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What to do with a big win

Daniel Serwer

April 3, 2017



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 politics.

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 particular significance:

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.



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