BALKAN BLOG: Contested election and brutal attack on opposition leader in Serbia cannot be ignored

BALKAN BLOG: Contested election and brutal attack on opposition leader in Serbia cannot be ignored
Serbia's President Aleksandar Vucic celebrates the ruling SNS' election victory but it sparked a wave of protests and international condemnation. / SNS
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow January 5, 2024

Shocking footage of opposition leader Nikola Sandulovic apparently beaten by Serbian security forces that emerged on January 4, came on top of the contested December general and local elections, reinforcing concerns about the increasingly authoritarian approach of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and its informal leader President Aleksandar Vucic. 

The West — and in particular the EU, which Serbia aspires to join — is under growing pressure to take action, with calls from MEPs and politicians in EU member states mounting steadily, while a series of mass protests takes place within Serbia. 

Another SNS victory 

The SNS scored a resounding victory on December 17, with the official results from the Republic Electoral Commission (RIK) released on January 3 confirming that the SNS took 46.75% of the vote. Its closest rival, the opposition Serbia Without Violence coalition, was on just 23.66%, dashing hopes in Serbia that this could be the beginning of the end for the SNS’ dominance of Serbian politics. Local elections held in some municipalities on the same day delivered more wins for the SNS, including a victory in the capital Belgrade. 

Despite these wins, as Berta Lopez Domenech, junior policy analyst at the European Policy Centre (EPC) pointed out in a comment, only one leader of an EU country congratulated Vucic and the SNS on their victory. That leader was the controversial Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, a close ally of Vucic’s as well as being in constant conflict with Brussels over EU values and the bloc’s friendliest leader towards Russia

“The international response (or lack thereof) was also a sign of the exceptionality of the occasion. No EU leader congratulated President Aleksandar Vucic and SNS for the victory. None except one: the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán,” wrote Domenech. 

“Western actors such as the EU, the US, and Germany were instead vocal about their concerns regarding fraud allegations and called on Serbian authorities to investigate the reported irregularities."

The reason for this reticence is not surprising. The opposition was quick to claim that the vote had been rigged. As well as complaints about the conduct of the general election, they raised more serious objections about the vote in Belgrade, claiming that around 40,000 Bosnian Serbs had been bused in to vote in the Serbian capital, swinging the vote towards the SNS’ candidate, former water polo champion Aleksandar Sapic.

This was backed up by MEP Viola von Cramon, a member of the international observation mission. She wrote on X (formerly Twitter): "We witnessed cases of organised bringing of voters from Republika Srpska and voters’ intimidation. We absolutely expected higher democratic standards from an EU candidate country, which negotiates EU membership."

The accusations sparked a series of protests in the weeks after the vote, a hunger strike by several opposition leaders, and an appeal to the EU for an international investigation. 

Even after the official results were published on January 3, opposition parties have continued to press for the vote to be annulled. 

Serious irregularities reported 

Vucic and other politicians have dismissed the opposition as poor losers, and the president said there will be no international investigation. But less easy to dismiss is the detailed list of criticisms from the the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in its post-election report on December 18. It cited misuse of public funds, negative campaigning and the propagation of fear during the elections.

The report noted “instances of serious irregularities, including vote-buying and ballot box stuffing”. “Frequent instances of group voting, some incidents of undue influence on voters, unauthorized tracking of voter turnout, and photographing of ballots were also observed,” it added.

In the immediate aftermath of the vote, the EU and US called on Belgrade to address concerns about its electoral process. 

A joint statement from European commissioners Josep Borrell and Oliver Varhelyi read: "We conclude with concern that the electoral process requires tangible improvement and further reform, as the proper functioning of Serbia's democratic institutions is at the core of Serbia's EU accession process.” 

Meanwhile, the US State Department called on Serbia to work with the OSCE to address the concerns raised. 

MEPs call for action 

Since then, it has been individual MEPs and the Party of European Socialists and Renew Europe parties — rivals to the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) of which the SNS has been an associated member since 2016 — that have been the most vocal international critics of the election. 

The PES has called for an “immediate and full investigation into the allegations of irregularities during Serbian elections”. Its secretary general Giacomo Filibeck commented at the end of December: “As strong supporter of the European future of Serbia and the Western Balkans, the PES expected higher democratic standards from Serbia – a country with a full candidate status and in a negotiating process for an EU membership.” (Serbia’s opposition Party of Freedom and Justice, whose vice president Marinika Tepic launched a hunger strike after the vote, is an observer member of the PES.)

The Renew Europe Group in the European Parliament also called “for a full and transparent investigation of all reported election irregularities and claims of fraud linked to Serbia’s parliamentary and local elections”. 

“We are greatly concerned about the reports and initial results, which indicate that there were systematic irregularities that could have impacted the results … There must not be any kind of doubt about the credibility of the elections and election process as such. This is one of the key democratic principles upon which the EU is founded and to which Serbia has committed when entering EU accession negotiations,” said Renew Europe MEP, Klemen Grošelj, shadow rapporteur on Serbia and head of the European Parliament’s election observation delegation. 

Vlad Gheorghe was more direct, commenting on the protests that “Serbian people demand real democracy, not Vučić’s sham elections!” 

There has also been criticism from Berlin, where MP Josip Juratovic, a member of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), told daily Nova that it is “practically impossible to continue to cooperate with the current political lineup” in Serbia. 

