Serbia's new-old premier Vucic: Popularly unloved

Aleksandar Vucic has won his third election in a row with a promise to lead Serbia to EU membership, alleviate economic and social problems and ensure peace with the country's neighbours in the volatile Balkans.

A far-right nationalist belligerently opposed to all things Western and hostile to Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Albanians and other ethnic groups in the region over much of the past 25 years, Vucic has worked hard to shed the extremist stigma.

In the last four years under Vucic, 46, and his Progressive Party (SNS), Serbia has made some progress economically and diplomatically, but less than he had promised.

Over the last two decades, Vucic reinvented himself from a far-right nationalist who was hostile to the West to a soft-spoken moderate requesting broad support to carry out pro-EU reforms.

He has admitted to being wrong in the past and said that it took him time to realize his mistakes.

"It was a process. It is not that you wake up one morning and say: I'm different," he told Frankfurter Allegemeine Zeitung two years ago, explaining his shift towards the political mainstream. 

"Unlike many politicians in Serbia who always act as if they are always right, I am not ashamed to say that I was mistaken. I erred. I was wrong. It isn't easy, but I admit that," he said.

In July 1995, addressing parliament as a legislator, Vucic promised that 100 Muslims will die for each Serb killed in NATO bombings of Serb forces during the closing stages of the Bosnian war.

"So bomb if you dare," he said then, as NATO prepared to bomb Serb positions in Bosnia, 10 days after armed forces overran the UN-safe haven of Srebrenica. 

"Kill one Serb, we will kill 100 Muslims. Let's see if the international community or anybody else dares hit Serb positions," the young legislator told the Serbian parliament.

Meanwhile in Srebrenica, Bosnian Serb forces executed around 8,000 Muslim Bosniak boys and men and drove the rest of the population out, in what UN courts later called genocide.

As information minister during the last two years of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic's regime, Vucic shut down dozens of independent media in Serbia in speedy 24-hour trials allowed by a repressive law he helped design.

After Milosevic fell in 2000, Vucic survived with the extremist Radical Party, leading protests against the arrests of war crimes suspects and persistently campaigning against Serbia's rapprochement with the West.

Then, in 2008, he made an about turn.

Vucic abandoned the radicals after two decades, joined the SNS and changed his stance on the EU, and toned down his rhetoric.

He is known to lash out, especially when lamenting his lonely position at the forefront of reforms that are unpopular in the country.

"When I see you united, I find the strength to withstand all attacks and continue fighting," he told the final SNS rally ahead of the elections.

Despite his electoral triumph, his unpopularity is also visible.

Nationalists say he betrayed Serbia by signing a normalization agreement with Kosovo, and pensioners feel betrayed since his cabinet decreed a 10-per-cent pension cut. But most of all, his role in Milosevic's regime is held against him.

Among his achievements, Vucic lists the fact that he and the SNS paved the way for the European Union to open membership talks with Belgrade.

Last year, he went to Srebrenica to pay respect to Muslim victims of the 1995 massacre, seeking reconciliation with former foes.

His government managed to cut down the budget deficit and launch a 1.2-billion-euro (1.45-billion-dollar) standby arrangement with the International Monetary Fund in late 2014, he says, promising rapid growth in wages and a drop in unemployment. 

At the same time, however, independent economists say that the deficit was reduced by juggling numbers, not reforms.

Economic analyst Mijat Lakicevic wrote that instead of cutting pensions and wages, the government should have privatized, restructured or liquidated parts of the lumbering state-owned economy, and streamlined the bloated administration. 

Opponents and critics accuse him of supporting cronyism and nepotism, pointing out that nobody has been sentenced for corruption despite dozens of scandals and threats of promises of arrests and convictions.

Addressing supporters after his most recent victory, however, Vucic smiled and referred to his opponents as a parent would speak of a mischievous child.

He thanked all the voters who turned out, and said: "I will try to be the prime minister of all citizens of Serbia."

Last update: Mon, 25/04/2016 - 13:06

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