Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has declared a "clear" victory in Serbia’s presidential election, an expected result that could increase Russia’s influence in the Balkan country.
After exit polls indicated a resounding victory, Vucic on April 2 told his Progressive Party supporters: "My victory is crystal clear. This is a very important day for us, showing which way Serbia should be heading."
Vucic has vowed to lead Serbia into the European Union, but he has also pushed for closer ties to longtime ally Russia.
"A huge majority of people in Serbia support continuation of the European path for Serbia, along with preserving our traditionally good ties with Russia and China," said Vucic, who added that a "new government will be set up within two months."
WATCH: Voters Go To The Polls
Official results are expected on April 3. But Vucic declared victory after projections by different several polling agencies late on April 2 gave him at least 55 percent of the votes.
Vucic needs more than 50 percent of the votes to avoid an April 16 runoff against the next highest performer.
Former Serbian ombudsman Sasa Jankovic was second with 15 percent, an Ipsos poll showed, basing projections on 40 percent of votes counted from sample polling stations.
Jankovic said he would wait for the official results before conceding. "This is a political process that has just begun," he said.
Luka Maksimovic, a media student who ran as a satirical candidate, was third with 9 percent, exit polls showed. Maksimovic mocked corruption in domestic politics by promising to steal if he won.
Vucic is expected to use the presidency to appoint a figurehead successor as prime minister and to transform the presidency into a more powerful position to consolidate his power.
A former ultranationalist who broke away from the Radicals in 2008 to establish the more moderate Progressive Party, Vucic has pledged his commitment to Serbia's goal of membership in the EU by 2019.
At the same time, Vucic, an information minister under Yugoslavia's late strongman Slobodan Milosevic, has brought Serbia closer to Russia with increased talk of military and economic cooperation.
"We are doing all we can," Vucic said on March 27 in a broadcast on privately held TV Pink in reference to defending Serbia's interests, both east and west.
"We are cooperating with the EU, with Russia, with China, with everyone where we have our own interests and everyone knows that we are a reliable partner," he added.
The integration of the Western Balkans is a key policy goal of the EU and United States, which say they hope to stabilize a region ravaged by war and economic turmoil and riddled with political corruption.
But many Serbs are disillusioned with the country's politicians as they struggle to shake off a legacy of political corruption that has taken root since it emerged following the 1990s conflicts that broke apart Yugoslavia.
Reforms aimed at modernizing the economy and bringing Serbia into the EU have hit many workers hard, exacerbating the backlash. Longtime ally Russia, meanwhile, opposes the integration of Western Balkan countries, including Serbia, into the NATO security alliance, and the EU and is trying to extend its influence in the region.
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.
"Vucic benefits from his populist rhetoric and an image of a strong-handed leader able to successfully maneuver Serbia's interests between Russia and the West," according to Andrius Tursa, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence.
Just days before the vote, U.S. President Donald Trump told Vucic in a letter that EU membership "will help ensure a more prosperous and secure future for your country and the Western Balkans."
"Serbia's efforts to fully normalize relations with Kosovo also stand as further testament to how shared aspirations of peace can overcome even the most difficult challenges," said the letter, made public by the Serbian government.
None of the opposition candidates -- including ex-Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj, and Jankovic -- were expected to present a major challenge to Vucic.
If the exit poll projections hold, the victory gives Vucic and his Progressive Party, which has a majority in parliament, control over the entire legislative and governing process, and some observers and voters are concerned that could push the Balkan state back into the autocracy that Milosevic symbolized during his decade in power.