The President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić is often sombre and serious in his public appearances. In a New Year's conversation with Kurir, the head of state revealed what lies behind this façade.
This was the most open that he had ever been about the topic of his three children – what his relationship is like with his oldest son Danilo, why he is overprotective towards his daughter Milica, and how he plays with his youngest son Vukan. He spoke for the first time about growing up with his brother Andrej and about why the Vučić menfolk never discuss emotional subjects. He also discovered how he surprises his associates, what relaxes him, and what New Year's resolutions he had made. In the interview, Vučić also touched on the war against the mafia, who had tapped him for a year and a half, and what message he had for the new Montenegrin government.
Aleksandar Đondović and Branislava Majdarević
It's the holiday season and there is more time for family. What is your plan for the New Year's?
"I have never considered celebrations important. I hope to have a day or two for studying German and Russian and spending more time with my children."
Have you prepared the New Year's gifts for the children?
"I prepared a gift for Danilo a bit earlier. It's a good wine as, like his father, he likes wines. For Milica I have a valuable book and Vukan prefers toy helicopters. I don't know where to find a toy helicopter that he doesn't have already, but he'll surely be happy to get one."
Vukan is now at an age when children are acquiring things and they often surprise us with their antics. Is he a scamp?
"He's sweet, smart, and ever amiable and lovable, even when he's being a bit of a scamp. Since I don't see enough of him, he's never impish or mischievous to me."
Do you have any holiday rituals? Do you follow the old traditions? Which Christmas traditions do you and your family honour?
"We celebrate our family saint's day, Christmas, and Easter, as the most important Christian festival. Like most Serbian families, we follow the tradition in our celebrations, first-footer and all. Those are times for family gatherings. You can always feel a festive sort of atmosphere, but I think that the most important thing is that that's a time to show your love for your children and family, a time when you should be feeling at your best."
You have many duties and not as much time for your children as you would like. How do you spend your time with them?
"With Danilo I usually go to a wine bar. We have a bottle of wine and something good to eat. We mostly talk like friends, and only exceptionally as father and son. I have a lot to learn from Milica, as she is very strong, brave, dedicated, responsible, and will make good in life. As for Vukan, I enjoy playing with him. If there's a time when I smile, it's when he's jumping all over his dad screaming, 'Dad, I'm gonna beat you up like a cat and chicken! ' Whatever that means. [laughs]"
What sort of advice do you give to Milica and Danilo? They are at that age, so do they talk about personal matters? School, crushes, love?
"I'm a bit like the guy from the film Mi Nismo Anđeli (We Are Not Angels) so, as far as Milica is concerned, she cracks up when we touch on anything of the sort, because of my views. [laughs] While we're talking, sometimes we both think that we're joking, but other times it really resembles the scenes from the film. [laughs loudly] With Danilo I talk about serious things – what his life plans are, as well as other everyday topics, including the difficult ones. About work and such but, to be frank, least of all about emotional subjects. That's how the Vučić menfolk do it – we hardly ever discuss such things."
Are you a strict father?
"No. On the contrary."
You are very close to your brother Andrej now. How did you get along as children? Was there any rivalry between you two as boys? What are your memories of childhood?
"We'd be out the whole day. I think we fought every day until when we were about 11 or 12, and we've been inseparable since then. We love and respect each other, and talk many times every day. We don't hide the fact that we're close, it's as if we were twins."
Is there something that you surprise your associates with?
"Kindness. It really takes them by surprise!" [This answer made the president's media advisor, Suzana Vasiljević, laugh out loud.]
At this time of year most of us make the so-called New Year's resolutions. What are yours, personally and privately, leaving aside your work?
"I've learnt from Sheikh Tahnoun, brother of Sheikh Mohammed, to give myself each year three tasks that I can accomplish in the coming year, which are not strictly related to my work. One of the tasks I've set myself is to progress from the beginner level to an intermediate level in my knowledge of German. The second one is to keep working on my Russian. And the third … I need to think about it. I have until New Year's to set the third task, but I can say that I do plan to successfully complete year one of my studies at the college of vocational studies for basketball coaches."
How are your studies coming along?
"They're coming along well. The college is more demanding than I thought, and this is why I'd like to apologize to all the lecturers. There are many difficult courses and a lot to learn. I think I have increased my knowledge in various areas. I've passed two midterms each in all of the first five courses, and I have the exams in January. Then I'll be able to tell you more. But, I hope to be able to complete my studies in due time, in two and a half years, and then be able to coach kids. I've always wanted this, and I believe that in my old age I'll be in a position to make the wish from my youth come true."
