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Is the curtain about to fall on the Serbian leader’s long-running smash hit?
Following the Serbian interior minister’s warning about a plot to assassinate President Aleksandar Vucic this coming February, Vucic announced that he would give an address to the public the next day, 22 January, from an “exclusive location.” But Vucic had a surprise in store: at the scheduled time, he appeared on TV screens from one of the new double-decker trains that he constantly boasts about as his nonstop campaign for re-election rolls on. Viewers saw the president and a journalist sitting in a train parked at a station, with cameras both inside the train and out on the platform.
There was practically no talk of the alleged plan to kill Vucic. Instead, during a two-hour interview broadcast on the country’s most popular television channel, Pink, he took shots at opposition politicians, tossed accusations and biting remarks at people who criticize the regime, and looked ahead to April, when voters will choose the next president and parliament. It was not the first time the president has used information or semi-information as a pretext to hold a live interview and gain more attention, although he hardly lacks for that.
Unlike in most of Europe and elsewhere, where the head of state appears only sporadically in the media and addresses the public only in particularly fraught situations or election campaigns, the Serbian media scene is practically impossible to imagine without President Vucic.
TV viewers were treated to a large dose of Vucic in the second half of 2021. The president typically appeared live on at least one national TV station every day from July through December, according to the Serbian election monitoring and transparency group CRTA. While some of these events were genuine and newsworthy (national celebrations, anniversaries), CRTA said others were genuine but marginal, such as ceremonies for the opening of public buildings, and some were just “pseudo-events”: occasions that the government created or managed with the aim of garnering more extensive media coverage. In any case, for six months, not a day passed without a Vucic TV appearance. On average these broadcasts ran 55 minutes, for a total airtime of 203 hours over six months. In December alone, Vucic appeared at 52 events running to 70 hours.
And that’s not all. In addition to these “special” broadcasts, Vucic’s appearances on the main news shows of five national TV stations, through 30 November, amounted to a full 100 hours, according to the Bureau for Social Research (BIRODI), a Belgrade-based think tank.
All of which tends to cast doubt on the president’s words to one interviewer: “I don’t often appear on television, I mostly [just] answer journalists’ questions.”
Rope and Other Talking Points
These astonishing numbers are not the only thing that characterizes Vucic’s media appearances. First of all, they are verbally vivid.
On 14 December, with the Serbian power network collapsing amid heavy snow and mismanagement, the president gathered the competent ministers and company directors for a live session. Visibly annoyed by what he heard, he exclaimed, “It’s all my fault that I listened to all the environmentalists, fake experts, and foreigners who came to this country to teach me what to do. I could hang myself on the biggest chandelier here, just because I listened to them.” As viewers might have spotted, the room’s ceiling sported not a single chandelier.
He’s used this particular image before, even during photo ops. At the opening of a wind farm not far from Belgrade in 2019, journalists went off-script to ask him about the rumor that the United States was proposing a division of Kosovo, to which he replied, “I could hang myself on this wind generator here. Let a man take a rope and hang himself when he reads something like that.”
And again, during a press conference in October with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov: “Fortunately, we had the courage to build a gas pipeline with Russia. If we hadn’t, I could just take a rope and hang myself.”
It’s not all about rope – the president regularly mentions how much he works and how durable he is.
“I never work less than 12 hours, and sometimes 19 hours a day,” he once said on national television.
“I am the only one in this hall who has not left it in the last eight hours. I stood here in front of you for three hours. I sat and listened for the other five hours. I’m the only one who didn’t leave here. I did not go out to eat or drink,” he informed lawmakers the day they confirmed him as prime minister in May 2014.
Four years later, he boasted that he “reads between 500 and 600 pages of documents a day, both secret and public.”
Speaking of attractions, Vucic’s performances also reveal his expressive body language. At practically every media appearance, he wipes his lips or forehead with a handkerchief, sighs a lot, takes long pauses between sentences.
A press conference he held last August provided a stage for perhaps his most characteristic display yet. As a journalist was asking a question, Vucic massaged his eyes with his hands, then took a bottle of water from the table, poured some into his hand and rubbed his face.
Some political observers explain this behavior as part of a calculated design to construct a cult of personality: here is a man who makes sacrifices far beyond what is expected, for the good of his own people, with no thought for himself, his health, even his life.
The Artful Dodger
Although as a public official Vucic is legally obliged to treat all citizens and media equally, he does not give statements or interviews to media outlets that he perceives as hostile, and whose only sin is criticizing the government’s moves. At public events and press conferences, however, reporters from those media receive special attention: The president addresses them by name, speaks abusively about their employers, marks them as the opposition, ridicules them, lectures them.
A recent, fairly benign yet very illustrative instance occurred on 16 January when Vucic announced the results of the referendum on reforming the judiciary. A journalist from the FoNet news agency, where I also work, asked why members of his party standing around were not wearing protective masks.
“I know that you are just as sharp when you go to [opposition politician] Dragan Djilas,” he rejoined, adding that he was “not like those promoted by your agency and many other tycoon media,” successfully dodging the question.
A few days earlier, a journalist from national public broadcaster RTS dared to ask if he thought people believed he would step down as leader of the ruling party, as he promised. Instead of an answer, the journalist received a mocking smile and an assurance that he will now become a Twitter star.
International media groups almost unanimously decry the critical state of the media in Serbia following years of heavy political, legal, and economic pressure. The behavior of the president and his daily TV appearances hardly contribute to easing this situation.
Vucic has rarely been out of the spotlight during his 30 years in politics. But this time he might just be overplaying it. For a while now his regular daily live shows have aroused, not fear or anxiety, but ridicule. No matter how much and what he talks about, the president on the train, the president who praises himself, the president proud or angry, almost instantly becomes the subject of GIFs, montages, and jokes.
This sarcasm has had no political effect so far, but it could be significant. If only because throughout history, powerful rulers have feared the laughter of their subjects. And despite the circumstances, the laughter is getting louder.
Tamara Skrozza is a journalist and video production editor with the Belgrade-based FoNet news agency.