Vucic’s domination stokes fears for Serbian democracy

Prime minister Aleksandar Vucic poised to become president in Sunday’s election

A cyclist rides past the construction site of the controversial Belgrade Waterfront project in June 2016. Photograph:  Andrej Isakovic/AFP/Getty Images

A cyclist rides past the construction site of the controversial Belgrade Waterfront project in June 2016. Photograph: Andrej Isakovic/AFP/Getty Images

 

Beside the grubby yellow facade of Belgrade’s 19th-century railway station hangs a glittering vision of the city’s future.

Soaring over pedestrians and passing trams is an artist’s impression of Belgrade Waterfront, a €3.5 billion project to turn a rundown swathe of Serbia’s capital into an ultra-modern business, residential and leisure district on the banks of the Sava river.

Developers from Abu Dhabi promise to create a one million square-metre “city within a city” of apartment and office blocks, hotels and the largest shopping mall and the tallest skyscraper in the Balkans, all set amid soothing parkland.

The reality of the scheme is already somewhat darker, however, a feature critics say it shares with the rest of Serbia under Aleksandar Vucic.

People pass posters of Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic, who is hotly favoured to win this Sunday’s presidential election, in Novi Sad, Serbia on March 18th. Photograph: Marko Djurica/Reuters
People pass posters of Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic in Novi Sad. Photograph: Marko Djurica/Reuters

Vucic served as information minister under warmongering 1990s Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, before rebranding himself as a conservative who wants his country to join the European Union.

He guided his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) to power in 2014 and easily won a snap election last year. Now, directly and through allies, he enjoys a degree of dominance over his country’s political, business, security and media worlds that has not been seen since the autocratic rule of Milosevic, who was ousted in 2000.

On Sunday Vucic will bid to become Serbia’s president, in an election race so one-sided that the best his opponents’ can hope for is to restrict him to less than 50 per cent of votes, and so force a second round a fortnight later.

Sharp criticism

Criticism of Vucic echoes that aimed at several other leaders in the region, including Hungary’s Viktor Orban: that behind a democratic facade he is amassing huge personal power, destroying checks and balances and co-opting state institutions, while ignoring flagrant corruption among his associates.

For many Serbs, Belgrade Waterfront does not conjure thoughts of gleaming prosperity, but of a violent raid and the apparent impunity of Vucic’s allies.

On the night of April 24th last year – just hours after Vucic’s party won a landslide re-election – dozens of masked men blocked parts of the capital’s Savamala area and tied people up and took their mobile phones, as bulldozers rumbled in to demolish several buildings. Locals who called the police said they refused to help.

Zorana Suvakovic, a Serbian journalist, at a protest of pensioners in Belgrade this week. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

Despite becoming a cultural hotspot in recent years, Savamala is being cleared to make way for Belgrade Waterfront, and residents and activists suspected the illegal demolition must have been sanctioned by the city’s mayor, Sinisa Mali.

To their amazement, their suspicion appeared to be confirmed by Mali’s most powerful ally – Vucic himself.

“Without a shred of doubt, behind the demolition in Hercegovacka Street are the highest city officials and they will pay the legal consequences,” Vucic said last June.

Mali denies the claims and is still mayor, however, despite pressure applied by thousands of people who have joined protest marches led by a group called Ne davimo Beograd (Let’s not drown Belgrade).

“The destruction of Savamala and the Belgrade Waterfront project are showcasing how the government is disregarding public interest. What happened in Savamala . . . is the icing on the cake of the general politics of giving away public resources and limiting the freedom and rights of citizens,” said Natalija Simovic, a member of the protest group.

Under scrutiny

Many people question how the Belgrade Waterfront deal was reached, how its funding is arranged and who will buy its high-end apartments when Serbia’s average wage is only about €400 and unemployment is about 20 per cent.

Serbian pensioners march through Belgrade this week to protest against cutbacks. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
Serbian pensioners march through Belgrade this week to protest against cutbacks. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

“Aleksandar Vucic came to power by announcing an uncompromising fight against corruption . . . However, the opposite has happened,” said Vladimir Marovic of Lokalni Front (Local Front), an anti-corruption group based in the city of Kraljevo.

“Some of the tycoons who Vucic claimed would ‘go to jail’ are now part of his ruling coalition and participate in his presidential campaign . . . It is a pure autocracy with the implementation of total control and domination at all l*evels.”

At a Belgrade protest against pension cuts this week, retired journalist Zorana Suvakovic bemoaned gushing coverage of Vucic by loyal media and the mobilisation of millions of voters by his allies in business and state agencies.

“It’s not normal that he wants to be president, prime minister, party leader - Vucic wants everything,” said the former correspondent of Serbia’s Politika newspaper.

“Some people vote for him because of the threat of losing their jobs, others because they have only known a state that is not a state – where no laws or institutions function and everything works according to bribes.”

Suvakovic said it was galling to see a former Milosevic ally in power and running on Sunday against Vojislav Seselj, who was controversially cleared of 1990s war crimes last year – and to hear little criticism of Serbia’s status quo from the West.

“When we got rid of Milosevic,” she said, “I could never have imagined that we’d end up like this.”

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