Serbia's Vucic stronger than ever
After his landslide victory in Sunday's (2 April) presidential election, Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic is the strongman of the Western Balkans now more than ever.
He won 55 percent of the vote and effectively obliterated 11 other candidates - the strongest of whom barely managed to get 13 percent.
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Until he moves to his new office by the end of this month, Vucic will be wearing two hats: the prime minister and the president-elect, at the same time.
Nothing could mar Vucic’s victory - neither the fact that Serbia has now hit the lowest score on Freedom House’s Democracy Index since 2003, nor the thousands of protesters who took to the streets of Belgrade on Monday evening to claim that the elections were rigged.
Even while riot police were dispersing the crowd, congratulatory letters were pouring in from all over the world.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and German chancellor Angela Merkel were among the first to hail Vucic's success, but best wishes also came from Russian president Vladimir Putin, Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the EU’s bad boy, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban.
The diversity of Vucic’s foreign admirers reflects the multitude of faces he has been presenting at home and to the outside world.
To his Serbian critics, Vucic is a thin-skinned autocrat who stomped out free media and subverted state institutions to his whims - something that Erdogan and Orban can surely appreciate.
In Brussels and Berlin, they see him as a pro-Western reformist, determined to bring Serbia into the EU.
And in Moscow, he’s welcomed as a staunch ally, who refuses to join Western sanctions against Russia, and keeps Serbia out of Nato.
So which one of these things is real Vucic? The answer is: all of them, and none.
In his youth, he was on the extreme right, but now, at age 47, he has abandoned ideology and become all things to all people.
Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party and his cabinet includes reformists, die-hard nationalists, well-educated liberals, and low-educated supporters. Yet, he still somehow manages to keep them all in line.
His political agenda is equally eclectic, and his challengers - both from left and right - quickly discovered that he has co-opted many of their policies. Thus they lost the battle before the campaign had even started.
The reason why Western leaders are ready to forgive Vucic for his shenanigans at home, and even his long-standing relationship with Putin, is a single word: stability.
When they look at the Western Balkans, they see a deep crisis in Macedonia, paralysis in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Albania, and rampant crime and corruption in Kosovo.
Even Croatia, the only country in the region that managed to join the EU in this decade, is hardly a paragon of stability.
The recent collapse of the retail giant Agrokor, which contributes more than 10 percent to Croatia’s GDP, is threatening to bankrupt the country.
Surrounded by neighbours like these, Serbia looks like an island of stability and, with Vucic in charge, the West at least knows what to expect.
Vucic has also proven highly cooperative on two issues that are highly important to Brussels: Kosovo and the refugee crisis.
On Kosovo, he has been engaged in the EU-sponsored normalisation talks between Belgrade and Pristina, which have been going on for several years, and produced some (albeit modest) results.
From Brussels' perspective, as long as the two sides are talking, the possibility of renewed conflict between Serbia and its former southern province remains low.
When it comes to refugees, Serbia is in the middle of the Balkan route, which is now mostly closed. The EU wants to keep it that way, and would need Vucic’s continued cooperation on this issue as well.
The prominent presence of Milorad Dodik - the nationalist leader of Republika Srpska, the Serbian statelet in Bosnia - at Vucic’s victory celebration in Belgrade, did raise some eyebrows in Brussels.
Dodik likes to defy the EU on a range of issues, and sometimes threatens to secede from Bosnia, and actively endorsed Vucic’s campaign.
But Vucic has found a way to turn that into an asset as well, since the prevailing view in Western capitals is that Vucic, who is himself a reformed nationalist, is the only one who can tame Dodik and prevent him from starting another conflict in Bosnia.
With the opposition pushed far into the margins at home, and staunch support from both East and West, there is almost nothing that can prevent Vucic from being the sole master of Serbia for the next five years.
As long as he projects stability in an increasingly unstable world, he will remain the key player in the Balkans.