BELGRADE, Serbia—Tens of thousands of Serbians have taken to the streets in recent days to protest the victory of current Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic in the country’s presidential election on April 2. The demonstrations also reflect widespread economic and political dissatisfaction as well as divisions in the country, and present a challenge to the European Union’s approach to the Western Balkans. Brussels is increasingly seen in some quarters as promoting stability over deep reform in the combustible region, allowing strongmen to erode democracy and independent institutions.
Protesters returned to central Belgrade on April 18 following a brief lull over Easter, though their numbers have thinned out from the estimated 80,000 who assembled in the Serbian capital in the first weekend after the election. Vucic won the presidential poll with 55 percent of the vote, obviating the necessity of a second round. The government insists that his victory will smooth Serbia’s path toward modernization and EU membership, with the country set to be prepared for accession as early as 2020, though Brussels may not let Serbia in until later. But opponents claim that the vote was marred by widespread irregularities and near-total control of the media by Vucic and his allies. Some fear that Serbia even risks a tilt back toward dictatorship.
Vucic has been prime minister since 2014 and the most powerful man in the country since his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) won the 2012 parliamentary elections. His bid for the presidency was at first something of a surprise, as the post theoretically holds largely symbolic powers. But Vucic, a former ultranationalist, became convinced that he was the only candidate capable of preventing an opposition victory that he argued could “derail” Serbia. Vucic is expected to remain the most powerful man in the country, ruling through an as-yet-unnamed close ally who will replace him as prime minister.