Serbia’s Authoritarian (Re)turn

The conduct of Serbia’s latest elections points to the country’s democratic decline. The EU cannot stay neutral in the face of President Vucic’s provocations and authoritarian tendencies.

There is a certain back-to-the-future quality to Serbia. One would think that the country has long moved on from the lows of the 1990s. However, the feeling among at least some Serbs is that the clock has been turned back to the era of former president and strongman Slobodan Milošević.

Exhibit number one: the ubiquitous tabloids and popular TV channels. If we are to believe the crass headlines, war is back in former Yugoslavia. Serbia is still fighting yesteryear’s battles against Kosovar Albanians, Bosniaks and, occasionally, Croatia or other neighboring countries.

Exhibit number two: the perfidious West is no doubt complicit, aiding and abetting foreign enemies and fifth columnists in Belgrade with equal gusto. So much so that Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić insinuated, in the aftermath of the snap December 17 parliamentary and local elections, that “an important country” had interfered “in the most brutal way” in the vote (a veiled reference to Germany).

Prime Minister Ana Brnabić has been singing from the same hymn sheet. Talking about the opposition protests against election irregularities, she thanked Russian security services for warning the government about “what was being prepared in Belgrade.”

For the opposition, the heavy-handed police crackdown of a rally on December 24 definitely smacks of Milosević. The Serbia Against Violence (SPN) opposition coalition has been spearheading protests against the rigged vote. Election watchdogs have raised alarm about alleged foul play by Vučić and his entourage.

The list includes registering phantom voters in Belgrade’s central boroughs, bussing in people from Republika Srpska—the Serb-dominated entity within Bosnia-Herzegovina—to the election precincts in Serbia, vote-buying, ballot-box stuffing, and individuals voting more than once. These practices skewed the outcome in the local election in Belgrade, taking place alongside the vote for parliament.

In a special report, an international election observation mission concluded that irregularities had marred the vote. Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) got disproportionate coverage in both public and private media, “tilted the level playing field.”

The opposition probably had a shot at taking Belgrade. SNS and its ally, Ivica Dačić’s Serbian Party of Socialists (SPS), lost their majority in the capital city assembly. However, according to the final results unveiled on January 4, SNS still finished first, ahead of SPN. And who takes over the hung municipal parliament is to be decided from a populist grouping, We – the Voice from the People (MI-GN), set up by the conspiracy theorist and anti-vaxxer Branimir Nestorović. It does not take much to figure out that Nestorović may side with Vučić, cementing the status quo in Belgrade— though for the time being, he says he has no such intentions.

Unsurprisingly, SPN is calling for a re-run of the elections. And with Serbian Orthodox Christmas out of the way, protests are to return in full strength this coming weekend. Marinika Tepić, who briefly went on a hunger strike, has become the face of the anti-Vučić upheaval. The crisis is far from over.

In previous instances, the EU would have probably preferred to appear neutral. Brussels officials’ sympathies might have lay with the democratic opposition, but picking a side overtly would have been frowned upon. Vučić is as much a challenge for the EU as a partner, not least in the tricky negotiations with Kosovo. And even though Serbia is a parliamentary republic, the president has long been in charge—a fact few in Brussels have made bones about.

This is no longer possible. The Serbian government has taken an aim at the EU, accusing it of waging a destabilization campaign. On January 8, Peter Stano, the European Commission’s spokesman, decried such claims, likening them to Russian propaganda.

There has been criticism from a Social Democrat member of the German Bundestag as well, with the coalition cabinet in Berlin expected to toughen its rhetoric. The war of words may escalate further—especially if Serbian officials continue to cozy up and pay homage to Russia, or publicly confer with its ambassador, Aleksandar Botsan-Kharchenko, in order to stick it to the West.

The Serbian opposition would certainly like the change of tone in Brussels and key EU capitals. Charges against European dignitaries about colluding with Vučić are a tad less convincing these days than in the recent past. At the same time, Western pressure against the Serbian authorities may not help even out the playing field, the outcome the opposition is really angling for.

Vučić may concede a repeat election in Belgrade and this time play more fairly but this does not guarantee an SPN breakthrough in the capital city. National elections are even less likely, but even if they are to occur, SNS could emerge triumphant once again. The party boasts 800,000 members in a country whose population numbers under 7 million. It is a large-scale clientelist machine providing access to public sector jobs and state resources.

Vučić is in cahoots with the most widely followed media too, notably the Pink and Happy TV channels. And he has a compelling narrative as to how he is working tirelessly to make Serbia wealthier, more developed, and more influential in regional affairs. In due course, he will probably try to reassure Western leaders that he means no U-turn toward Russia in foreign policy, either. By contrast, the Serbian opposition lacks a narrative or substantive offer to Serbian grassroots, beyond the call to get rid of Vučić, who is marred by alleged corruption and links to organized crime.

In 2019, Freedom House reclassified Serbia as “partly free”—that is a “hybrid” regime, as opposed to unconsolidated democracy. The events of past weeks support the watchdog’s judgements.

The good news is that Serbia has still many democrats who see the EU as an ally. The bad news, however, is that domestically they do not have the upper hand. The most they could hope for is taking Belgrade—a feat the anti-Milosević opposition accomplished back in November 1996.

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