Aleksandar Vucic the current President of Serbia came to power in the April 2017 elections. He came with a reputation of having curbed media freedom and Serbia’s ranking in the Freedom of the Press Index, compiled by Freedom House, has fallen sharply in recent years.
The media in Serbia is dominated by pro-Russian outlets and uncritical pro-government tabloid publications, although the tide is now turning with new investment from agencies such as the BBC to introduce greater independence, credibility and objectivity into news coverage. Vucic is due to meet with Russia's Vladimir Putin on May 7 for key talks on the two countries' relationship.
Vucic consistently courts the media and is not shy to place opinion editorials in Western publications to get across his point of view. He has frequently gone on the record saying that Serbia’s future is with the EU, and he wants to secure Serbia’s membership of the bloc. His primary motive is one of national strategic interest; he wants to create the conditions that will bring growth and prosperity to Serbia.
Youth unemployment in the Western Balkans is double the rate in EU countries and he understands the importance of bringing investment to create new jobs to Serbia to make the economy more competitive, and help the economies of the Western Balkan countries to converge, making the region more politically stable and thereby improving the lives of his citizens. He also wants to promote regional unity in the Western Balkans, believing that collectively as a market of 20mn persons Serbia and its neighbours will benefit from economies of scale to attract more investment.
EU Accession negotiations with Serbia began in January 2014, and in the new enlargement strategy published by the European Commission for the Western Balkans, Serbia and Montenegro have been given the perspective of membership by 2025. This is a short timescale, and potentially a historic opportunity for change. Among the key issues for progress announced by the Commission in their 2018 report on Serbia are fundamental rights, the rule of law, judicial reform, the fight against organised crime and corruption, freedom of speech, gender equality and the normalisation of relations with Kosovo.
Vucic knows full well that the reform process will bring with it irreversible changes to institutions and to society in Serbia and his commitment to bring his country closer to the EU is sincere.
The international media however still regularly generates news stories that Vucic is a Kremlin puppet completely subservient to the interests of Russia. But this ignores the reality that he is the President of a country, which in its majority supports Russia, due to a long history of cultural and security ties. As a shrewd politician he needs to be careful about his reputation with his core voters and walk a fine line that puts Serbia first and the national interest above all else. The simple fact is that in doing precisely this, he has practically no other choice than to maintain good relations with Russia, considering the historic closeness between both countries and the fact that a majority of the population of Serbia holds warm and friendly feelings towards Russia.
Serbia is a "battleground state" between East and West, characterised by a front line struggle to control soft power and influence. In the midst of all this, Serbia’s national strategy is still nevertheless directed by its own regional and geopolitical interests rather than subservience to Russia.
So Vucic has every right to feel frustrated that there is a generally perceived notion that he is under the total influence of Putin, although to the contrary he is resisting Russian pressure on a number of issues, such as for example his quiet but persistent refusal to grant diplomatic immunity to workers in the Niš humanitarian centre (which some analysts view as a power-projection vehicle for Russia).
The case of his handling of the controversy over the Niš humanitarian centre is a good example of how Vucic is performing a finely judged balancing act between the West and Russia. Serbia has been under constant pressure from Washington and Brussels to close the Centre, and from Moscow to accord diplomatic status to the staff of the Centre.
But faced with pressure from all three parties, Vucic has consistently said that the status of the Russian-Serbian Centre in Niš is a question for the Government of Serbia to decide on, independently as a sovereign state, and without external influence. In politely declining the Russian request for diplomatic accreditation, when he met with President Putin in Moscow in December of last year, Vucic said on the record to the press, that this was not an easy issue for Serbia. "I believe that nobody would like to be in my skin. I count that our Russian friends will have the patience to hear our arguments, in accordance with our independence and sovereignty”
Putting “Serbia First” means that Vucic will have to maintain his high wire balancing act between East and West, on the one hand delivering on Serbia’s reform programme demanded by Brussels to progress the EU membership perspective, whilst on the other still sustaining the entente cordiale between Belgrade and Moscow.