Democratic Pretence

Following Serbia’s elections on 17 December, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe held a press conference that felt like a funeral. A row of solemn bureaucrats read out a list of irregularities recorded during the contest, and they were legion. In recent years, Serbian national ballots have been somewhat Gogolian, with votes cast by long-deceased voters and other instances of fraud. But this time the scale was different. The OSCE concluded that the election had been carried out under a climate of intimidation, amid violence, vote-buying, dubious registers, ballot stuffing, pressure on public sector employees and ‘multiple allegations’ of mass bussing from neighboring Bosnia to vote for the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) of President Aleksandar Vučić.

Even taking into account the SNS’s underhanded tactics, the party still won a convincing victory at national level, netting about 47% of the vote, while the liberal opposition bloc Serbia Against Violence (SPN) came in distant second with just under 24%. SNS looks set to have an absolute majority in the 250-seat parliament: 147 seats to SPN’s 63. While the opposition maintains that the result would have been different in a media landscape less dominated by the government, Vučić still exceeded expectations. In most cases, it seemed that the rigging supplemented his mandate rather than dramatically altered the final outcome. One important exception, however, was Belgrade’s City Assembly elections, where irregularities were recorded at a full 14% of all polling stations. SPN are confident that they were the true victors in the capital.

The SPN coalition emerged out of the large-scale protests prompted by two back-to-back mass shootings in May 2023. Protesters blamed the killings on a culture of glorified violence and criminality, which they see as embodied in the imposing figure of Vučić. The President is believed to have extensive ties to organized crime, including some that stretch back to the underworld of the wartime 1990s, when he served as Milosević’s Minister of Information. In that role he was known for his ruthlessness in managing the media and government critics. It’s a reputation he has retained. Vučić dominates the country’s politics, presenting himself as a guarantor of stability and guardian of Serbian national interests in a hostile region. Since his party came to power in 2012, he has amassed total control over the country’s security services and overseen a lurid tabloidization of the press, which is used to savage his detractors. In the run up to the recent election, a member of SPN had a computer stolen from his home which contained a private sex tape; in the weeks ahead of the election, the graphic video was played on pro-government morning television.

The SPN coalition is comprised of several parties and political associations: the Green-Left Front, the nominally centre-left Party of Freedom and Justice, the liberal Movement of Free Citizens, and the conservative People’s Movement of Serbia, among others. Its campaign centred on corruption, political and media repression, and environmental issues. The liberal opposition has tried to draw a dividing line between its foreign policy and that of the government. Whereas Vučić’s orientation is deliberately ambiguous – pledging continued military neutrality and maintenance of ties with both Russia and the West – SPN has criticized the government for failing to join the EU in imposing sanctions on Moscow. Perhaps reflecting its primary support base among the educated, urban middle classes, SPN’s campaign did not foreground Serbia’s spiralling food price inflation, which is currently the second highest in Europe. Vučić’s supporters, meanwhile, tend to be rural, conservative and working class.

Protests against the election results began just hours after the polls closed, with SPN demanding that the electoral commission cancel the Belgrade results. A week later, clashes broke out with police after a window was smashed in the City Assembly building, and at least 38 demonstrators were arrested. Since then, students have blocked some of Belgrade’s main arteries and erected tents in the streets. On the afternoon of 30 December, tens of thousands of protesters congregated in the city centre to hear speeches from ProGlas (‘ProVote’), a group of artists and intellectuals calling for democratic reform. One of them held up a faded, threadbare EU flag which he had carried during the anti-Milosević marches of the 1990s. Also in attendance was a visibly weak Marinika Tepić, a leading figure in SPN who went on hunger strike after the election. While the bitterly contested Belgrade local election has been the foremost concern of the protests, SPN is now demanding an annulment of all elections at both the local and national level.

