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11 Jun 17

Searching for a New PM: A Serbian Shell Game

Dejan Anastasijevic

Rumours are swirling about who will be Serbia’s next prime minister, but whoever he or she is, they will owe their job and their loyalty to ex-premier turned president Aleksandar Vucic.

Aleksandar Vucic was sworn in as the new President of Serbia on May 31. Photo: Anadolu

Eleven days after Aleksandar Vucic left his post a prime minister and moved to become president, Serbia is still waiting for his successor.

As the leader of Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) – the strongest faction in parliament – Vucic gets to pick the new PM, but he is taking his sweet time and keeping his cards close to his chest; there are two or three likely candidates, but he may yet surprise everyone by choosing someone completely unexpected.

Or he may, as some pundits predict, decide to pick no one and call for yet another round of early elections.

The rumour mill on Serbia’s new PM started long before Vucic formally resigned – it was activated four months ago, when he declared he would run for president. Some expected him to immediately resign as PM, but that didn’t happen, as Vucic needed the government pulpit for his campaign, and used it freely.

Meanwhile, the speculation multiplied, often propagated by pro-government media who claimed they had exclusive knowledge about who would be picked to run the cabinet, only to change it the next day.

Two months ago, Vucic said that he had “narrowed the list to six or seven names”. Last month he said it was “down to two or three”, but last week he indicated that he had expanded it again.

Meanwhile, the public is growing increasingly tired of guessing, as the whole process is starting to feel like an overextended shell game. The topic is now considered so boring that even in Belgrade’s busy kafanas, where politics is always the topic of the day, people get booed from the table for raising it.

As for now, there are two favourites: acting Foreign Minister and acting PM Ivica Dacic, and Minister for Public Administration Ana Brnabic.

Let’s deal with Ms. Brnabic first: she’s youngish (41), non-political, and openly gay, all of which has its pros and cons. The fact that she graduated in the US and got her MBA degree at Hull University in Britain would score both her and Vucic some points from the West; so would her sexual orientation.

As a minister, she took on the thankless task of reforming Serbia’s cumbersome administration, and achieved some progress. Her political non-affiliation also helps, as many Serbs are tired of partisan scheming and corruption, and would like to see someone fresh and untainted.

Surprisingly, her being gay did not raise too many eyebrows, even though Serbia is still predominantly patriarchal.

In public, she tends to downplay the issue without trying to avoid it: “I’m not a spokesperson for the LBGT community. I don’t want to be branded as gay minister, just as my colleagues don’t want to be primarily defined as being straight. All I want is to do my job as best as I can., she said in a recent interview for VICE Serbia, in which she also stated that becoming the new PM would be “a challenge”.

She’s well-liked among Serbia’s young, educated liberals. Unfortunately for her, these don’t account for much among Vucic’s power base.

Ivica Dacic (51) is a completely different sort of beast. He practiced politics from an early age, was the spokesman for Slobodan Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia for years, and now he’s the party chairman.

He’s familiar with the job, because he already did a stint as the PM (2012-2014, with Vucic as First Deputy PM). His loyalty to Vucic is unflinching – some believe it’s because Vucic has some highly incriminating tapes concerning Dacic’s business deals.

The downside is that the Western capitals see Dacic as somewhat too pro-Russian, and his appointment could undermine Vucic’s pro-European credibility. Also, Vucic’s own SNS is eager to have someone from its ranks at the government’s helm, and is starting to grumble at the thought of being bypassed.

On the other hand, if Dacic doesn’t get the top job (and he has already indicated that he’ll leave the cabinet if he doesn’t), his Socialist party will press him to break up the coalition with Vucic and trigger early elections.

Then again, Vucic may pick one of his many apparatchiks, such as the former Justice Minister Nikola Selakovic, or acting Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic. The problem is, they have zero initiative, and no other qualities but loyalty. Appointing them would require Vucic’s constant supervision, not because they would go astray, but because they would tend to sand still unless being told otherwise.

There’s also a case for early parliamentary elections. That would be the fourth casting of votes in the past four years, and the EU strongly advised against it, because it disrupts political life and delays reforms.

But Vucic has already demonstrated that he likes campaigning more than governing, and as the opposition parties are in such a pitiful state, this would be an ideal opportunity to put them out of their misery.

Vucic has had ample time to make a decision, but he likes to maintain suspense and keep his associates on their toes.

Whatever he does in the end, Serbia will continue to be a one-man show, at least for the foreseeable future. The audience may be sneaking away or falling asleep, but the man at the centre of the stage is as eager and enthusiastic as ever.

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