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News 31 May 17

Vucic 'Will Use Presidency to Tighten Grip Over Serbia'

As Aleksandar Vucic prepares to be sworn in as Serbia’s new president, observers say he is likely to tighten his grip on Serbian institutions - while the EU turns a blind eye to his authoritarian tendencies.

Gordana Andric
BIRN
Belgrade
Aleksandar Vucic. Photo: Beta

After ruling the country for three years as Prime Minister, Vucic will be sworn in as Serbia’s new President in parliament on Wednesday.

His victory in the April 2 elections prompted some foreign politicians to congratulate him, predicting that he would contribute to regional stability and to the EU accession process.

However, observers in the Balkans say that, as president, Vucic will continue to strengthen his control over the country’s institutions.

Marko Kmezic, a senior researcher at the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, in Austria, said Vucic’s presidency “will see the continuation of democratic backsliding, embodied in clientilism, state capture by ruling parties, patronage, and control over the media ,which began a decade ago”.

“With the prospect of EU membership fading away for the Western Balkan countries, political leaders are feeling less pressure to govern within the confines of democratic institutions or to protect press freedom and the rule of law," he added.

“Hence, I believe that Vucic will continue, at least declaratorily, to support Serbia’s EU accession, but will also combine it with stronger domestic control,” Kmezic told BIRN.

Vucic was elected President of Serbia after winning 55 per cent of votes in the April 2 elections, almost 40 per cent more then second-ranked former ombudsman, Sasa Jankovic.

However, both opposition and NGOs monitoring the elections said the campaign was unfair, as the media strongly favoured Vucic.

Freedom House’s 2017 Nations in Transit report, which was published in April, assigned Serbia its lowest "democracy score" in 2016 since 2005.

Both Kmezic and Eric Gordy, a senior lecturer from University College London, doubt that the EU officials who granted Serbia candidate status in 2011, will start to push Vucic harder.

“European politicians are willing to tolerate a lot from regional power holders”, Gordy said, including “the rebuilding of authoritarian control in Serbia.

“This is largely because they have abandoned the goal of encouraging democracy, and are looking instead for two things: political leadership that is compromised enough to do what it is told, and power holders who will remain in place long enough to carry out plans,” Gordy added.

According to Kmezic, “as long as Vucic keeps delivering on issues that are considered to be crucial in Brussels, such as the normalisation of relations with Kosovo, good neighborly relations and cooperation in handling the refugee crisis, he will be praised by the EU and its leaders.”

However, he added: “It is unrealistic that member states will want to incorporate uncommitted democrats into their club.”

Gordy said he does not expect such policies to bring real stability to the region.

“What 'stability' means on the regional level might appear at first glance to be positive – an entrenched political class whose members have an easy time making deals with each other.

“But the lack of democratic control means that the deals they make are not guaranteed to be in the public interest and may not be sustainable,” Gordy said.

Like Kmezic, Gordy also believes that Serbia will face obstacles on its EU path at some point.

“One of Vucic's great successes has been his continuing ability to sell himself as a pro-European politician ... while behaving as an authoritarian, domestically. He probably cannot pull off this combination indefinitely,” Gordy concluded.

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