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Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) greets Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic during the latter's visit to Moscow in May, not long after Serbia's parliamentary elections.

"It would not be the end of the world if I do not form a government," Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic quipped while speaking to reporters this week. It's been three months since he comfortably won the elections, and yet Vucic has yet to name his cabinet. Vucic failed to give a clear explanation for this, but hinted that unnamed forces may be at work behind the scenes.

It seems there is no pressure coming from within his party, or from his coalition partners. And Vucic is as popular as ever, and has plenty of political capital to spend following his election victory. Yet he says he does not want to put together a government he cannot stand by. How could one form a government that is not to one's liking? Perhaps if somebody is handing that individual a list of unacceptable names.

"It goes without saying that there are many who would like to have a major influence on the [composition of the] Serbian government," was the cryptic explanation Vucic gave in his July 25 press conference.

Who, then, is putting pressure on the Serbian prime minister?

It is known that, immediately following the April elections, Vucic was in Moscow. After his meeting with Vladimir Putin, there was a statement on the Russian president's official site that made it clear that Putin wanted -- or expected -- to see individuals appointed who would contribute to "improving Russian-Serbian relations."

That's the root of Vucic's quandary, according to Serbian journalist Bosko Jaksic:

"After his May visit to Moscow it was clear to me that pressure was coming from that direction, and has only increased since then, since there is no one here [in Serbia] who could wield that kind of influence," Jaksic explained in an interview with RFE/RL in Belgrade on July 25.

"There is no one in the Progressive Party of Serbia," Jaksic said of Vucic's party. And if the Socialists -- coalition partners in the previous government -- "are putting any pressure [on Vucic], they can only do so with Moscow's help," Jaksic argued, "because on their own they do not have the bargaining power or political clout."

"It therefore seems obvious to me that word is being sent down from Moscow," Jaksic concluded.

Western Influence?

On the other hand, political analyst Dragomir Andjelkovic, who is considered close to the Progressive Party, believes that the pressure on Vucic is coming from the West, as Brussels might feel emboldened to interfere in Serbian domestic politics since the opening of chapters 23 and 24 of the EU-accession process.

Jaksic does not rule out Western influence, but would consider it merely a reaction to Moscow's meddling in Serbian affairs.

"The pressure coming from the East is the aggressive sort, which comes with concrete demands, and wants to dictate the shape of the new government," Jaksic said. "We only need to go back to Putin's statement. There is certainly pressure from the West, too, but more in the form of a warning: 'Vucic, do not let Moscow tailor your cabinet, because you will find yourself on a collision course with us.'"

Jaksic added that Vucic is partly responsible for the situation, "because he's been enthusiastically offering himself to both sides, encouraging the expectations of both [Europe and Russia], even though Euro integrations are nominally the priority."

Vucic, meanwhile, has suggested that the task of forming a government might soon be out of his hands if he fails to resolve his doubts. "There is no pressure, but if I cannot form a government by the first half of August, someone else will."

Who, precisely? More cryptic messages, it seems. But Putin's friendly arm around Vucic seems to be growing heavier by the day.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic at the Belgrade exhibition Uncensored Lies

“See, there is no censorship in Serbia!”

That was supposed to be the message of an exhibition that opened last week in Belgrade.

An exhibition in a gallery in the Serbian capital’s downtown displayed 2,500 items from the local press and social networks, including editorials, front-page articles, and tweets critical of Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic. Articles and cartoons from the website of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service are among the exhibited items.

The reason? The communications department of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) have said that the media is constantly crying foul over government censorship. With this exhibition, the party wanted to prove the opposite -- and show that Serbia is a shining beacon of press freedom. Yet the title of the exhibition, Uncensored Lies, makes sure to label all of its content -- all critical coverage of the prime minister -- as lies.

RFE/RL cartoonist Predrag “Corax” Koraksic, who is well represented in the exhibition, told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service that the SNS “concocted” this exhibition. “But it seems that they failed to anticipate how it would appear to others or what its effect would be. I think it’s a clear own goal,” said Koraksic.

From the Uncensored Lies exhibition
From the Uncensored Lies exhibition

Belgrade-based journalist Olja Beckovic is not amused. Her current affairs TV show, Impressions Of The Week, was taken off the B92 channel without any explanation in 2014. The program Beckovic moderated and produced for almost 20 years was Belgrade’s version of speakers' corner.

Once a bastion of media freedom in Serbia under Milosevic, B92 has come under increasing pressure in recent years from the government. In a number of interviews, Beckovic has claimed that B92 was acting on orders from Vucic, and she compared media freedom in Serbia to its nadir under Milosevic. “I think it’s truly insulting and humiliating that in 2014 we seem to have turned the clock back to 14 of 20 years ago, and that the only way to change things is to once again take to the streets,” Beckovic told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service.

“I think everyone has had enough and everyone feels humiliated. We’d all hoped that the day would come when we would fight for our basic rights in some other way,” she said.

Despite being the most popular TV program on B92, the management decided to move Impressions Of The Week to a cable channel, which was unacceptable for Beckovic. The station did not reverse its decision, even after public demonstrations in front of B92 requesting the return of the popular show.

“What is really on display here is the prime minister’s obsession with himself,” Beckovic told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service on July 19. “And the fact is that he clearly keeps a careful record of everything that anyone has ever dared to say to him, including tweets, apparently.”

Uncensored Lies exhibit
Uncensored Lies exhibit

Back in 2014, the shutdown attracted some international attention. The Brussels-based European Federation of Journalists joined its Serbian branch in protesting B92’s decision to drop the program, saying it “has the unmistakable odor of censorship.”

The government, however, stood firm. The Serbian defense minister and SNS vice president at the time, Bratislav Gasic, was quoted as saying: “Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic isn’t afraid of any TV show and is not in any way connected to this.” He was responding to a claim by a member of parliament that the show had been taken off the air on the prime minister’s instructions.

And in 2016, responding to claims that the censorship exhibition was actually yet another form of pressure on the media, prominent SNS member Maja Gojkovic responded: “It’s not pressure. My party’s Communications Department has simply gathered some articles, cartoons, programs, in which Aleksandar Vucic, his family, and his allies have been portrayed in the most negative way. It’s not meant as criticism, but those are just lies.”

Many, however, are not convinced. To those Serbs concerned about the survival of an independent media, an exhibition purportedly celebrating media freedom seems more like the government’s brazen attempt to give notice to its critics that it is keeping an eye on them.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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