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Despite facing 10 rivals, Aleksandar Vucic is said to be determined to win the presidency in the first round. 

Less than two weeks ahead of the Serbian presidential election, polls show a solid lead for Aleksandar Vucic over the rest of the field.

Such numbers suggest that if there are no major surprises between now and election day, Vucic's transition from prime minister to president may well be a smooth one.

And Serbia's presidency may never be the same again.

"If the leader of the largest party, which has formed a government while enjoying a parliamentary majority, is elected president, the government will answer to him personally and not to parliament, even if that is not currently the case," Vladimir Gligorov, a professor at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies, warned in a recent post to independent portal Pescanik.

Gligorov hinted that such a development could ultimately spell "the end of parliamentary democracy" in Serbia, although he dialed that back by adding that such a move would require "a change to the [2006] constitution, or a change of government."

By his reckoning, Serbs are set not only to choose a new president but also to decide on a switch to a presidential system of government.

Skeptics would be right to point out that such substantial changes are a long shot. Until now, the power of the Serbian presidency has been largely symbolic. But Vucic also has a uniquely strong personal hold on power.

Belgrade-based pollster Faktor Plus went so far as to suggest Vucic could win an outright majority on April 2 and thus avoid a second round of voting. The same poll -- conducted in early March among 1,200 respondents -- suggested that around half of eligible voters would turn out for the election.

Despite facing 10 rivals, Vucic is said to be determined to win the presidency in the first round.

"[Vucic] would consider having to face a second round of voting as an unprecedented public humiliation for a supreme leader of his ilk," Zarko Korac, an independent Serbian parliamentarian, told the Montenegrin newspaper Pobjeda.

"The greatest paradox of contemporary Serbian politics is that the only pro-European leader on the scene, while at the same time, to make the paradox even greater, he disseminates distinctly pro-Russian propaganda through his tabloids," Korac said in a reference to newspapers that some believe are kindly disposed toward the prime minister and his Serbian Progressive Party.

It is indeed an irony of Serbian politics that support for membership in the European Union has slipped to its current lows under a man whom many regard as among Serbia's most "pro-EU" leaders. Serbian support for EU accession peaked in 2003, at just over 70 percent, or twice the current figure of 35 percent.

The Faktor Plus poll, published on March 12, put support for opposition candidate and former National Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic at around 14.5 percent, placing him second in the presidential race. Jankovic's campaign has thus far avoided heated rhetoric or unequivocal stances, particularly on some of the hot-button issues of the Serbian political landscape.

"A presidential candidate who admits that genocide was committed in Srebrenica, or that Kosovo should be independent, cannot hope for more than 10 percent of the vote in Serbia," Korac said.

Vuk Jeremic, a former Serbian foreign minister who is running as an independent, was in third place with 11.1 percent.

The candidate in fourth position according to Faktor Plus was Vojislav Seselj, a man suspected of war crimes who spent 11 years in detention in the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Seselj was acquitted a year ago, although his acquittal is under appeal by MICT, a United Nations Security Council agency that has taken over some of the functions of the ICTY.

Despite the cloud hanging over him, Seselj returned to lead the Serbian Radical Party in 2016 to win 23 seats in parliament. Seselj's campaign appears to be banking on Russia once again asserting its influence in the Balkans and no one standing in its way. He offers a closer alliance with the Russian Federation as an alternative to EU membership.

Vucic is the undisputed front-runner, and an expected meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the eve of the election could improve his chances. He might receive a further boost -- in a country with bitter memories of NATO bombardment in 1999 -- with the delivery of Russian MiG-29 warplanes, as now appears likely. The warplanes are routinely referred to as a "gift" in Serbian media, although the refurbishment of the fighter jets could cost upward of 185 million euros.

"Elections are not fun and games," Vucic said recently in reference to the presidential candidature of a 25-year-old communications student named Luka Maksimovic, who campaigns under the comical name Ljubisa Preletacevic-Beli, evoking the contradictory notions of a party chameleon and the purity of white. (Ljubisa's movement can be translated as "You Haven't Tried The Stuffed Cabbage," a reference to a stereotypical dish.)

"For [fun and games], you can play chess or go dancing at a club," Vucic added. "You don't have to vote for me; [go ahead and] vote for others. But [keep in mind] that elections are not a game."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
Donald Trump's election as U.S. president was initially greeted in Serbia with excitement.

Politics in the Balkans operates on its own timescale. NATO air strikes against Serbia may have taken place 18 years ago, but reading the newspapers in Belgrade, one could be forgiven for thinking that they happened only yesterday. The past is here to stay.

