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An party statement suggests Aleksandar Vucic (left) will "continue talks" with President and fellow SNS member Tomislav Nikolic (right) in an effort to avoid any split within the party's ranks.

It's not official yet, but the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) appears set to make Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic its candidate for president. The party leadership's decision was announced late on February 14, and the move is expected to be confirmed by the party's general assembly on February 17.

"I accepted the candidacy only because I believe it is important for the continuity and stability of Serbia," Vucic told public broadcaster RTS. "There is nothing that I would not do for that cause."

Vucic added that he did not rule out the prospect of early parliamentary elections, and said a decision would be forthcoming soon.

The SNS statement suggests Vucic will "continue talks" with President and fellow SNS member Tomislav Nikolic in an effort to avoid any split within the party's ranks. Nikolic is regarded by many observers as a hard-liner who has played an undersized role on the Serbian political stage as president. However, he recently made waves by saying in the aftermath of the "promo train" dispute between Belgrade and Pristina that he was ready to go to war "to defend Serbs in Kosovo."

The train's planned crossing into Kosovo from Serbia -- plastered with the message "Kosovo is Serbia" -- threatened to further sour relations between the two countries, and Nikolic's statement did nothing to defuse the tension. After a January 15 meeting of his National Security Council, Nikolic told journalists: "We don't want war, but if it is necessary to protect Serbs from being killed, we will send an army to Kosovo. We will send soldiers; we'll all go. I'll go, and it won't be the first time that I go [to defend Serbs]."

At the time, his critics interpreted the statement as the opening salvo of a reelection campaign. Yet Nikolic has repeatedly said he won't run again for president without his party's backing.

"Defending Serbs outside Serbia" is no longer a winning ticket, it seems. The most recent national poll shows that 73 percent of Serbs would not go to war for Kosovo, with 17 percent undecided and only 10 percent saying they would respond favorably to a call to arms like the one issued by Nikolic.

Recent polls also suggest that those most inclined to take up arms identified themselves as supporters of the Serbian Radical Party, while the majority of those who expressed a preference for the peaceful resolution of political problems said they would vote for the governing Progressives, a party founded by former Radical Party members Vucic and Nikolic.

It thus appears that Progressive leader Vucic's repeated statements in favor of diplomatic solutions resonate more among the party's supporters.

One of Vucic's potential rivals for the presidency is Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, no doubt adding color to the campaign. Seselj spent 11 years in UN detention while on trial before the International Criminal Tribunal (ICTY) for alleged ethnic cleansing. He was acquitted in 2016 on all counts, pending appeal, and returned to Serbia in time for the elections that year, when he led his Radical Party to 23 seats in the national parliament.

Seselj has been President Nikolic's most outspoken critic, whereas he has never had a major public dispute with Vucic. He is, however, opposed to Vucic's pro-European policy and is strongly in favor of closer relations with Russia.

Another pro-Russian candidate in the looming presidential vote is Bosko Obradovic, the president of the Dveri (Door) party. A former Serbian foreign minister and onetime president of the UN's 67th General Assembly, Vuk Jeremic, is selling himself as a European politician but he is very close to Moscow. In the opposition camp, the only clearly pro-European candidate is former Serbian ombudsman Sasa Jankovic, who made his name fighting corruption and defending the rule of law in Serbia.

None of the opposition candidates is currently considered much of a match for Vucic, who is widely expected to secure more that 50 percent of the popular vote, enough for outright victory in the first round. The official start of the Serbian presidential race is set for early March, with the election expected a month later, in April, although no date has been finalized.

The Serbian Constitution gives limited powers to the president, and incumbent Nikolic has been seen by many as a marginalized figure in Serbian politics.

But with Vucic in office, that could change, in no small part because of his personal clout with the electorate and among the country's international partners.

