The Hong Kong Telegraph - Aleksandar Vucic: Serbia's populist leader seeks to extend reign

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Aleksandar Vucic: Serbia's populist leader seeks to extend reign
Aleksandar Vucic: Serbia's populist leader seeks to extend reign

Aleksandar Vucic: Serbia's populist leader seeks to extend reign

With another election victory in his sights, Serbia's populist President Aleksandar Vucic looks set to extend his rule over the Balkan nation after a decade of tightening his grip over the levers of power.

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To his supporters, Vucic's stint in office has brought order and billions in investments to the once chaotic country thanks to his success at deftly balancing ties between the East and West.

But for his opponents, Vucic has increasingly relied on autocratic measures to keep the opposition in disarray and media outlets under his thumb.

A former ultra-nationalist ally of strongman Slobodan Milosevic, the towering politician has held power in some form or another since 2012.

In the run-up to the polls on Sunday, Vucic has been ever present -- plastered on billboards and skyscrapers, featured in videos posted on social media and broadcast in round the clock coverage on television channels largely reliant on his government.

In all these places, the 52-year-old president has carefully cultivated an image of himself as a tireless leader, dedicated to investment and job creation.

"Vucic is everywhere, on all the TVs, in all the newspapers, he has usurped all the public space. It's unbearable," Nebojsa Pantelic, a 42-year-old computer specialist, told AFP.

"Even Milosevic did not have this hold on the country."

On television, Vucic has been seen rescuing a child trapped in a snowstorm, chiding aides for poor performance, and learning German by watching speeches by former chancellor Angela Merkel.

"He wants to portray himself as a common man but also as a superman," said Boban Stojanovic, a Belgrade-based political analyst.

- 'Defender of Kosovo' -

Ahead of this year's polls, he has offered his leadership as the only antidote to the fresh uncertainty ushered in by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, with his latest campaign slogan promising: "Peace. Stability. Vucic."

The president also prides himself on overseeing the construction of extensive infrastructure programmes, including a network of highways and a revamped rail line.

"It is our job to build, the citizens of Serbia always vote for those who would like to build the future," Vucic told a rally earlier this month.

And while he has sought investment from abroad, Vucic has remained a dedicated defender of issues important to voters -- namely by refusing to recognise the independence of the breakaway province of Kosovo.

"Vucic has given ordinary people a chance to live better. He has kept his promises. He is a staunch defender of our Kosovo. He is simply the right man for the job," Branislav Ristic, a 47-year-old bank employee, told AFP.

During the pandemic, he is credited with securing millions of vaccine doses from China, Russia, and Western nations as Serbia's European neighbours struggled with their own inoculation campaigns.

But since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Vucic has walked an increasingly fine line.

Serbia has condemned the Russian aggression at the United Nations, but refused to sanction Moscow at home, where Serbians rely on natural gas sold at bargain prices and generally hold a favourable view of the Kremlin.

"He has been accommodating to everyone, China to export its dirty industries to Serbia and Russia to extend its political influence there," said Stojanovic.

"Cooperating with the West provides him with support for his domestic policy."

- Eroding rights -

The transformation marks an impressive turnaround for the man who broke onto the national political scene as Milosevic's hardline information minister during the war in Kosovo.

The change was sudden.

In 2008, he left the ultra-nationalist Radical Party and founded the conservative, pro-European Serbian Progressive Party, which won the 2012 legislative elections and paved his way to the country's top office.

Since then, he has rotated through a range of positions including prime minister, president, and deputy premier along with a stint as the defence chief.

But even as he polished his image, Vucic has been reluctant to abandon some of his ultra-nationalist leanings.

He has repeatedly stopped short of denouncing the Bosnian Serb leaders accused of atrocities during the conflict in the 1990s, while several war criminals have been rehabilitated in state-backed media outlets under his watch.

His critics also accuse him of adopting increasingly authoritarian tactics, including cracking down on dissenting voices.

"Serbian Progressive Party has steadily eroded political rights and civil liberties, putting pressure on independent media, the political opposition, and civil society organisations," wrote the US non-profit Freedom House in a 2021 report.