Russia pulling on Serbia as Serbian election looms

Prime Minister Aleksandr Vucicâ called for the vote two years before it was due, saying he needed a mandate to prepare the country for European Union membership.

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But, as the Republic of Serbia moves closer to the West, its old ally Russia is pulling it eastwards.

 

The outdoor cafes are packed on a sunny spring day in Republic Square, the heart of Belgrade.

On the streets, election-campaign billboards ask voters to tick the box for the SNS, the Serbian Progressive Party of Prime Minister Aleksandr Vucic.â

Polls indicate he will return to power, but his campaign to have Serbia join the European Union is struggling, while pro-Russian sentiment is rising.

The Number 9 tram is old and rattly and runs from central Belgrade to the working-class suburb of Blajnica. â

Sociologist Jovo Bakic, ââan expert on Europe’s nationalist movements, lives at the end of the line.

“(The) Serbian Radical Party is quite an example. Vojislav Seselj openly states that these elections are elections between the EU and Russia and the only party that could fight for closer Serbian relations with Russia is (the) Serbian Radical Party.”

Nationalist politician Vojislav Seseljâ founded the Serbian Radical Party.

At a recent rally of the party, he told supporters, “We have to get back to the bosom of Mother Russia. She never bombed us, never stood us up, and is strong and powerful again.”

Not long ago, Prime Minister Aleksandr Vucic, who now says he wants Serbia in the European Union, was a nationalist like Vojislav Sesselj.

At the age of 24, he became secretary general of the Serbian Radical Party.

Jelena Milic is director of the Centre for Euro-Atlantic Studies in Serbia.

(Reporter:) “I notice you’ve got quite a big lock on this door.”

(Milic:) “Well, we are an NGO (non-government organisation) which promotes some pretty radical ideas for this environment, like transitional justice and cooperation with NATO — and not cooperation with Russia — so we are forced to be kind of cautious.”

(Reporter:) “I understand you have had a death threat recently.”

(Milic:) “Yes.”

Ms Milic’s experience is similar to that of many non-government organisations in Russia.

And she claims, in Serbia, Prime Minister Vucic is using the nationalists for political gain.

“Vucic gave, deliberately, room and resources and media time to the extreme right, newly emerging extreme right, to threaten the rest of us here and the West that he is the only alternative.”

The Hotel Moscow is a Belgrade landmark, built with Russian money early last century.

More than a century later, Russia is again spending money in Serbia.

Veteran Serb journalist and political analyst Dejan Anastasijevicâ says the European Union is spending more but losing the propaganda war.

“When people are asked which country is financially and economically helping Serbia the most, a big majority of people will say that it’s Russia. However, when you look at the figures, you see that Russia actually gave us almost nothing and about 80 per cent of the financial and economic aid comes from the EU.”

The pro-EU Aleksandr Vucic looks certain to take his Serbian Progressive Party to a convincing win on April the 24th.

But his goal of moving Serbia to the West faces a powerful challenge from the East.