The President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić has the image of a man who gets up at the crack of dawn, works around the clock, gets everything done, and has an answer to every question. On the other hand, he is often the butt of criticism for making too many public appearances, even scepticism - ‘How does this man manage to do everything?’ The Kurir team spent one day with him and learnt first-hand what the life of the head of state looks like. We had an exclusive peek into the President’s private life, and he revealed to us how he prepares for important state-level meetings, what he misses, what his unfulfilled dream is … We asked him what no one else had asked him before, and even had a face-off in a game of chess.
He met with us at the Office of the President early in the morning, as he was about to leave on an official visit to Bulgaria. For some on our team, getting up at half past five in the morning was no mean feat. For him this seemed to be routine, part of his everyday life. General Jim Mattis was once asked, ‘What keeps you awake at night?’ to which he replied, ‘Nothing. I keep other people awake at night.’ We asked Vučić what keeps him awake and which of his associates he can wake up at three o’clock in the morning.
‘I would hardly be able to find anyone at three in the morning. I’m not the kind of person to keep other people awake, but I do have sleepless nights. James Mattis is a very powerful and important man, and I … Well, various problems keep me awake, you can’t put it into a single sentence.’
We wanted to know if anyone had a problem with him getting up early and said something like, ‘Boss, please don’t, I haven’t even washed my face yet!’
‘That’s precisely when I call them! Dačić is the smartest about it. He sets his alarm clock to half past six to pick up my call, and then goes back to sleep.’ [laughs]
A view of the Belgrade Waterfront
Before breakfast, which he treated us to as a proper host that he is, Vučić took us on a tour of the Office of the President building. On the balcony, he smiled as he pointed towards the park in front of us.
‘Well, this is where I sometimes stand when the protesters gather up, and just watch them hollering. When we recognize one another from before, they shout something at me, and I respond. Politely, of course.’
What do they shout?
‘They shout, “Vučić, you’re a faggot!”’, “Treachery, treachery!”, and whatnot.’
It doesn’t disturb you?
‘No! When they insult someone or talk about someone’s physical appearance, then it’s clear what sort of arguments they have.’
A little to the left, a different story. A view of the Belgrade Waterfront – a capital project that many did not believe in - opens up before us. As we observe the two skyrises, the buildings, the towers whose construction is well under way, Vučić is clearly pleased.
‘Have a look at the Belgrade Waterfront, from this side, which is much worse, as it rises from nothing. Just imagine this building. The tower is going to be twice as tall. Imagine what sort of a new “benchmark” that would make. Hotel St. Regis will take the first nine floors, and apartments will be above it. People will be able to buy property at a place where the square meter is the most expensive, well, in this part of Europe. There’s going to be a viewing platform upstairs, a sort of observation deck with a restaurant, where you’ll be able to see the whole of Belgrade. That will be ready soon. Further to the side, there’s going to be a shopping mall, the biggest in south-eastern Europe.
‘I said, “Come on, guys, let’s do something! A museum that will present the suffering of the Serbian people. Come on, tell me, shall we hire someone to build a five- or six-star hotel? Let’s just do something along these lines.” And then you don’t get any answers. It’s a good location, we’ll make a profit. And then people tell you, “Don’t tear down Sutjeska or Neretva,” and who knows what else. It was NATO that tore it all down, everything was destroyed! As long as nothing changes, as long as nothing ever gets done.’
The President said that the major strategic projects in the upcoming period also include the development of tourism, which, as he pointed out, is aimed at showcasing the development of Serbia and how beautiful it is. Šumadija, the east, the west, the south of Serbia …
Ćevapčići and stuffed rolls
The rich conversation made us hungry, so the President took us in to have a quick snack before the trip to Bulgaria. The table was laden with food, but Serbian dishes were evidently in the majority – fried eggs, dry-cured ham, cheese, salads, ćevapi, home-made stuffed patience dock rolls … The food that he himself prefers.
‘I don’t go to restaurants much. I went to one with Orban only because he requested that I go to a restaurant. I do it when people ask me to. As far as I’m concerned, I’m always in favour of being apart from others.’
Why apart? Because of security?
‘Not at all! Because people often think, “Only those who curry favour with him are in his company,” but I apply myself all day to listening to those who criticize me. I don’t like to give anyone room, to have to respond, in the street or anywhere else. I know how big a problem that is for me, like I’ve fitted an electronic tag on myself. But then, you hear their complaints, and you try to rectify whatever you can. But I don’t want to have any kind of argument with anyone anywhere.’
How do you relax at the end of the day? Do you sometimes go out with friends, or associates perhaps?
‘I have anywhere between a glass and a bottle of wine a day, so that’s that! [laughs] And then we talk shop.’
