Serbian Democracy is Paying a Price for Western Geopolitical Interests

Western actors in the Balkans prioritize regional stability above all other considerations – and while Vucic delivers that, they will continue to view election irregularities as a secondary matter.
Just five days after highly controversial elections in Serbia, the social media accounts of the US embassy in Belgrade published a video clip of Ambassador Christopher Hill discussing the recently concluded voting.

In the first sentence, the ambassador stated that the US looks forward to continuing its work with the Serbian government on regional issues, but also regarding “the Serbian desire to become part of the family of Western nations”.

This address coincided with citizens’ protests in front of the Republic Electoral Commission, the body responsible for conducting elections in Serbia. Inside the building, several opposition members of parliament were on a hunger strike, demanding the annulment of the elections on grounds of serious irregularities.

The observer mission of the non-governmental organization CRTA in its report listed a series of misdemeanors, concluding that the results of the city elections in Belgrade “do not reflect the freely expressed will of the voters”.

International observers, including the OSCE/ODIHR mission, the Council of Europe delegation and individual parliamentarians have also voiced criticisms. The German Foreign Ministry tweeted that the elections involved practices unacceptable for a country aspiring to become an EU member.

However, for anyone closely following regional developments, it was evident that the elections were effectively concluded with Ambassador Hill’s statement. All the citizens’ protests, opposition complaints and objections, as well as reports from non-governmental and international organisations, had only a limited impact thereafter.

Why is this so? The Serbian Progressive Party, SNS, which has governed Serbia since 2012, quickly moved the country into the field of what political scientists call hybrid regimes. Hybrid regimes are formally democracies, where those in power uphold formal regulations that appear liberal, adhering to legal procedures. But in practice, social, political, and especially electoral processes in these types of regimes are different. Parties in power in a hybrid regime tend to access state funding, institutions and media to their advantage, creating unconquerable obstacles for their political competitors. But, on the surface, elections are usually free enough for incumbents to avoid criticism.

The SNS mostly acted in this manner, at least until the recently concluded December elections. Before the 2022 elections, the party engaged in an extensive consultative process with the opposition in order to advance democratic conditions, even involving European Parliament mediators. The process resulted in modest improvements, but it was important for the SNS to present itself as a cooperative actor.

However, in the December 2023 elections, all these improvements, and many others, were stamped on. Both the opposition and the observers noted grave violations, such as manipulations of the registry of voters, the organised transport of voters from neighbouring countries, vote-buying, ballot-stuffing and physical attacks on observers. This adds to the already numerous manipulations during the campaign, including unlimited use of state resources and unrestricted access to the media.

The context of the recent elections has forced the SNS to almost openly adopt practices that blur the line between hybrid and authoritarian regimes. In the months leading up to the elections, there was significant public dissatisfaction about the lack of accountability for the mass shootings in Belgrade and Mladenovac, increases in the prices of basic necessities, as well as incidents in Kosovo. Trust in the SNS declined and, for the first time since 2012, the party faced the possibility of competitive elections, especially in the local vote in Belgrade. In the winner-takes-all political atmosphere the SNS itself created, even a small defeat represents a catastrophe. But this also incited them to employ all options available in the campaign and elections itself – both legal and those less legal.

And it worked. They knew it would work. Because they understand the broader framework in which their hybrid regime operates.

Let’s review the timeline of events after the elections in more detail.

On December 22, Ambassador Hill releases a video statement favorable to the ruling parties.

On December 24, during a television appearance, President Aleksandar Vucic, contrary to all expectations, almost entirely avoids discussing the elections and irregularities. Instead, he delivers a series of foreign policy messages. Vucic highlights the construction of several gas interconnectors, signifying the diversification of Serbia’s gas supply, reducing its gas dependence on Russia. He states that the government will fulfill all agreements on Kosovo. When asked about the Russian Foreign Ministry’s accusations directed at the Serbian opposition, Vucic refuses to comment. These messages are directly aimed at Western power brokers – and confirm Vucic and his party as partners who will deliver on agreements.

On the evening of December 24, a large opposition protest was dispersed by the police, after some protesters tried to make their way into the Belgrade City Assembly.

On December 25, after years of resistance, the Serbian government decides to recognize license plates with the designation “Republic of Kosovo” and allow their free movement through Serbia.

On the very same day, Ambassador Hill speaks publicly again, this time addressing citizens dissatisfied with the election results, saying that “the legitimacy of democratic processes depends upon transparency and on the readiness of all parties, winning or losing, to respect the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box. Grievances should be raised through legal, peaceful, nonviolent means. Violence and vandalism against state institutions have no place in a democratic society”.

This effectively discredits the protests, conveying that they will not receive any support from the international community, especially the United States.

“Quid pro quo”, as Hannibal Lecter says: “I tell you things, you tell me things”.

To understand this dynamic, it is important to comprehend the context of “stabilitocracy”. Western actors in the Balkans prioritize regional stability above all. Democracy, human rights, and dedication to European integration are secondary values compared to the commitment to fulfilling geopolitical interests. Regarding Serbia, these interests primarily involve normalizing relations with Belgrade and Pristina, prolonged interethnic stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and ultimately, distancing Serbia from Russian influence.

Although EU membership is not particularly compelling for the citizens of Serbia after a prolonged integration process that has lost its allure, Western actors still hold significant leverage in Serbia. Vucic is aware that pressure from the West can either maintain or topple him. He acknowledges their role as primary economic and investment partners for Serbia, including the pre-accession funds from the EU. He is conscious that his statesmanlike image domestically, and his image as an acceptable partner internationally, depend on this relationship. Lastly, he remembers the lessons from the late 1990s when Western support for the opposition played a significant role in ousting Slobodan Milosevic’s regime.

So, it is mutual interdependence. Washington, Brussels and others will accept Vucic and overlook internal issues (democracy, media, corruption, organized crime) as long as his regime is cooperative regarding geopolitics.

On the other side of the equation, the Serbian opposition is an unreliable partner for the West. They are weak, divided, incompetent and lack the unified voice that the SNS has. Moreover, any future coalition toppling Vucic would most likely include the right-wing parties, which would make the implementation of arrangements regarding Kosovo or Bosnia uncertain. Thus, Vucic remains the best alternative that the West has in this twisted equation.

With him in power, they know where they stand. And the cost will be paid by the Serbian democracy.

In the spring, another round of local elections will take place in Serbia, this time in around 100 cities and municipalities. In some of them, the opposition has a chance of a good result, or even victory. However, SNS still has unlimited access to state resources, media, and institutions, while its leader has many options to bargain, including further concessions regarding Kosovo, Republika Srpska, or Serbian relations with Russia. The question now is only how far he can push.

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