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Reporting on Serbian Leader's Links to Criminal Groups Raises Questions for US

FILE - Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic speaks during a press conference in Belgrade, Serbia, April 24, 2023.

In early May, The New York Times Magazine published an in-depth story about Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic with details about his alleged connections with a criminal group that is being prosecuted for a range of crimes including drug trafficking and murder.

The story drew broad attention internationally, not just in the Balkans where local investigative outlets have reported many of the same allegations, which Vucic denies.

The State Department declined to comment on the merit of the allegations in the story, however at least one high-ranking State Department official shared the story on social media. And the allegations were raised last month during a congressional hearing about the Western Balkans.

Outside analysts though have been vocal.

"It's a shocking and horrific story that the highest levels of government are so intertwined with criminal enterprises. I think we have seen this in enough other nations that it is a growing concern, the conflation between authoritarian governments and criminal networks," Gary Kalman, executive director of Transparency International USA, told VOA's Serbian Service.

"It's terrible. It's too bad," said Susan Rose-Ackerman, professor of law and political science at Yale University, who co-authored the book "Corruption and Government." She told VOA that connections between people in political power and organized crime create an extreme version of political corruption.

The Times story reported that the connections between police and the criminal group, led by a soccer hooligan Veljko Belivuk, nicknamed Trouble, were well documented. The story also claimed "there is little doubt that Belivuk and his gang are in prison because Europol cracked the code" of the phone-messaging app through which they communicated.

Author Robert Worth reported that Belivuk testified in court that "his gang had been organized 'for the need and by the order of Aleksandar Vucic.'" He added that the group, among others, used to intimidate political rivals and prevent fans at soccer games from chanting against Vucic.

Worth also wrote that he is skeptical that Vucic was unaware of all the groups did since Vucic "now exercises near-total control over almost every aspect of public life" in Serbia.

International context

Vucic has been in politics since the 1990s. He served as information minister to Slobodan Milosevic, where he led a crackdown on the press, and he publicly voiced support for Serbian war criminals.

His Serbian Progressive Party has now been in power for more than 10 years, during which he was also a prime minister.

Vucic's spokespeople declined Worth's requests for comments, but in an interview for pro-government Happy TV in Serbia, Vucic said that the "preposterous New York Times story was ordered" and that he understands it as a message during the dialogue about normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, which Serbia has never recognized.

"I know how they do it," said Vucic for Happy TV. "You know, CIA sets you up, CIA watches you, if you don't behave well and don't listen, this is only the beginning."

It has become common practice in past years that Serbian authorities denote any criticism as treason, conspiracy against the country or a plot to overthrow the government.

Both Worth and The New York Times denied such allegations.

VOA interviewees noted that the most significant aspect of the story was the fact that it was published in English, in a reputable outlet with a great number of readers.

"It is an exposé of Aleksandar Vucic and his government. And it put it in an international context, given that it's The New York Times," Tanya Domi, professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, told VOA. "Everybody is reading this."

Is Serbia a reliable partner for the United States?

"Is this reporting credible?" Senator Bob Menendez asked the State Department's counselor Derek Chollet during a May hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about U.S. policy toward the Western Balkans, referencing the Times story.

"We believe it is. I can't speak to the specifics of the article, but there is absolutely a lot of corruption," replied Chollet, with Gabriel Escobar, State Department deputy assistant secretary, sitting next to him.

"So what are the real prospects for a reliable partner in Serbia with that background?" Menendez asked.

"We're doing this with eyes open, but we are holding Vucic to account and his colleagues to account for their corruption, for their behavior and activity," said Chollet, noting that corruption is a major issue in the whole region.

But in an interview for VOA's Bosnian Service, Kurt Bassuener, senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council, pointed out that the U.S. has not sanctioned any Vucic administration official for corruption as it has done in some neighboring countries.

"They essentially dodged it," Bassuener said of State Department officials. "They didn't deal with any of the substance. And I think that's emblematic of the overarching policy, which is pacification toward the region."

Domi believes the United States and the West are pursuing the idea that Serbia is "a stabilizing force in the region." But if the goal of such foreign policy toward the Western Balkans is to draw Serbia closer to the West and further from Russia, Domi says there is no proof such a strategy works.

Serbia is one of the rare European countries that has not introduced sanctions against Russia, and there is a strong pro-Russian sentiment in the country.

Transparency International's Kalman said Washington's strategy with Serbia could shift in the future.

"I think there is a possibility that the U.S., given sort of Serbia's role and where it sits in the world, that they might put some pressure on to try and improve things in Serbia," he said.

"How far they push and whether or not they are concerned that the Serbian government will start an alliance with countries and interests that the U.S. counter to their national security, and so then they back up. I don't know the answer to that question," Kalman said.