Over dinner, in between pointing out the subtle, fruity bouquet of the Slovenian sauvignon blanc and urging us not to neglect the langoustine, Aleksandar Vucic was ensuring that the Serbian government did not collapse. After yet another call on his mobile he announced that the resignation a few hours earlier of the Finance minister would not, as predicted, lead to early elections. It was business as usual.
Mr Vucic, the country’s most powerful politician, decided that his party, the largest in parliament, would continue to support the coalition led by Prime Minister Ivica Dacic for the time being. He will, of course, have a big say in the reshuffle due to take place and continue to exert his dominant influence on policy. The modern Serbian version of Warwick the Kingmaker had, it seemed, triumphed again.
It had been a busy week for Mr Vucic, who has modestly kept himself as deputy prime minister. He signed a deal between old Yugoslavia’s ramshackle airline and Abu Dhabi. A day earlier he was considering offering a job to Dominique Strauss-Kahn – the former head of the International Monetary Fund and current pimping suspect – as an adviser to help reform Serbia’s ailing economy. In fact the last few months had been typically hectic. He has been to Kosovo to agree a political settlement as one of the conditions for Serbia joining the European Union. The same quest had taken him to Brussels for meetings with Baroness Ashton, the EU’s Foreign Affairs commissioner, who has proved to be an ally.
Relations with Britain, said Mr Vucic, have been on an upward trajectory. He held useful talks with Foreign Secretary William Hague and Defence Secretary Philip Hammond as well as the heads of MI6 and MI5, Sir John Sawers and Andrew Parker, during a recent visit to London. While in Britain he’d taken a fruitful detour to Scotland to work out details with Sheikh Mohammed on how the UAE’s Etihad would take a stake the newly named Air Serbia.
The 43-year-old Mr Vucic has become the West’s go-to man in Serbia and, increasingly, the wider region. He has worked hard on his reputation as the voice for moderation and modernisation needed to heal bitter rifts.
It was not always thus; 14 years ago, when RAF warplanes joined a Nato bombing campaign of Serbia, Mr Vucic was an angry young man railing at what he saw as the victimisation of the Serbs and their demonisation in the West.
Aged 23 Aleksandar Vucic joined Serbia’s Radical Party, which advocated the reclamation of land from neighbours and the creation of a Greater Serbia. Five years later, just before the Western airstrikes began, he became Minister for Information while Slobodan Milosevic was president of the Yugoslav Federation. There he brought in the draconian “Vucic Law”, to muzzle media that supported the opposition.
After the fall of Milosevic in 2000, Mr Vucic took over as de-facto leader of the Radicals while the incumberent, Vojislav Seselj, was languishing in a Hague prison cell on suspicion of war crimes. He took part in protests after the arrest of an even more prominent suspect, Radovan Karadzic, and campaigned on behalf of a third, Ratko Mladic.
In 2008, however, Mr Vucic left the Radicals to join the breakaway Serbian Progressive Party founded by another senior Radical, Tomislav Nikolic, and began his journey to the political ground where he is now.
At the dinner in the Milagro restaurant in Zamun, on the bank of the Danube, on a sunny evening, the hitherto jovial Mr Vucic lapsed into brief silence when asked about his Damascene conversion. He continued quietly: “I thought I was doing the best for my country, a lot of us thought that. But we were wrong, we need to admit that. We thought we could save our Serbian citizens who were in danger in other parts of Yugoslavia and we failed in that as well. I had members of my family killed in Bosnia, but that, like so many other killings which took place at the time, should be put behind us, we cannot remain trapped in the past.”
He condemned the massacre committed by Serbian forces in Srebrenica, in which up to 8,000 Bosnians died, as a “horrifying, gruesome crime which is so horrible that one should be ashamed that someone who took part in it belongs to one’s people”. But he also pointed out that this was taking place at a time when “Serbs were beheaded at Mount Ozren.”
Asked whether he would be prepared to go to Srebrenica to pay his respects to the dead, Mr Vucic insisted he would have no problem with that. But he wanted to make sure that his visit would not be misrepresented or seen as a provocation by the Bosnian community.
His last trip outside Serbia into a former Yugoslav state had led to a frosty reception – from fellow Serbs. He had gone to Mitrovica in northern Kosovo to persuade the Serbian community there to accept a deal with Kosovo. Under the agreement, Belgrade would accept that Kosovo’s Albanian administration had the legal right all across the territory of the state, although the Serbian minority would have its own police force and legal system. “The conditions are not ideal, but they were the best that we could get, they are something to build on for the future. The Serbs there used to cheer me before. It’s true this time they didn’t agree with everything I said, but they appreciated that I didn’t hide away, I went and explained the situation to them directly.”
The trips to the UK have been far less fraught, he reflected. “The British Government has been very supportive of Serbia on our European path and for that we are grateful. The ties will get closer and the British Government will find us reliable and supportive allies.
“Of course we discussed Kosovo, our differences in the time of the war but also what has been achieved since then. We also discussed military and political matters and I enjoyed the talks with Mr Hague and Mr Hammond. I particularly enjoyed talking to the heads of MI5 and MI6, we have a common interest in fighting terrorism.”
The deputy prime minister’s very first visit to Britain was very different, as an 18-year-old student in London learning English. He did not have much money and subsidised his stay by working at a corner shop. “It was in Gloucester Road, run by an Indian gentleman called Mr Sagar. He was very kind to me, someone young in a strange city,” he recalled.
He also learned, he said, about other aspects of popular culture. “ I am a big fan of Red Star Belgrade [football club] and since Arsenal also play in red I used to go around wearing an Arsenal shirt. I soon realised that wasn’t always a clever thing to do in that part of London, which is Chelsea territory.”
Football stadiums in became fertile nationalist recruiting grounds in the run-up to the war. On 13 May 1990, in what was to be the last game before the Yugoslav league collapsed, to be followed soon afterwards by the state itself, the Serbian Red Star Belgrade travelled to Croat Dynamo Zagreb. The match was abandoned in the first half amid some of the worst scenes of violence seen in a European ground. By the end, the stadium was on fire.
Around that time Zelijko Raznatovic took over Red Star’s hooligans, the Delije, at the request of Jovica Stanisic, the head of state security who later faced the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Raznatovic, better known as, Arkan, ran a militia, the Tigers, which carried out some of the worst atrocities in the war. He was himself assassinated in 2000.
Those days have gone and football is now back to being a sport, although one which still draws passion, insisted Mr Vucic. Serbia, in particular, needed to break the habit of mobilising society for war as it has done so many times in the past, often with disastrous results.
“Leon Panetta [US Defence secretary] was once listing how many wars the Americans have been involved in. I pointed out that Serbia could better that and I also pointed out how many of those we ended up by losing,” recalled Mr Vucic. “When he asked whether it was time then to rethink our strategy, I could only agree.
“The battles we are facing now aren’t with guns and tanks, but the economy. We are bringing in legislation to make the planning licences much quicker, we must tackle the matter of debt and we must fight corruption. We are looking at bringing in consultants from outside to do so, just as we have done with our airline and Etihad.”
One of the consultants being lined up is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, below, whose job as head of the IMF and hopes of the French presidency ended amid a spectacular storm of sex scandals. Doesn’t the man – who now faces pimping charges – carry a certain amount of baggage? “It is not about his personal life, it is to do with the expertise he offers” said the deputy prime minister. One of his aides said later: “What he means is that this is Serbia and a lot of people carry all kinds of baggage”.
Mr Vucic’s own baggage has not slowed him down. Indeed, his time as an active player in the violent narrative of the end of Yugoslavia is seen to give him credibility – the change from demagogue to democrat has been accepted as genuine. How easy he will find guiding Serbia into the European Union and a relationship of trust and mutual benefit with its former enemies remains to be seen.
5 March 1970: Born in Belgrade.
1993: Joins the Serbian Radical Party, which espoused the creation of Greater Serbia out of dismembered Yugoslavia.
1998: Minister of Information. He is responsible for ‘Vucic Law’ which puts draconian restrictions on the media.
2000: Takes over as de-facto leader of the Radicals, stepping in for Vojislav Selsej, who is facing war crimes charges in the Hague.
2008: Joins the Serbian Progressive Party formed by fellow senior Radical, Tomislav Nikolic. Attacked by nationalists for saying Greater Serbia is no longer a viable concept.
2012: Becomes leader of the Progressives, the largest party in Parliament. Deputy Prime Minister. Begins talks with neighbouring states aimed at reconciliation, involved in reforms to join the European Union.