“…the US and EU should be cognizant of the failure of electoral democracy in Serbia. In most of the rest of the Balkans, free, pretty fair, and honest elections are now the rule. In Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bosnia alternation in power is a real possibility. That is no any longer the case in Serbia”
By Daniel Serwer, @DanielSerwer ,
Washington, 19 December 2023, dtt-net.com / peacefare.net – Twenty-four hours has given me enough time to realize my assessment yesterday of the Serbian elections Sunday was incomplete. The national poll no doubt reflected the will of the citizens, expressed after a free but unfair campaign in which the government, especially the President, put a thumb heavily on the scale. He may not merit the absolute majority in parliament he gained, but no one else came close.
Belgrade was different
That is not true of the Belgrade city council election. The authorities assured the opposition they would accept any outcome in that poll. But Vucic and his coalition concentrated their election-day cheating budget on buying municipal votes and shipping in voters from Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Montenegro and Kosovo. That ensured a narrow but fraudulent victory in Belgrade.
OSCE has neglected to document it, but there is ample anecdotal evidence of the municipal election fraud. Many of the people involved presumably had the right to vote. They could have done it more conveniently in Bosnia. But tens of thousands came by the busload to vote in Belgrade, where many lacked addresses. Coorindators guided them to polling places. No doubt the government paid for those buses as well as the people who organized the effort. Vucic’s relatively narrow margin of victory in Belgrade (39%/35%) has prompted protests that the government will no doubt ignore. If they grow, the police will use violence to end them.
Why it matters
Americans may find it difficult to understand the out-sized significance of municipal elections in a capital city. The Democrats have controlled Washington DC for the past 50 years of home rule. But Republicans cherish their ability to monkey with the city’s legislation, which requires approval in Congress. In many European countries, control of the capital is regarded as second in importance only to control of the national government. That is the case in Serbia. Losing Belgrade would be a big headline. Many would regard it as a bellwether for the future.
That’s not the only problem for Vucic. He controls patronage and public works in Belgrade. His approval is required for any major projects and important hires. The local police do his will. Ceding those privileges to the opposition would limit his power and undermine his authority even at the national level. Who wants to pay to play with someone who can’t deliver? No elected autocrat wants to deal with an opposition mayor in the capital.
What to do about it
First and foremost, the US and EU should be cognizant of the failure of electoral democracy in Serbia. In most of the rest of the Balkans, free, pretty fair, and honest elections are now the rule. In Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bosnia alternation in power is a real possibility. That is no any longer the case in Serbia. Vucic has restored something much like Milosevic’s regime, which was also an electoral autocracy. Buttressed by media control and state resources, Vucic has rendered the opposition powerless, obliterated independent institutions, and gained command of all the levers of power.
Next Brussels and Washington need to adjust their expectations accordingly. Vucic has told them he will do nothing to recognize Kosovo, even de facto. They need to believe him and give up the ambitions of a dialogue with Prishtina that has proven fruitless. They also need to give up trying to win Serbia for the West. Belgrade has embraced its eastern destiny. Vucic wants to ride with Putin and Xi, as well as Orban, Lukashenko, and Aliyev. He has no interest in riding with Biden, von der Leyen, Scholz, or Sunak.
But the Americans and European should not give up on the Serbian opposition. The Serbia Against Violence coalition that won one-fourth of the parliament has tapped into serious discontent and generated large and regular demonstrations. Only a mass movement of that sort will be capable of mobilizing Serbs against someone who is claiming the mantle of Milosevic. Free, unfair, and fraudulent was his approach too.
Daniel Serwer is a Professor of the Practice of Conflict Management as well as director of the Conflict Management and American Foreign Policy Programs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
This opinion was first published at peacefare.net website.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of dtt-net.com .