Aleksander Vucic is the most formidable politician to emerge so far in the post-Yugoslav space. What good will that do Serbia?
By David B. Kanin
This is not a rhetorical question. Vucic certainly enjoys the good luck of operating without any significant opposition—Boris Pajtic is basically a regional notable in Vojvodina (even after losing there in the recent election), Vucic and Tomislav Nikolic continue to observe the boundaries separating their roles, and the Jovanovic-Tadic combination simply celebrates narcissism. Vojislav Seselj’s shadow of a political second act involves nothing but thinly popular personal venom.
Still, Vucic deserves credit for his ability to shrink the legal and political space available to the media and his domestic opponents while escaping serious scrutiny from abroad. He has taken pages from Turkish President Erdogan’s and Hungarian Prime Minister Orban’s playbooks but has avoided the heavy-handed repression and bombast that serves in both those cases to expend political capital and energy. Vucic so far engages in serious decision-making and policy implementation (as well as the usual political patronage).
Vucic’s public statements often sound more like comments in conversation than pronouncements. Sometimes he acts like his job is making him sick, but never softens his hold on power. Vucic engineered a successful re-election that should permit him a couple of years to live up to his off-the-cuff public boast.
Whether he can measure up to the iconic status Tito currently enjoys depends only in part on whether Serbia can get into the European Union by 2020—media and pundit commentary has put too much emphasis on the public’s relative support for the EU over Russia in their electoral post-mortems. Obviously, he can maintain his popularity only if he can do better than Tito did with the economy—and Vucic’s Serbia is a smaller market and economic actor than was the Yugoslavia the Communists mismanaged once US aid began to dry up.
Whatever package of domestic and international policies he puts into practice also needs to include a strategic communication component thoughtful and credible enough to convince Serbs they share a common identity they can feel proud of. Success in this regard will be measured by Serbs’ willingness to share private positive thoughts about their community with friends and family, as opposed to public expressions of defensive assertiveness. Vucic has gone an impressive distance toward this already—no matter the grousing of public intellectuals hard-wired to complain about press freedoms and other issues. The EU’s willingness to open a couple chapters associated with the accession process demonstrates Brussels is less concerned than are the Belgrade scribbling classes about civic progress in Serbia—a phenomenon similar to the EU’s attitude toward Turkey. Of course, this does not mean either country actually will achieve membership in the association of the High and Mighty.
Serbia is unlikely to get into the creation myth that is “Europe” by 2020—this is quickly becoming a short-term goal; raising hopes of such a precise date is pointless and unnecessary. For one thing, Croatia will continue to hold things up as politicians in Zagreb and Slavonia pander to memories of the horrors in Vukovar and the short-lived Republic of the Serb Krajina. For another, the undefined “normalization” of relations with the crippled partial sovereignty that is Kosova will remain a tool Europeans can use to put things off.
Nevertheless, Vucic’s skillful management of German Chancellor Merkel and other Europeans gives Belgrade its best chance to move toward eventual membership. None of the politicians pretending to provide an alternative to him have nearly his level of skill and capability for strategic diplomacy. It will be interesting to see how he finesses the EU accession issue as he decides whether to contest another election and hold power past 2020. The status of his government’s popularity will factor into that calculus, of course, as will whether he has then the kind of leverage in Brussels the migrant issue and Europe-wide problems provide him now.
It also will be interesting to see if he can avoid the creeping sense of self-satisfied arrogance that enabled the tone-deafness that has come to affect Erdogan’s decision-making. This and events in the Middle East and in domestic Kurdish-Turkish relations spoiled what once looked like a favorable political and strategic situation in Ankara. Self-satisfaction is a major danger confronting every politician that experiences spectacular success against incompetent opposition. The day Vucic decides his personal judgment is so good he can brush off bad news and ignore solid critical advice is the day observers can begin to chart his downfall.
His attitude and behavior regarding the developing Belgrade Waterfront scandal will be a test of whether he still has his ear to the political ground. This project has all the earmarks of a massive theft—the odd oversight process involved would appear to protect contractors from public scrutiny for the next 20 or 30 years. A lot of money can be stolen in that time, but a lot of jobs also can be expected to be part of the package of public good and harm involved in this project.
The government has promised to scrutinize the recent destructive visit of masked thugs to the Waterfront, but Vucic has the option of attempting to remain aloof by sloughing off responsibility for this mess on local and lower level federal officials. He would do well to take a more active interest—if he takes the chance of turning over various rocks he might be able simultaneously to reduce the level of waste, fraud, and abuse and take credit for what actually could become a useful infrastructural revitalization. The people and businesses already affected by evictions and intimidation will remain casualties of this process, but Vucic already has demonstrated the ability to avoid taking the blame for the kind of collateral damage publics so easily forget.
More generally, Vucic might consider the model (positive and otherwise) set by Charles de Gaulle. Vucic does not have the patina of wartime activity that set de Gaulle on the path to power, but both men exhibited the skills necessary to partially repair the reputations of countries that had undergone seriously disabling communal experiences. Both also overcame less impressive rivals, although it is easy to forget de Gaulle’s initial failure to overawe a potent left-wing alternative and other politicians in the early years after World War II. In addition, de Gaulle badly misjudged his country’s mood and politics in 1968; something like that certainly could happen to Vucic.
De Gaulle nevertheless remained true to what in his case was an aristocratic bearing and instinctive distrust of allies as well as adversaries when it came to international affairs. Vucic has a different personality, but appears so far to understand his personal flaws and strengths and to use both to capture the political mood. As already noted, the common view of his electoral triumph as a victory of a pro-EU movement ignores his understanding of the reluctance of Europe’s paladins to follow through regarding Serbia’s membership desires. Like de Gaulle, Vucic is maintaining decent but measured relations with the EU, US, and Russia (and Turkey) while looking out for Serbia’s strategic and economic interests. One of his greatest personal assets appears to be his ability not to be surprised when he is disappointed by the behavior of the disparate powerful actors he has to deal with on the world stage.
Like it or not, Vucic—unlike his predecessors in government—has brought Serbia back to Europe-wide respectability. The political pathologies and instability affecting other shards of former Yugoslavia continue to set Belgrade’s performance in high relief, of course, but that is not Vucic’s fault. It is too soon to tell whether he takes the authoritarian path of Eastern Europe’s dysfunctional “democracies,” but it is clear Turkey, Hungary, Russia, and even China can plausibly make useful contributions to his toolbox.
*David B. Kanin is an adjunct professor of international relations at Johns Hopkins University and a former senior intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The quote in the title is taken from Aleksander Vucic, quoted in B92 Online, April 29, 2016. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.