On a Saturday afternoon in July 2008, Aleksandar Vučić organized a demonstration in Belgrade.15 000 nationalists attended, a small crowd by Serbian standards. They were protesting against the arrest and extradition of Radovan Karadžić, a former Bosnian Serb politician implicated in the Serbian genocide. Everything Karadžić had done, they said, he did in defence of Serbia. Karadžić had been eking out an existence as a new age healer in a Belgrade shopping centre. He specialised in curing sexual disorders with “human quantum energy”. Now he is on trial in the Hague.
Vučić is not a war criminal but, until recently, he has consistently defended the men who swept misery across the Balkans. When Ratko Mladić (‘the butcher of Srebrenica’) was facing extradition, Vučić offered him refuge in his home. Days after the Srebrenica massacre took place, Vučić declared in Parliament that “for every Serb they kill, we kill 100 Muslims.” As Milosević’s Minister for Information, Vučić shut down foreign media outlets in Serbia and orchestrated the regime’s propaganda machine, which whitewashed Serb paramilitary activity in Bosnia. All of this is well known, yet none of it prevented Vučić from winning a landslide victory in the latest elections. Now he is Serbia’s Prime Minister, and the country’s most powerful politician.
On paper, at least, this is because he is a changed man. Three months after marching for ultra-nationalism, Vučić recanted his nationalism and founded a centre-right party, the SNS (Serbian Progressive Party/Српска напредна странка). Its overriding objective is to bring Serbia into the European Union. Five years on, the SNS has pulverised its opponents. Despite three years at the helm, two of which were spent in recession, with unemployment standing steadfastly at 26%, and the worst debt:GDP ratio in Europe, the SNS still polls at 56%.
How? A Western diplomat I spoke to explains the party’s success in the following terms:
“Vučić came to power after 10 years of government by liberals, who had been riding the democratic waves which brought the Milosevic regime tumbling to the ground. When the Democrats – as they are known – should have been modernising the economy and moving Serbia beyond its fixation on Kosovo and the Serb diaspora, they were lining their pockets and playing short-term politics. Vučić was a breath of fresh air. Authority. Leadership. He’s very driven. But we’re not always sure that he knows where he’s going.”
“Like Putin?” I ask.
“No. Vučić’s victory was legitimate. The old regime was rotten. This one is just incompetent.”
What happened for Vučić to swap contemporary Europe’s most virulent strand of nationalism for European pluralism? Some who know him personally talk of the tenacious, unrelenting doggedness with which he pursues his objectives. It simply isn’t feasible to suppose that his worldview changed in the space of one summer. Was it just political opportunism? Or does he have a plan for Serbia?
Dragana Marković, a member of the liberal opposition to the SNS, takes the former view. She explains Vučić in terms of the man who was for many years his political mentor: Vojislav Šešelj, who has spent the last ten years on trial in the Hague. He is charged with crimes against humanity, murder, forced deportation, illegal imprisonment, and torture.
“Šešelj is the Professor Moriarty of politics, and Vučić did his best to adopt all of his tricks. They have the same autocratic and unstable personalities, the same way with words, the same ability to twist reality, and present one story to the West, and another to Serbia. They play ruthless games for political gain. Neither of them are connected with reality.”
She pauses, and goes on to describe how an elaborate public relations exercise went from farce to tragedy.
“A baby suffered from a serious medical condition. The government ordered a military helicopter to pick it up and take it to Belgrade. The weather was terrible, and the helicopter could not land. But the ministers were on the tarmac. Waiting, with the cameras. So they insisted that it land, come what may. The helicopter crashed. Everybody onboard was killed. All the ministers remain in place.”
She describes a man whose politics – whether nationalist or europhile – are wholly designed to bolster his personal power.
But there is a subtly different story, which emerges from the accounts of people who have dealt with him personally. Vučić, they say, begins meetings with a list of all his woes. He folds his tall frame behind a desk, looks round the table with his fleshy face and wistful eyes, and bemoans how his enemies continue to amass against him, within and without the state. You often hear this plaintive tone in Serbia. One result of pursuing policies of ethnic cleansing, first in Bosnia, then in Kosovo, was to turn Serbia into a pariah state. This has produced a pervasive sense of national victimisation, which takes on epic proportions in nationalist circles. They say the entire Western world, its spies and its allies, are constantly plotting against Serbia. So solace is sought in the prospect of deeper links with Russia. In another nationalist demonstration in Belgrade a few weeks ago, men marched under the flags of Donetsk and Lugansk, which fluttered alongside those of Serbia and Russia.
The idea that Serbia is torn between the West and Russia is one that Vučić encourages. It bolsters his standing amongst the farmers, taxi drivers, and shop-owners: the petit-bourgeois who are his natural power-base. But the idea is false. Serbia is not torn between East and West. It is firmly in the economic grip of the EU, with which it does most of its trade. Yet Vučić refuses to implement sanctions against Russia. In one of the more ludicrous instances of kowtowing to Moscow for domestic political gain, he recently shifted the national holiday three days forward to accommodate a visit from Putin. And all this takes place amidst a cacophony of ever more earnest declarations of faith in the European Union.
So we arrive at a paradox. Vučić’s ambition is to rehabilitate national pride in a broken country with a crippled economy. He realises that bluster will simply entrench his country’s isolation. But taking the only path forward involves disavowing much of what he has said and written for his entire political life. He has done this with gusto. Vučić recently enlisted Tony Blair – who played a key part in having Belgrade bombed during the 90s – to provide advice on foreign affairs. The last time his name appeared next to Blair’s was when he edited a book entitled British Gay Fart Tony Blair. Vučić has not changed. He continues to stir the embers of nationalism, albeit more quietly than in the past. The motives of Vučić’s European agenda have to do with restoring national pride, at a time when the diplomat quoted above reports Vučić himself as saying privately that tensions between the Serbs, and the Bosnians and Kosovars have reached levels not seen since the Balkan wars. For now, Vučić is here to stay. The road to EU accession is fraught with difficulties. It will force Serbia to change. The question is how Vučić, with his crypto-nationalist motives for joining the EU, will acclimatise to what Serbia is bound to become: a Western state, forced by the strictures of the Union into liberalism.
Photograph by Leon E. Panetta