Serbian PM vows economic reforms in Soviet-style marathon speech

August 9, 2016 3:48 PM EDT

Serbian Prime Minister and leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) Aleksandar Vucic reacts after elections in Belgrade, Serbia April 24, 2016. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

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By Ivana Sekularac

BELGRADE (Reuters) - Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic vowed to step up Serbia's economic reforms and trim the bloated public sector on Tuesday in a 5-1/2 hour speech the opposition mocked as a Soviet-era talkathon without a toilet break.

Vucic, a center-right leader and former ultra-nationalist who has been in power since 2014, was presenting to parliament the program of the new cabinet he announced on Monday, nearly four months after winning snap elections.

Exports and investment will both rise to lead to an overall 13 percent growth of the economy by the end of his new four-year term, Vucic said. He also reiterated his goal to complete European Union accession talks by 2019.

The Balkan country's debt will shrink to 60 percent of national output by 2020 from the current 72 percent, he added.

"When we take all these figures into account, it is clear that we can talk about a golden era for Serbia," Vucic said.

Long passages of the speech dwelled on very detailed issues such as the beauties of Serbian tourist sites, recalling the endless lectures of communist leaders in the Soviet era.

"Is (Fidel) Castro's record threatened?" opposition leader Sasa Radulovic asked on Twitter in a reference to the former Cuban leader known for his hours-long speeches.

When the ultranationalist politician Vojislav Seselj asked about a toilet break, Vucic shot back: "I don't need to leave the room, but, Mr Seselj, we can provide a diaper for you."


Serbia, the biggest market in the western Balkan region, is forecast to grow 2.5 percent in 2016, which places it among the most sluggish economies in the area.

Vucic said his government would make a final push to privatize some 73 companies including Belgrade's airport, insurer Dunav and Telekom as requested by a 1.2 billion euro ($1.33 billion) loan deal with the International Monetary Fund.

State-owned power and gas utility companies will be restructured and made profitable, he said, adding that some of those savings would allow the government to work toward increasing pensions and public sector wages.

Vucic won a comfortable majority in an April election, but delayed forming a new cabinet while seeking a coalition to share responsibility for reforms. He eventually renewed his coalition with the Socialists and retained largely the same team, including Finance Minister Dusan Vujovic.

Parliament is expected to give a green light to the new government by the end of the week.

Vucic, who appears almost daily on local media, made much of his marathon performance, insisting he could stand up throughout and needed no breaks. He denies charges made by some local media and opposition politicians that he is an autocratic leader.

"I have 280 pages to read," the prime minister announced as he began his presentation. After speaking for more than five hours, he said in a quivering voice: "I am going to hold on as long as it takes. My voice is a bit weaker, but I can manage."

Most opposition parties boycotted Vucic's speech, saying they were upset with only being given an abridged version of his speech. The text they got was only 68 pages long.

(Reporting by Ivana Sekularac; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Tom Heneghan)

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