What is it that you miss of the ordinary, everyday-life sorts of things, which your office has taken away from you?
"There are many, but it makes no sense to complain. I ran in the elections to win the people's trust, so the bitter complaints can wait until the end of my term in office."
What relaxes you personally? In addition to reading books, do you find the time to watch a TV series or a film? You like football, so what was the last thing that you watched?
"I watch both football and basketball, but I watch basketball more. I also follow volleyball, water polo, and handball, time permitting. The last thing I watched is unfortunately the match between Igokea and Red Star, with Igokea winning by 20 points. I knew Dodik was happy, and he knew that, even though I took defeat in a sportsman-like manner, it wasn't easy for me. I was really upset. What can you do, that's what sports are like. I watch football whenever I can, mostly the repeats on Arena. So, when there's a home game on, I usually cannot watch it live, but in a night-time slot when a repeat is on. That's how I watched the water polo cup games – at 5am – and sometimes they'd be broadcast on RTS 2. As for TV series and films, I don't watch them at all. I rarely see a film – once every three months; and I don't watch a single TV series. I don't follow anything and I'm ignorant about all the things that ordinary folks know about this. The one thing I have to keep myself updated on are the news programmes of all the regional stations and major global ones – US, European, Russian, and, whenever I can, Chinese ones as well. So, other than news programmes, I only watch sports, other sorts of things almost never."
ON THE FUTURE COLLABORATION WITH KRIVOKAPIĆ'S GOVERNMENT
'We want brotherly relations with Montenegro.'
The new Montenegrin government pays lip service to reconciliation in their messages while their actual practices have shown otherwise. The decision on declaring Ambassador Božović persona non grata hasn't been reversed, and they are still in two minds whether to visit Belgrade or Priština first. What do you say to all that?
"We want brotherly and friendly relations with Montenegro. We certainly have the closest ties with Montenegro and the Republic of Srpska. I'll wait patiently, as all the data is available now, to see how exactly Milo Đukanović is involved in the Belgrade Waterfront and what joint enterprise we had or anything of the sort. I believe I will have an answer. Either that, or perhaps an apology. If there is neither, then it will be clear to everyone that they have been telling untruths. Naturally, our collaboration will proceed as normal, not much to say there. And if they're wondering whether to go to Priština or Belgrade, they really shouldn't. Please, don't be wondering about this or rack your brains over it. Feel free to go to Priština – this is very important for yourselves and your NATO agenda, and I'm perfectly OK with that, it's your internal affair. Whenever they find themselves in a quandary, I would like to ask them to make a decision to Belgrade's detriment. We'll survive. At any rate, I think that we have to be open and understanding towards the new Montenegrin government, and try to have a tighter collaboration."
What is the first place that you will take Vukan next year?
"To the Red Star Stadium."
We meant a city or a nice place abroad?
"Serbia is the most beautiful and Vukan has travelled around a lot anyway, there's no need for him to rush abroad. I'll stick with the Red Star Stadium."
Speaking of the professional domain, how do you see the past year? You often say that we have managed to save the economy despite being severely hit by the coronavirus.
"As for last year, we did several things that I am proud of. We will have the exact assessment on 31 January, but we can already make a flash assessment. Serbia will stand at -0.8 to -0.9 percent. It will be by far the best country in Europe in terms of GDP growth rate. Let me remind you we supported the companies in this country by means of a huge economic relief package and that, despite spending over six billion euros, the public debt - I mean the budgetary public debt – increased from 52.5 to only 57.5 (57.6). Keeping the public debt at that level amid the coronavirus crisis is virtually incredible. It's an exceptional success of Serbia, and I am proud of it. Furthermore, Serbia is among the first three countries in Europe to start a vaccination, using the US vaccine."
What other important things have been achieved?
"We built highways and opened them. At the moment, we are building four highways. We are working on the Kuzmin-Sremska Rača-Bijeljina highway, connecting Belgrade, Banjaluka, and Sarajevo. We are working on the Ruma-Šabac highway, the Morava Corridor, and, of course, the Čačak-Požega highway. We are preparing for building the Karađorđe Highway and a high-speed road to Požarevac. The construction part of the Belgrade-Novi Sad railroad is slowly drawing to a close, and we have also completed the gas line running from Bulgaria to the Hungarian border. Then we need to work on the secondary gas line, especially in the direction of Vranje and Valjevo. The east of Serbia as well – Bor, Zaječar, and any other town without gas. We are aiming to develop the gas infrastructure in Serbia, which I am especially proud of. We'll be working hard with the EU and the Chinese to introduce sewage systems, both sanitary and storm drain ones – plus wastewater purifiers and water supply facilities. That is a different Serbia, It won't be the same country anymore."
