Nationalist turned pro-European Aleksandar Vucic has been elected the president of Serbia in the first round of the presidential elections, having won more than 55.1% of the vote. Mr Vucic, who currently serves as Serbia’s Prime Minister, had almost 39% more votes than the first runner-up, making this a decisive victory.
The former ombudsman and candidate of more left leaning parties and civil society organisations, Sasa Jankovic, won 16.27 % of the vote and came in second. The former head of the UN General Assembly and once Serbia’s Foreign Minister, Vuk Jeremic, who was seen as the best contender in the case of a potential run-up against Vucic, came in fourth with 5.64%. The leader of the nationalist Serbian Radical Party, and once Vucic’s mentor, Vojislav Seselj, came in fifth with 4.47%.
The rise of antipolitics
The campaign was shadowed by accusations of Vucic and his associates pressuring the media and those who spoke out against him. Two days before the vote all relevant daily newspapers had a Vucic advert over their entire front page. In spite of the fact that many questions have been raised about media freedom in Serbia, even long before the elections, international organisations do not question the election process. While there are concerns about the status of democracy in Serbia, it is also worth mentioning that since the fall of Milosevic in 2000, Serbia has had 5 presidential elections and 7 parliamentary elections, way more than other countries in the region.
Although Vucic may have won in a landslide (which was generally anticipated), the biggest surprise was the fact that a satirical candidate, 25-year-old media student Luka Maksimovic, alias Ljubisa (Beli) Preletacevic (Preletacevic – the one who flies from one nest to the other, a common expression in Serbia, describing people who switch political parties; Beli – Serbian word for white), won 9.44% having ran almost no credible campaign apart from online videos and a few comic public stunts. Mr Maksimovic, who also appeared on BBC Spotlight, ran the campaign dressed in a white suit, riding a white horse and making ridiculous campaign promises.
However astonishing, the result of Mr Maksimovic is also quite worrying as it is a clear sign that the apathy and contempt for the politics in Serbia is very high. This has also been reflected by the turnout (54.6%), which is 2% lower than in the most recent elections for parliament, which were held last year and in which Mr Vucic’s party also won firmly.
From a hard-line nationalist to a pro-European
Aleksandar Vucic was once one of the leaders of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party which helped stir up nationalism in Serbia the 1990s amidst the breakup of what was once Yugoslavia. In 2008 Vucic left the radicals and, along with the current president Tomislav Nikolic (who was also one of the Radical party leaders) formed his own, more moderate, Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). In the 2012 general elections Tomislav Nikolic became president, which led to the SNS managing to form a government with the Socialist Party of former president Slobodan Milosevic. After parliamentary elections in 2014 Aleksandar Vucic became the Prime Minister of Serbia, again forming the coalition with the socialists although he had enough MPs to form a government on his own.
Distancing himself from nationalist views of the 1990s, Mr Vucic has spearheaded Serbia’s ambitions to join the EU while at the same time strengthening traditionally close ties between Serbia and Russia.
Vucic ran his presidential campaign on a platform promising the continuation of the rigorous and relentless economic and social reforms he introduced as PM, suggesting only he can provide the prosperity and stability to both Serbia and the region. His image was often placed between those of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin, suggesting he can provide the best of both worlds. Vucic has repeatedly stated his key goal is to create more jobs, strengthen Serbia’s economy and integrate the Balkan region through trade.
Vucic – the ideal candidate for both Moscow and Brussels?
Although most western media describe Vucic as an authoritarian pro-Moscow leader, the fact is he is currently the most favoured Serbian politician by the West.
In an obvious boost to his campaign a few weeks ahead of the vote, German Chancellor Angela Merkel complemented Vucic on fulfilling conditions for further EU accession and on economic reforms. At Vucic’s final rally before the vote, Sergey Zelezniak, a Russian MP and high official of Vladimir Putin’s party, was the guest of honour, but one of the key speakers was former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (who was in office during the 1999 Kosovo war and supported NATO bombing). On that very day Serbian media reported that Vucic had received a letter from US president Donald Trump thanking the Serbian PM for his congratulations to the US president on his election win.
Also, Vucic’s team of advisors includes former Austrian chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, former Foreign Minister of Italy Franco Frattini, and he was also coincided by former British PM Tony Blair.
While Vucic may have won the elections in a landslide victory, he has had to overcome one obstacle before that which – at the time – seemed quite complicated and points to the role of the international factor. The incumbent president Tomislav Nikolic, who called Vucic his “political son”, clearly wanted to run for a second term in office, but reluctantly backed off during a tense standoff between the two which lasted for a few days. During those days it was rumoured that Nikolic – who is seen as more pro-Russian – has the support of Moscow and it was claimed that Russia had 20 million euros ready for his campaign. Although there is no evidence to support the claim, Nikolic was seen as being closer to Moscow than Vucic and there was concern how things would play out. Had Nikolic stood by the decision to run for office, Vucic would probably not have achieved a clear win in the first round. Incumbent president Nikolic has so far been bleak about his career after the elections, but hinted he may not retreat from frontline politics.
