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In Serbia, a Strongman Under Fire Hails Himself as Defender of the Nation

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In Serbia, a Strongman Under Fire Hails Himself as Defender of the Nation

He is courted by American and European diplomats, applauded by a media machine devoted to vilifying his critics and nonetheless has 4 years left in a presidential time period secured final 12 months with a landslide re-election victory.

But President Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s strongman chief for greater than a decade, by no means regarded so misplaced as when he appeared this week in an official video on the huge rooftop terrace of his presidential workplaces to share a bowl of cherries with two lieutenants — and gripe about avenue protesters calling them impolite names, together with “abnormal lunatics, murderers and criminals.”

Over-the-top insults, a daily function of Rottweiler tabloids loyal to Mr. Vucic and pro-government tv stations, was directed largely on the president’s enemies, at the least in public. But, after weeks of avenue protests set off final month by two mass shootings, Mr. Vucic is now on the receiving finish — and on the defensive like by no means earlier than since establishing himself in 2012 because the pivot round which Serbian politics turns.

The protests, with requires the dismissal of senior regulation enforcement officers and the withdrawal of broadcasting licenses from two pro-government tv stations, have grown right into a wider revolt in opposition to a “climate of violence” blamed on Mr. Vucic and his media assault canine. Another protest is deliberate for Friday night.

“I’m not betting on his downfall because leaders like Vucic have very powerful techniques for survival,” stated Vuk Vuksanovic of the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, an impartial analysis institute. “But there is an open wound and sharks are circling in the water.”

Fishing eagerly in these troubled waters has been Russia, whose ambassador to Serbia, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, this week blamed the West for stirring up the protest motion, which has coincided with a flare-up of tensions in Kosovo — the previous Serbian territory that declared independence in 2008.

As tens of hundreds of individuals took to the streets of Belgrade late final month, Mr. Vucic ordered his navy to maneuver towards northern Kosovo, which is inhabited largely by ethnic Serbs. That transfer adopted a call by Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, to grab municipal buildings within the space and set up new ethnic Albanian mayors who received in any case however a dozen ethnic Serb voters boycotted the vote.

That infuriated Kosovo Serbs, who attacked NATO peacekeepers, injuring dozens of them and prompting the alliance to hurry tons of of additional troops to northern Kosovo.

Citing the Kosovo troubles, Mr. Botsan-Kharchenko, Moscow’s ambassador, informed RT Balkan, a Russian state media operation, that “the goal of the West is to change the politics of Serbia” — a message that performed to nationalist Serbs who see Russia as their defender and detest the United States due to NATO’s 1999 bombing marketing campaign throughout a warfare over Kosovo.

A current survey by Demostat, a analysis group, discovered that solely 3 p.c of Serbs stated they admired the United States and needed good relations with it, in distinction to 22 p.c who felt that method about Russia. At the identical time, 32 p.c favored the European Union and Scandinavian international locations, indicating that help for Russia, although robust, lags behind that for the West total.

And what the Russian ambassador introduced as a Western plot to fire up bother in Kosovo and unseat Mr. Vucic is seen as precisely the alternative by most specialists and likewise by protesters.

Kosovo, stated Cedomir Cupic, a political science professor on the University of Belgrade, “is already lost” as a result of there isn’t any real looking risk of Serbia taking again and ruling greater than 1,000,000 restive ethnic Albanians. But for Russia, he stated, the home passions it nonetheless generates are a godsend for Moscow — a “toothpick that it can always poke around to make the U.S. and Europe feel nervous.”

The violence in Kosovo has additionally supplied a uncommon piece of excellent news for Mr. Vucic by enjoying to his robust swimsuit as defender of Serb pursuits as he struggles to defuse the road protests.

The state of affairs has exasperated the United States and European Union, which have lengthy tried to decrease the temperature and mediate a settlement over Kosovo. They condemned in unusually robust phrases the deployment of safety forces to northern Kosovo by Mr. Kurti, the Kosovar prime minister.

Tensions in Kosovo “only help Vucic” by revving up passions over territory that the majority Serbs view as a part of their nation, stated Milomir Mandic, the overall supervisor of Demostat.

“Kurti is constantly helping Vucic,” stated Pavle Grbovic, an opposition member of the Serbian parliament from the Free Citizens Movement, which has helped manage the weekly avenue protests in Belgrade.

“Nobody on the Serbian political scene has done more for Serbia’s position in Kosovo and for Mr. Vucic than Mr. Kurti,” he stated.

While senior American and European diplomats have fumed over what they see as provocation by Kosovo, Serbia has reveled in being handled as an vital associate.

Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Belgrade this week and hailed what he described as a “truly fantastic partnership” with Serbia.

His reward is a part of American efforts to maneuver Serbia away from Russia and towards the European Union. There is little signal that the European bloc is enthusiastic about reviving Serbia’s long-stalled software to affix and Serbia has balked at imposing sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine warfare.

But Serbia did vote to sentence Moscow on the United Nations and, to Russia’s fury, Serbian-made weapons have made their method into the palms of Ukrainian forces.

Milovan Drecun, a member of parliament from Mr. Vucic’s get together and chairman of the legislature’s Kosovo Committee, stated Serbia had made a transparent option to be a part of Europe. “Russia belongs to the East and we belong to the West” however Serbia “still needs Russia” as a result of it opposes any recognition of Kosovo as an impartial state by the United Nations.

The United States, regardless of its current criticism of Kosovo, he stated, “is still 100 percent behind Kosovo” claims to statehood “but needs good relations with Serbia because we are the most important country in the Balkans.”

Any carry Mr. Vucic has obtained from the fallout over Kosovo has been dwarfed by a groundswell of home opposition.

The measurement of the protests — and Mr. Vucic’s failure to mobilize as many individuals for his personal pro-government rally on May 26 — has united the normally fractious opposition in revulsion at back-to-back massacres in early May, one by a 13-year-old shooter at a high-end Belgrade college, the second by a 21-year-old in villages close to the capital.

“Maybe I’m too optimistic but I think Vucic is finished,” stated Dragan Bjelogrlic, considered one of Serbia’s best-known actors and a participant within the protests. “He won’t formally lose power right away but the most important thing for all autocrats is not to show they are scared.” Mr. Vucic, he added, “is now looking very scared and this is the beginning of the end.”

Mr. Vucic initially denounced protesters as “scum” and “vultures,” and his media machine ramped up vicious assaults on his opponents. On the eve of a giant protest on May 19, Informer, a pro-government tabloid, revealed photos of six opposition politicians on its entrance web page with the headline: “They are threatening murder and to rape children.”

“The hatred and lies are constant,” stated Dragan Djilas, an opposition chief who was one of many six pictured.

Mr. Vucic has since adopted a extra conciliatory tone. On Wednesday, he stated he was keen to begin talks together with his opponents and proposed holding early elections, an choice opposition leaders reject as a result of the enjoying discipline is so tilted in opposition to them.

Mr. Vucic additionally promised pay raises for academics and well being staff, and a money fee for residents below age 16, broadly seen as a bribe to maintain them and their mother and father off the streets.

Source web site: www.nytimes.com