BALKAN BLOG: Serbian president tries to move on from election controversy

BALKAN BLOG: Serbian president tries to move on from election controversy
President Aleksandar Vucic's address to the nation on March 2 was peppered with anti-Western rhetoric. /
By Clare Nuttall in Glasgow March 5, 2024

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s address to the nation this weekend came just a few days after the final report from international observers on the contested December 2023 general and municipal elections, and appeared to be an attempt to draw a line under the barrage of criticism and mass protests sparked by the vote — albeit one wrapped up in anti-Western rhetoric.

Opposition grievances against the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), in power since 2012, erupted after the December 2023 general and municipal elections, which delivered another landslide victory for the party as well as control of the capital Belgrade. Amid claims of vote-rigging, especially in Belgrade, the response from the EU and Western countries was muted. There were few enthusiastic congratulations for Vucic or the SNS from EU leaders, except from close ally Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, but critics seemed to have largely decided to hold fire until the publication of the final report from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR).

That was published last week, prompting a reopening of the debate around the elections. The result in Belgrade, which delivered former water polo champion Aleksandar Sapic back as mayor, was particularly contentious given claims that thousands of ethnic Serbs had been bussed in from neighbouring countries to vote in the Serbian capital. Prime Minister Ana Brnabic publicly traded barbs on X (formerly Twitter) with both opposition leader Marinika Tepic and German MP Michael Roth.

The report mentioned the claims of busing in, reporting “widespread claims of “a potentially large number of voters living abroad, who were organised and bused to the capital to vote for the ruling party”, but did not confirm or deny that it happened. However, it did criticise the election, and made recommendations to address concerns regarding the accuracy of voter lists, enhance public confidence in the electoral process, prevent voter intimidation and undue pressure, and ensure a clear separation between official functions and campaign activities.

Vucic stepped down from the helm of the SNS in 2023, but is still understood to unofficially lead the party, as shown by the slogan 'Aleksandar Vucic – Serbia Must Not Stop’ the SNS list ran on in the election. He gave an address to the nation on March 2, just days after publication of the report, in which he appeared to be laying the ground to move on from the contentious elections and instead focus on Serbia’s future direction.

Perhaps most significantly, he ‘recommended’ that new elections be held in Belgrade, thus addressing the top complaint of protesters. Sapic immediately confirmed that a new vote would be held in the capital.

In terms of content, the other main takeaway from Vucic’s comments was that Serbia will immediately start to implement all the recommendations from the OSCE report.

That addresses many of the complaints of both the opposition and Serbia’s Western partners, and may ensure that Serbia’s EU accession process is not derailed by the elections. (Though it’s not clear if it will satisfy MEPs, who called on February 8 for an independent investigation into allegations of vote-rigging, and said EU funding should be halted if Belgrade fails to cooperate.)

In terms of rhetoric, it was a very different story. Possibly to make these actions more palatable to the large numbers of Serbian nationalists in the country and prevent accusations that Vucic was rolling over to do the West’s bidding, the message was dressed up in a strong serving of anti-Western rhetoric.

Specifically, Vucic claimed that the international community wants a ‘puppet regime’ that it can control in Serbia. 

"They actually want the return of the old regime, the puppet regime that they controlled like poodles or like puppets in a theatre to whom they can say anything and they will accept everything," said Vucic.

He claimed the West wants Serbia to recognise Kosovo’s independence, introduce sanctions against Russia, take a stance against China, and renounce Republika Srpska, the Serb entity within Bosnia & Herzegovina, whose President Milorad Dodik has repeatedly called for secession and unification with Serbia. 

So while the content of Vucic’s message should help build bridges with both the opposition and the West, the style continued the theme of bashing the West for interference that has become increasingly prevalent ever since the elections took place.