What will Vucic be like as president?
Although the position of president is generally ceremonial, Vucic – who has built his public image as a determined, resolute doer – will likely hold all reins of power in Serbia. As if nothing happened on Sunday evening, a day after the elections Vucic was in Mostar to meet Dragan Cavic, the Croatian member of the BiH Presidency and he is also to have talks with the Muslim and Serb members of the Presidency.
Vucic – who will formally assume office in May – becomes president at a tense time in the Balkans where old tensions have been further stirred up by the increased presence of global powers fighting for influence. As a country in the geographical centre of the Balkans, and with a significant population in neighbouring countries, Serbia has a high stake in the region.
Serbia’s bid to join the EU is highly contested with the dispute over the breakaway province of Kosovo and Metohija. While the US, most western countries and all but five EU members recognise Kosovo’s independence and support continued NATO military presence, Serbia, along with Security Council members Russia and China refuses to recognise the self-styled Albanian state. In the past few years Serbia has been engaged with Kosovo Albanian leaders in an EU facilitated dialogue in Brussels. Although it has never formally been stated as a condition, during the process it has become obvious that for the Western countries and leading EU members see that the outcome of the process should be some form of formal recognition of Kosovo’s statehood. Vucic, therefore, takes over a country which has been for years torn between two choices: Either to recognise Kosovo’s independence as a step towards EU membership or, protect the country’s sovereignty and national heritage. He promises to deliver both.
The balancing game between Russia and the West
Open Western backing of Kosovo’s independence – declared in 2008 – has brought back another strong player to the Balkans: Russia. In recent years Russia has created several media outlets that are focused on the region and which have gained influence in the public. Politically, Belgrade is dependent on Moscow’s veto on any attempt to make the self-styled state of Kosovo Albanians a member of the UN. In 2015 Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution that would have condemned the Srebrenica massacre as genocide. Russia has an important role in maintaining the peace in Bosnia as a member of the Peace implementation committee. Russia has provided Serbia with significant economic aid while also acquiring the country’s leading oil company.
While Russia seems to be Serbia’s biggest political friend there is no doubt that the EU is Serbia’s strongest economic partner. Most foreign trade is done with EU countries, most foreign investment and aid comes from the EU, and in recent years the Balkans have been seen as the backyard of Brussels. As president, Vucic will have to balance between the two, pushing the country closer towards the EU but being careful not to lose Russian political protection over Kosovo and other regional issues.
In this balancing game Vucic faces new challenges as relations between the West and Russia worsen. The Balkan region has come up as another conflict hotspot in the global power struggle. Montenegro’s accession process to NATO and an alleged Russian coup last year to bring down the government there have further complicated the situation, especially for Belgrade. Serbs, who are opposed to NATO because of the 1999 bombing over Kosovo, make more than a third of the population of Montenegro. They are generally against the government of Milo Djukanovic, who – although highly contested and publically accused of corruption – remains the only Balkan ruler from the 1990s to still hold on to power.
The Balkan arms race
The global power struggle in the Balkans also runs the risk of escalating into a local arms race.
In late 2015 it emerged that NATO and EU member Croatia – a country which has very tense relations with Serbia – will receive ballistic missile launchers and other military equipment from the US, enabling it to easily hit targets in Serbia from Croatian soil.
Aleksandar Vucic, as PM, immediately reacted promising the modernisation of the Serbian army, especially its aging air defence. In the months running up to the presidential elections numerous state and military visits have led to a deal in which Moscow will donate to Serbia six modernised MIG-29 fighters, along with other military equipment including 30 tanks and 30 armoured vehicles.
Alongside these issues, the Kosovo Albanians have stated their ambition to create a Kosovan army, a move which Belgrade is especially concerned about. In Bosnia, where Serbia is one of the guarantees of the Dayton peace deal, tensions are rising as Bosniacs baked by some Western countries aim to unify the country under their influence, something which Serbs – who have their own entity – and Croats firmly oppose. Then there is Macedonia, a country where Albanian nationalism is strongly on the rise and where there has been a power vacuum for months preventing the formation of government. These are all issues which may spill into a regional conflict. Across all of these regional hotspots Serbia has vested interests even though for a long time the mood in Belgrade has been to avoid any new conflicts or further deepening of existing ones.
A clean slate for the new president
Tension seems to be the natural state of affairs in the Balkans. On numerous occasions Vucic has stated the ambition to push Serbia and the region forward, advocating economic cooperation. He has started with reforms in Serbia which are internationally praised but are becoming more contested in the country as people become tired of promises of a brighter future which seems to be always a step away but a step too far.
Many who voted for Vucic, although they might not be thrilled say that currently there is no one else who offers a clear and better alternative and is favoured abroad. Those who oppose him are concerned about the rise of authoritarianism.
As president Vucic is likely to increase his political clout in Serbia, strengthening his ability to resist internal pressure in both Serbian and regional issues. It also seems that he has a clear slate and solid support from both East and West. Whether he will manage and what he will eventually do in his five year term both in Serbia and in the region remains to be seen.