There’s A Reason Why Many Serbs Support Their Flawed President – OpEd


An out-of-touch opposition still tainted by past corruption scandals is not very tempting for Serbs – many of whom view Aleksandar Vucic as ‘the best of a bad bunch’.

By Tatyana Kekic

It was an inauspicious start to the year for Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic. After winning a landslide victory in December’s elections, the government faced weeks of protests by the opposition group Serbia Against Violence, SPN, over its claims that the elections were rigged.  

But the daily protests and hunger strikes that made international headlines didn’t last. Despite opposition promises to continue protests into the New Year, a repeat of the large demonstrations seen on December 30 has yet to materialise.  

A majority of Serbs don’t appear interested in contesting the election results. In fact, those results point to Vucic’s continued popularity in the country at large. His ruling Serbian Progressive Party beat the opposition by 24 percentage points in the parliamentary election. 

What explains the high levels of support for Vucic, even in the light of his creeping authoritarianism and alleged election tricks? The usual response among liberals is to blame misinformation and media manipulation. But this risks treating voters like sponges, ready to absorb anything they hear on TV. 

The tendency to blame support for populist leaders on their illiberal tactics alone also ignores the reality that voters are sometimes willing to overlook the democratic deficiencies of leaders, if they believe they will deliver greater stability, or if the democratic opposition has been discredited.  

Many Serbs are aware that Vucic controls the media and intimidates the opposition, sometimes by broadcasting their private sex tapes on daytime TV. But many also overlook these flaws, either because they think he is delivering for the majority, or because they view the alternative as even worse. 

Explaining their support for the President, many Serbs often point to the progress Serbia has made since the Progressives took office in 2012, when unemployment was as high as 24 per cent and average wages as low as 300 euros a month. Unemployment is now in single digits and wages have more than doubled since then. 

According to Serbia’s national statistical office, average net earnings increased from around 375 euros a month in 2013 to 639 euros in 2022. The Progressives’ sound economic policies are also reflected in robust real GDP growth rates and large inflows of foreign direct investment, FDI. 

Vucic likes the narrative of rebuilding Serbia, and sometimes uses it quite literally. He is constantly on TV boasting about building new roads, for example. While Belgrade still lacks a metro, Vucic claims that Serbia has built more motorways in the past decade than in the past 50 years. 

While for many Belgraders the Belgrade Waterfront project is an eye-sore and a money laundering project, others genuinely buy into the government’s line that the project represents progress and a leap into modernity.

Belgrade Tower, the tallest skyscraper in the Balkans, until Bulgaria built its Sky Fort in 2023, dominates the city’s skyline like a giant sore thumb. Put aside aesthetics, however, and you have quite a picture of progress. 

Contrast this with the last time the opposition was in power, under the leadership of the Democratic Party between 2000 and 2012, together with the Democratic Party of Serbia, until a 2008 split.

Many remember this time as a period of turbulent transition, when the upper middle class got richer at the expense of ordinary workers and farmers. 

The decade after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 was marked by the rise of tycoons and the legitimisation of their wealth by privatisation. Criminals profited from the sale of state-owned companies in the absence of regulations; often, politicians did, too. 

The opposition has since changed leadership but is still associated with a series of corruption scandals. In 2014, when former President Boris Tadic stepped down as Democratic Party leader, he acknowledged that it had earned “the title of a corrupt and scandal-stained party”. The public had a “phrase about yellow thieves”, he said, in reference to the party’s colours. 

The former Belgrade mayor, Dragan Djilas, who succeeded Tadic as party leader, was himself a wealthy businessman. His personal fortune made him an easy target of Progressive smear campaigns. He is now president of the Freedom and Justice Party and a key figure in the opposition SPN. 

The democratic opposition has not only been contaminated by corruption scandals. Soon after Tadic was elected for his second term in 2008, the former province of Kosovo unilaterally declared independence and was widely recognised by the West. While the Democrats never accepted its independence, it was widely seen to have “given Kosovo away”. 

Kosovo’s UDI gave the impression of a government incapable of defending Serbia’s interests abroad. In contrast, Vucic is seen to defend Serbia’s interests, by refusing to give too much on Kosovo and by opposing sanctions against Russia. 

Out of touch with public opinion, opposition figures like Djilas criticise the government’s refusal to align Serbia with EU foreign policy. In a recent article for Politico, in which he called upon the West to take action against election irregularities, Djilas criticised Vucic’s refusal to impose sanctions on Russia.  

Such interventions are unlikely to go down well with Serbs. According to a study released by Demostat in March 2022, 50 per cent of respondents believed their country should remain neutral, even if such a stance were to incur sanctions and goods shortages on a scale similar to those experienced during the Yugoslav wars.  

It is not only on foreign policy that the opposition is out of touch. By focusing on issues such as government corruption, lack of media pluralism and the environment, the SPN ignores problems that might resonate more with voters, such as soaring food price inflation, which was among the highest in Europe in 2023. 

The SPN’s narrow programme lacks appeal among the rural, conservative and working-class voters who form the majority of Vucic’s support. It also lacks coherence. The parties comprising the SPN have little in common other than shared revulsion for Vucic. 

The opposition also squabble among themselves, about who should be included on what list, who is best to lead the movement and so forth. A few weeks ago, the opposition group “We –Voice of the People” collapsed after a series of personal insults and threats of physical injury led to a split in leadership. 

Internal power struggles are a familiar theme in Serbian opposition politics. Rather than looking inwards, however, opposition parties prefer to blame their poor election performances on an unfair media landscape and irregularities at the ballot-box. But it is too easy to blame a lack of popular support on government foul play. 

As the leader of the Socialist Party, Ivica Dacic, quipped after his party struggled to gain more than 6 per cent in December’s polls, he would also like a repeat of the elections. 

But it is unclear if the opposition would fare any better if new and fairer elections were held. Despite all his flaws, Vucic remains the best of a bad bunch, as far as most Serbs are concerned. 

  • About the author: Tatyana Kekic is a freelance journalist based in Belgrade specialised in Russian and Eastern Europe affairs. 
  • Source: The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN.

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (formerly the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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