Vucic: I’m obsessed with Kosovo
From the balcony of his presidential office in Belgrade’s sombre New Palace, Aleksandar Vucic surveys the neatly trimmed gardens below. On this spot, he whispers, King Alexander and Queen Draga of Serbia were defenestrated in an army coup in 1903. When the king clung to the balustrade his fingers were hacked off; his wife’s body mutilated.
“There is no Alexander who survived in power,” says Mr Vucic, with a touch of melodrama. His words are a not-so-subtle reminder of the constraints the self-styled moderniser faces as he edges along the path of economic reform, political stabilisation and, one day, potential EU membership.
A previous pro-western Serbian leader Zoran Djindjic was himself assassinated in 2003, a suspected victim of organised crime. Serbia’s western destiny is also far from assured: as a “swing state” in the Balkans it has traditionally hedged its bets between the European powers, Russia and Ottoman Turkey in the 19th century. Moreover, Mr Vucic, a bear of a man at 6ft 6in (1.99m) tall, remains an ambiguous figure. He started in politics as an ultra-nationalist firebrand who vowed shortly after the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 that “for every Serb killed, we will kill 100 Muslims”. He served as information minister under Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader accused of war crimes, and espoused Serbian expansionism in the former Yugoslavia.
But in 2008, Mr Vucic and some colleagues broke with Vojislav Seselj, the radical Serb nationalist ideologue, and founded the pro-EU Serbian Progressive party. “You start to ask yourself whether those [radical] things are the only things worth fighting for,” he says of his chequered past. Today he backs EU membership as a catalyst for change, final proof that Serbia has escaped the nightmare of the Milosevic years marked by fanatical nationalism, the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia, hyperinflation and rampant warlords. “Another war would ruin this country and destroy the future of the Serbian people forever.”
But to qualify for EU membership, Mr Vucic must first resolve the disputed status of Kosovo, the ethnic Albanian-majority southern province whose 2008 declaration of independence from Belgrade has been recognised by most western powers. Most Serbs, though, still regard it as the birthplace of the nation and the Serbian Orthodox church. They remain staunchly opposed to secession.
“I’m obsessed with Kosovo,” Mr Vucic confesses. “Without resolving that problem everything I have achieved so far won’t be sustainable. The first crisis will kill us.”
Courted by China and the United Arab Emirates as well as Serbia’s ally Russia, Mr Vucic, 48, is now seen by EU leaders, and especially Germany’s Angela Merkel, as the best bet to bring his country into the European mainstream.
Critics counter that the EU has struck a Faustian pact with Mr Vucic. The hope is that the carrot of membership will induce reform, with the prospect of joining the EU by 2025. But that means meeting stiff conditions on strengthening democratic institutions and tackling corruption as well as resolving Kosovo. This year may well prove a decisive test, starting with a summit of EU and Western Balkans leaders in Sofia on Thursday intended to inject fresh impetus into the bloc’s enlargement.
The cynics suspect Mr Vucic is playing along — and that the EU will accommodate him in the interests of regional security. Having won 55 percent of the vote in last year’s presidential election, he is the undisputed master of the political arena. Nine television screens in his office suggest a man who keeps tabs on everything — and everybody. Some fear he could end up as another Viktor Orban, Hungary’s liberal-turned-nationalist leader, who complied with the EU’s rules to gain membership only to attack it from within. The parallel, says Mr Vucic, is “99 percent crap”.
Another analogy for some is Viktor Yanukovich, the former Ukrainian president, who played the EU off against Russia — until he was ousted by a popular uprising. Mr Vucic was Vladimir Putin’s guest of honour at the Victory Day parade in Moscow last week. He starts his working day at 6.30am with a Russian language lesson. But he rejects the notion that he could become a “fifth column for Putin in Europe”. He says he has always been clear with the Russian president that “Serbia remains on its EU path”. Overall, Mr Vucic’s approach owes something to the legacy of Marshal Tito, the postwar ruler of Yugoslavia who founded the Non-Aligned Movement and performed a balancing act between the western powers and the Kremlin.
Optimists looking for signs of Serbia’s EU vocation point to Novi Sad, the country’s second city, located on the northern plains. Here the Austro-Hungarian empire left a deeper imprint than the Ottomans. In 2022 Novi Sad will be the European capital of culture, a chance to showcase its thriving arts scene and creative industries.