What can people hope for in 2021? Last year was one of the hardest years for the whole world. How has Serbia fared in the coronavirus crisis? What is your message for the people at the end of 2020?
"Here is what I would like to say to the citizens of Serbia: We have successfully finished this year, which has been hard and horrendous. We have been battling the coronavirus for almost 10 months, and the entire state administration, including myself as President, is engaged in this fight. For you it is no longer news when I speak to Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, or Vladimir Putin. This is now boring and isn't reported on, as it says good things about Serbia. We can mention those things with pride. A few days ago, an airplane from the Emirates landed, carrying equipment worth many millions of euros – MRI scanners, ventilators, and all the equipment needed for a whole Covid-19 hospital. We received this owing to our good relations and the successes of the Serbian state."
Will you be taking any further steps in relation to the elderly and the most vulnerable?
"I do have an idea. We'll try to obtain packages with vitamins C and D and zinc during the winter, and deliver them to the pensioners in about two or three months, so that they could boost their immune systems in winter. I don't think anyone else has done that except Hungary. We aim to strengthen the immunity of the elderly, as it is our grandmas and grandpas that are the most vulnerable. And here I would like to ask the younger population without other illnesses to take good care of the elderly, as they are fatally affected in 95 percent of the cases."
Given the circumstances, the healthcare system is the most fragile and the most exposed. What has been done there?
"Building two hospitals in four months – who in Europe has managed to do that? We have fewer deaths owing to that alone. Do you think it's possible to have fewer deaths than Croatia or Bosnia and Herzegovina, which, by the way, has five or six times fewer tests than us? As you know, if you're not testing, you cannot have the exact number of deaths, because you cannot officially say they are corona-related."
How is it that we have fewer deaths than Bosnia or Croatia percentage-wise?
"Because we are admitting everyone to hospitals. There are ten thousand people in hospitals at the moment. We are dealing daily with the issue of which medical doctors and nurses to transfer and how, in order to ensure that the system works. When someone is hospitalized, they stand better chances of surviving. We have built the infrastructure there as well – all the hospitals admitting people have been renovated during our term in government, in the past two or three years. The Dragiša Mišović Hospital, the Zvezdara and Zemun hospitals, etc. We supported the brainiacs at the Orthopaedic Clinic. Look at Dedinje 2 and the speed with which the construction work is being carried out, not to mention the Niš Medical Centre. Just look at how many new hospitals we're building. Prokuplje and the equipment there will cost us 30 million euros, but Prokuplje will have a fantastic modern general hospital. That is another living standard level. Moreover, we're raising salaries and pensions amid the coronavirus crisis. The average salary in October stood at 511.5 euros. That's the latest information I have, and it's official. On top of this, the net salary in Belgrade is 632 euros."
How big a jump is that compared to the period 2012-2016?
"In 2012, it was 339 euros. In real terms, 50 percent more. We have maintained the exchange rate of the dinar throughout, and have a stable dinar. This is the only period of time – these eight years – that we have had the same value of the dinar throughout."
ON YOUNG POLITICIANS
'The tycoons aren't letting new blood enter the political scene.'
We are witnessing the emergence of new people in the regional political scene, with younger politicians among them. Why isn't there a Dritan Abazović or a Draško Stanivuković in Serbia as well?
"Firstly, I think there's a world of difference between Dritan and Draško. The tycoon politicians controlling a large portion of the media sphere in Serbia will never allow someone smarter, better, and more honest to take their place. Why would they invest hundreds of millions of euros? To have someone else come to power? That is the point – they won't let anyone else in. They will tolerate only the ones that have changed six different political parties, the ones that they know could never pose a threat. They will tolerate only the corrupt ones, and reject anyone new, preventing them from entering the political opposition space in any way."
You have been listing the results for quite a while now. What about the criticism that the state has fallen short with respect to the coronavirus and that the healthcare system is on its knees and about to collapse?
"When you criticise someone who is busy because he was a day or two late opening a hospital – and that is the harshest criticism that you can level – that makes me feel proud. Because it tells you what sort of difference we have made compared to those who haven't built a single hospital, or a single medical centre. Serbia is turning into a winner and that process is irreversible. A country that competes for the number one place in Europe, not just in basketball, volleyball, tennis, handball, or water polo, but also in economy, in the rate of progress. I can understand that some are bothered by this, but you have no answer to it when you look at the unemployment rate in Serbia, or our GDP, or the public debt. And I do understand the anxiety of those who invested hundreds of millions of euros though their tycoons just to tear everything down in Serbia, because they need government funds to be able to loot again and become richer. But in this area as well Serbia has moved irreversibly forward, and will not be returning to the age of tycoon rule and plundering money from the people."