Where do you like to go, near where you live or a restaurant?
‘Mostly in Jajinci. I don’t go to restaurants much, but when I do, there are three or four that I like to go to. But only once in two months.’
Aleksandar Vučić is a wine connoisseur, which prompted us to ask which wine is his favourite.
‘I’m proud of Serbian wines. It’s not a matter of brand, I love all wines. What’s important is how you combine it with food. You can’t have a Sauvignon blanc or a Cabernet Sauvignon with the same food. Or Chardonnay and Merlot. But, I am proud of the Serbian wine industry, that is the industry that’s making the greatest progress.’
Life on wheels
Our flight for Bulgaria was scheduled for 9 a.m. What we had in store for us there included inspecting the construction of the Balkan Stream and a section of the highway running from Sofia to the Serbian border. Once on board, we caught up with Vučić as he was preparing for the visit. He was studying a pile of papers with figures in bold and various data. Life on planes, on wheels, constant meetings with the world’s officials, negotiations with investors, daily fieldwork all around Serbia, does not leave much room for family.
You work a lot. You have a small boy, Vukan. Do you miss spending time with him?
‘I hope he doesn’t miss me, but I miss him a lot.’
How do you make up for this time? With Milica and Danilo too, although they are older.
‘Danilo is an adult now, he just wants to give Dad a quick ring, just like I do with my parents. He doesn’t need me anymore. Or his old man pays him a visit at work, so we have a glass of wine. Milica is so responsible, she’ll be very successful. She is very tough, strong, and incredibly capable. As for Vukan, he acts like a little warrior now. He just carries his sword around. The stuff that other children like to watch - Peppa Pig and those sorts of things – he doesn’t spend a minute on it. But, to pick up a sword, to get all scowly, and get into combat, that’s … A wooden sword, of course.’
Who does he take after, I wonder? His mom or his dad?
‘Well, I don’t.’ [laughs]
Would you be disappointed if your children were to follow in your footsteps and get into politics?
‘It’s their choice. Although he comes to party gatherings and has an understanding of it, I don’t think Danilo is inclined towards it. Milica is about to go to university.’
Do you interfere with her choice of university, career, etc.?
‘No, she’s had a number of scholarship offers from abroad. I wouldn’t like her to go, but then … She will choose her future herself. I don’t like it when people stay in their parents’ home until they’re 35 or 40. Be your own person, child, think about what you want to do, it’s your choice, your future. Whatever she decides, we’ll see.’
What advice do you give them, unrelated to their careers?
‘They’re very different. When I ask, “Milica, tell me if you’ve had an F at school, so I know if everything’s OK,” she says, “Dad, you’ve got your son the troublemaker, you can leave me alone.” [laughs] They’re completely different, they have different interests. Milica speaks Russian better than Serbian or just as well, and she speaks English as well as Russian. Her German is getting better, and if she goes to Germany, then her German will be like her mother tongue. But if she leaves, I don’t know ...’
Ambitions and plans
Aleksandar Vučić entered politics as a very young man. He was one of the best students at the Faculty of Law in Belgrade, graduating with the average mark of 10. After a long time in the Serbian opposition, he came into his own and has been in power in Serbia for eight years now. If he could turn back time, is there anything else that he would like to do in life?
‘I would try to work hard. It is my unfulfilled wish to coach kids. At a club, Mladost from Zemun or Ušće. Pioneers, cadets, kids. That’s my biggest wish!’
Were your ambitions bigger, for the club to be bigger?
‘No, just a small club. There’s nothing better than spending Saturday and Sunday with young players, with children that you can teach something. But, to do that, I need to enroll in a coaching college, so that’s the plan in the upcoming period. You can track the exams that I take. But, they told me the other day there seem to be some problems, apparently things are different than they used to be there. I’d like to enroll in a school like that, so if I succeed, maybe one day I’ll make my dream come true.’
The airplane started its descent towards Sofia in the middle of the conversation. The official visit to Bulgaria had started, but it did not seem like any other. You could tell just by the unusually cordial greeting and hug of the two statesmen. The Bulgarian host, Boyko Borisov, gave his guest and friend a helicopter ride. And that wasn’t the end of it. He personally took Vučić on an SUV ride along the Balkan Stream construction site, remarking that the two of them were like overgrown boys. They visited Veliko Trnovo and the Holy Forty Martyrs Church, situated at the foot of the famous fortress of Carevac. This is a very important place for the Serbian president – the place of the death and burial of Saint Sava, who Vučić pointed out as the most important person in the history of Serbia.