Sitting on the terrace of the city’s Petrovaradin fortress, looking over the Danube river, Dusan Kovacevic recalls the “explosion of energy” of the 1998 student protests in the city against Milosevic that marked the beginning of his downfall. Mr Kovacevic now runs the EXIT music festival, one of the largest in Europe with 150,000 attendees. Each July, it takes over the fortress in an event akin to a Glastonbury-on-the-Danube.
EXIT is a showcase for a youthful, multicultural city that avoided the sectarian violence that consumed most of the former Yugoslavia. In Belgrade, 50 miles to the south, a very different riverside development is taking shape. Along the Sava river, 100 hectares of sheds and derelict buildings have been cleared for upscale apartments, luxury hotels and a shopping mall.
The €3.5bn Belgrade Waterfront project is backed with Emirati money. In Serbian government circles, they refer to “his Highness”, meaning not Serbia’s Crown Prince Alexander but Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed whom Mr Vucic has met 20 times by his own account. But after bulldozers were sent to flatten buildings and goons cracked a few heads, the development triggered the biggest anti-government protests in 20 years.
Standing on the roof terrace of an unfinished block of flats, Sinisa Mali, the young Belgrade mayor, rattles off statistics like a Manhattan real estate salesman. Mr Mali, who once worked at Credit Suisse, is a Vucic party man on the rise. “The idea of this project was to create a symbol of change in Serbia. This is a game changer for us.”
For Mr Vucic’s critics, the Belgrade Waterfront is a glitzy façade that distracts from a moribund economy weighed down by cronyism, corruption and shady finance. Mr Vucic retorts that he has run fiscal surpluses for three years following an IMF programme during which he cut pensions and froze wages. Unemployment has halved to 12.9 percent. The government hopes for 4 percent GDP growth in 2018, after lagging far behind much of eastern Europe. Foreign investors are looking for opportunities in sectors such as mining. With encouragement from both Belgrade and Beijing, China’s Hebei Steel took over Serbia’s largest steel plant in Smederevo east of the capital, saving thousands of jobs. Mr Vucic cultivates the image of a man who gets things done.
The worry is the number of departing young Serbs — already running at 30,000 each year, out of a population of 7m. The exodus, say the president’s critics, is a grim verdict on today’s Serbia. Beyond fiscal consolidation and privatisation — no mean achievements — Mr Vucic has shied away from cleaning up corruption.
However, the president does acknowledge that emigration is a serious problem, while the economy remains vulnerable to a change in foreign investor sentiment, especially if regional tensions flare up. “We just need to get it done and move on,” says Mr Mali, the Belgrade mayor, referring to a settlement on Kosovo. “Otherwise everything will go sour.”
The prospect of EU membership for Serbia, while distant, remains a vital factor. For Mr Vucic, it offers a civilising influence not just for his country but also the Western Balkans region with an untapped market of 18m people, if only political and economic barriers could be lifted. For Brussels, EU membership offers the leverage to demand democratic standards such as media freedom, plurality and the rule of law which, some argue, were skated over in the last round of enlargement to the east, notably Bulgaria and Romania.
The most pressing test is Kosovo. EU officials want Mr Vucic to sketch out his proposals in the coming months to kick-start talks with Kosovo’s leaders. The 28-member bloc is not imposing its own solution because Spain and four others refuse to recognise Kosovo’s independence, largely for fear of setting secessionist precedents for their own countries.
Serbia’s foreign and defence ministers have openly backed the idea of partition, retaking the northern part of Kosovo where much, but not all, of its Serbian population lives. But this is a non-starter for western powers who fear it will open a Pandora’s box of border disputes in the region. Nor are they likely to backtrack on independence, as some Serbs imagine. The most likely settlement would involve autonomy and power-sharing arrangements akin to Northern Ireland for Serb-dominated areas, in return for recognition of Kosovo’s statehood, but even that would be a step too far for many Serbs and would still face the hurdle of a referendum, where Mr Vucic could expect fierce resistance from several quarters, including the Serbian Orthodox church.
Mr Vucic could still prevail in a referendum, given his political dominance and grip on the media, says one expert on Kosovo who declined to be named on security grounds. Mr Vucic says he is not running in a popularity contest, and has no desire to be “likeable or loveable”. He casts himself not as the last but certainly as the best hope for his country. “Serbia has produced more history than it could consume,” he says, quoting Winston Churchill, “the most important thing to keep is peace and tranquillity.”