“Vucic definitely lost all credibility in these elections, not only with the European Union and the West, but also globally. A man who pursues policy and runs a country the way he does cannot be a reliable partner to anyone,” said Juratovic.

Doubling down on his criticism of Vucic, Juratovic added that the Serbian president "wasn’t a candidate for anything but abused early elections for his political survival. Secondly, the way he runs the state, especially looking at this election campaign, no one except for the biggest of autocrats can respect his policy.” 

Lack of hope 

Previous elections — the SNS has repeatedly used snap general election as a political tool despite holding a comfortable majority in parliament — inspired hope that with a new mandate the SNS would press ahead with the reforms needed to progress towards EU accession. 

Specifically this has concerned progress on normalisation of relations with Kosovo, a prerequisite for either country to progress towards EU accession, but highly unpalatable to much of the Serbian population and political establishment. The attack on Sandulovic, attributed by his family and lawyer to the Serbian security services, followed his participation in an event commemorating the killings of Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) leader Adem Jashari and dozens of members of his family in 1998. 

More recently, there was speculation that after the April 2022 election, which took place a mere six weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the government might announce it was joining sanctions on Russia. This did not happen. 

This time around, however, the fifth election called by the SNS since it first came to power in 2012, gave rise to no such hopes. Both the conduct of the election and the comments made by Vucic and senior ruling party officials in its aftermath indicated this would be business as usual. 

Vucic was explicit on the Kosovo issue, saying in his victory speech late on December 17 that Serbia has no intention of giving up its claim to Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence in 2008. 

"There will be a difficult period ahead of us and we will have to talk and continue our European path. And there will be difficult negotiations and difficult concessions with Pristina as well, but we will always protect Kosovo and Metohija as part of the territory of Serbia," he said. 

The election took place at the end of a year that started promisingly with the striking of an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, albeit one that Vucic declined to sign. Relations deteriorated sharply over the summer with violent clashes between Kosovan law enforcers and local Serb protesters in northern Kosovo, as well as a deadly incident involving an armed gang of Serbs. Serbia has not been subject to the punitive measures imposed by the EU on Kosovo over the events last year, but questions over whether the gang was linked to Belgrade undermined its credibility. 

Overshadowed by the protests, however, that there has been one significant step towards better relations between Belgrade and Pristina post-election. The Serbian government announced on December 25 its decision to permit vehicles with license plates issued by the Kosovan authorities to freely enter and circulate within the territory of Serbia, ending one long-standing dispute between the two sides. 

On the subject of Serbia’s relations with Russia, Vucic commented to TV Prva at the end of December, saying he expects "There will be even more intense pressure from the world on those who have any relations with Russia, and Serbia did not destroy them, which is why we paid a high price.” 

Frosty relations 

This has become increasingly unacceptable within the EU. Serbia is the most advanced of the candidate countries on the path to accession after neighbouring Montenegro, having become a candidate country back in 2012 and secured approval to start negotiations the following year. However, both the outstanding conflict with Kosovo and more recently Belgrade’s refusal to cut ties with Moscow and impose sanctions have led to relations being increasingly frosty. 

The strained relations between Belgrade and EU politicians have, of course, played into Russian hands. Referring to the post-election protests, Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Maria Zakharova claimed that the "collective West" is trying to destabilise the situation in Serbia using the "Maidan technique”. 

Russian ambassador to Serbia Aleksandar Bocan-Kharchenko had a similar message, telling Rusija 24 after a meeting with Vucic that the Serbian president has “irrefutable information” that the West is encouraging protests in the country.

Deafening silence 

As Russia seeks to exploit the protests to promote its agenda in Serbia, the EU and US are under growing pressure to take action. 

MEP Andre de Munter of Renew Europe referred to the joint statement by Borrell and Várhelyi on December 19. “[S]ince then deafening silence (in particular on X) despite the irrefutable evidence provided by [Serbian NGO] @CRTArs and others, repeated attacks by the Serbian PM and president on MEPs including [PES MEP Andreas] @Scheider,” he continued. 

The chair of the Bundestag Foreign Affairs Committee Michael Roth voiced his concern on January 4 that Western powers risk undermining their credibility by downplaying the events in Serbia following the elections.

“The US and European Union make themselves completely unbelievable if they continue to trivialise the developments in Serbia. The elections must be checked and repeated. The Serbian regime must stop the see-saw policy between Russia and the West,” he wrote in a post on X. 

Serbia under Vucic has become a prime example of what critics have described as a “stabilitocracy”, defined by political scientist and historian Florian Bieber as “governments that claim to secure stability, pretend to espouse EU integration and rely on informal, clientelist structures, control of the media, and the regular production of crises to undermine democracy and the rule of law”.

The latest Nations in Transit report from NGO Freedom House argues that “Vucic has maintained his grip on power in part by positioning himself as the key to both domestic stability and regional security, using various self-serving crises to distract from his government’s ongoing capture of the media and silencing of critical voices in civil society”. 

The EU has been criticised before for favouring so-called ‘stabilitocats’ in countries such as Bosnia & Herzegovina and Montenegro as well as Serbia. 

However, the violations in Serbia’s December election — including those documented by the OSCE ODHIR — and the attack on Sandulovic may be too blatant to ignore even for those who prioritise stability in the Western Balkans. Several weeks after the elections, the mass protest organised by the opposition are ensuring that this time the issue does not simply fade away.