Thursday, March 30, 2017

BELGRADE, Serbia — The presidential election here on Sunday is shaping up as yet another case of a European country feeling the persuasive pull of Vladimir Putin.

Although none of the 11 presidential candidates are promoting a specific foreign policy agenda — technically the prime minister sets foreign policy — Russian support and the good will of President Putin are widely seen as vital to those who would lead the Balkan nation.

On the campaign trail, the leading presidential candidate, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, has heavily played up his March 27 visit to Moscow to keep his wide margin over his rivals. The Serbian vote comes as the Kremlin has cultivated ties with other figures skeptical of the European Union and the traditional transatlantic alliance, from Hungarian President Viktor Orban to French far-right nationalist presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.

“Putin is quite a popular figure in Serbia. It is important in the election campaign to have support from Vladimir Putin,” said Milan Krstic, a University of Belgrade political scientist. “It was important symbolically for Vucic to meet Putin and to send a message to the majority of his voters, who are pro-Russian, that he has support from Moscow.”

Ms. Le Pen made a big show of her meeting with Mr. Putin last week in Moscow, a few days before Mr. Vucic’s visit. She is the only candidate to meet with Mr. Putin before the first round of French presidential elections on April 23.

Bulgarian voters elected pro-Russian candidate Rumen Radev as president in November. British’s most outspoken advocate of Brexit, Nigel Farage, has praised Mr. Putin. And Mr. Orban has long maintained close ties with Moscow while consolidating power and criticizing liberal democracy.

While Mr. Vucic, a onetime ultranationalist, won the prime minister’s post three years ago on a reformist platform and support for Serbian membership in the EU, he and his advisers clearly see a political advantage in the Putin stamp of approval. While the Kremlin says it is not interfering in the Serbian vote, Mr. Putin came right up to the line of an endorsement when Mr. Vucic traveled to Moscow.

“We are certain the election will be held according to [the] highest standards, and we wish the current government success,” Mr. Putin said at the beginning of the meeting.

While many Serbs, especially younger voters, have supported closer ties to the West and orienting Belgrade’s economy and political system with EU countries, the historic, cultural and religious ties to Russia remain strong. Russia was also Belgrade’s strongest champion in the wrenching civil war that led to Kosovo’s independence.

Reflecting bitter memories of NATO’s bombing campaigns in the 1990s that led to the independence of Kosovo, a former Serbian territory, Belgrade has maintained especially close military ties to Russia. Polls show that a strong majority of this country of 7.3 million opposes NATO membership.

“I want a strong Serbia, always ready and able to protect the independence and sovereignty,” Mr. Vucic told Serbian broadcaster B92 on Thursday. “That’s why we acquired defensive weapons. We will be a country that preserves stability and peace, which will show its muscles as a second option.”

The Kremlin isn’t just offering moral support in the run-up to Sunday’s vote.

During Mr. Vucic’s Moscow visit, Mr. Putin pledged to send Russian fighter jets, battle tanks and armored vehicles to Serbia, much to the dismay of EU and NATO leaders who have been closely monitoring Russia’s growing influence in the Balkans, a region that has traditionally looked more east than west.

After the Moscow trip, Serbian media reported that Mr. Vucic’s chances to win a five-year term as president improved among nationalist parties, who had previously labeled him a traitor after he abandoned the ultra-right-wing Serbian Radical Party in 2008.

Celebrating Trump

After President Trump’s November win, Serbian radical and right-wing parties celebrated the victory. On Wednesday Mr. Trump sent a letter to Mr. Vucic — a former nationalist who served as a minister under the regime of former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic — expressing gratitude for Mr. Vucic’s congratulatory message regarding his inauguration.

While Mr. Vucic has stressed his Moscow ties, he also claims that he can maintain a close relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the strongest political figure on the continent and a skeptic of Mr. Putin, whom he met on March 14.

“He’s trying to promote himself as a bridge between east and west, as a man who has support from both Berlin and Moscow,” said Mr. Krstic.

Meanwhile, on the streets of Belgrade, voters remain split about whom to choose as their next president.

Opposition parties and rights groups have raised complaints about the campaign, including charges that the election commission overseeing the vote was stacked with Vucic sympathizers and that Serbian media coverage had been heavily biased in favor of the prime minister.

Exhausted by permanent political turmoil during the last 25 years, and faced with worsening poverty and corruption levels, Serbs are not hopeful that better times lie ahead.

“Whoever wins, I don’t see they will be better for this country and for this nation,” said Mila Jankovic, 59, a Belgrade resident who said the democratic changes following the fall of Yugoslavia have resulted in few tangible benefits for ordinary people.

She didn’t support Serbia growing closer to Moscow, but said that Mr. Vucic’s rivals were lackluster.

“Vucic is far from an ideal candidate for president, according to my standards, but at the same time, I don’t see who would be better at this moment,” she said.

She’s not alone, to judge from recent polls.

Mr. Vucic now enjoys 53 percent of voters’ support, while his most popular rival, 25-year-old student Luka Maksimovic, is garnering 11 percent, according to Ipsos Strategic Marketing. Billing himself as the worst politician in the Balkans, Mr. Maksimovic is running a mock campaign.

Trailing even further behind are opposition candidates Sasa Jankovic, a human rights activist who was Serbia’s former ombudsman, and Vuk Jeremic, a former foreign minister under the pro-Western Democratic Party government who is now an independent.

But if Mr. Vucic cannot win more than 50 percent of the vote, Serb voters will go to the polls again in a runoff on April 16, giving his pro-Western rivals a chance to coalesce around a single candidate in the second round.

Many voters say they are torn between unpalatable choices.

“Our political stage is like a circus,” said Nevena Djordjevic, 28, an unemployed sociologist. “To be honest, I still don’t know who I should I vote for. Truly, I can’t say who is the political or personal figure who potentially might be the leader I wish to follow.”

Vesna Pesic, a retired prominent Serbian opposition political leader who helped dismantle the Milosevic regime in the 1990s, said the lack of active American support for pro-Western parties was a crucial factor for understanding the current political scene in Serbia.

“We have never won by our own strength. At the time when Slobodan Milosevic had power, we had a stronger opposition and huge support from Americans as well as the whole world,” she said. “Nowadays, nobody supports us.”

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