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A Master of Deception

Donald Trump may be the leader of the free world in spreading “alternative facts,” but Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic continues to vie for the Balkan crown.

by The Truth-O-Meter team at Istinomer.rs 24 December 2018

This October, the Serbian Progressive Party (SPP) celebrated its 10th anniversary. The party has had two leaders since 2008: Tomislav Nikolic, who brought the SPP into the higher echelons of power when he won the presidential election in 2012, and now Aleksandar Vucic, who rules the party unchallenged, just as he governs the state and society today.

 

In the past decade, Vucic has managed to convince representatives of the international community of his honest transformation from extreme nationalist into a pro-European politician who understands the needs of the modern world. He has also managed to eliminate any competition in his party, to become Serbian prime minister twice, and, lastly, to become president.

 

Over the last six years of rule by the SPP and Vucic, the state has been transformed through a number of conflicting processes. On the one hand, Serbia has been advancing in the process of joining the EU, opening negotiations on various parts of the acquis communautaire, including Chapters 23 and 24 (relating to the judiciary and fundamental rights). On the other hand, media freedom and freedom of speech have been plummeting, along with the influence of the political opposition and independent institutions. According to Reporters Without Borders’ report on world media freedom, Serbia fell 10 places on the list.

 

Along the way, Vucic has backtracked on various statements he has made, overstepped his authority, and offered up either misleading or outright false information on a vast array of issues.

 

In 2016, an exhibition held in Belgrade and devoted to portrayals of Vucic in the media aimed to show that there was no censorship in Serbia. Image via СНС Београд/Youtube.

 

Let’s start with 2016, when Vucic repeatedly claimed that “he would not dream of becoming a [presidential] candidate.” Despite those assertions, he nevertheless ended up following the well-worn path of other reluctant politicians and decided to run for the sake of “Serbia's stability.” He convincingly won the election in April 2017, and was inaugurated as president on 31 May 2017.

 

While campaigning, he explained that the constitutional authority of the president permitted him to exercise control over the government. The constitution has no provision for such a claim, but – back in the real world – a provision was found. It started with the election of Vucic’s deputy, incarnated in the person of Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, who does not hide the fact that she double-checks everything with Vucic. She herself said that “Vucic should have the role of a mentor to the prime minister.”

 

Fighting to Keep Up Our Spirits – And Population

 

In March this year, the country's birth rate came into focus. Comparing the numbers of ethnic Albanians and ethnic Serbs born in Kosovo and Serbia, Vucic dramatically declared that the entire Serb nation was in danger of eradication. He therefore presented new birth-boosting measures, mostly financial. Judging by the backlash, however – especially from families with children – the public seems to have considered these plans mere populism, because they would not solve many of the other problems that parents and future parents face.

 

All things considered, the president seriously exceeded his competences – first by promising to allocate budgetary funds that he does not actually manage, and second by putting the blame on women who were unwilling to give birth.

 

Nevertheless, last summer Vucic did finally pronounce himself satisfied with our advances in the matter of population. In 100 seconds, he managed to make four untruthful statements, on matters easily verifiable.

 

For instance, between 2010 and 2011, we were losing 47,000-48,000 citizens a year, he said, and now that annual decrease remains “stubbornly fixed between 31,000 and 33,000 per year [but] we believe that we will reduce that [annual net loss] to 18,000-20,000.”

 

In fact, according to key data for the period 2006-2016, provided by the country’s Statistical Office, Serbia was losing something in excess of 36,000 citizens annually between 2010 and 2011. In 2015-16, the average figure exceeded 37,000 citizens lost per year.

 

While visiting different cities and municipalities over the course of 2017, the president counted babies yet again, compared, drew conclusions. He then claimed at a joint press conference – held in Lebane, southern Serbia, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – that one half of the population of that town had been lost in the last 20 years, i.e. 18,000 citizens. However, it turned out that Lebane’s net fall in population was only about 6,000, compared to two decades previously.

 

Economic Dreams

 

If anyone was wondering where funds for these populist measures come from, all Serbia's economic parameters speak for themselves, and they are all positive.

 

Thus, Vucic asserted in July 2017 that Serbian economic growth was higher than the EU average, meaning that we were not only winners in basketball and water-polo, but also in economics. As it turns out, at the time, Serbia’s growth was 50 percent of the average EU level.

 

However, even if this were not so, one cannot compare a country in transition – where high growth rates are expected – to highly developed economies, where it is completely natural for growth rates to be low. Therefore, the problem is not the EU. The problem is that our economic growth is not fast enough.

 

Vucic also asserted that in 2016, Serbia had the highest economic growth in the Western Balkans, although Croatia, Albania, and even Kosovo had higher economic growth. In a poll organized by Istinomer.rs, our readers pronounced this statement the lie of the year for 2017.

 

When it comes to foreign direct investment, we surpassed all the countries of the Western Balkans combined – if Vucic is to be believed. If we take instead data provided by individual countries, or by the World Bank, neither organization shows Serbia alone attracting as much investment as the entire rest of the region. If one analyzes World Bank data on net investment per capita, Serbia is not even at the top of the list, but occupies third place, behind Montenegro and Albania.

