Aleksandar Vucic is never happier than when presenting awards – but who the real star of the show is on these occasions is another question.
The awarding and receiving of medals has become one of the favourite performances of Serbia’s President, Aleksandar Vucic. For each holiday, the head of state issues a list of those in line for decorations – for Statehood Day, Victory Day, Armistice Day in the Great War, and for the great Serbian holiday Vidovdan.
If the gap between the two awardings is “large”, it might be just an “ordinary” day, like December 10. What’s important to remind the public that the “all-seeing eye” has noticed someone’s merits and, of course, for the first man of Serbia to appear at the ceremony.
The President is the one to whom the show always belongs, regardless of whether he is awarding anonymous doctors for the fight against coronavirus or the writer, Peter Handke, the movie director Emir Kusturica, French President Emanuel Macron … And when he is the one receiving the medal, the glory is, of course, his. For the President’s supporters, that is all normal; for many others, this is just another pebble in the mosaic called creating a cult of personality.
Marko Milanovic, a professor at the University of Nottingham, assesses this “need” of Vucic as narcissistic. “He must be on television and his day is not complete if he has not appeared at least once. He wants everyone to photograph him and uses every opportunity for self-promotion,” he says.
The Covid-19 epidemic also worked out for Vucic, he did not deliver the awards to the laureates at the same time, but in smaller groups and on different days. Thus, TV viewers in Serbia could watch the soap opera “The President Presents the Order” for weeks.
For those who know less about the “manners” of the Serbian President, it is necessary to say that he is a man who does not miss any opportunity to emphasize himself, sometimes directly (“I decided so”), and sometimes through “wise” politics of which he is the only creator. The same happens at the awards ceremony.
He explains to the ones who got the decorations what it means for them, how they should behave in the future, and apologizes to them that their endeavors had not been noticed so far. This, of course, points to the conclusion that he was the one who corrected this injustice. He told the famous violinist Stefan Milenkovic that he would have to act “very responsibly in the next 60 years of his life”, “because he is recognized by Serbia”.
Vucic’s propaganda machine creates an image of the adored leader who is a welcome guest everywhere. His environment presents him as someone “special”, while at the same time he is “modest”, “caring” and “dedicated to his family”.
When he received the Order of Alexander Nevsky from Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2019, the journalists of the state tabloid Kurir made a report from Vucic’s parents’ home. Of course with an emphasis on family values. The President’s father then said that his son had wanted to dedicate the Order to him, but he, his father, had advised him to dedicate it to all their ancestors from their native village of Cipuljice.
Vucic is not picky. The last award he received was from Bishop Pahomije of Vranje on the occasion of the 950th anniversary of the Prohor Pcinjski Monastery on June 13. Thanking him for the decoration, he proudly said that he was not someone who longed for awards, but that, “this order means a lot to him”.
He immediately, “modestly”, added that he was the only Serbian President in history who was awarded that decoration. Perhaps he is the only one because the Order of the Venerable Prohor Pcinjski is mostly awarded to people from Orthodox Church circles.
The President also did not mind that he received the order from a bishop who was accused of pedophilia in 2003. The court sentence for this church elder failed because, with the intervention of the local authorities, the statute of limitations had expired in the case. But numerous testimonies of the victims remained – three boys and one monk who escaped from the monastery.
It must be admitted that Vucic has mechanisms to soften his critics. Part of the public in Serbia was very surprised when the editorial board of the pro-government daily Vecernje novosti awarded the President with the Golden Plaque for the most noble feat of the year on June 30. The Plaque was actually awarded to the state of Serbia, which had donated 416,000 COVID vaccines to its neighbours. The state and Vucic are synonyms for many; it is not even hidden, so perhaps it was logical for Vucic to receive the plaque.
What was unexpected was that the academician Matija Beckovic appeared at the awards ceremony. Beckovic is considered a critic of Vucic’s regime, but on behalf of Novosti and in his capacity as Chairman of the Jury for the Feat of the Year, he personally handed the award to Vucic. There were no hugs and kisses, but the question remained, what was Beckovic doing there?
Two years earlier, when the former head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Irinej, presented the Order of St Sava to Vucic, Beckovic made an ironic comment. The Patriarch had given the Order to Vucic because of his “love for the Church”, but also because of the “tireless fight to keep Kosovo part of Serbia”. Beckovic then said that it was necessary to wait first for Vucic to defend Kosovo. Two years later, many are of the opinion that he also knelt before the Master.
It is difficult to find an explanation for some decorations. The latest example is the award of the highest recognition, the Order of the Republic of Serbia, on a large necklace, to Milorad Dodik, Serbian chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Dodik is a politician from Bosnia’s Serb entity, Republika Srpska, and his efforts to preserve Bosnia are questionable. It could be said that Dodik is working harder on breaking Bosnia up. He is more often in Belgrade than in Sarajevo and looks more like Vucic’s dependant than a politician who should be decorated. However, in the foreground is not the person who was decorated, but the one who awarded the decoration.
The same can be said for the Gold Medal, which he awarded to rocker Oliver Mandic for Vidovdan this year. Mandic has not been recording or performing for a long time, but he “deserved” the Medal two years ago when he kissed the hand of the President of Serbia at the pre-election rally of his Serbian Progressive Party. Mandic was once a volunteer in the “Tigers” paramilitary formation of Zeljko Raznatovic Arkan, which committed serious war crimes during the wars of the 1990s in former Yugoslavia.
On Serbia’s Statehood Day, on February 15, Vucic awarded seven journalists. Among them was Gordana Uzelac, a journalist for Pink TV, whose owner openly says that they are pro-regime television station. There are an army of journalists in Serbia who deserve state recognition before Uzela, but Vucic skillfully avoided discussion of that topic. He gave the same award to Jelena Zoric, then a journalist for the independent TV N1, and the public focused on the question of whether Zorić should have refused the decoration, and not why Uzelac was awarded.
The President had no problem in awarding the Russian sculptor Alexander Rukavishnikov, the author of a megalomaniac monument to the famous medieval ruler Stefan Nemanja. Rukavishnikov is problematic for many citizens, however, because, together with the authorities in Belgrade, he is hiding the price of the monument.
Recognitions and decorations are, for many, opportunities to gain the favour of the most powerful man in Serbia. Local governments sometimes overdo it with their courtship.
The bosses of the town of Lebane, in the south of Serbia, twice – in 2017 and 2018 – awarded Vucic a plaque for his contribution to their area’s development, but the President never came to the presentation. He probably felt this would be more of an embarrassment than a contribution to his popularity and ratings. He knows that there is no development in Lebane and that the average monthly salary in this municipality is among the lowest in the country, around 380 euros.
And another detail that perfectly illustrates the story about decorations in Serbia; when one of the Serbian officials receives an award, it is logical to attribute the credit to the “adored being”. That is their party obligation.
On June 28, on Vidovdan, the Prime Minister, Ana Brnabic, received the highest recognition from the town of Krusevac. In her speech, she insisted that a large part of the award belonged to the President. She did not even mention her associates.