Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia’s prime minister | By Amanda Voisard via UN Photo

Serbia’s PM Vučić: Yet Another Populist Strongman?

Public desire for strong leadership might allow Serbia’s prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić, soon to become president. But will he be able to steer the country through the current tide of regional and domestic tensions?

Serbia’s populist prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić, will stand in elections on 2 April in a bid to become the country’s third president since its declaration of independence in 2006. In a country still hard-hit by the after-effects of the economic crisis, where income inequality is one of the highest in Europe, Vučić’s campaign may help him consolidate power further – 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 crisis.

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

In Montenegro, 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 Serb nationalists were originally blamed, 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, friction with Kosovo, which declared its independence from Serbia in 2008, rose to fever pitch in January, after Belgrade sent a train painted with the Serbian flag and the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia” to the border. Prishtina responded by sending special forces to the north, and the train did not enter Kosovo – but Serbia’s current president, Tomislav Nikolić, declared that Prishtina’s response meant that Kosovo’s leaders had “showed they want war,” and that the two sides had come to “the brink of conflict.” In Kosovo, leaders even 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 extradition on 6 April.

Vučić is polling at 55% of the vote

So, Vučić has chosen an interesting moment to relinquish parliamentary leadership in favor of what might be considered “the Putin model” – although it remains unclear who will replace him as the analog to the compliant former Russian prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev. Vučić plans to replace his old mentor, Nikolić, as president, and no other candidate is likely to disrupt his scheme: In late January, the Serbian prime minister was polling at 55% 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 be intended to increase his control, given that in the parliament at present he depends on a coalition made up of his own Serbian Progressive Party and less-trusted MPs from the Socialist Party of Serbia.

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

However, mass anti-government protests, which began in 2016 over lack of transparency in Belgrade construction projects, have continued into this year, and by increasing his dominance over the country’s institutions, Vučić may be attempting to forestall any efforts by opposition figures to capitalize on dissent.

Since 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% of Serbians believed in 2014 that democracy is better than all other forms of government, down from 39% 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) analyses in its latest Serbia report that “the 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, the European Union striving to keep the country on a European path, and the US’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 accession. However, after Brexit and with German and French elections on the way, the EU has its own troubles right now, and further expansion may not be on the cards for some time.

Meanwhile, the election of Donald Trump has thrown the US’s position into doubt: For years, the US has been the guarantor of peace in the Balkans, but some think that the nationalist US president will refocus on America’s domestic issues, or even bring the US’s stance closer to Russia’s. The US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, seemed to contradict this, when she called for Kosovo to be admitted to the UN – but for the moment, nobody is quite sure who speaks for the US on foreign policy.

Russia, on the other hand, has increased its 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 Vučić has ensured that Serbian troops carry out far more military exercises with NATO than with the country’s eastern ally.

Outside influences notwithstanding, the best guarantor that friction will not expand into conflict may be the will of the people. A poll taken in January found that 74% 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% were prepared to support Kosovo’s independence.

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

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

Photo: Aleksandar Vučić, Prime Minister of the Republic of Serbia, by Amanda Voisard via UN Photo.

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