Serbia: Where Trump meets Putin

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić won the presidential election last Sunday in a landslide with no other candidate even coming close. What makes this autocratic politician with Trumpian behaviour patterns the uncontested ruler of Serbia and what does it mean for his country in the next five years?

The conclusion of many analysts after Sunday’s election is that Aleksandar Vučić’s victory is the result of a vast amount of resources spent by his campaign, an almost total control of the media landscape, an opposition scene in disarray, economic hardship and thus apathy among many of the electorate. Additional explanations include a traditional affinity for strong leaders in Serbia and his acceptance as well as domestically perceived courting by foreign leaders like Germany’s Angela Merkel and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Both of them met Vučić during the election campaign. All of the above is true, but how did it come to that?

It leaves Serbia with another autocrat since Slobodan Milošević, one that is officially aspiring to EU membership and good relations with his neighbours, but also someone who stopped the influx of refugees from the Middle East over the Balkan route. For European capitals, that is quite satisfactory for the moment. Democratization, free media, rule of law in Serbia are not the priorities right now, although they will play a role when negotiating EU membership, as will the normalization of relations with its former province Kosovo. Time of completion – unknown.

The obvious difference between Vučić and Serbia’s former strong man Slobodan Milošević, for whom he even worked for as Information Minister prior to the Kosovo war in 1999, is his melodramatic behaviour in public appearances, whining how everybody hates him, although he is giving everything to his country. On many occasions he sounds like he is speaking from a parallel universe to an audience baffled by his inconsistences. His thoroughly uncharismatic, almost nerdy exterior is substituted with staged superhero-like stunts carrying a child through a snow storm during a rescue operation (filmed, of course) or rushing to help a fainting audience member during a talk show three days before the election. It turned out, the audience member was also an extra in a campaign commercial. These stunts seem to emulate from Vladimir Putin’s playbook, yet have a less dignified, almost comical effect.

This is not a man projecting fear or authority among many Serbian citizens like Slobodan Milošević, although he is admired by others who believe his promises, his pledges of honesty and his unselfish efforts for the country. As he assumes all leverages of power, he will be solely responsible for every development that has occurred during the last five years since elected Prime Minister and for the next five years as President. The Serbian Presidency is mostly ceremonial on paper, but there is no doubt that his tenure will have all the hallmarks of a presidential system. At a later date, he may even seek to change the constitution to legalize this, like Mr Erdogan is trying at the moment in Turkey.

Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party didn’t so much ascend to power, as they were the only ones left standing after all democratic political parties, which held power after the fall of Milošević in October 2000, disintegrated amidst scandals, corruption and weak leadership. Once strong political options in Serbia, these parties are now in the single digits and play no role whatsoever in political life. This was also a major blow to all pro-western oriented people in Serbia who marched and demonstrated for a better tomorrow too many times with too little result in the past. Many are now seeking their fortune abroad, anywhere but Serbia, most are just preoccupied with day-to-day survival and there is no one left to motivate them for another round of civil unrest or any other political action.

The lack of fresh faces, which could energize a wary electorate, goes hand in hand with a lack of fresh ideas. 18 years passed since the wars in the 1990s, yet Serbian society seems to be stuck in a loop, never really emerging from that period with a new beginning. That is why almost all politicians in Serbia sound the same when it comes to Kosovo, war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina or relations with Russia. The best proof for this loop is Vučić himself and soon-to-be former President Tomislav Nikolić, both remnants of that period and fervent participants of letting the nationalistic genie out of the bottle. Today, they are as much hostages of these ghosts from the past as having a hand in unleashing them.

With a public narrative fuelled by state-controlled media of conspiracies and enemies against the Serbs, perpetuating tensions with the country’s neighbours, using alternative facts long before it became a term in the United States and adopting similar methods like Russian state-run media, there is almost no space for different ideas and solutions. Nor is there a stage for new people to spearhead these ideas.

Mr Vučić will remain in power as long as Serbian society is not ready for a new approach about the country’s position in Europe, truly confronting its recent past and Serbia’s role in the violent events 20 and more years ago. It seems that only then will the country be able to tackle problems like corruption, a lack of transparency and the rule of law. Theoretically, Aleksandar Vučić has now all the power he needs to do this by himself, if he would have the courage to disregard the ghosts he once helped to unleash.

His transformation to a benevolent autocrat is very unlikely, as he is the product of the past and the present seems promising for autocrats around the world. Most likely he will not rock his own boat until the people are ready for a new round of true opposition. Not being surrounded by the best and brightest, scandals in his administration will mount, dissent will inevitably rise without visible improvements to Serbia’s economy and when his well-oiled propaganda machine loses its potency. Any similarities with other presidents are coincidental.

Update: Since the elections results on Sunday, thousands of mostly young people have taken to the streets in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Nis and other cities in Serbia to protest the victory of president-elect Aleksandar Vučić.

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