Serbs will head to the polls this Sunday and the incumbent leader of the country is leading the pack by a wide margin. But who really is Aleksandar Vucic and is his victory a foregone conclusion?
Aleksandar Vucic kicked-off his final week of campaigning for the upcoming Serbian presidential elections with a surprise visit to Vladimir Putin in Moscow. For Russia's President this was an opportunity to offload some of his MiG 29-type fighter jets and cement the country's strategic ambitions on Europe's future political landscape following last week's hosting of French Presidential hopeful Marine Le Pen.
For Serbia's current-Prime Minister the idea was far simpler: in a nation where Putin enjoys over 55 percent approval ratings, Moscow's endorsement is critical.
Upon his return, Vucic's plane barely made it off the tarmac as news broke of a well-wishing letter by US President, Donald Trump, expressing his "support for Serbia's goal of joining the EU".
Coupled with an enthusiastic showing from former German President Gerhard Schroeder at his final election rally in Belgrade, booming ties with China and a unique self-fostered relationship with the UAE, Vucic is keen to present himself as a true statesman, capable of nurturing a foreign policy which is both expansive and diversified. Specifically, a foreign policy which fits into the decades-long Serbian ideal of ‘and Europe, and Russia' (but has in fact resulted in neither).
In the region, Vucic has come along way since his time as an ultra-nationalist during the Yugoslav wars and is today an advocate for reconciliation in the Balkans. During the 2015 refugee crisis, he drew significant plaudits from liberal circles for opening a free passage for migrants en route to Europe, while neighbouring Hungary, Croatia and Macedonia were busy reinforcing their borders.
In Bosnia, he has tread a thin line by cultivating a strong personal bond with Bosniak President Bakir Izetbegovic, while simultaneously gaining unconditional support from the President of the rival Serb entity, Milorad Dodik, throughout the campaign trail.
On Kosovo—Serbia's unshakable quagmire—Vucic has been a frequent attendee at the Brussels negotiations where he has gone as far to accept the normalisation of relations between the two countries, effectively all-but recognising Kosovo's independence. Each of these positions have been met with a degree of praise from European leaders who view Vucic as a factor of stability in the continent's troubled underbelly.
Back at home, Vucic's popularity appears to be even more convincing. Since coming to power in 2012, his support has fluctuated around the 40-50 percent mark, and he heads into Sunday's crucial vote with a staggering 40 point lead on his closest rivals. He has justified his intentions for swapping his premiership for the Presidential seat by claiming stability will only survive if Serbia's government (led by his Progressive Party) and the executive branch remain on a common course. His favoured slogan of late has been ‘don't let them create a Macedonian scenario', making reference to the on-going political turmoil in Skopje.
One would be forgiven, therefore, for thinking that Vucic's victory on Sunday is as sure as any. The self-proclaimed reformer has assured his supporters that he has gained the trust and support of each of the major global power centres and that a vote for him would drastically elevate Serbia's international standing. Comparisons to the country's heyday under Tito's Yugoslavia have not been infrequent.
Style over substance?
However, all is not as clear-cut as it appears. Scratch beneath the surface, and it becomes increasingly difficult to separate publicity from substance in Vucic's policy; a phenomenon many Serbs have become accustomed to.
Take Russia, Serbia's closest ally. When he assumed power in 2014, Vucic promised to attract $10 billion in sector-wide investments from Moscow over the next two years, yet by 2016 only $3 billion has been recorded.
On the trade front, while leveraging his promise not to follow Europe's suit by implementing sanctions on Russia (thereby creating a re-export hub for European producers), the numbers have been less-than impressive, even dropping by a third throughout 2015. In effect, Serbia's economic ties with the Russian Federation are limited to the defence and energy sectors, and not much else.
