Speaking by phone from the campaign trail, Serbian presidential candidate Ljubisa Preletacevic, known as “Beli”, outlines his plans to drive a “white train of peace” through the Balkans and resolve the region’s problems with the help of his “strong personal ties” with US President Donald Trump. He also talks of his three “European BFFs”, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the prime minister of Moldova (who he fails to name).
Beli doesn’t actually know any of the world leaders - he would have been just six when his “20-year long and nurtured friendship with Trump” began - but he uncannily takes off boasts from Serbia’s current prime minister and likely next president Aleksandar Vucic about his warm relations with leaders from east and west.
The young comedian started out as a spoof candidate, but such is the discontent among many Serbians about the options they face in the April 2 presidential elections, he has shot into second place behind Vucic in some recent polls.
His supporters, members of the Beli-Hit it Hard citizens group, describe him as a “unique antivirus programme” designed to clean up Serbia and cause an avalanche of changes.
Yet for much of his interview with bne IntelliNews four days before the election, he stays in his comedy persona, adopting the tone of a stereotypical serious politician.
“Interpersonal relations are key in international politics and thanks to our personal links, not only US investments but Trump’s personal and private investments will come to Serbia,” he says, in a parody of Balkan politicians’ scramble to present themselves as friends of Trump after the 2016 US election.
“He will, for sure, have a privileged status if he wants to invest in our economy - our workers will work in his factories for €50 a month only because of his friendship with me. Trust is the basis of everything, trust me…” This is a clear dig at Vucic’s drive to attract foreign investors, many of which end up employing Serbians at the minimum wage of €200 a month.
He then switches his attention to another global power, Russia, which recently agreed with Vucic to donate six old MIG-29 fighter planes to Serbia. It was later revealed that Belgrade would face a bill of up to €230mn to overhaul the aircraft.
“From Putin we will get MIG aircraft, but this time more expensive, not second hand like last time,” he says.
“But, from the Russians we need some cheap vodka too! It’s always good to be on good terms with the Russians. They are like your aunt’s son - but in case of fire you call on your neighbours first. It’s the same with Russia, it’s good to see them once in a while but not too often. We should be on good terms with them, like, symbolically.”
Still in character, he also claims to be able to solve what is arguably Serbia’s biggest problem, the loss of Kosovo, which unilaterally declared its independence in 2008. Speaking shortly after Vucic dropped plans to speak at a rally in Leposavic in northern Kosovo, Beli claims he would have gone, even though some buses carrying Vucic supporters to the rally were stoned by Kosovan nationalists.
“Ljubisa Preletacevic-Beli would go to Leposavic on a white train of peace,” he says. “Ljubisa will build a big train of peace which will go from Koper in Slovenia to Varna in Bulgaria and stop in all the countries on the way.”
Commenting on the situation in Kosovo, he first says the “situation with Kosovo is such that “my generation can’t really deal with and resolve all the botches of all those who were in power since the eighties”. But on reflection he adds that, “we can make Serbia so beautiful that Kosovo will come back to us by itself, one day…”
Who is Beli?
Behind the mockery of politicians, especially those from Vucic’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and its coalition partners, stands a team of four men who created the character Ljubisa Preletacevic.
Beli is really the student, satirist and comedian Luka Maksimovic; the pseudonym Preletacevic comes from the word “preletaci”, meaning “those who fly over” in Serbian, a word used to refer to the frequent defections between parties by numerous politicians in Serbia. Beli, which means “white”, comes from Preletacevic’s dress and appearance.
Also behind Beli are writer Stevan Vlajic, actor Stefan Gajic and editor and cameraman Nebojsa Velickovic.
Beli initially appeared during the local election campaign in April 2016 in the town of Mladenovac, close to Belgrade. He wore a white suit and rode a white horse in a parody of real politicians' attempts to impress voters. Even though the story started as a joke, Beli-Hit it Hard took 20% of the seats in the Mladenovac local assembly.
“When we won this 20% at the local level, it was clear that we had potential and that we can do more, even though in the beginning we were worried that we would need more money and more people,” Vlajic, who is also the spokesman for the group, tells bne IntelliNews.
In fact, Beli managed to gather the 10,000 signatures needed to register as a presidential candidate in just 24 hours with no party infrastructure at all, after his appeal for support went viral.
