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President Vucic plays his role as defender of the Serbs

He is being courted by American and European diplomats, applauded by a media machine bent on defaming his critics and still has four years left in a presidential term secured last year with a landslide re-election victory.

But President Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s strongman for more than a decade, never looked so lost as when he appeared in an official video this week on the sprawling rooftop terrace of his presidential offices to sharing a bowl of cherries with two lieutenants – and complaining about street protesters calling them rude names, including “freakish lunatics, murderers and criminals”.

The exaggerated insults, a regular feature of Rottweiler tabloids loyal to Mr. Vucic and pro-government television stations, were mainly directed at the president’s enemies, at least in public. But, after weeks of street protests sparked by two mass shootings last month, Mr Vucic is now the recipient – and on the defensive as never before since he emerged in 2012 as the fulcrum around which Serbian politics.

The protests, with calls for the sacking of senior law enforcement officials and the withdrawal of broadcasting licenses from two pro-government television stations, have turned into a wider revolt against a “climate of violence” blamed on Mr. Vucic and his media attack dogs. . Another protest is scheduled for Friday evening.

“I’m not betting on his downfall because leaders like Vucic have very powerful survival skills,” said Vuk Vuksanovic of the Belgrade Center for Security Policy, an independent research institute. “But there is an open wound and sharks are spinning in the water.”

Fishing avidly in these troubled waters, Russia, whose ambassador to Serbia, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, this week blamed the West for stoking the protest movement, which has coincided with a spike in tensions in Kosovo – the former Serbian territory which declared its independence in 2008.

As tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Belgrade late last month, Mr Vucic ordered his army to move towards northern Kosovo, which is inhabited largely by ethnic Serbs . The move followed a move by Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti to seize municipal buildings in the area and install new ethnic Albanian mayors who won after all ethnic Serb voters voted boycotted the vote.

This infuriated Kosovo Serbs, who attacked NATO peacekeepers, wounding dozens and prompting the alliance to send hundreds more troops to northern Kosovo.

Citing the unrest in Kosovo, Moscow’s ambassador Botsan-Kharchenko told Russian state media RT Balkan that “the goal of the West is to change Serbia’s policy” – a message that played nationalist Serbs who see Russia as their defender and hate the United States because of NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign during a war in Kosovo.

A recent survey by Demostat, a research group, found that only 3% of Serbs said they admire the United States and want good relations with it, compared to 22% who felt this about Russia. Meanwhile, 32% favored the European Union and Scandinavian countries, indicating that support for Russia, while strong, lags behind the West as a whole.

And what the Russian ambassador presented as a Western plot to stir up trouble in Kosovo and overthrow Mr. Vucic is seen as the exact opposite by most pundits and also by protesters.

Kosovo, said Cedomir Cupic, a professor of political science at the University of Belgrade, “is already lost” because there is no realistic possibility of Serbia taking over and ruling more than a million wayward ethnic Albanians. . But for Russia, he said, the domestic passions it still generates are a boon for Moscow – a “toothpick it can always push to make the United States and Europe nervous.”

The violence in Kosovo has also provided rare good news for Mr Vucic playing to his trump card as a defender of Serb interests as he struggles to defuse street protests.

The situation has infuriated the United States and the European Union, which have long tried to bring the temperature down and negotiate a settlement over Kosovo. They condemned in unusually strong terms the deployment of security forces in northern Kosovo by Mr. Kurti, the Kosovo Prime Minister.

Tensions in Kosovo “only help Vucic” by stoking passions for a territory that most Serbs consider part of their country, said Milomir Mandic, director general of Demostat.

“Kurti is constantly helping Vucic,” said Pavle Grbovic, an opposition member of Serbia’s parliament from the Free Citizens Movement, who helped organize the weekly street protests in Belgrade.

“No one in the Serbian political scene has done more for Serbia’s position in Kosovo and for Mr. Vucic than Mr. Kurti,” he said.

While senior US and European diplomats have fumed over what they see as provocation by Kosovo, Serbia has reveled in being treated as an important partner.

General 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 praise is part of US efforts to distance Serbia from Russia and bring it closer to the European Union. There are few signs that the European bloc is interested in reviving Serbia’s long-stalled membership application, and Serbia has been reluctant to impose sanctions on Russia over the war in Ukraine.

But Serbia voted to condemn Moscow at the United Nations and, to Russia’s fury, Serbian-made weapons ended up in the hands of Ukrainian forces.

Milovan Drecun, a member of parliament from Mr Vucic’s party and chairman of Kosovo’s Legislative Committee, said Serbia had clearly chosen to be part of Europe. “Russia belongs to the East and we belong to the West” but Serbia “still needs Russia” because it opposes any recognition of Kosovo as an independent state by the United Nations.

The United States, despite its recent criticism of Kosovo, he said, “is still 100% behind Kosovo’s claim to statehood” but needs good relations with Serbia because that we are the most important country in the Balkans”.

Any boost Mr Vucic has received from the fallout on Kosovo has been overshadowed by a wave of domestic opposition.

The scale of the protests – and Mr Vucic’s inability to mobilize as many people for his own pro-government rally on May 26 – united the usually grumpy opposition in revulsion at the back-to-back massacres in early May. , one by a 13-year-old shooter at an upmarket school in Belgrade, the second by a 21-year-old in villages near the capital.

“Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but I think Vucic is over,” said Dragan Bjelogrlic, one of Serbia’s best-known actors and participant in the protests. “He won’t officially lose power right away, but the most important thing for all autocrats is not to show fear.” Mr Vucic, he added, “now looks very scared and this is the beginning of the end”.

Mr. Vucic initially denounced the protesters as “scum” and “vultures”, and his media machine multiplied vicious attacks on his opponents. On the eve of a major protest on May 19, Informer, a pro-government tabloid, featured photos of six opposition politicians on its front page with the headline: ‘They threaten to kill and rape children’ .

“The hate and the lies are constant,” said Dragan Djilas, an opposition leader who was one of the six pictured.

Mr. Vucic has since adopted a more conciliatory tone. On Wednesday, he said he was eager to start talks with his opponents and offered to hold a snap election, an option opposition leaders reject because the playing field is tilted so much against them.

Mr Vucic also promised pay rises for teachers and health workers, as well as a cash payment for citizens under the age of 16, widely seen as a bribe to prevent them and their parents, to get off the streets.

nytimes Eur

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