Acting Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic
has won the presidency in Serbia with a convincing margin over a
fragmented opposition in the first round. The question now is what
he will do with his overwhelmingly dominant position in Serbian
In foreign policy, Vucic has straddled
the yawning gap between European Union ambitions and close relations
with Putin’s Russia. Conditioned by decades of non-alignment, Serbs
have good reason to like this: they play one side off against the
other, getting arms from Russia and lots of money from the EU while
refusing to go along with Ukraine-related EU sanctions. So long as
US policy on Russia remains in limbo, this straddle is workable. If
Trump eventually gets his way and cozies up to Putin, Belgrade will
be relieved of any discomfort it may feel from keeping one leg in
the West and one in the East. If things go in the other direction,
Vucic could come under intensified pressure to join the Ukraine
sanctions and align Serbia more completely with Western policy.
Domestically, Vucic also tries to
straddle. He claims to be a true democrat and reformer, while
outside observers see him as leaning heavily towards illiberal
politics: the Serbian press rains praise on him and opprobrium on
his competitors, the courts are far from independent, and the
ballyhooed corruption investigations rarely touch those close to
him. Vucic’s popularity is real, but he lacks a serious political
opposition. His closest rival in the presidential poll–former
Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic, who has a good reputation–had fewer than
one-third the front runner’s votes. The third candidate was a
literally a youthful jokester who satirized Serbian politics.
What about the future? It seems to me a
new president should keep his focus on longer-term issues–that means
at least the five years of his term if not the ten he likely hopes
to serve–and not get bogged down in daily events. I’d cite three of
Opening the media space so that a
viable opposition can form and thrive.
Building an independent judiciary
that is capable of sharply reducing corruption.
Moving Serbia definitively towards
membership in the European Union, including reaching agreements with
Kosovo on difficult outstanding issues.
That is asking a lot. Politicians don’t
rise above the fray easily. Certainly Boris Tadic, one of Vucic’s
predecessors (2004-12), spent too much of his time managing daily
issues of governance. The result was that he achieved little,
especially in his second term. Current President Tomislav Nikolic
had no choice because Vucic as prime minister was strong enough to
keep him out of a lot of issues. So he focused on maintaining
relations with Russia and was reasonably successful at that
longer-term game, shifting Vucic significantly in that direction.
Vucic likes to say, both in public and
in private, that he is not straddling and that he has made a
definitive choice to take Serbia into the EU, while maintaining (as
many European countries try to do) good relations with Moscow. That
is difficult: Moscow last year sponsored a coup attempt in
Montenegro, whose accession to NATO it wanted to block, using people
and resources that came in part from Serbia. Vucic helped to block
Moscow’s move, which targeted Montenegrin Prime Minister Djukanovic
for assassination. How do you stay on good terms with people who
plot a violent coup against a friendly neighbor?
A big win merits a big move in the
direction Vucic really wants to go. We’ll be looking for further
signs of his bona fides.
PS: “Anti-dictatorship” protests
were held in Belgrade this evening.