“We managed to gather people around one idea and it is great. This idea is that changes are wanted and needed and Beli is a good tool to get there,” adds Vlajic.
Just as Beli is nothing like a normal presidential candidate, Beli-Hit it Hard is nothing like a normal political party. The group doesn’t have an office, and they record most of their video clips outside. Their big election rally will be held on March 30 in a field where Beli's creators used to play football together as kids.
The movement doesn’t plan to claim the RSD29mn (€235,357) from the state budget earmarked for presidential candidates. Instead, it is financed by citizens' donations, which so far totalled €9,000.
Beli-Hit it Hard also doesn’t have a typical election campaign; instead publicity for Beli has taken on its own momentum thanks to people sharing satirical video clips including those lampooning Vucic’s campaign.
Filling the political vacuum
Vlajic admits that the media furore around Beli is a huge advantage and the “essence of the story” of the candidate’s success. He contrasts this with the inability of “smart, educated, competent, skilled people” to have an impact on politics “without money or a party’s infrastructure”. Changing this situation “is a political change we want to see,” Vlajic added.
Despite the satirical approach, Maksimovic and his collaborators don’t deny they would like to become a serious political alternative in Serbia. They say they really want to persuade people to go for change, and by using the colourful character of Beli they have managed to grab popular attention. By contrast, opposition parties or candidates who are genuinely qualified to become political leaders have no chances of becoming visible with Vucic dominating the media and public debate.
The political scene in Serbia has simplified since 2014 when Vucic and his SNS first won a majority in the parliament. The SNS’s main opponent, the Democratic Party, split into several smaller parties which are now struggling to pass the threshold to enter the parliament. In the absence of a serious political opponent, Vucic has taken advantage of the vacuum and kept on campaigning to consolidate his hold on power.
He is undisputedly the central political figure in the country, and many of those who do not vote for him see him as a dangerous leader who could easily become an autocrat and dictator. And, as history shows, Serbs like dictators. One of the favourite historical leaders in the country is Prince Milos Obrenovic, who memorably said: “Who listens to me, I’ll beat him, who doesn’t listen to me, I’ll kill him!”
Unfortunately for Vucic’s opponents, no political party has been able to mount a serious challenge to the SNS, and they remain divided ahead of the presidential election. “There is just one party and one man and nothing else is important… Overall, the political scene is gloomy, as proved by the success of a movement like Beli-Hit it Hard,” comments Vlajic. “Our success lies in the fact that the political scene is empty and voters who do not vote for the government don’t have anyone else to vote for because opposition leaders don’t succeed in bringing together and motivating people.”
Talking about his chances of success in the election, Beli again parodies the prime minister, who has a decent chance of cruising to victory in the first round of voting.
“My only competitor is Aleksandar Vucic. There will be a second round and I’m very disappointed because my propaganda experts didn’t succeed in manipulating people enough for my victory in first round. I will, anyway, easily win in the second round,” Beli jokes.
Demostat's latest poll shows that Vucic has the support of 56.2% of respondents who have decided who to vote for. In second place is Beli (9.5%), followed by former Foreign Minister Vuk Jankovic (9.3%), former ombudsman Sasa Jankovic (8.9%), and ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj (8.8%).
On a more serious note, Beli says he doesn’t think that he is taking votes that could bring a significant advantage to any other candidate. The emergence of two rival candidates - Jankovic and Jankovic - has already scuppered the chances of the opposition uniting behind a single figure with a real chance of defeating Vucic.
“We are taking a small percentage of votes which is not crucial at all. If they think that with 9% or 11% support in the first round they look serious and compete with Vucic, they are very, very wrong. If there was a candidate who could compete with Vucic in terms of support, then maybe we would be taking valuable votes,” Beli tells bne IntelliNews.
Nonetheless, the group’s spokesman still speculates on the outcome if the unthinkable happens and Beli defeats Vucic.
“It would dishonest if we implied that Luka Maksimovic, as 26-year old student, would be able to bring some concrete benefits to this country, but he still has the capacity to delegate,” Vlajic says. “So, even if we win, there will not be any problems since Ljubisa will definitely not bring anything bad to this country.”