It is no secret that Vucic's support from the Kremlin was eased by his ‘political father', the pro-Russian outgoing President, Tomislav Nikolic, who Vucic has now effectively ousted by applying for his job. It is clear also that other Presidential hopefuls, not least Vucic's ‘former political father', the ultra-right Vojislav Seselj and the centre-right candidate, Bosko Obradovic, who outright reject Euro integration, more accurately satisfy Moscow's goals, yet probably lacked the political weight for a photo session with Putin himself. In this sense, questions remain as to the degree of support Vucic can expect from the Kremlin while pushing a pro-European agenda and sidelining Russian sympathisers, let alone his ability to expand ties. (Analysts searching for Putin's reasoning for subtly endorsing a pro-European candidate in Serbia need look no further than the Trojan Horse parable).
Vucic's apparent support from Washington is equally dubious. First of all, questions can be raised as to why Trump is encouraging Serbia's accession into the EU, while at the same time praising Britain's liberation from the ‘chains of Brussels', and lending support to other Eurosceptic parties from across the continent.
Second, while Trump's letter was made public this Wednesday, it is actually dated almost three weeks earlier on the March 8, confirming suspicion that, like his spontaneous trip to Moscow, Vucic is strategically timing his publicity to meet the election showdown. Finally, Trump's endorsement can be considered lukewarm at best, compared to the unequivocal support his administration has lent to Kosovo's struggle for independence and to the Prishtina leadership—Vucic's opponents at the Brussels negotiating tables.
Regarding Euro-integration and regional stability, Vucic's apparent achievements desperately lack any real substance. He has tirelessly propagated his vision for lasting peace and reconciliation with Bosniak Muslims, yet was met with a barrage of rocks and missiles when he attempted to show face at the Srebrenica memorial service in 2015. Perhaps mourners weren't so willing to reconcile with the man who during the conflict infamously proclaimed, "We will kill 100 Muslims for every Serb killed."
Over the past two years, tensions have rapidly escalated with neighbouring Croatia too—first over the release of alleged war criminals by the Hague, then over the migrant crisis and finally regarding an on-going arms-race between the two countries, best exemplified by the recent MiG purchase. This can be partly put down to each side galvanising nationalist rhetoric to capture the right-wing electorate, and partly by both sides satisfying the proxy interests of their patron sponsors (Russia and NATO respectively).
Then there's the European Union—Vucic's main campaign pledge since he co-founded the Serbian Progressive Party in 2008. Supporters have heard promises of EU accession pushed from 2016 to 2018 to the current 2020 target. In truth, the progress could hardly be slower; Serbia has opened just 6 chapters out of the 35 required for integration, and is, realistically speaking, at least a decade away from ratification of full-membership (not least due to Brussels' own woes).
The election is still not a foregone conclusion
Vucic's widespread international support can therefore be summed-up as such: he offers very little and gets even less in return. The EU, Russia, the US (and to a lesser extent China, Turkey and the UAE), each consider Serbia at a crossroad with some limited geo-strategic importance. So long as Vucic is prepared to propagate peace, offer concessions to regional rivals, or buy their out-dated weaponry, they will send him endorsement letters, open minor accession chapters or invite him for photo-ops, respectively. Neither of the global powers have him as their preferred candidate, yet they embrace him because his victory appears inevitable and on the contrary, they could encourage him to cosy-up to ‘the other.'
Yet Sunday's election could still spring-up a surprise or two. While opinion polls put Vucic dead on the 50% mark, should he fail to achieve this by a single vote, the election will go to a second round where he will almost certainly face a consolidated opposition under one candidate and a referendum-like environment. As several candidates have already expressed, this is not a vote for them, this is a vote against Vucic. As Vucic himself admits, "it's ten of them against me alone."
The last time the nation was in such political predicament was on the October 5, 2000, when a broad umbrella of political parties, interest groups and democracy activists united under the Democratic Opposition of Serbia to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic. And as the popular Serbian idiom goes: "the sun is yet to rise on October 6".
Bring on Sunday.