Both sides of the country’s political divide are drawing parallels with the ‘colour revolution’ that brought down Milosević. Serbian and Russian officials have accused the West of trying to enact a ‘Serbian Maidan’ – a slogan that a few protesters have since printed on their banners. The Russian ambassador, Alexandr Botsan-Kharchenko, told the press that Serbia was being targeted for refusing to impose sanctions on his country. Superficially, the contours of the unrest are reminiscent of colour revolutions past in pitting two elites against each other: an outwardly pro-Western faction and one more amenable to Russia (though not exclusively). But the missing element, notwithstanding Vučić’s official narrative, is firm Western political, financial, and logistical support for the opposition.

This is especially significant to many Serbs given the outsized role the United States played in turning the tide against the regime of Slobodan Milosević in 2000. In the months preceding his downfall, Washington contributed $80 million to so-called ‘democracy assistance initiatives’ and provided extensive logistical support to the opposition. Back then, the West promised Serbia a bright democratic future. Now, Vučić’s staying power reflects how much the world has changed since the turn of the millennium. Western governments may still help to fund election monitoring NGOs, but for the most part they have been reserved in criticizing the recent elections or the President himself. Across the region, US Ambassador Christopher Hill is widely regarded as excessively accommodating of the current Serbian regime. Shortly after the vote, he remarked that he was ‘really looking forward’ to continuing his work with the incumbent while criticizing protesters for supposedly resorting to violence. He has said that concerns about electoral irregularities should be dealt with by Serbia’s domestic institutions. This is no Maidan. No ‘democracy’ cavalry is riding to the rescue this time.

That is in part because Vučić has balanced his electoral chicanery and overtures to Moscow with actions designed to please the West. Here we can see a split between the spheres of political and media opinion. The editorial boards of both the Guardian and Washington Post have published scathing denunciations of Vučić, describing contemporary Serbia as a ‘textbook case of state capture’ and rejecting the recent election as a fraud. They have characterized the current US strategy as appeasement and called for a new approach, suggesting that Belgrade is edging closer to Moscow. Yet they are conspicuously silent about Vučić’s continuing cooperation with NATO, including a joint press conference he held with Jens Stoltenberg as recently as late November. Under Vučić, Serbia has participated in more military exercises with the Atlantic alliance than it has with Russia. Accusations of Western coup-plotting continue to be a staple of the country’s public discourse, amplified by its garish press; but in Vučić’s Serbia, populist pro-Russian rhetoric has always concealed quieter Western-friendly actions. 

Even as Vučić blamed Washington and Brussels for orchestrating mass protests against him, he also signalled that he would continue to play along. On 25 December, the day after dozens of demonstrators were arrested and outrage over the election reached its apex, his government announced that it would henceforth allow Kosovo licence plates to be used in Serbia: a controversial move for which the West has long applied pressure. The EU praised the decision as a sign of ‘progress’ – one that supposedly demonstrated Vučić’s willingness to resolve the issue of Kosovo, on which SPN is often notably silent and internally divided.

It is unlikely that a dramatic change in US approach is forthcoming. Electoral tricks in Serbia are a relatively minor issue, given the many wars and geopolitical crises in which Washington is now embroiled. Liberal interventionism and heavy-handed democracy promotion in the Balkans now seem like a luxury of the unipolar moment. Looking ahead to the upcoming American elections, it seems that a Trump victory would herald an even friendlier US–Serbia relationship. The Trump administration made no secret of its antipathy towards Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti, and Vučić surely hopes that a Republican White House would give Serbia the upper hand in its tortuous negotiations with Prishtina.

It is also unlikely that the post-election crisis presages an imminent political shift in Serbia. The opposition will almost certainly fail to secure a rerun of the elections. SPN have said that regular protests will continue on a weekly basis, and disruptive street demonstrations are now starting to seem like a regular feature of Belgrade life. But absent any powerful Western patron, such activism has a largely therapeutic function. The recent holiday period has already reduced its scale. Even the opposition’s most achievable goal – new City Assembly elections – is looking less likely as the weeks go by. Yet, were it secured, this concession might well yield the best outcome for everyone: a victorious opposition could legitimize itself by governing at city level, while Vučić could continue to argue that Serbia is a democracy, and the West could continue to pretend that it supports one.

Read on: Lily Lynch, ‘A New Serbia?’, NLR 140/141.