You mention highways, the highest growth rate in Europe, new hospitals, salaries rising, and the stable exchange rate of the dinar. What are you most proud of?
"I'm proud of all these things. Twenty years from now, as you cross the Gazela or Branko's Bridge and take a look at the Belgrade Waterfront, everyone will know who built that. Whatever anyone says – without so much as a hint of personal interest except being proud of it – generations of people will remember that someone had the courage and the guts to stand up to all the liars and fraudsters who tried to stop all that is good. But, for me the thing of the greatest importance lies somewhere else. When I travel around Serbia and, as I'm passing by Niš, I see the seven factories for which I personally brought in the investors. When I'm travelling in the direction of Šid and Zagreb, Novi Sad and Subotica, or Pančevo, when you look at all these factories – they're the ones allowing us to build roads, railway tracks, and hospitals. And if I have to choose, then I'm the proudest of these factories, because without them there would be nothing. I'm also proud of the monument honouring Stefan Nemanja, commemorating the crimes committed against the Serbian people from the NATO aggression down to Operation Storm, and the first feature film on Jasenovac that has received state funding. Do you ever wonder why it is that we hadn't done that for 70 years? Because, whenever you said that to someone, there would be a power structure that would never allow a film on crimes against Serbs to be made, especially on the subject of Jasenovac. It was as if there was a wall of silence, or an agreement that no one would take part in that."
ON THE ATACKS AGAINST HIS FAMILY AND ATTEMPTS TO RACKETEER HIM
'Some people in the Serbian Progressive Party and parts of the Socialist Party leadership pay protection money for the media not to write negatively about them.'
The name of your brother Andrej is often brought up in the attacks against you. He is claimed to have been involved in almost all lucrative business operations, to be the owner of a string of restaurants, as well as land in Vojvodina. To be calling the shots in Serbia and the Progressive Party. Why is he the target?
"When you ask them where Andrej's land in Vojvodina is, they have nothing to show for it, let alone tens of thousands of hectares, as they alleged. When you tell them, show me a single restaurant in Belgrade or a single bakery, since you're talking about it. They cannot say it's me, that I'm part of this, because for me there is a schedule that is public. So they have to find someone and, in order to pin it on Aleksandar, who will they go and find? They will find Andrej."
Recently, your children, including your youngest son Vukan, and your parents have been subjected to ever more atrocious insults and threats. It is evident that your political opponents and the general public have not condemned this, nor have the authorities invariably responded. Do you ever talk about this with your family? What do they tell you and what do you tell them?
"They attack my father, who is 80, and I don't even know what that is all about. And then they decide to call my mother, who is 76, an old w**re. But all of that's possible when you realize that they're saying all those nasty things and using the foulest language and adjectives to describe you on a public, tycoon television channel, which they have invested hundreds of millions of euros in. Small wonder then that someone without any accountability, protected by a fake name on social media, would say the same thing. I think it's to be expected that I'm the one that gets attacked the most, but it shouldn't be the case that a family is attacked in this way. If you could say that I killed my own child – and the child did die at birth – and then this gets published in the print edition of a newspaper that's freely published in Serbia without anyone saying a word. One of the reasons why I say that it's to be expected that I'm attacked is that I don't want to pay protection money to anyone."
Pay protection money to whom?
"For example, these newspapers attack me because I don't want to pay protection money. Look at many state officials that are never mentioned. Some people from the Progressive Party and parts of the Socialist Party leadership have never been attacked because they bring protection money and hand it over. Whatever they say, I know I'm telling the truth. And when there's a line published about them, some people quickly send envoys to the media to have it cancelled. You can publish what I just said. Everyone knows it. I won't do that. I will not be racketeered by anyone!"
Does this have anything to do with the debates related to selecting this film as the Serbian submission for the Oscars?
"I don't know enough about film quality, but I am sure, as I know the scriptwriters – Mrs Drakulić and Dragan Antonijević – that they have done a very good job. I'm only talking about the topic here. Perhaps there lies the reason why Jasenovac could never be submitted for the Oscars or made into a story. Perhaps someone is truly bothered by this, or it could also be something else, but I won't get into that. I'm truly happy and proud that such a film was made with the help of the Serbian state."
When will you take the vaccine? The prime minister took the Pfizer jab. Would you rather get the Russian or the Chinese one?
