Is Serbia’s (Likely) Next President Flirting With Moscow, or Still With Europe?
Serbia’s pro-EU prime minister will likely be its next president. Why is he making arms deals with Moscow?
Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s current prime minister and likely next president, just made a trip to Moscow, where he wrapped up a big arms purchase (the same week Montenegro got its foot in the door of NATO) and won the vocal support of President Vladimir Putin.
Since Vucic had previously won praise in the West for promoting closer ties between Serbia and the European Union, does that mean Russia is luring its old client state back East?
Not necessarily. More likely, Vucic is simply trying to appeal to every kind of voter ahead of Sunday’s ballot, so as to avoid a runoff in a very crowded field.
He’ll almost certainly carry the day: the latest projections have Vucic winning over 50 percent of the vote, far more than any of the other 10 candidates. (And you can’t say they aren’t bringing their best: polling in second place is Luka Maksimovica, aka “Ljubisa Preletacevic Beli,” a 25-year old communications student and a comedian who is campaigning in character, riding on a white horse surrounded by faux bodyguards. By acting as a caricature of a corrupt politician, he’s managed to motivate previously apathetic voters, Dragana Peco, an journalist covering corruption in Belgrade, told Foreign Policy. But he’s still well behind Vucic.)
If he wins, he’ll replace the unpopular President Tomislav Nikolic, also from the Serbian Progressive Party, who Vucic apparently convinced to drop out of a hopeless race. In Serbia, the prime minister holds the real power, not the president — but that doesn’t mean Vucic will be surrendering much. Ivan Vejoda, director of the Europe Project at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna, imagines Vucic will serve as de facto prime minister.
Vucic isn’t taking any chances to scrape up every vote he can — and that explains a lot of his recent antics, from the trip to Russia to grandstanding over Kosovo. His opponents claim he’s running the dirtiest campaign since the days of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian strongman who waged bloody wars in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. Election watchdogs — and opposition candidates — have warned of possible ballot-stuffing at the polls on Sunday.
Vucic has also worked assiduously to ensure friendly media coverage. A recent study found that he’s received disproportionate – and overwhelmingly positive – treatment across five major Serbian TV stations. His party has hired armed guards to protect an oversize campaign poster in Novi Sad, Serbia’s second city, from vandals.
He’s also played to Serbian nationalist sentiment over Kosovo — whose independence Belgrade does not recognize. Vucic had planned on going to Kosovo this past Wednesday in order to garner support from Serbian voters there. (Belgrade allows Kosovo’s Serbs to participate in national elections.)
Kosovo’s government granted him three hours. Vucic, in response, cancelled his visit, saying he would not take orders from Pristina. But his mission had arguably already been accomplished: even the announcement of an intended visit could be seen by voters as a signal that Vucic was returning to his nationalist roots. He’d hinted at much of the same in January, when Serbian authorities sent a train from Belgrade to North Mitrovica, a town in northern Kosovo with a large ethnic-Serb population, emblazoned with the words “Kosovo is Serbia.”
That’s likely the best way to interpret Vucic’s trip to Moscow this week, too. There, he and Putin hammered out a deal to deliver Russian-made tanks and warplanes to Serbia. That’s the first Russian arms deal with Serbia since 2013 — and it is surely entirely coincidental that it took place the very week that the U.S. Senate voted overwhelmingly to admit Montenegro, which gained independence from Serbia in 2006, to NATO.
Just hours after Putin’s spokesman affirmed the Kremlin’s intention not to interfere in the Serbian election, Putin lent Vucic a tacit endorsement. “We wish the current government success,” he said.
And on Wednesday, the general secretary of Putin’s United Russia party appeared at a rally in the central Serbian city of Kragujevac, where he announced that the Kremlin was on Vucic’s side.
That doesn’t mean a president Vucic would abandon Brussels for Moscow. Vejoda notes that Vucic has also received the endorsement of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz. Serbia remains a candidate for EU membership, and in 2013 inked an association agreement with Brussels meant to gradually bring Serbian laws closer to European standards.
“What’s not an issue” in this election, Vejoda said, “is Serbia’s European integration course. All are firmly on the pro-European course.”
Why, then, go to Moscow? To make sure no voters are left uncourted, Vejoda suggests. Serbian affinity for Russia dates back centuries, fruit of a common Slavic and Orthodox heritage.
“He is using it to muster up all the votes he can,” just to make sure there’s no second round, Vejoda said.
Update, March 31 2017, 1:31 pm ET: This post was updated to include comment from Dragana Peco.
Photo Credit: MAXIM SHIPENKOV/AFP/Getty Images
Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin