BELGRADE — It was a lunch for three — washed down with bottles of yoghurt — that supposedly cost only 585 dinars (
That image, one of a humble, considerate national leader, has been projected through the country’s government-friendly media that remain Vučić’s prime weapon ahead of Sunday’s general election.
Despite a united opposition — and a particular threat to Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) in the capital’s mayoral race — there is little prospect the SNS will lose on December 17, thanks in great part to the president’s expertly cultivated media persona.
Over the decade since Vučić came to power, the most enduring criticism of him concerns the erosion of media freedoms in the EU candidate country, characterized by threats and even physical attacks on journalists. Reporters Without Borders places the country among the lowest in Europe on its press freedom index.
Vučić’s ubiquity in the public arena is almost impossible to track, but leading up to the election he has been dishing out hour-long interviews almost daily. He is fond of both outlandish gimmicks (one spot had him emerging from a fridge) and of presenting himself as a Serbian everyman who understands his nation’s dogged pride, even when life is grim.
Wielding a TikTok account, he juggles celebrity glitz with earthiness. On the one hand he boasts of having granted Serbian citizenship in 2017 to actor Ralph Fiennes from the Harry Potter films — “Did you know Lord Voldemort is a Serb?” — while also entertaining Johnny Depp and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak in Belgrade, where he bestowed national honors on them. And then there’s his human side, which he showcases by helping to rebuild rural homes, flipping pancakes, or devouring homemade crackling pork.
“He has long become like the tiresome guest at parties who persistently bores everyone with stories about himself,” explained Nadežda Milenković, a columnist and marketing expert. “He’s the best chess player, he can beat anyone up, everybody loves him, and he’s not scared of anything.”
Crucially, Vučić aims to serve as a filter through which the Serbian public forms its opinions of domestic and international events. “Whatever the nation needs to know about the opposition or global events will be retold and explained by him,” Milenković said. “There is no need for the public to learn it any other way.”
Prickly issues are sidestepped, such as Serbia’s decision not to impose sanctions on Russia, as well as its strained relationship with its southern neighbor Kosovo. Vučić offers the public a means to soothe their consciences, repeating statements such as “we should be proud of our independent foreign policy,” and deferring challenging conversations to a later date.
According to Milenković, the media is a crucial tool in Vučić’s arsenal, ensuring that the public remains “uninformed and saturated with disinformation.” It acts as a fortress safeguarding Vučić’s narrative, thereby shielding him from public scrutiny.
Detergent and sausage meat
Serbia, like the rest of Europe, is grappling with price hikes and inflation, due partly to shocks from Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. To underscore his commitment to protecting the ordinary citizen, Vučić staged a theatrical press conference in early September that turned heads.
Armed with a shopping basket, he unveiled a range of everyday essentials — from laundry detergent and apple juice to potatoes and a hefty roll of budget baloney sausage — and then pledged imminent price reductions, live on television, turning the event into a spectacle.
“He loves being presented as the man who has the solution to all the country’s problems,” said Željko Bodrožić, head of the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia.
On another occasion he appeared on the screens of privately owned, pro-government TV channels Pink and Happy — widely deemed to be platforms for sensationalist tabloid journalism. Armed with a whiteboard he scribbled his vision of elevating Serbian salaries to match those in neighboring EU countries such as Croatia, pausing only to push up the glasses sliding down his nose.
Bodrožić stressed that for Serbian people without access to independent channels such as N1 or Nova S, “they will have no clue about what’s actually happening in Serbia … they experience a media blackout.”
Victimhood and strength
Vučić’s media strategy employs a potent formula in blending a sense of martyrdom with strength, playing the dual role of defender and motivator of the Serbian people by simultaneously bolstering their resilience and nurturing a sense of victimhood.
“Vučić feeds the need [of] the Serbian public … to feel like perpetual victims, that they’re a chosen people that are being threatened,” Bodrožić explained.
In this scenario, with Vučić casting himself as a protector — whether from inflation, importunate neighbors or Western demands — those who attack him are seen as enemies of the people.
As independent journalists in Serbia face constant threats to their safety, this rhetoric, according to Bodrožić, “might encourage people to even hate these journalists despite probably not knowing anything about them. They want citizens to participate in the threats and public lynching of journalists.”
This year alone has seen 168 attacks on journalists, including eight physical attacks and 118 incidents of direct pressure, according to the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia. In 2020, the worst year on record since Vučić came to power in 2017, there were 31 physical attacks on journalists.
Countless journalists have been forced to leave the profession after either being fired or resigning under duress. The media squeeze serves a dual purpose of instilling apathy among opponents of Vučić and his SNS, and of rallying those who agree with his narrative.
This, Bodrožić explains, is the gravest consequence of the president’s strategy: It leads “average people to become disgusted by politics and apathetic. Vučić is happy to keep people who don’t vote for him out of the electoral process.”