Photographer: Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images

Serb Election Gives Putin Ally Chance to Tighten Grip on Power

  • Polls indicate Vucic will win, possibly in the first round
  • Critics warn against power grab, more Russian influence

Serbians are voting Sunday in an election that looks set to hand Premier Aleksandar Vucic the presidency, a move that may let him strengthen his grip on power and give Russia a chance to deepen its influence in southeastern Europe.

Vucic, who served as war-time ruler Slobodan Milosevic’s information minister in the 1990s, is poised to shift from head of government to the more ceremonial role, where he nonetheless can hold more sway as the head of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party. While he advocates membership in the European Union, he’s also pushing for stronger links with Russia as officials in the U.S. and Europe accuse the Kremlin of promoting anti-establishment political forces and meddling in elections.

Opposition leaders complain the tall, boyish-looking 47-year-old is suppressing their voices and marginalizing media that doesn’t portray him positively. Their concern is that Vucic will name a compliant prime minister and run the government behind the scenes. That may follow a trend of other leaders from Hungary to Turkey who eschew the concept of liberal European democracy in favor of the model followed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Vucic benefits from his populist rhetoric and an image of a strong-handed leader able to successfully maneuver Serbia’s interests between Russia and the West,” said Andrius Tursa, an analyst at Teneo Intelligence. “Although the president’s role in Serbian politics is rather symbolic, Vucic would likely retain de facto control.”

Voting started at 7 a.m. on Sunday and ends at 8 p.m. There are no exit polls in Serbia, and first partial results are expected at around 10 p.m. Most pre-election surveys show Vucic ’s support at above 50 percent, eclipsing the fragmented opposition’s 10 challengers. If no candidate wins a majority in the first round, there top two will contest an April 16 runoff.

Read more about how Putin is deepening his influence in the Balkans

The most recent public opinion survey, by the Ipsos pollster on Friday, said Vucic will win 54 percent of votes. Such a result would hand him the biggest victory since Milosevic won 65 percent in 1990, just before the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia.

Echos of that conflict, the deadliest in Europe since World War II, have crept into the campaign. Vucic held his biggest rally on the March 24 anniversary of the start of the NATO-led bombing that drove Milosevic’s forces from Kosovo in 2000. He has also highlighted ties with Russia, Serbia’s biggest ally in condemning the air campaign and rejecting its loss of Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008.

In his last official state visit before the vote, Vucic traveled to Moscow last week to discuss the delivery of MiG fighter jets and armored vehicles with Putin, who Serbia welcomed with its first full military parade since Communist ties in 2014. Vucic also reiterated his opposition to the EU’s sanctions against Russia, which shares Orthodox religious and cultural ties with the Serbs.

Still, since Milosevic’s ouster in 2000, the biggest former Yugoslav republic has inched toward EU membership, extraditing dozens of war crimes suspects for prosecution, fighting corruption, and changing laws. Vucic touts a friendship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and has pledged to ready Serbia for accession by 2020. However, Serbia hasn’t normalized ties with Kosovo, overhauled the courts or fully retooled its economy. Living standards for the 7 million Serbs are just above a third of the EU average.

Read more about how Vucic may consolidate power as Serbia’s president

The prime minister’s detractors also say he’s misused his public position to suppress his opponents. Despite holding a majority in parliament, he has called and won two snap elections since 2014 that kept rival parties on the back foot and pushed aside his party ally, incumbent Tomislav Nikolic, to run for president himself. He argued that their ruling Serbian Progressive Party couldn’t afford a potential defeat if the less-popular Nikolic sought a second five-year term. Vucic has rejected the opposition’s complaints as an attempt to sow instability.

“We won’t let you hijack our future, because want stability,” he said in his final campaign video. “We won’t let you destroy our country. We won’t let you destroy what we’ve built.”

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