 

With regard to the reduction of public debt, Vucic has repeatedly stated over the past year that in April 2014 – when he became prime minister – public debt was about 77 percent of GDP. Actually, it was 62.5 percent at the time, and it reached 70 percent by the end of 2014. Interestingly, however, at the end of 2015 – after more than a year and a half of Vucic’s reign as prime minister – the debt amounted to 75 percent, and commenced decreasing only in 2016.

 

When Vucic assumed office in 2014 (he keeps forgetting that he came to power for the first time in 2012, when he was deputy prime minister), he often repeated the story of a 356 euro ($408) average monthly salary. However, the average monthly salary at that time (2014) was in fact 386 euros. In May 2018, he was heard stating that the average monthly salary was just 340 euros when he became prime minister. Yet again incorrect.

 

It is also common knowledge that Vucic loves to be first in all areas of history. Commenting on his meetings with the president of Russia, and those with other world officials, Vucic said that he and his political allies were the first to bring Russian President Vladimir Putin to Serbia. However, history did not begin in 2012, and Putin had already been to Belgrade twice before the Progressive Party came to power.

 

Vucic recently boasted that he had been elected to his function with the greatest support in contemporary Serbian history, and it was precisely this fact that qualified him to talk about birth rates. However, in the 1990s, Milosevic won twice as many votes on two occasions, and more voters cast their ballots for Nikolic (who lost in the second round) in 2008, than for Vucic in 2017.

 

Taking Satire at Face Value

 

In September this year, Vucic continued the practice of quickly throwing out unverified data, when commenting on a series of deaths on construction sites throughout Serbia.

 

After two workers died at the Belgrade Waterfront construction site, he said it was an appalling tragedy and offered his condolences to the families. But he also stated that “in Serbia, the proportion of accidents that have occurred on dangerous jobs, such as construction work, is much smaller [than elsewhere].”

 

Reading from notes at a press conference, Vucic stated: “As for the accusation that the state is to blame [for the tragedies, because inspections did not pick up on poor safety measures at construction sites], I want to say to citizens that I considered not addressing this, but I want to inform people. Do you know that in America, every 10 seconds when doing his job – I repeat, every 10 seconds – one skyscraper window-washer falls to his death? Every 10 seconds!”

 

The only record on the internet of this data – that in the U.S. one window-washer perishes every 10 seconds – was published on the satirical site The Onion. After the media reported that this was fake news, Vucic apologized, explaining that he had not investigated the veracity of the “fact,” due to exhaustion, and that he had not had any ill intent.

  

Vucic often emphasizes his various successes in relation to the previous government. Some time ago, he started praising the 1990s, in comparison with the previous regime, too.

 

He declared that in Serbia, there were fewer murders in 1995 than in 2003 – which we can categorically state is untrue even without fact-checking, because the 1990s were characterized by daily mafia and criminal clashes.

 

However, there are actually statistical data to support comparisons between those two dates: in 1995, there were 132 more murders than in 2003! Admittedly, there was one particularly important murder in 2003 – that of Serbia's prime minister, Zoran Djindjic. That particular murder made such an impression on Vucic that he promised, as part of his presidential campaign two years ago, that a monument to Djindjic would be erected on the 15th anniversary of the assassination – in 2018. However, that has not come to pass.

 

In all of the president’s stories about the tranquil 1990s, the media do play a role, as they deliver the numbers – no questions asked. The TV station Pink stands out in this respect, for swiping a Truth-O-Meter graph and modifying the data in order to align with Vucic’s story!

 

However, when someone tries to rewrite history, people do remember, and so does the internet. During his recent visit to Croatia, Vucic claimed that in his March 1995 speech in Glina, he had not mentioned Greater Serbia (referring to Serbian nationalists’ ideal of a Serb state incorporating all regions of traditional significance to Serbs, including areas outside Serbia that are populated by ethnic Serbs).

 

Shortly afterwards, a recording refuting Vucic’s assertion surfaced. However, even if he had not uttered those words at that public meeting back in the 1990s, we could remember that during most of his career, up until his transition over to the SPP, Vucic was at the very top of the Radical Party, the party whose plan is to realize the concept of Greater Serbia, which Vucic had publicly advocated.

  

Stabilocracy

 

More than 20 years later, Vucic is a self-proclaimed European and reformer, a man eager to engage in dialogue about the destiny of Kosovo and other matters, as well as being commander in chief of the armed forces when needed (a position that does not exist either in the constitution or in any legislation).

 

Despite his new clothes, there are people in Serbia who perceive the country under his reign as a stabilocracy, the rule of a single man who guarantees stability even if the tenets of democracy get in the way. And in spite of the European Commission raising numerous problems in various areas, these same officials are afraid of publicly highlighting such shortcomings for fear of derailing the talks about Kosovo.

 

In the process, they have allowed Serbia to formally advance toward EU membership while the country actually goes backwards when it comes to respecting the principles and values of the community of European nations – or just telling the truth.

Istinomer.rs (Truth-O-Meter) is a team of journalists with a strong background and experience in fact-checking, accountability, and data journalism, as well as experience in citizen engagement and activism. They launched the first platform in Serbia (and the wider region) to fact check the statements of politicians and other public officials.

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