After a few hours had gone by, the visit was over. Exhausted by running around the construction site and from one location to the next, we just wanted to get to the plane and take a breather. We used the short flight to rest and take a nap, and we left President Vučić studying the papers again, preparing for the encounters and meetings to follow.
A Chess Game with the President
If Trump wins, Serbia will have benefit!
‘I spoke to Boris Johnson and I am sure he will come to Serbia.’
Just before leaving for Sofia, he offered to play a game of chess with us. It is a well-known fact that he is an excellent chess player (unlike us), so we accepted the challenge although we knew our chances were slim. In life, like in chess, he always has a tactic but, what is more important, a strategy as well. As we played, we talked to the President about the hard issues in politics and economy today.
The last UK prime minister to visit Serbia was Margaret Thatcher in 1980. Isn’t that a bit unusual?
‘It is, and this is why I’m expecting Boris Johnson soon.’
Are talks under way about this?
‘I spoke to him a couple of times, and I’m sure he will come to Serbia. I say “sure”, but you cannot be one hundred percent certain. I do believe that he will come though. What’s been bothering me this whole time is … I have been subjected to numerous attacks from Europe and the world, because I stated the fact that the Balkan nations should be in charge of their own future. Have you noticed how many parliaments of countries around Europe have discussed Kosovo, stating what their preferences are? If you’re not playing dumb and pretending not to see that, your response is, “And why should we care what your preferences are?” Has anyone asked us what our preferences are, what we think, want, or expect?’
Does anyone ask?
‘They will have to.’
But they haven’t so far.
‘OK, just consider how we have fared so far, and see for yourself.’
Is what we should obtain measured in square kilometers?
‘All I’m saying is – give us better ideas, I’m out of ideas at the moment. Because you’ve been concerned with square kilometers, by taking kilometers from Serbia by force! And now you’re telling me that square kilometers don’t matter, but they mattered very much to you. No problem, you can say, “They matter, but we have a different solution altogether!” Don’t think that all of us are fools. They would attack me, “You were with such and such guy,” - those who rolled out the red carpet for Solana, those who followed every order, who extradited everyone to the Hague Tribunal.’
Do you mean Blair?
‘I also mean Schröder, who was much closer to me. But I think it goes to my credit that Schröder now has nothing but nice things to say about Serbia everywhere.’
Is the US administration so inert that the current occupant of the White House does not play a very important role?
‘I’ll say this here for the first time. If Donald Trump won the second term, I do not believe that the US policy would change significantly. However, I do believe in small changes in the US policy, which would be tremendously important for Serbia. I cannot discuss the details, because I would make Serbia’s position worse and put our American friends at a disadvantage. But I do believe that for us that would be a slightly better position.’
Well, it says right there – Ana Brnabić is the new PM.
As we chatted over breakfast, we tried to get the President to tell us who could be the next prime minister. We showed him the betting odds offered by the bookmakers, but he was non-committal.
Who of these has the best chances to become a PM? Here are some names. It’s like Leicester City becoming the champion of England, but shall we say the first four? (Brnabić, Vučević, Nedimović, Mali)
‘Nenad Čanak as Prime Minister …’
Well alright, that’s Leicester City. How about these first four names?
‘Here, it says right there that Ana Brnabić has the best odds, followed by Miloš Vučević, and then Branislav Nedimović, and so on.’
Who would you bet a couple of bucks on?
‘But who am I?’
A citizen of this country. You can vote.
‘I cannot vote because it might so happen that I decide directly on who will be prime minister.’
Do you find these betting odds amusing? For example, Dr Darija Kisić Tepavčević is on the list of potential ministers.
‘Someone told me once, “Please tell us who of these names will be a minister and who won’t, so we can play a single and make us some money!” ‘ [laughs]
On Styling and Advice
Stylists told me, ‘Dress like Macron.’
President Aleksandar Vučić has been sporting great styles on formal occasions recently, as do modern European politicians. He says that this is not high on his agenda, and that he has relegated this responsibility to stylists.
You are going on an official visit, and yet you are dressed casually, with a sweater on.
‘No, I’m not. Here, I have my suit trousers, so I take off the sweater, and put on the jacket and tie.’
You sport a great style. That was not high on the agenda before?
‘I’m not sporting a style at all. They just said to me, “White, navy blue,” so I bought six navy blue suits and ten white shirts. I already had ten navy blue ties. That’s all, I don’t wear anything else.’
Who says that to you?
‘They told me that a year ago, these various stylists, and I haven’t changed it since. They said, “Look at Macron, he dresses best. He has 15 navy blue suits, white shirts, navy blue ties. I didn’t even notice, if you had said a hundred times, I wouldn’t have gotten it in the first place.’
Kurir.rs/Branislava Majdarević, Ljubiša Ivanović