Why does Aleksandar Vucic (seen above) strike many political observers as a moderate despite his authoritarian tendencies? The general political climate is foremost to blame. With London and Washington giving the EU a cold shoulder, any EU fan is warmly welcomed - including from Belgrade.
Vucic, currently the prime minister, will be able to rule the next five years as president without discernible opposition. A third consecutive victory in last year's parliamentary vote for his populist conservative Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) gave Vucic a strong mandate heading into the election. Now, as party leader and soon-to-be president, he is by far the most powerful political leader in Serbia, even though prime minister is traditionally the office that wields the most authority in the country.
Serbia's head of state may be largely ceremonial, but independence for Serbian institutions remains out of reach. Power is concentrated at the top. Vucic will install a puppet prime minister who can make him look good if the government performs well.
If not, he can distance himself from it or even become a harsh critic of it. He has to do very little but praise or punish his loyal servants propelling his agenda.
An ideal democrat - or not
Western capitals are well aware of Vucic's prevalence for insulting journalists, brushing off opposition and using manipulative control tactics. Off the record, many paint a very different domestic picture of this internationally praised, allegedly ideal democrat - one of a barely democratic politician obsessed with validation. However, he can distract from the pitiful state of the media and legal system by generally towing the pro-Kosovo line and repeating a mantra of stability.
Certainly the situation in Belgrade today is all but idyllic in comparison to its bloody past. Despite tensions with neighboring countries, Vucic is perceived rather well throughout the region and is hardly a problem for the West. At home, he has the freedom to rant and rave, appearing at least 10 times more often across Serbian television channels during the campaign than the opposition and using jobs as a means of blackmailing voters.
The quiet hope is Vucic will moderate in the course of negotiating EU membership for his country. Whether that will actually be the case remains far from certain. Only his next five years of rule will reveal the leader's true self.
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