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Serbia’s PM Vučić: Yet Another Populist Strongman?

By Justine Doody

Serbia’s populist prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić, will stand in elections on April 2 in a bid to become the country’s third president since independence in 2006. Still hard-hit by the economic crisis in a country where income inequality is one of the highest in Europe, Vučić’s campaign may help him further consolidate power. But it remains to be seen whether his new role, should his bid be successful, will help him to steer his country away from new crises.

The presidential vote takes place against a backdrop of rising regional and domestic tensions. In neighboring Macedonia, the failure of last year’s parliamentary elections to produce a functioning government has caused a crisis and inflamed tensions between the country’s two largest ethnic groups.

In Montenegro, which is due to join NATO this year, a dramatic plot to kidnap or assassinate the country’s prime minister created shockwaves when it was uncovered last October. While blame originally fell on Serb nationalists, prosecutors now plan to charge a Russian intelligence figure with the coup attempt, even as Russian President Vladimir Putin denies Moscow’s involvement.

Closest to home, tensions with Kosovo rose to dangerous levels in January. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, but Serbia still considers it part of its territory and is blocking Kosovo’s membership to the United Nations. When the Serbian government sent a train painted with the Serbian flag and the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia” to the border in January, the Kosovar government responded by deploying special forces that prevented the train from entering Kosovo. Serbia’s current president, Tomislav Nikolić, declared that Kosovo’s response meant that its leaders had “showed they want war” and that the two sides had come to “the brink of conflict.” In Kosovo, leaders feared that Serbia was planning a Crimea-style annexation of the northern, Serb-populated part of the country.

Meanwhile, relations have been further strained by the arrest of Kosovo’s former prime minister, Ramush Haradinaj, in France on a Serbian warrant charging him with war crimes. The French court plans to rule on whether to extradite Haradinaj to Serbia on April 6.

Vučić is polling at 55 percent

With all this in mind, Vučić has chosen an interesting moment to relinquish parliamentary leadership in favor of what might be considered “the Putin model”—stepping down from the nominally more powerful role while retaining his hold on power. It remains unclear who will replace him as the analog to the compliant former Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, but Vučić is likely to replace his old mentor, Nikolić, as president; in late January, the Serbian prime minister was polling at 55 percent of the vote.

As prime minister, Vučić has presented himself as a strong leader, similar to other populist leaders across Europe, and his gambit may intend to increase his control, given that in the parliament, he presently depends on a coalition government to rule.

With his skill at saying the right things to the right people, the prime minister has managed to gain support from nationalists who value his past as Slobodan Milošević’s information minister, those who appreciate his pro-European orientation, and those who approve of his efforts to maintain Serbia’s traditional friendship with Russia.

In addition, by increasing his dominance over the country’s institutions, Vučić may be attempting to forestall any efforts by opposition figures to capitalize on dissent, most notably the series of ongoing mass anti-government protests, which began in 2016 over lack of transparency in Belgrade construction projects.

Public support for democracy in the country is waning. According to surveys conducted by the Center for the Study of Democracy and Elections and the National Democratic Institute, only 30 percent of Serbians believed that democracy is better than all other forms of government in 2014, down from 39 percent in 2007. Any attempts to consolidate power in the hands of the executive may not be met with much concern.

The Bertelsmann Stiftung’s Transformation Index (BTI) analyzed in its latest Serbia report that “[t]he level of public trust in the parliament, judiciary, and other democratic institutions is lower than the level of public trust in the church, armed forces, police, and some individual politicians. Presently, all public opinion polls suggest that Prime Minister Vučić enjoys more public confidence than any democratic institution.”

Serbia’s best guarantor of peace: its people

The increasing tension with Kosovo, too, creates fertile conditions for a call for strong leadership. But the Kosovo situation has implications for Serbia’s geopolitical context: With Russia jockeying for influence in the region, the EU striving to keep the country on a European path, and the U.S.’s posture under its new president remaining unclear, Vučić has a difficult road to walk if he is to remain on the right side of all the major powers.

The EU is Serbia’s main trading partner, and relations with Kosovo are a sticking point in Serbia’s negotiations on EU membership. However, after Brexit and with German and French elections on the way, the EU has its own troubles right now, and further expansion is unlikely in the short and medium term.

Meanwhile, the election of Donald Trump has thrown the U.S.’s position as guarantor of peace in the Balkans into doubt. Some think that the nationalist U.S. president will refocus on America’s domestic issues, or even bring the U.S.’s stance closer to Russia’s. However, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, seemed to contradict this, when she called for Kosovo to be admitted to the U.N. For the moment, nobody is quite sure who speaks for the U.S. on foreign policy.

Russia, on the other hand, has increased its support of pro-Kremlin media activity in Serbia, with the aim of undermining support for EU accession, and continues to champion Serbia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo. Furthermore, Russia has strengthened military cooperation with Serbia, although Serbian troops carry out far more military exercises with NATO than with Russia.

Outside influences notwithstanding, the best chance that the conflict will not escalate may be the will of the people. A poll taken in January found that 74 percent of Serbians would not support a war to keep Kosovo in Serbia, and three-fourths of respondents were in favor of continuing EU-backed negotiations on normalizing relations with Kosovo—even if only 8 percent were prepared to support Kosovo’s independence.

Vučić’s success to date has been premised on rhetorically exalting Serbia’s past, while negotiating the realities of the present in practice. Tensions may remain no more than that, as long as the international and domestic context makes peace more favorable than war.

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Justine Doody writes for the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s BTI Blog and SGI News.

[Photo courtesy of TANJUG]

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