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Why Aspiring Autocrats Are Watching Serbia

Aleksandar Vučić is tearing down what remains of Serbian democracy while the West remains silent. Serbia has become a test case for democratic resolve, and the region’s would-be strongmen are taking notice.

By Filip Milačić

March 2024

Free but not fair. This describes most Serbian elections since President Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) rose to power in 2012. Election day would go smoothly, but the playing field was tilted and the run-up marred by numerous irregularities. It has not been unusual for the regime to use state resources for its election campaigns or to limit the opposition’s access to the media. These are only a sliver of its tricks for tipping elections, which also have included buying votes, ensuring heavy pro-SNS media coverage, and even ruling-party officials pressuring public-sector workers and their families to vote SNS — all while the supposed oversight agencies turn a blind eye.

So it came as no surprise that the ruling party won 46.8 percent of the vote in last December’s parliamentary election and thus a majority of the 250 seats in the National Assembly. The SNS’s key adversary, the Serbia Against Violence coalition, won a mere 23.7 percent. In municipal elections held the same day, the SNS-led coalition emerged as the strongest force in Belgrade’s City Assembly, where a tight race had been expected.

Nothing new in Serbia, one might say, as Vučić’s SNS and their allies won their sixth straight parliamentary election. Yet this time was different: Election day went anything but smoothly, and Vučić and his party took the usual electoral engineering to a new level — threatening to destroy what little remains of Serbia’s democracy.

Fearing this could be their last chance to save Serbia from becoming a full autocracy, the opposition called citizens to the streets and demanded a do-over. What followed has been a period of political crisis: Not only did thousands protest for several weeks, but tensions have also run high between the government and opposition MPs during parliamentary sessions, with repeated verbal clashes and parliament’s security having to intervene to prevent physical ones.

This was the first time Serbia’s opposition had seriously challenged election results, even though the contests were never completely fair before. The unprecedented level of electoral manipulation in 2023 was so severe, however, that it constituted a “game changer” for Serbian democrats, who saw the regime’s brazenness as a sign that it had no intention of ever giving up power. Moreover, if Vučić gets away with blatantly stealing an election without serious consequences and democracy in Serbia ultimately falls, then other would-be Balkan autocrats may follow his lead. It will be hard to revive democracy anywhere in the region.

Rigging the Vote

The Vučić regime’s efforts to ensure its victory were so extreme, particularly in the capital city’s municipal election, where the opposition had the strongest chance to win, that the Belgrade-based Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) deemed the elections fraudulent: Besides the usual political clientelism, media inequality, and misuse of public resources — all of which were even more pronounced than in previous elections — the regime, CTRA reported, organized voter migrations “to an extent that crucially influenced the outcome of the very close” municipal contest in Belgrade.

Thousands of Serbs were registered with fictitious addresses so they could vote outside their own municipalities, including 129 claiming to live at the site of an unfinished Belgrade building. Voter migrations of this scale were possible only because municipal elections were, for the first time, held in just a third of the country’s municipalities. The regime also arranged for ethnic Serbs from neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo (which declared independence from Serbia in 2008), and Montenegro to travel to Serbia and cast ballots for the SNS. CRTA observers witnessed voters being “directed and transported to polling stations in various parts of the capital” by SNS activists.

In addition, according to CRTA, the regime tampered with the voters’ registry (including to “relocate” voters), violated secret balloting, and allowed some individuals to vote multiple times. CRTA determined that “every fifth polling station in Belgrade (21%) was contaminated with serious irregularities that affected the outcome of the vote, while 13% of such polling stations were detected in the parliamentary elections.” This was surely just the tip of the iceberg, as CRTA did not have observers in all municipalities. An international observation mission that included ODIHR, European Parliament (EP), and Council of Europe representatives also concluded that Serbia’s elections took place under “unjust conditions.”

Opposition parties and civil society organizations cried foul at the electoral chicanery and staged street protests demanding that both parliamentary and municipal elections — especially Belgrade’s — be repeated and election conditions improved. After protesters broke windows at the entrance of Belgrade’s town hall, shielded riot police fired teargas and arrested 38 people. Some were then charged with “seeking a violent change to constitutional order.” The opposition, however, has blamed the violence on football hooligans sent by the government and accused police of excessive force.

