Donald Tusk endorsed president Vučić on Twitter before and after the Serbian parliamentary and local elections with these two tweets.
Tusk’s endorsement of president Vučić comes as no surprise. Tusk and Vučić have a history of praising and endorsing each other and they usually do it with perfect timing.
In 2017. Juncker and Tusk wrote a letter congratulating Aleksandar Vučić on winning the elections (HERE), and Vucic congratulated Tusk for his reelection as President of European Council (HERE). Just one year later, during his meeting with Vučić, Tusk made this remark: “I know that, in politics, you are as creative as Nikola Tesla was in science, as effective as Novak Djokovic has been in tennis, and – whenever you want to – as charming as your kolo dance.” (HERE) From that time of his presidency in European Council, Tusk is perceived as a EU representative in pro government media, so his endorsement is often used to portray that the EU supports Vučić.
So what’s the issue here? First of all, Tusk wishes luck and later congratulates Vučić on the elections in which he should not even participate. The elections are parliamentary and local, but Vučić is using his presidential status to promote his own political party. Secondly, these elections, as many before them, are accompanied by numerous irregularities and scandals. Vast majority of the opposition boycotted the elections (HERE) due to systemic corruption and lack of independent media (HERE) and serious irregularities reported from independent observers (HERE).
In order to justify the elections, Vučić’s regime consciously managed the corona pandemic with jokes and pranks. As if the relativisation and laughing at coronavirus wasn’t enough (HERE), the regime lied about the numbers of infected cases and diseased from COVID-19 (HERE), purposely lowering numbers. After the elections, he announced the situation is suddenly dramatic, the hospitals are full and a three day lockdown of Belgrade is needed. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. People surged on the streets just a couple of hours after his announcement surrounding the national assembly building. (HERE)
This is why Tusk’s endorsement creates a lot of confusion when combined with the complex political situation surrounding these elections, coronavirus measures and now protests. But let’s try and be fair and give Tusk the chance of being misinformed about these elections and the situation in Serbia.
What’s there to know about Vučić?
Let’s imagine that Tusk did not do the due research and does not know Vučić’s political background. First thing you should know is that Vučić was the right hand of the far-right leader of Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Šešelj during the 90’s Yugoslav war. So basically, he was the secretary general in a political party whose leader was later convicted for war crimes in the Hague Tribunal.
The best example of what Vučić represented in those days was his statement that he made in the national assembly: “for every Serb killed, we will kill 100 Muslims” only a few days after the Srebrenica massacre. (HERE) I am struggling to find words to describe that behavior, other than war mongering and incitement for war crimes.
After the war, he became Minister of Information under the regime of Slobodan Milošević. Vučić introduced fines for journalists who criticized the government and banned foreign TV networks. Human Rights Watch reported that five independent newspaper editors were charged with disseminating misinformation because they wrote about Albanians who had died in Kosovo as “people” rather than “terrorists”. (You can read the whole report HERE) Serbian media were under severe repression of the state, and prominent independent journalist Slavko Ćuruvija was heavily criticized by Vucic and was killed under mysterious circumstances and the court never established who ordered the killing. (HERE)
Then in 2003. he saw off his political mentor Vojislav Šešelj on his way to The Hague Tribunal with tears in his eyes. Just a few years later, while Šešelj was on trial for war crimes Vučić betrayed him and started a political party with Tomislav Nikolic, making an ideological u-turn from far-right and anti-EU to progressive and pro-EU. Vučić said that he was wrong and that he had sincerely changed, stating “I was not ashamed to confess all my political mistakes”. Maybe Tusk believes him and does not go deeper into it or maybe he considers even that to be the strong leadership that he endorses.
Vučić regime now
Vučić came to power in 2012. despite the fact he was officially just the First Deputy Prime Minister. He became Prime Minister in 2014, and then in 2017. he became president. Much like Putin, Vučić has the same amount of political power regardless of the official position he holds.
Let me remind you that Serbia is a parliamentary democracy with a constitution that protects the separation of power and independent judiciary, but all important political decisions are made in the presidential cabinet. Just knowing this one fact shows you that Vučić is exceeding the limits of our constitution daily. You can see it in detail in this piece covering the drawbacks of the Serbian Judiciary Reform (HERE)
Vučić is in power for 8 years and he did not participate in even one public debate with the opposition. Not even one. Control of the media is more aggressive than ever, every opposing opinion is portrayed as coup d’etat, so the opposing voices are often portrayed as traitors on national TV. You can read more about how opposition in Serbia is reacting to that HERE. To be fair, in this particular endorsement Tusk is praising the economic success of Vučić’s rule. But to be honest, that part sparked the most outrage here. So, what’s the situation in Serbian economy during Vučić’s rule?
Well, according to Vučić Serbia is “No. 1 country on the whole European continent this year in terms of growth rate,” and “one of the best in the whole world.” Maybe Tusk is referring to this recent claim.
