Serbian president claims West wants ‘puppet regime’ in Belgrade

Serbian president claims West wants ‘puppet regime’ in Belgrade
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic at a summit in Tirana earlier this week. /
By bne IntelliNews March 3, 2024

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic claimed in a speech on March 2 that the international community wants a ‘puppet regime’ that it can control in Serbia. 

Vucic delivered the speech days after the release of the final OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR) report on the December 2023 general and municipal elections in Serbia. The elections sparked mass protests by opposition figures, who claimed they had been rigged, especially in the capital Belgrade, as well as criticism by NGOs and Western politicians. 

Addressing some of the grievances raised by the opposition, Vucic said he has recommended to the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) to hold new elections in Belgrade. 

However, top Serbian officials including outgoing Prime Minister Ana Brnabic have already said there are no plans to allow an international investigation into the December general election. 

‘Puppet’ regime 

Vucic used much of his address to slam Western interference, claiming the international community wants a ‘puppet regime’. 

He also 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. 

"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.

Final report 

The ODIHR mission, which monitored the Serbian parliamentary elections held on December 17, published its final report this week. The organisation said that while the technical administration of the elections was satisfactory, the electoral conditions were deemed unfair due to the involvement of the president and the systemic advantages enjoyed by the ruling party. The report also noted instances of biased media coverage, pressure on public sector employees, and misuse of public resources, despite the general respect for fundamental freedoms during the campaign.

Vucic has now called on the government to quickly react to the ODIHR's recommendations and start to implement them. 

"I want to invite the government of Serbia to analyse completely — in detail and thoroughly — the recommendations of the ODIHR and to immediately start implementing, in the short term, everything that is possible immediately,” he said. 

Calls for action 

Officials from the EU and US have called in recent days for Serbia to implement the recommendations of the final OSCE ODHIR report. 

“The final @osce_odihr report on early parliamentary elex confirms [EU] concerns: the electoral process requires tangible improvement & further reforms. Reports of irregularities need to be addressed in a transparent manner, including those related to local elections,” wrote the European Commission’s lead spokesperson for external affairs Peter Stano on Twitter on February 29. 

“The EU welcomes that the [Serbian] authorities expressed readiness to work with ODIHR on implementing the recommendations. No time to lose ahead of future elections in the country,” Stano added. 

In a joint statement issued on March 1, the embassies of France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the US (the Quint countries) in Belgrade welcomed Vucic's commitment to implementing the recommendations of the OSCE ODIHR. They said they expect the Serbian government to actively seek ODIHR's assistance to ensure the thorough and effective implementation of these recommendations before the upcoming elections.

"We welcome President Vucic's pledge to implement ODIHR recommendations and therefore expect the government of Serbia to seek ODIHR's assistance, with the support of other relevant institutions, for ensuring that these recommendations are implemented fully and effectively with meaningful progress made before elections this Spring," the joint statement said.

As well as the elections issue, EU officials have also repeatedly urged Serbia, as a candidate country, to align with the bloc’s foreign and security policy by imposing sanctions on Russia. 

Serbia has condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but at the same time refused to impose sanctions. 

European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer commented on Serbia's divergence from European Union policies on March 1, suggesting potential repercussions. 

During a routine briefing, Mamer said: "Clearly there is a consequence in not aligning with EU positions because it is a fundamental requirement that a country aligns with these positions for a country to become a member of the EU.” 

Twitter fight 

Serbian officials have repeatedly criticised foreign interference in domestic affairs in the aftermath of the elections. 

In his speech on March 2, Vucic singled out German MP Michael Roth, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German Bundestag, who has several times spoken out to call for an investigation into the elections, and repercussions if Belgrade fails to do so. 

Earlier in the week, Roth became embroiled in a war of words on social network X (formerly Twitter) with Brnabic. 

Responding to German calls for Serbia to address issues raised by the OSCE, Brnabic wrote: "Dear @MiRo_SPD [Roth] and @GermanyDiplo [German foreign ministry], instead of sharing your each and every thought on other countries' business, and instead of allowing yourself liberty to share patronizing advice to others, why don't you, along with other German institutions, implement recommendations which @osce_odihr has for you? It seems you haven't implemented a single one since 2017!"

"Dear @anabrnabic, you’re right. [Germany] isn’t perfect. Thanks for reminding us. But never ever an independent institution like @osce_odihr confirmed huge irregularities+organized fixing of register of the voters as well as transfer of the phantom voters," responded Roth.

Vucic weighed in on the spat in his speech. "It is enough just to look when Ana Brnabić responds to one of the German officials [Roth] respecting the freedom and sovereignty of our country and is completely right about the pride of every citizen of this country that Serbia is allowed and can behave like that, domestic politicians immediately appear to us and say -  such behaviour is shameful, it is better to hide under their laps and kiss their shoes," said Vučić.

Continuing on the subject of Roth, he added: "Well, you noticed that he didn't write anything about the elections in the north of Kosovo, where 3.4% of the people went to the polls. For him, these are good, legal, legitimate elections.” This was a reference to 2023 local elections boycotted by Kosovo Serbs. 

He also criticised the media and NGOs within Serbia for “demonising” the government. 

Mending bridges 

At the same time as lambasting the West, Vucic made some apparent efforts to calm the situation within the country, both with the recommendation to hold new elections in Belgrade and a pledge to start implementing the OSCe recommendations. 

Belgrade was the focus of much of the opposition’s complaints about the elections held on December 17. On top of broader claims of vote rigging at national and local level, both opposition and NGOs say thousands of Bosnian Serbs were bussed into the Serbian capital to vote in the mayoral election, won by the SNS’s candidate Aleksandar Sapic. 

The elections sparked mass protests, as well as criticisms from European politicians including several MEPs and MPs from Germany, an important partner of Serbia within the EU. 

Vucic said he spoke with the representatives of the winning list in the elections in Belgrade, "Belgrade must not stop”, and asked them to consider holding new elections in Belgrade.

"I know that you [Sapic] have a majority … but it is very important to go to new elections, because it is better to lose power rather than participating in the kind of election theft that Serbia saw in 2008. That is my advice and my plea to you," said Vucic.

Later on March 2, Sapic announced plans to proceed with new elections in the city, speaking of “the responsibility we have not only towards this city but also towards this country”, reported Serbian news agency Tanjung.