On a sub-zero Sunday in Belgrade, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic dragged an oak tree into the presidential palace to be blessed by the Patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church after a night of street protests against him.
The tree was a badnjak that was traditionally burned on Serbian Orthodox Christmas Eve as prayers and wishes are offered for the coming year. “I hope this will be a year of peace and stability and rapid progress. . . that the Serbian people will see their future on the stove and that those who have left us will successfully return to their homeland, ”said Vucic.
However, 2019 promises to be an exam for Mr Vucic and turbulent for the Balkans. Bosnia and Herzegovina is fighting with secessionist forces, Montenegro is being torn apart by political groups and Macedonia is hoping to be able to pass bitterly contested constitutional changes to change its name. In Serbia, Mr Vucic is facing protests that critics say are media crackdowns and a climate of violence, and for his advocacy of an agreement with Kosovo – possibly including a partition or land swap – over a longstanding dispute with the to settle the former Serbian province.
Mr Vucic, who became President in 2017 after serving as Prime Minister since 2014, wants to bring Serbia closer to the EU and says he wants to improve relations with its neighbors, even though some of its ethnic Serb relatives outside Serbia’s borders are accused of inciting nationalism .
In a post-ceremony interview, he shook off the five-week protests against his rule sparked by the violent beating of an opposition leader.
Instead, he focused on implementing painful economic reforms that he said had run into budget surpluses for three years, and his belief that only an agreement with Kosovo would bring lasting change to a region still under the rule of law Consequences of the wars suffers The collapse of Yugoslavia.
“Those who think that it is possible to contain a frozen conflict – it will never be frozen because it eventually melts,” he told the FT. “And if that happens, it will be a catastrophe for everyone.”
At the Orthodox Christmas celebrations, Mr. Vucic received some of those accused by the West of threatening the weak peace in the region. Among them was the strong man of the Bosnian Serbs Milorad Dodik, who has been under US sanctions for two years because “there is a significant risk of obstructing the implementation of the Dayton Agreement”, which ended the Bosnian War of 1992-1995.
Also present were Andrija Mandic and Milan Knezevic, pro-Russian politicians from Montenegro. The local public prosecutor has charged her with organizing a coup in 2016 to prevent the country from joining NATO. Mr Mandic and Knezevic have denied the charges, saying the allegations of a planned coup are politically motivated.
I know that the Serbs are largely against solving the Kosovo problem and all I say is against what the Serbian public wants
Regardless of these connections, Western diplomats trust Mr. Vucic, who was once a national hardliner. It is seen as crucial to contain Mr Dodik – now a member of the tripartite presidency of Bosnia – and forge a legally binding agreement with Kosovo, in which 90 percent of the population are ethnic Albanians. Kosovo declared independence in 2008, a decade after NATO intervened to stop a two-year counterinsurgency war by the Serbian forces, but Belgrade still denies this.
Many Serbs consider Kosovo the cradle of their Serbian Orthodox faith, and a number of Mr Vucic’s domestic opponents, from leftist leaders to nationalist conservatives, have attacked him for considering a territorial compromise with Pristina. During the protests on Saturday, some carried posters with maps of Kosovo that read “Don’t give up”.
Mr Vucic said: “I know that the Serbs are largely against solving the Kosovo problem and everything I say is against what the Serbian public wants.”
But he said opposition leaders “are unable to accept reality. They have no plan, the only important thing for them is to call me a traitor and that everything stays the same. But I do not care”.
Mr Vucic said economic development and trade – and a Kosovo deal – would add stability to the region. “If we are able to connect economically and otherwise, we have a chance to be successful nations,” he said. “Otherwise it will be a disaster for all of us.
“Everyone is leaving the region. . . We therefore urgently need to change the general atmosphere in the region. If we don’t, I see no way out, no rays of hope at the end of the tunnel. ”According to Eurostat, Serbia’s gross domestic product per capita is 36 percent of the EU average.
An agreement with Kosovo is seen as a prerequisite for the progress of both countries in their efforts to join the EU and is favored in Washington. However, there is little political consensus in Kosovo on negotiations with Serbia, which could hamper Mr Vucic’s efforts. Ramush Haradinaj, the Prime Minister of Kosovo, said the partition was a “danger to our region” and could lead to war.
Critics of Mr Vucic argue that the Western powers are so keen to find an agreement that they are reluctant to criticize the democratic relapse in Serbia, with critical voices largely excluded and violent rhetoric increasing. Opponents say that this atmosphere is to blame for the beatings against opposition leader Borko Stefanovic, which sparked the protests against Mr Vucic.
“We are a land of violence,” said opposition leader Dragan Djilas. “So it wasn’t even under [former Serbian leader Slobodan] Milosevic. “
Mr Vucic was Milosevic’s minister of information from 1998 to 2000, imposing fines on journalists and media who criticized the former Serbian strongman, but said he had reformed. He rejected complaints from the opposition that the public broadcaster RTS did not give critical voices enough airtime.
“You have time on RTS in a way that no one had in earlier times,” he said.
“You have your presence on, I don’t know, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday. When it comes to big TV shows, they’re always present. I do not know what you want. Whenever they protest, they have more reports of RTS than we do.
“The problem is whenever you hear it [their complaints], it’s all about the media, ”he said, adding that the opposition lacks“ real politics and real ideas ”.