"It doesn't matter, whichever comes next. I believe in the vaccine, as it has saved the world. I will take any one. For us, the most important thing is to vaccinate around two million people, first and foremost the most vulnerable groups. It is up to our authorities to decide when the Russian and Chinese vaccines will be approved. But that cannot happen before the Chinese register their vaccine in their own country. We will be successful in the vaccine search efforts, that I can promise to the people."
ON THE FIGHT OF THE STATE AGAINST THE MAFIA
'I was tapped for a year and a half, and I know who is behind it.'
You have been announcing a clampdown on the mafia for some time now. Darko Elez, a big shot in the Balkan criminal underground, linked to the most powerful clans active in Serbia, has been arrested. Is this the start of this ultimate fight?
"It is. I think it's really important for the state to get that done. Only the state has the monopoly over physical force, and it must show resolve and determination in clamping down on organized crime and fighting against corruption. As well as in dealing with a situation where in a city, or the whole country, everyone says they know who the racketeers and drug traffickers are, and yet nothing comes of it. If everyone knows and remains silent, with no one doing anything about it, then the state is the problem. I think that the results from the previous years – and I'm especially pleased with the fact that with regard to the Ušće or Belvil murders, either the murderers are known and arrested, or the legal proceedings have started. It's important for the prosecutor's office and the police to do their job and to know that the state will go through with it, regardless of what someone is called and how dangerous they might be."
And they are big names ...
"This country has faced a problem where several young people, mostly from the criminal underworld, went missing. But that doesn't mean that you have the right to kill these people just because you're part of another criminal clan. So, some think that 'no body means no case' and that that is their protection. I think they're mistaken and that we will soon show them how mistaken they are in thinking that they can pull a fast one on the state in this way, play games with all of us, or kill as they please."
They obviously think that because they have a strong backing in the administration. Who are the people behind the most powerful clan members?
"When you talk about the mafia, what defines it is that you always have a sort of backing and support of some structures within state bodies. That's the point and that's why it's so difficult. The fight against it isn't hard because they have muscles or better guns – that's a joke, boy talk. Of course, it's always dangerous when they have protection from certain portions of the state apparatus, and I think that not only has that cage been seriously rattled, but that they are actually facing a major problem. I've spoken to police officers and I can see that they have regained their trust in the decisions of the state and how it treats them."
How did it come to a point where they would feel so powerful and be practically out of control?
"I have been concerned more with all other problems, and I would be right in laying a bit of the blame on myself. I was concerned with Kosovo, the situation in the region, the economy, the coronavirus, the vaccines, and whatnot … When you're fully focused on all that, you cannot send the best possible messages from each domain. When you don't say anything on the issue for three, four, or five months, some might say, 'Right, the state is sort of supporting us! See how the guy in the suit hasn't said or done anything.' So, I'm sorry that I haven't addressed this issue for many months, but I see now that everyone has understood what they must do and have applied themselves to it."
Which clans and individuals can pose the greatest threat in this war?
"The state is at war with them no matter what clan they belong to (the Kavač clan, the Škaljari one, or any other). They are two Montenegrin clans who kill each other and who have found their henchmen in Belgrade, fighting over a lot of money and how to divide the illegal drugs market among themselves. I believe that by taking various measures in the past we managed to achieve something, and I believe that we will sweep the streets of Belgrade and Serbia clean of this criminal scum. And where someone comes from doesn't mean that they don't belong to one clan, or that they're not close to another. The power of these people comes from some of them uniting recently, even though they hadn't been so close, and that's why it is important for such actions to be taken now."
There's recently been some off-the-record talk coming from the security circles to the effect that you as the president of the Republic, your closest associates, and even family members, have been tapped. Do you have any knowledge of this?
"There have been some strange developments, but I think that the authorities will also have their say on this. There were strange things that ought not to happen. Immoral as well as illegal things. I have proof that I have been tapped. I have my own recorded conversations, because some people thought they could just delete or hide them. But don't forget that when you enjoy this sort of support from the people, there are many of those who wish to go about their work in an honourable and professional way, and will not get onboard with such things. I believe that the authorities will investigate it and that, if there have been clear violations of the law, those who have broken the law will be held to account."
Do you know who tapped you and based on whose orders?
"I don't know the actual names of the people listening to me. But yes, I think I know who is behind it. I'm not one to commit to wreaking vengeance, I do understand what that's like and it's all clear to me. As far as I'm concerned, it's nothing special."
How long has this been going on, since you have been president?
"A long time – a year and a half."