In early May, the extensive article published by The New York Times about Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, his political career, and alleged ties to the criminal group led by Veljko Belivuk drew significant attention from both the Balkan and American public. At least one high-ranking official from the State Department shared the article on social media and it became a topic discussed in the U.S. Congress.
As reported by Voice of America, the Executive Director of Transparency International US, Gary Kalman, said that the “shocking” article on the country’s top officials being intertwined with criminal organizations is deeply concerning, considering similar cases were seen in other countries.
“The connection between authoritarian governments and criminal networks is increasingly a cause for alarm,“ he stated.
„This is terrible. This is very bad,“ said Susan Rose-Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale University and co-author of the book „Corruption and Government,“ which analyzes the relationship between organized crime, corruption, and power.
She added that situations, where there are links between crime and politics, represent one of the extreme versions of political corruption. The NYT article extensively describes the crimes for which Belivuk’s criminal group is being prosecuted.
Author Robert Worth notes the well-documented connections between its members and the police, emphasizing that „there is no doubt” that Belivuk and his gang are in prison only because Europol cracked the application they used to communicate. However, he argued that it is unlikely that all of this could have happened without Vucic’s knowledge, as he „has almost complete control over almost every aspect of public life“ in Serbia.
Worth did not receive a response from Vucic’s spokesperson despite multiple interview requests.
On May 8, during an episode of the „Cirilica“ program, the president claimed that the „meaningless article in The New York Times was commissioned“ and was actually written in Serbia. He perceived it as a message during the Brussels dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, saying, „I know how they operate. See, CIA watches you. If you’re not good and if you don’t obey, this is just the beginning,“ he declared.
Both the author of the article and The New York Times denied these allegations.
Worth’s story was published in the magazine that accompanies The New York Times on Sundays, and much of this information was already known in the Balkans, as it had been reported by KRIK, Vreme, and other Serbian media outlets.
Interviewees from Voice of America highlighted that the article’s greatest significance lies in its publication in a reputable medium with a large number of readers, in the English language.
„The Sunday magazine is important; it is an exposé on Vucic and his government. It has put things in an international context, considering it is The New York Times. As I told colleagues in the region, the article is being shared over the Internet, among embassies, throughout the Balkans. Everyone is reading it,“ said Tanya Domi, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York.
US Senator Bob Menendez asked Derek Chollet, the special advisor to the U.S. Secretary of State, and Gabriel Escobar, the State Department’s special envoy for the Western Balkans about the NYT article, and whether Serbia could be considered a reliable partner to the US .
Chollet would not speak about the specifics of that article, noting only that there is a lot of corruption in the country. He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the US holds Vucic and his colleagues accountable for their corruption, behaviour and activities and has imposed sanctions on many individuals throughout the region.
He added that „corruption is devastating the region.“
In an interview with Voice of America’s Bosnian Service, Kurt Bassuener, an analyst at the Democratization Policy Council, said that State Department officials at the hearing „sounded like Vucic’s defenders.“
„They essentially avoided answering. They didn’t address the essence of it. And I think it symbolizes a comprehensive policy of pacification towards the region,“ Bassuener said.
Domi expressed her lack of understanding regarding the goals of U.S. foreign policy toward the Western Balkans, stating that if the aim is to bring Serbia closer to the West, there is no evidence that this is happening.
„There are policies and objectives that we may not necessarily need to know about, which serve the national interests of the United States in collaboration with the Serbian government. But if the United States claims, and it has been the practice for a long time, to approach Serbia as an important player in the region, as the largest country – and it seems that the West continues to follow the idea that Serbia is a stabilizing force in the region – with the publication of the article and everything that happened afterwards, the massive protests – I think it shows that Serbia is not a stable entity and has caused a lot of problems in the region and continues to do so,“ Domi said.
She added, „If the United States has a goal, I think they have to start from scratch. They need to reevaluate our foreign policy.“
Bassuener pointed out that there are two ways to change the foreign policy of a country, in this case, the United States: legislative oversight, such as the Senate hearing, and media scrutiny, such as the article in The New York Times.
The State Department declined to comment on the findings of the article when contacted by Voice of America.