If elected president, Vucic might well seek to maintain his balancing act between Moscow and Brussels. And while he might continue to purchase weapons in Russia or Belarus, he has been assertive in implementing a European agenda. Importantly, he is seen by EU leaders as a reliable partner. But above all, Vucic appears eager to pin his campaign's hopes on an ability to deliver what his Balkan country needs most at the moment: stability.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
On the question of whether perceived Russian influence in Republika Srpska in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina -- including a possible military presence -- would present a security challenge to Croatia, Croatian Defense Minister Damir Krsticevic said, "I do not see [Russians in Republika Srpska] as a threat, but as a reality."

Croatia is reportedly planning to bring back a "light" form of the military draft in 2019.

According to Croatian Defense Minister Damir Krsticevic, the scheme under consideration would amount to three or four weeks of mandatory basic training for draftees.

Compulsory military service existed in the former Yugoslavia, and Croatia continued the practice until 2008.

"Our intention is not to reinstate national service in its previous form, but to teach basic military skills to young people," Krsticevic told Croatian TV channel HRT last week.

Defense officials suggested the short training program being discussed would actually appeal to most Croats. "We do not want to militarize our society. The point is to teach preparedness for natural disasters," Krsticevic said.

In an interview with the Croatian weekly Globus, Krsticevic, a former general, dismissed speculation that the move was related to any renewed sense that neighboring Serbia represented a danger. "As a responsible nation," he said, "we must ensure that our armed forces are up to date, and our people secure."

On the question of whether perceived Russian influence in Republika Srpska in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina -- including a possible military presence -- would present a security challenge to Croatia, Krsticevic said, "I do not see [Russians in Republika Srpska] as a threat, but as a reality."

In a region where manmade catastrophes can seem as likely as any natural disaster, the idea of mandatory military service was not necessarily well-received by everyone.

Igor Dragovan, a Croatian opposition politician, said he thought the proposal is a knee-jerk response to worsening relations with Serbia. Dragovan blamed the media for creating the perception that Croatia is on the brink of war. Talking to RFE/RL in Zagreb, Dragovan rejected the argument that reports hinting at Serbian efforts to rearm are justification for reintroducing military conscription.

Croatian-based military analyst Igor Tabak says he feels the danger is being exaggerated. "I understand that a lot of people in Croatia are seeing images on TV of Serbia unveiling new armaments purchased in Moscow and Minsk. They also remember 1991" -- a reference to the Croatian war of independence, fought against the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav Army -- "and they foresee a conflict that is not going to take place," Tabak says.

For its part, Serbia, seemingly buoyed by the prospect of arms shipments from Russia and Belarus, has also eyed bringing back compulsory military service. The proposal, which came from the Serbian Defense Ministry, has been shelved for the time being by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic as too expensive.

"I was almost glad that we are a poor country and don't have the money to pay for bringing back the draft," journalist Veselin Simonovic wrote in Blic.

Tabak suggests the driving force behind the push to revamp national armies was not a rising foreign threat but rather issues closer to home.

"The arms race between Croatia and Serbia should be understood in the context of domestic politics and, in particular, the forthcoming elections," Tabak says of the presidential election in Serbia slated for April. "There is also the undeniable fact that both countries need to modernize their armaments. To give just one example, both Croatia and Serbia currently have fighter jets that are older than their pilots, which is an indication of the desperate need for an overhaul."

Commentators in Serbia have meanwhile pointed to the fact that Croatia is a NATO member and that any war would mean taking on that Western military alliance.

Some have also suggested that increasing regional cooperation in military matters might be more beneficial and possibly cheaper. In his Blic column, Simonovic deferred to military analyst and former military pilot Blagoje Grahovac, who claims that neither Serbia, Croatia, nor Albania has the means to police its own airspace effectively and that coordinating their efforts would make sense for all involved.

Politicians might prefer the kind of chest-pounding and rattling of sabers that Serbia's Vucic exhibited when he boasted in his yearend press conference that "we finally have an air force that will keep our skies free."

But, for now at least, it seems that the loftiest nationalist ambitions -- and talk of a regional arms race -- might be kept in check by Balkan countries' financial limitations.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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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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