Serbia's victorious PM eyes EU future as rivals cry foul

Aleksandar Vucic under pressure on economy as far-right returns to parliament

Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic has vowed to accelerate reforms aimed at guiding his country towards European Union membership, after an election victory that his opponents said was marred by irregularities.

Mr Vucic's Progressive Party took 48 per cent of votes in Sunday's ballot, ahead of his current coalition partners the Socialists on 11 percent and the far-right Radical Party, which is led by a recently acquitted war crimes suspect, on 8 per cent.

With almost all votes counted, three centrist pro-EU parties were also set to cross the five per cent threshold to enter parliament, along with the Dveri party that shares the Radicals' desire to ally with Russia and cut co-operation with the west.

"The election results . . . represent strong support for our democracy, reforms and European integration. We have shown ourselves and the world that Serbia is united in an attempt to make a better future," Mr Vucic told supporters in Belgrade.


“I know how to ensure the future of Serbia and how to work hard to get there.”

Mr Vucic (46), who has morphed politically from a far-right firebrand into a pro-EU conservative with strong populist and nationalist streaks, now has the mandate he said he needed to implement tough reforms in 7.2 million-strong Serbia.

With unemployment at about 18 per cent, the average monthly wage only about €350 and the economy burdened by inefficient state enterprises, Mr Vucic is under pressure to accelerate privatisation and cost-cutting measures as part of a €1.2 billion financing deal with the International Monetary Fund.

Pavle Petrovic, head of the fiscal council that monitors state spending in Serbia, said on Monday "there should be no slackening on . . . public sector wages and pensions," and that "about 30,000 or 35,000" state jobs should be cut.

Pro-Moscow Radicals

Any unpopular reforms that are seen as part of the EU accession process are likely to be lambasted by the pro-Moscow Radicals, whose leader

Vojislav Seselj

was cleared late last month of war crimes charges by the UN court in The Hague; prosecutors have pledged to appeal against a verdict that was widely criticised.

“We are not happy, but that is what the people decided. Our struggle will continue. Most important for us is that we have regained the parliamentary status,” said Mr Seselj, a close ally of Mr Vucic until the latter joined the Progressives in 2008.

Centrist parties complained of irregularities on voting day, after a campaign in which mainstream media coverage was dominated by overwhelmingly positive reports about Mr Vucic and his allies.

Volodymyr Ariev, head of election observers from the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe, said Serbians had chosen “freely” on an election day that was “calm and very well organised”.

He noted, however, that the campaign had featured “abuse by incumbents of the administrative advantages of office . . . media coverage favourable to the ruling parties . . . [and] the lack of full transparency in party and campaign funding”.

The EU and United States see Mr Vucic as a provider of political stability in a country and region that are still occasionally volatile, and are yet to overcome the legacy of the devastating 1990s wars that accompanied the collapse of Yugoslavia.

This frustrates Mr Vucic’s critics at home and abroad, who accuse him of failing to fight corruption among his cronies while tightening the screws on critical media.

"Vucic is a smart, pragmatic autocrat," said Marija Ristic, an editor at the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

“I think he wants to be remembered for bringing Serbia success, and returning it to the company of respectable countries. And he wants to stay in power as long as possible.”

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe