Can Europe Make It?

Living the Serbian dream: a look at Aleksandar Vučić's election victory

The ruling Serbian Progressive Party of Aleksandar Vučić won a resounding victory in the country's parliamentary elections on March 16. But there is more to this story than meets the eye...

Koča Pavlović
23 March 2014
Aleksandar Vucic. Wikipedia commons/Leon E. Panetta. Public domain.

Aleksandar Vucic. Wikipedia commons/Leon E. Panetta. Public domain.

The news about the outcome of the parliamentary elections in Serbia a forthnight ago and the events that followed have both dominated and animated the local and regional political and media scenes. Once again, and despite the deepening Crimean crisis, Serbia became the focus of attention for the administration in Brussels.

A political fairy tale

The election results had suprised many analysts who were sceptical about the ability of Aleksandar Vučić to so convicingly wipe out his competitors and send them into political retirement. Without a doubt, Vučić's political star has reached its zenith.

During the last two years from the position of vice-premier, Vučić has de facto ruled Serbia. At the start of his political career he was a Serbian ultra-nationalist of anti-western provenance. Many years later, Aleksandar Vučić had emerged as an absolute winner in the nationalism-infused Serbian political arena, and now enjoys unwavering support from the current United States administration. Once the favourite protege of Vojislav Šešelj (currently on trial in the Hague) and a minister in the government of late Slobodan Milošević, Aleksandar Vučić is the only political leader in the region who, without a question, truly rules his own domain.

His ongoing political fairy tale could be easily summed up. First, he had won a landslide victory over a dysfunctional and disunited democratic oposition. Second, a day after his electoral win, the alleged leader of the largest narco-clan in the Balkans, and one of the most powerful cartels in Europe, Darko Šarić, "surrendered voluntarily" to him.

Even though the election victory of Aleksandar Vučić seemed certain, the final results were suprising indeed. After capturing 49% of the votes, Vučić's Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska Napredna Stranka, SNS) is now in control of 63% of seats in parliament.

The future premier had suceeded in defeating a few "political legionnaires" with decades of parliamentary experience and pushed their parties down below the threshold needed for entering parliament. A politician like Vojislav Koštunica, and his Democratic Party of Serbia (Demokratska Stranka Srbije, DSS) who once won an election over Slobodan Milošević and then enjoyed the support of 75% of the population, could not reach the threshold. Another prominent figure from the last days of Slobodan Milošević, and the one who negotiated his surrender to the Hague truibunal, Čedomir Jovanović and his Liberal Democratic Party (Liberalno Demokratska Stranka, LDP), also remained below the threshold.

Particularly surprising was the election triumph of Vučić's "progressives" in the municipal elections in Belgrade (held parallel to the parliamentary elections). Until this election, the Serbian capital had been the democratic stronghold of Vucic's political adversaries. Simply put, Aleksandar Vučić has thoroughly dismantled the political scene in Serbia and achieved a splendid election result second only to that from the Milošević era.

The everyday Serbia

Serbia is a country devoured by corruption and robbed of its resources through shady privatizations. One third of its able bodied workforce is unemployed and the citizens are equally hungry for bread as they are for justice. Aleksandar Vučić presents himself as someone (if not the only one) who could deliver that justice in Serbia.

When it comes to economic recovery, however, things will be considerably more difficult to achieve. The list of Vucic's economic priorities is indeed impressive. Addressing the problem of high unemployment and reversing the unfavourable economic trends in the country means changing the existing development model, strengthening the tax code and its enforcement, as well as liberalising the current investment climate.

This hard-line populist has a history of inadequate responses to economic crises and one could find little cause for optimism when it comes to his handling of the upcoming economic challanges. His new government would have to finalize the privatization of large economic systems and enterprises that are still under either complete or partial state control, and conclude the work on sharing the exploitation of the exisiting resources with outside actors. Addressing those sensitive issues will be the short and medium term focus of his economic policies.

Hours after the election results were announced, his defeated opponents began voicing their concerns about Serbia slipping towards absolutism. But Vučić's triumph at the ballot box was just the opening act of his political honeymoon. As his opponents were making gloomy predictions for the country's future, the news about the surrender of Darko Šarić hit the airwaves.

