May 31, 2017 / 12:53 PM / 3 months ago

Serbia's conservative leader sworn in as president

Newly elected Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic waves to his supporters after a swearing-in ceremony at the parliament building in Belgrade, Serbia May 31, 2017.Marko Djurica

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Conservative politician Aleksandar Vucic was sworn in as Serbian president on Wednesday, cheered by thousands of supporters, some of whom briefly clashed with opposition protesters who accuse him of being an autocrat.

An hour before the ceremony in Serbia's parliament was due to start, a group of opposition backers and Vucic's loyalists arrived for the ceremony and brawled in an underground passage. No one was seriously injured.

Vucic, who had been prime minister of the Balkan country since 2014, won April's presidential election in a landslide.

He is the first president to take an oath of office not only on the constitution, but also on the 12th century Miroslav Gospel, the first document ever written in the Serbian language. The new ceremony is aimed at demonstrating the longevity of Serbian statehood.

In an address to parliament and to dignitaries Vucic pledged to work on regional stability and take the country closer towards a membership in the European Union. But he also said he would continue to foster close ties with Russia and China.

Vucic also pledged he would strive to resolve outstanding issues with Kosovo, Serbia's former province that declared independence in 2008, nine years after NATO bombing drove out Serb forces fighting an Albanian insurgency.

Serbia, which considers Kosovo a cradle of its mediaeval state and Orthodox Christianity, refuses to recognise its independence and is blocking Pristina in efforts to join international institutions including the United Nations.

"We need to reject myths and look towards the future," he said.

'CORONATION'

Vucic's opponents, however, say he has an authoritarian streak that has led him to take control over the media in Serbia since his party rose to power in 2012.

He denies the charge but has struggled to shake it off given his record when in government in the dying days of Yugoslavia.

In his late twenties, Vucic was Serbia's feared information minister behind draconian legislation designed to muzzle criticism of the government during the 1998-99 Kosovo war.

"This is the coronation of a tsar who will usurp the presidency as he previously usurped the government," said Nikola, a protester.

As president, Vucic will have few formal powers, among them the right to send legislation back to parliament for reconsideration.

But he is widely expected to appoint a loyal ally as prime minister and try to keep a tight rein on policy, as former president Boris Tadic, then of the Democratic Party, did between 2004 and 2012.

"Vucic is a real people's president, he will lead this country to a better life," said Vuk Petrovic, 58, a metalworker from Belgrade, dressed un a T-shirt with the Serbian flag on it.

Writing by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Stephen Powell

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