BELGRADE: Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who is bidding for another four years in power in Sunday’s general election, is a former ultra-nationalist and close ally of Slobodan Milosevic remade as a pro-European liberal.
In a political transformation viewed by critics as pragmatic rather than ideological, the tall 46-year-old Vucic now leads Serbia’s efforts to join the European Union.
Seen as a reliable Balkan partner — whilst also staying friends with traditional ally Russia — his “cooperative” approach, however, means the West has been prepared to “turn a blind eye” to concerns about both domestic policies and his attitude to criticism, according to political analyst Djordje Vukadinovic.
A lawyer by training, Vucic joined the far-right Serbian Radical Party in 1993 and soon became one of its top officials, known for his hardline speeches.
He fiercely defended the actions of ethnic Serb leaders during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia.
“You kill one Serb and we will kill 100 Muslims,” he said in July 1995, just days after Bosnian Serbs killed almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Srebrenica massacre.
In 1998, he was appointed information minister by then-President Milosevic, the so-called “butcher of the Balkans” who later died while awaiting a verdict in his war crimes trial.
As late as 2007, Vucic said his home would “always be a safe house for general Ratko Mladic,” the Bosnian Serb wartime commander who was then on the run from international prosecutors.
Critics see Vucic as an authoritarian leader who has failed to live up to his reformist and graft-busting promises, instead sharply curtailing media freedom and centralizing decision-making.
“There are very strong opinions about him on both sides,” James Ker-Lindsay, a Balkans specialist at the London School of Economics, told Agence France-Presse when the election was announced.
‘I have changed’
Vucic surprised observers in 2008 when he announced that he had split from the Radicals to form the center-right Progressives along with now President Tomislav Nikolic, advocating cooperation with the West.
“I do not hide that I have changed… I am proud of that,” he told Agence France-Presse in an interview in late 2012.
The refashioned Vucic has described the Srebrenica slaughter as a “horrible crime” and visited the site to pay his respects — although he was chased from the 20th anniversary ceremony last year by an angry stone-throwing crowd.
Vucic’s political career skyrocketed after he was named deputy premier following the victory of his Serbian Progressive Party in 2012.
He went on to the top job two years ago, winning widespread support with his populist rhetoric.
He has pushed for better relations with former foe Kosovo — a key requirement of both sides’ EU membership bids — and won plaudits for showing compassion to refugees traveling through Serbia during the migrant crisis.
He now presents himself as a tireless worker, the only person capable of attracting foreign investment and implementing the economic reforms called for by the EU and the International Monetary Fund.
While successes include the recent sale of Serbia’s biggest steel mill to China’s HBIS, he has struggled to find buyers for other loss-making state companies — and promised cuts to the bloated public sector risk denting his popularity.
Little is known about the premier’s private life, but he did allow a glimpse into his hobbies in 2009 when he appeared on the Serbian version of the hit TV show “Dancing With the Stars”.