Comment: Chess player Vucic ponders his next moves – Exit
Serbian President Alexandar Vucic is said to be good at chess. In politics, too, he is doing well: although he is accused of authoritarianism, monopolizes the media and changes his opinion frequently, his power seems unshakeable, writes Svetla Miteva.
Serbia will hold 3-in-1 elections on April 3 – presidential, parliamentary and local elections in the capital of Belgrade. Opinion polls suggest that Vucic’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party will win more than 50% of the vote.
Vucic said his bid for a second presidential term was likely in a recent interview but “still under consideration.”
Of course, no one doubts his candidacy. It should be supported by the Socialist Party of Ivica Dacic, the Socialist Movement of Alexander Vulin, the United Party of Pensioners, the Union of Hungarians of Vojvodina and the United Serbia of Dragan Markovic Palma.
Although Vucic has been accused of authoritarianism, media monopolization and frequent changes of opinion, his power seems unwavering.
The first days: hostility to EU
Vucic’s political career began in the ranks of ultranationalists Vojislav Seselj, which the 23-year-old joined shortly after graduating from law school in Belgrade University. Only a year later, in 1994, he became secretary general of the Serbian Radical Party, which campaigns against Serbia’s rapprochement with the EU and in favor of close cooperation with Russia.
At the time, Vucic could be seen at the forefront of rallies fueling nationalist passions in Bosnia and Croatia.
He became a critic of some of Vojislav Šešelj’s books. Later, the court in The Hague tried the politician for war crimes against non-Serbs in Croatia, Vojvodina and Bosnia and Herzegovina. One of the books reviewed by Vucic concerns Tony Blair and the former British Prime Minister’s role in the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999.
“Tony Blair has done much against the freedom of mankind against all nations of the world,” wrote book reviewer Vucic. This did not prevent him from appointing the same Blair as a consultant to the Serbian government nine years later.
Vucic is also known to have been Minister of Information in the government of Milosevic between 1998 and 2000. During this period, a law on the media was passed (1998), which closed down several newspapers and television stations in pro-Western orientation. This provoked massive protests from journalists and the opposition.
At the time, Vucic was on a list of Serbian officials banned from entering the EU and the United States.
In September 2008, amid a split within the Serbian Radical Party, Vucic resigned as party chairman. Only a month later, he co-founded the Serbian Progressive Party, of which he was elected vice-president. Four years later, he became its leader. The new party describes itself as centre-right and conservative.
In July 2012, a coalition government was formed, led by the leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia, Ivica Dacic. Alexander Vucic became deputy prime minister in charge of defence, security, anti-corruption and crime.
In March 2014, the Serbian Progressive Party, led by Vucic, won a landslide victory in the parliamentary elections and Vucic was elected Prime Minister. Two years later, his coalition won the parliamentary majority and, on April 2, 2017, Vucic was elected president with 55% of the vote.
Vucic as President
Vucic says he has a vision of Serbia as a modern, economically renewed, well-functioning European state, a regional leader in the fields of economy, politics, infrastructure and energy. People learned that their president plays chess, is a basketball and football fan, speaks good English and Russian.
Vucic’s dizzying rise shows that he came to power surprisingly quickly, although he often changed many of his 180-degree views.
“In Serbia they say only donkeys don’t change their minds,” Vucic said in response to criticism that he was a defector. Political analyst Jadranka Jelinic said all of this is possible because the West is turning a blind eye to the skeletons in Vucic’s closet.
The Serbian president presents himself as a guarantor of stability, but analysts believe that the nationalist and authoritarian nature of the Serbian regime poses a threat to Serbia and the region. Vucic’s claims to be a pragmatic European conservative may have been persuasive in his early years in office, but they are increasingly ringing hollow, according to Austrian political analyst Florian Bieber.
Vucic is positioning himself as a regional leader through his Open Balkans initiative, also known as Mini Schengen, which would give Serbia economic advantages and bring the rest of the region closer together. Similar to this idea is the “Serbian world”, a term meaning the Serbian sphere of influence based on nationality.
Serbia exercises its influence through the Serbian parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Kosovo. Although he does not entirely control them, it allows him to influence the internal policies of his neighbors and to block important decisions.
The Serbian world
Ivo Goldstein, a prominent Croatian historian, criticized the nationalist policy of President Vucic and his Interior Minister, Aleksandar Vulin, who spoke for the first time of the “Serbian world” last July.
According to Goldstein, the concept of the “Serbian world” promoted by Belgrade is a dangerous challenge for Bosnia, Montenegro and Kosovo. The idea of the “Serbian world” is borrowed from the Russian concept (Novorossiya), which legitimizes Russian influence in the post-Soviet space.
The concept of the “Serbian world” aims at the domination of Serbia in the post-Yugoslavian space, explains Bieber.
According to observers, Vucic’s political career distances Serbia from the West and the EU. In particular, Vucic and his government-controlled media draw a line against the West.
“For seven or eight years, we were told, you cannot be friends with Russia, EU, China and the United States at the same time, it is not possible to sit on two chairs at the same time. But we are sitting on one chair – the Serbian chair,” Vucic told supporters on February 20.
He emphasizes that Serbia will never join NATO and has done nothing to the detriment of Russia or Russia to the detriment of Serbia. However, Vucic has a problem with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as he remains silent on support for sanctions.
In December 2019, Vucic said his country valued Vladimir Putin more than any former Russian leader. According to him, if Putin was in charge in 1999, “nobody would have bombed us”. At that time Yeltsin was still President of Russia.
Vucic also has excellent relations with Beijing, where he attended the opening of the Winter Olympics. During his visit, a multitude of trade agreements with China were signed. Many Chinese companies operate in Serbia, and trade between Serbia and Beijing amounts to $5.3 billion and is expected to reach $8 billion.
Vucic, a junior chess champion in Belgrade in the late 1980s, cleverly takes advantage of the fact that the EU has other problems. In the meantime, he pursues a nationalist policy which is not fundamentally different from that of his predecessor, Milosevic. Just more moderate.
Svetla Miteva is a Bulgarian journalist specializing in the Western Balkans, working for over 30 years with the Bulgarian telegraph agency BTA. She contributed this text to EURACTIV Bulgaria.