From an unknown address, Vučić's American friends had delivered the alleged boss of a leading narco-clan. Šarić, whose wealth is estimated at 25 billion dollars, has been on the run for the past four years. We all watched carefully edited images of this 'unconditional surrender'. With impeccable political timing, this event was choreographed in the best Hollywood fashion.

'The American dream'

There is some truth to what cynics say about Vučić now living his 'America dream'. He is, without a doubt a populist. His political credibility as well as his election campaign rested on the promise to fight against corruption and organized crime. With that in mind, the 'unconditional surrender' of an alleged narco boss is indeed a cherry on his political cake. Many argue that Vučić was the one who selected this particular cake decoration.

Even though it might not be apparent, the election victory of Aleksandar Vučić and the arrest of Darko Šarić are closely linked. At the close of the election night, the future premier had announced the speedy formation of a new cabinet. Rather explicitly, he also announced his intention of sharing power with some of the parliamentary parties and maybe even with non-parliamentary political parties and independent experts.

With that in mind, the arrest of the alleged narco-boss could be seen as the first step in the process of assembling the new Serbian government. Stories about links between Vučić's former coalition partner and the leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia (Socijalistička Partija Srbije, SPS) Ivica Dačić, and various criminal organizations, including one allegedly led by Darko Šarić have been in circulation for some time.

Since July 2012, Dačić was both the prime minister of Serbia and its Minister of Interior. Dačić did not even attempt to deny the most recent media reports about his ministry being excluded from the operation to arrest Šarić because it was deemed unreliable. To make the situation even more dire for Dačić, his former Chief of Staff is currently on trial for leaking sensitive information about government anti-mafia activities to several narco-bosses.

Moreover, Vučić's public praise for Miodrag Rakić, the former chief of the Serbian Intelligence Agency (BIA), is also in the plan of forming the new government. Rakić was responsible for initiating the cooperation with the CIA and the DEA some five years ago that resulted in the first major action (Balkan Warrior) against the narco cartel allegedly led by Darko Šarić. This action resulted in the seizure of 2.8 tons of cocaine.

The former intelligence chief, Rakić, is on the list of the New Democratic Party (Nova Demokratska Stranka, NDS) and is only second to its leader and the former president of Serbia, Boris Tadić. Including Rakić or Tadić in the new government would provide Vučić with a much needed pro-EU and pro-NATO credibility. Such inclusions would also relieve pressure exerted by the nationalist right wing upon Vučić to stay the course based on an anti-EU and anti-NATO discourse.

Challenges

I am convinced that the events in Ukraine will have a significant impact on the future policies of the new Serbian governement in two important areas, at least.

First, it will accelerate considerably the implementation of the Brussels Agreement on the dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo. Second, it will intensify the negotiations about Serbia's full membership in the EU. The fact that all the political parties that had passed the election threshold two weeks ago are supporting the Brussels Agreement and could be categorised as pro-EU oriented, will further speed up the work on those two important issues.

Furthermore, the erecting of a new kind of the Iron Curtain in Ukraine and the accompanying political homogenization on both sides of such a dividing line means that the new Serbian government will be presented with the great political challenge of joining NATO. Fifteen year old foreign policy discourse regarding doors open both towads the west and towards the east ("EU and Kosovo" and "USA and Russia") has ended with the events at Euromaidan and in Crimea. Serbia's continuing balance between the west and the east is no longer possible. This is why the NDS of Boris Tadić, as the only pro-NATO political party in the future parliament would have to become part of the new Serbian government.

It goes without saying that the fight against corruption and the Mafia will be the central features of the domestic policy of the new government during its early months in office. However, it remains to be seen how the future government might use this issue as a cover for its inability to prevent the further economic decline of Serbia. Much will depend on the ability of Aleksandar Vučić to maintain tight control over the local media. Over the last two years of his rule, Vučić succeeded in doing so to an extent not seen since the time of Slobodan Milošević.

There is no indication that he intends to weaken his grip on the media any time soon. Victors in the latest election in Serbia are promising enlightened absolutism to its citizens. A pauperised Serbian opposition, on the other hand, views the future of the country through the lens of a dangerous antidemocratic rule.

Thank you to Srdja Pavlovic for the translation.

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