A cry for help from Belgrade: the post-elections protests in Serbia

, by Mattia Fontana

A cry for help from Belgrade: the post-elections protests in Serbia

Parliamentary elections were held in Serbia on December 17, 2023 for the renewal of the National Assembly, the country’s parliament; according to the latest official data, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), led by Aleksandar Vučić, emerged as the winner with 46.7% of the votes. The opposition coalition “Srbija Protiv Nasilja (Serbia Against Violence)” secured 23.69% of the votes, placing second. The Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) experienced a decline in support compared to previous elections, receiving only 6.55% of the preferences and coming in third. Additionally, the right-wing coalition “Nada (Hope)” and the movement “Mi – Glas iz Naroda (We – Voice of the People)”, led by Dr. Branimir Nestorović, also managed to secure seats in the Parliament.

It is important to note that some right-wing forces, which had previously held seats in the Parliament, were not successful in this election.

Apart from the parliamentary elections, there were also elections for the renewal of the Parliament of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina, as well as municipal elections in 65 municipalities, including the capital city, Belgrade.

Following the elections, the civic and pro-European opposition, united under the movement “Serbia Against Violence”, began calling for a repetition of the elections at all levels. This demand arose soon after independent media reported irregularities during the voting process. On the day of the election, a video surfaced showing individuals getting off buses in front of the Belgrade Arena and being directed by security officers to their designated voting locations or even escorted to specific polling stations in Belgrade. Later on, it was alleged that the individuals in question were actually citizens of Republika Srpska and held Serbian citizenship, granting them the right to vote in parliamentary elections in Serbia. However, upon their arrival in Belgrade, they took advantage of the opportunity to vote in municipal elections, despite not meeting the residency requirements to do so in the Serbian capital.

When members of the opposition from the Central Election Commission (RIK) attempted to investigate the situation at the Arena, they were denied entry by private security guards. Nenad Nešić, the Minister of Security of Bosnia and Herzegovina, also voted in Belgrade and bragged about it on social media. Even Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik was filmed voting at a polling station in Belgrade, marking his ballot for the list “Aleksandar Vučić – Serbia must not stop”.

According to estimates from the opposition, approximately 40.000 individuals falsely claimed residence in Belgrade in order to vote; the opposition further alleges that similar cases of false residency transfers occurred in other parts of the country, influencing the election outcome. CRTA observers, who were monitoring the elections, were attacked at a polling station and their vehicle was vandalized.

International observers also condemned the “serious irregularities, including the buying and selling of votes and the practice of inserting pre-compiled ballots in the ballot box”. Stefan Schennach, the head of the delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that observed the elections, explicitly stated that the elections were unfair and that Vučić had unlawfully dominated the election campaign. Schennach emphasized that the president should be a neutral figure representing all citizens, but instead, Vučić acted as if he were a candidate throughout the electoral process. Schennach also witnessed false ballots during the vote counting.

Fortunately, unlike previous elections, the Western capitals did not send their usual congratulations to the winners. the German Foreign Ministry condemned the misuse of public resources and voter intimidation, particularly in a country aspiring for EU membership. Even Washington called on Serbian authorities to investigate allegations of election irregularities raised by international observers.

The opposition was not surprised by these irregularities, as all elections since Vučić’s party came to power have been allegedly marred by voter pressure, violence, and vote theft. Consequently, protests began in Belgrade just a day after the elections, with the leaders of the “Serbia against violence” coalition staging a sit-in at the headquarters of the Central Electoral Commission. Marinika Tepić, the coalition’s leader, even initiated a hunger strike that is still ongoing as of 31 December.

Every evening at 6 p.m., the RIK headquarters becomes the gathering point for citizens who are united in their support for the protest opposition and their condemnation of electoral fraud.

Initially, the movement led by Marinika Tepić focused on Belgrade, where the most significant fraud was likely to have taken place. However, on Wednesday, December 20, in response to mounting criticism from international observers, opposition leaders made the decision to call for the annulment of elections at all levels. this call to action has resulted in tens of thousands of people taking to the streets of Belgrade, demanding that the election results in Serbia be overturned.

On December 30, Marinika Tepić, noticeably weakened by the hunger strike, delivered a brief speech alongside other leaders, urging for the annulment of the vote before leading the crowd through the Serbian capital. And while the protests in Belgrade do not show signs of decreasing, Serbian citizens have returned to vote in thirty of the country’s more than eight thousand seats, particularly in Pozarevac and Leskovac in western and southern Serbia. This indicates that the protests are not subsiding but are instead yielding some effects. On Friday, December 29, a group of students even staged a protest in one of the main streets of Belgrade, setting up tents, tables, and chairs, bringing food and blankets, and playing music in their makeshift camp, in order to be ready for the demonstrations the following day.

While the Serbian elections have faced criticism, it is worth noting that Moscow “congratulated” Vučić for his party’s victory, and Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán hailed it as an “overwhelming victory”: it is important to mention that Hungarian Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi, responsible for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, has faced accusations in the past of undermining democratic and rule of law reforms in the EU accession process and downplaying authoritarian actions by leaders in the Western Balkans. Additionally, Belarusian President Lukašėnka also congratulated Vučić on his election win. It is important to take note that Vučić has expressed his support for Serbia’s entry into the European Union for a long time; however, he has also maintained friendly relations with the Kremlin and has encouraged Chinese investments in the country.

On December 19, Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, along with international observers from the OSCE, called on Serbian authorities to address credible reports of irregularities during the vote in the Western Balkan country: while this was indeed a commendable statement, the peaceful demonstrators advocating for Serbian democracy are in need of a stronger stance in favour of free elections.

Given the ongoing protests by civil society, it is crucial for the European Parliament to demonstrate its support for democracy in countries aspiring to join the EU. Serbian citizens are doing their part, and European democracy should do the same. Currently, an increasing number of MEPs, particularly those politically aligned with the “Serbia against violence” coalition, are voicing their support for new elections in the country on social media.

That being said, what is urgently needed now is a firm position from the EU institutions’ leaders to demonstrate that our Union is no longer willing to turn a blind eye to democratic setbacks in Europe.

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