On the other hand, Serbia is a country with a median salary below 300 euros and one in four people live below the poverty line. During Vučić’s rule, Serbia increased its debt by two-thirds, and more than 480.000 people left Serbia in search of a better life. Vladimir Vuckovic from the Fiscal Council said it best: “If you are on the first floor and you climb to the second you have achieved growth of 100 percent.” (HERE).
Freedom house made an interesting report, and Tusk must have missed it. The report stated: Serbia is a parliamentary democracy with competitive multiparty elections, but in recent years the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has steadily eroded political rights and civil liberties, putting pressure on independent media, the political opposition, and civil society organizations. (Full report HERE)
The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS) documented and reported 119 incidents of pressure or violence against journalists during just one year, as independent media continued to endure smear campaigns by pro government outlets, even harassment, and serious physical threats. (one brutal example of that HERE)
Even the pressures on social media are unprecedented. Twitter recently made an official statement surrounding the fake accounts promoting Vučić: “Toward the end of last year, we identified clusters of accounts engaged in inauthentic coordinated activity which led to the removal of 8,558 accounts working to promote Serbia’s ruling party and its leader.” (HERE)
On top of all that media pressure, Serbia became one of the most polluted countries in Europe and Belgrade regularly spikes to be the most polluted city in the world. (HERE) While the world is racing to close thermal power plants and invest in more sustainable energy, Serbian state-owned power utility EPS announced: “Thanks to the understanding of Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic, we got a green light and, at the latest next year, we will start work on the implementation of the new 350 MW thermal power plant Kolubara B in Kalenic.” (HERE)
Vučić’s rule is also very well known for numerous electoral scandals. Serious irregularities were often reported by independent observers on every election held from 2012. One of the best documented cases of electoral irregularities were the local elections in Lucani (HERE). As for the elections just behind us, it seems it was even worse than expected (HERE). The list of the ruling party was called Aleksandar Vučić — For Our Children alliance, and they won a supermajority of seats and over 60% of the vote. People were often blackmailed, bribed and pressured into voting for the ruling party. So when Tusk tweets: “This result is proof of the citizens’ trust and your effectiveness” it is really hard to understand why he does it.
And now we come to the present time. Protests are raging, people are angry and Vučić’s regime now shows its tyrannical side. It is still unclear what really sparked the violence on the streets of Belgrade, but it is most likely the regime’s game with state organized hooligans. (HERE) Police brutality was at its worst (HERE). Despite the fact the brutality was well documented (HERE) Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić went on national television the day after and said there was no police brutality and even went so far as to claim that the police did not use tear gas. (THEY DID)
Manipulating the public opinion
In the midst of all these recent scandals and international reports about the erosion of freedom and democracy in Serbia, Tusk’s endorsement is on all front pages of pro-regime media. Tusk is still perceived as a EU official and this fact is used as a sign that the EU is behind Vučić.
This looks a lot like the previous endorsement that Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker signed in the name of the European Council Commission. It is hard not to see that statement as dark irony, because they persistently praised his reforms and underlined that they are confident Vučić will promote peace and prosperity in the region. Similarly, Tusk now mentioned ‘proof of the citizens’ trust’ and ‘the good of the people’ in the midst of a scandal where the government lied about a coronavirus outbreak in order to go on with the elections. (HERE)
Opposition in Serbia often relies on help from EU officials in pointing out the crisis of democracy in Serbia, and they have a lot of trouble explaining to already confused citizens why are EU officials praising this autocratic regime. On one hand it creates a lot of distrust in the EU and on the other hand it’s making Vučić’s position stronger among his pro EU supporters. So Vučić is constantly playing this two sided game depending on who he is addressing – when he talks to EU officials he is euro fanatic, but when he is talking to a broad public in Serbia, he is talking about Chinese and Russian brothers and often criticizes the EU. The last time he did that openly was on 15 March with this statement: “European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale on paper. I have sent a special letter to the only ones who can help, and that is China…,” (HERE) Maybe Tusk is just a victim of his two sided politics.
Misinformed bureaucrat or opportunistic accomplice
Is there a chance that Tusk doesn’t know the details of the situation in Serbia? Maybe he can’t see through Vučić’s two sided game? I highly doubt it. So what’s the issue here? Well, he is openly praising and endorsing a regime that is increasingly destroying media freedoms, division of power and rule of law. On the other hand, Vučić is known to be quite generous with his international advisors and endorsers. Vučić hired Tony Blair as an advisor (HERE) to help him with the political campaign and international politics.
It is hard not to get angry when Tusk is ignoring all the democracy shattering moves and police brutality enforced by Vučić’s regime. So perhaps it should not come as a surprise that many people in Serbia see Tusk as a likely candidate for a new international advisor?