Ignoring the argument that the 1999 NATO bombardment was provoked by the brutal actions of the Serbian police and military in Kosovo -- a campaign of ethnic cleansing akin to those conducted by ex-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina -- the majority of Serbia's population is convinced that it was unprovoked and unwarranted. "The West does not like us" is a dominant refrain among Serbs, and it is sustained by media outlets like Russian Sputnik radio, broadcasting in Serbian since January 2015. (Sputnik's main task appears to be to remind Serbs of who their friends are, and who the enemy is.)

After NATO's intervention, Serbian troops were forced to withdraw from Kosovo, and the former autonomous region of Yugoslavia declared independence less than a decade later, in 2008. Kosovo is now recognized by 114 countries, but each step taken by the young nation on the road to membership of international institutions is met by Serbian obstruction. The Serbian Constitution still describes Kosovo as an integral part of Serbia.

The change of administrations in the United States gave rise to hopes that newly elected President Donald Trump would return Kosovo to Serbia. With Serbia already enjoying close relations with Moscow, Serbian nationalists appeared to believe that presumed signs that Trump might be interested in a rapprochement with President Vladimir Putin boded well for their agenda. During the U.S. election campaign, Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj took to wearing a Trump T-shirt and frequently praised the Republican presidential candidate. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was regularly demonized in Serbian tabloids as an extension of Bill Clinton, who was U.S. president at the time of the NATO bombardment.

Some Serbs even clung to the idea of Trump as a "Balkan son-in-law" owing to his marriage to Melania Trump (nee Melanija Knavs), who was born in Slovenia, once part of the former Yugoslavia. The connection, that narrative went, would boost his attachment to the region, and to Serbs in particular.

Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj took to wearing T-shirts supporting Donald Trump.
Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj took to wearing T-shirts supporting Donald Trump.

But early signs of continuity in U.S. policy in the Balkans have come as a shock to many Serbs. The first hint at disappointment came over the decision to extend sanctions originally imposed by the Obama administration against Milorad Dodik, the president of the Serb-dominated Bosnian entity Republika Srpska.

The measure was a response to Dodik's perceived violation of the provisions of the Dayton peace agreement -- the U.S.-brokered treaty that ended four years of fighting but divided Bosnia into Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat federation -- in connection with the holding of a referendum in defiance of a Constitutional Court ban.

The Serbian press also sounded the alarm over incoming Defense Secretary James Mattis's response to a question about U.S. troops' presence abroad. At his confirmation hearing, Mattis said a reduction of U.S. force in Kosovo would be possible only once Kosovo was capable of defending itself. That was interpreted as a green light for the creation of a Kosovar army, which unleashed public outrage in Serbia. Adding salt to the wound in Belgrade, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that Kosovo should take its place as a full member of that international organization.

An additional blow to Serbian hopes that the Trump administration might somehow favor them was dealt by a photo of the new U.S. president with the speaker of Kosovo's parliament, published on Kadri Veseli's Facebook page.

Even routine exchanges of diplomatic courtesy, such as the congratulations sent to every head of state on the country's statehood day, are interpreted by media in Belgrade as signs of special favor. Thus President Trump's letter of congratulations to Kosovar President Hashim Thaci on the occasion of Kosovo's independence day prompted headlines asking whether this meant the end of all Serbian hopes and expectations.

It is not so long ago that Serbian expectations were so high that there was serious speculation as to whether Trump might even seek to return Kosovo to Serbia.

Such heady optimism might have influenced political decisions, too. The EU-sponsored dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina was seemingly put on ice. Even negotiations over technical details like a separate country code for telephones in Kosovo dragged out for more than a year, until December 2016.

On a lighter note, Serbian hopes that the Trump administration would reverse long-standing U.S. policy in the Balkans were reflected recently in a satirical message of welcome riffing on Trump's "America First" slogan and a viral trolling trend begun in a "Netherlands Second" video.

In a Serbian version of the popular spoof, the key to the new friendship with Washington is a mutual admiration for Putin. And instead of touting "Serbia Second," the video urges Trump to make "Russia Also First...and Serbia First After That." The odds of either of those approaches ever becoming reality might never have been high, yet many Serbs suggested that Serbia was about to profit from a grand bargain struck between Trump and Putin's Russia. "Serbia is the only country in the world, besides Russia, that truly, truly loves you" was one of the messages in the video. But that collective notion might prove increasingly hard to sustain if the affection no longer appears mutual.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those 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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