion that a victory in the balloting this weekend is a power grab.

"I am going from the most powerful position to one which hasn't got a 10th of that power, only to ensure continuity and stability," Vucic said on state television last month after being nominated as his party's candidate for the election.

An elderly woman blows a whistle as protesters march during an antigovernment protest in Belgrade on February 15.
An elderly woman blows a whistle as protesters march during an antigovernment protest in Belgrade on February 15.

The scenario in Serbia is similar to what was seen in the run-up to Britain's vote to leave the European Union and the mood in the United States last year that launched Donald Trump from a fringe candidate to the White House.

Vesna Pesic, a sociologist and one of the former leaders of the civil protests against Milosevic during the '90s, says Vucic's popularity is based in part on the breakdown of Serbian society in the face of a struggling economy and fragmented opposition that has him running against 10 other candidates.

"Serbia, as a society, has collapsed to the extent that it no longer produces either parties or political pluralism," Pesic says.

Nonetheless, Vucic's campaign and its central theme of strong leadership has struck a chord among Serbian voters.

Slavica Djokic, a pensioner from Belgrade, admits his pension has declined during Vucic's time in power but says it's not the prime minister's fault and that he still supports him.

"Vucic is the strongest politician in Serbia, mainly because he is smart. He is capable of establishing relationships with people around the world and he is able to protect Serbia from attacks, first and foremost, attacks from our neighbors," Djokic says.