Photographer: Oliver Bunic/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s Serb Ally Claims Landslide Win in Presidential Vote

  • Almost complete results show Premier Vucic winning 55.1%
  • Vucic avoids runoff, pledges new government in two months

Serbia’s prime minister scored a landslide victory in a presidential election, opening the way for him to strengthen his grip on power as he juggles the nation’s goal of joining the European Union with forging deeper relations with Russia.

Aleksandar Vucic won 55.1 percent, with 92 percent of votes counted, according to results shown at the State Electoral Commission headquarters on Monday. He eclipsed second-place challenger Sasa Jankovic, a former ombudsman, who won 16.27 percent. Turnout was 54 percent. The premier, who will now shift to the more ceremonial presidential role, declared himself the winner and said a new government will be formed in two months.

Vucic, who served as the late Slobodan Milosevic’s information minister in the 1990s, can nevertheless continue to hold sway as the head of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party. While he advocates EU membership, he’s 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 has suppressed their voices and marginalized media that doesn’t portray him positively.

“Vucic is now in a position to impose his will on all the notionally separate institutions of state - the presidency, the government, the parliament and the judiciary,” Timothy Less, the director of the Nova Europa political risk consultancy, said in a note. “But there is an irony, because the shift toward autocracy which Vucic has spearheaded is incompatible with membership of the EU and will effectively preclude Serbia from joining.”

Vucic’s opponents have warned that the prime minister will name a compliant replacement 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 Vladimir Putin. The Russian president congratulated Vucic on his victory and “expressed confidence that his activities as head of the state will contribute to the further development of the Russian-Serbian strategic partnership,” the Kremlin said.

Read more about how Vucic can consolidate power if he wins

“We are quite encouraged that he succeeded in winning the elections,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a conference call.

The yield on Serbian dollar bonds maturing in 2021 gained 2 basis point on Monday to 3.834 percent by 12:15 p.m. in Belgrade. The dinar was little changed at 123.80 against the euro, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

The result gives Vucic the biggest victory since Milosevic won 65 percent in 1990, just before the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia. Echoes of that conflict, the deadliest in Europe since World War II, crept into the campaign, with Vucic holding his biggest rally on the anniversary of the start of the 1999 NATO-led bombing that drove Milosevic’s forces from Kosovo.

He has also tried to deepen 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 to discuss the delivery of MiG fighter jets and armored vehicles with Putin, who Serbia welcomed with its first full military parade since Communist times in 2014. Vucic also reiterated his opposition to the EU’s sanctions against Russia, which shares Orthodox religious and cultural ties with the Serbs.

Read more about Putin’s deepening influence in the Balkans

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, living standards for the 7 million Serbs are just above a third of the EU average, and Serbia hasn’t normalized ties with Kosovo, overhauled the courts or fully retooled its economy.

“Now there’s a certain responsibility on his side to use this strong support by his citizens in a careful way,” EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn told reporters in Luxembourg after congratulating Vucic. “He reassured that he will fully respect the constitutional framework, and I trust him.”

It’s the third election victory in a row for Vucic and his party, which opposition leaders say has used its ruling position unfairly to its advantage. Before Sunday’s vote, he’d called and won two snap elections since 2014 that kept rival parties on the back foot. Vucic has rejected the opposition’s complaints as an attempt to sow instability.

“Voters showed support for the continuation of the reform process, for the continuation of Serbia’s European path, while preserving traditional friendships that we have with both Russia and China,” Vucic said late on Sunday after declaring victory.

— With assistance by Ilya Arkhipov

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