Opposition leaders also called for the international community, namely, Western powers, to condemn the vote and pressure the regime to uphold democratic principles. But Christopher Hill, the U.S. ambassador to Serbia, instead stated that the United States was looking forward to continued cooperation with the Serbian government and criticized the protests after they turned violent. French president Emmanuel Macron, Vučić boasted, gave him “the most beautiful congratulations of all.”

Meanwhile, Russian ambassador Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko echoed Hill and criticized the violent protests, marking one of the few times a U.S. and Russian ambassador have voiced similar opinions. Botsan-Kharchenko, however, also claimed the West had tried to orchestrate a Serbian Maidan. (Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabić thanked Russian intelligence services for a tip-off that the opposition “planned to challenge the election results and seize power in Serbia by force.”)

Some in the West did speak out. The German foreign ministry called the electoral manipulation “unacceptable for a country with EU candidate status,” and the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for an international investigation into the elections. But Vučić was unmoved: He mocked the EP debate and shrugged off its recommendations, speaking volumes about the sincerity of Serbia’s EU-membership bid. Vučić even called MEPs who spoke out against election irregularities “haters of Serbia.”

This is familiar rhetoric from a president who insists that his critics attack him because they do not want Serbia to be great again. Vučić regularly accuses Western powers of trying to undermine Serbia and its interests, particularly regarding Kosovo, which Serbia still considers part of its territory. The president, meanwhile, portrays himself as the champion of Serbia’s national interests and protector of its territorial integrity, which an independent Kosovo violates.

Yet amid the ongoing crisis over the election, Vučić decided to recognize Kosovo license plates, something Serbia had been promising since 2011. This was clearly intended to appease the West — just one example of how Vučić manipulates the Kosovo issue for his own political gain. He moves toward normalizing relations with the breakaway state only when doing so does not threaten his regime’s stability. Likewise, if it will help him at home, Vučić stokes tensions by mobilizing the Serbian army on the Kosovo border or inciting unrest inside heavily Serbian northern Kosovo.

There is no reason to believe that Vučić will ever willingly let go of his best political tool by resolving the Kosovo issue. It has served as a pretext for subverting democracy — for denying constitutional rights such as freedom of assembly, accumulating and personalizing power so that he can “save the nation,” and vilifying prodemocratic critics of his regime as traitors to the nation.

On the Precipice

Vučić has decided to rerun the Belgrade election — allegedly because his party could not form a majority in the Belgrade assembly. In reality it is a maneuver to ease the international pressure on him without officially fulfilling the opposition’s demands. The opposition, however, is threatening to boycott the contest if electoral conditions are not improved. But that’s not likely to happen. If the country’s experience in the 1990s is anything to go by, dislodging an authoritarian incumbent will be nearly impossible without support from abroad, even with citizens mobilizing against a stolen election. But that support is lacking today, mainly out of fear that it might drive Vučić to turn completely toward Russia. Geopolitics trumps democracy. Serbian opposition leader Zoran Lutovac told me in a recent interview that “stability, and not democracy, is the West’s main concern.”

It did not help that Serbia’s democratic opposition itself refused to campaign on a clear pro-Western, pro-European platform so as not to alienate pro-Russian and ethnonationalist opposition parties.

Vučić will most likely not be weakened by this political crisis. He will instead manage to cement his power by further autocratizing the country. There are already signs: In January, the high-ranking ruling-party MP Vladimir Đukanović called for the arrest of all CRTA employees for deceiving the public with the election report; and in February, an appeals court freed four former intelligence officers who were serving time for killing an independent journalist in 1999, sending a chilling message to Serbia’s free press.

I recently interviewed CRTA head Vukosava Crnjanski in Belgrade. She is convinced that if far-right parties achieve notable success in the June EP elections and Donald Trump returns to the White House next year, Vučić will be emboldened to suffocate any remaining resistance, including her organization. The Serbian opposition is also expecting assaults on prodemocracy groups and leaders to intensify. Lutovac told me that he has twice found all but one lug nut on his car wheel loosened — more likely an attempt on his life than a coincidence.

Vučić is not the only authoritarian-minded Balkan leader. If he manages to further autocratize Serbia, it would affect the whole of the Western Balkans, a region of fragile democracies that have deteriorated, or at best stagnated, in recent years. Other aspiring autocrats in the neighborhood are paying close attention right now. What happens in Serbia will show them how far they themselves can bend the rules before provoking a strong backlash from the West. It appears they have even more latitude than previously assumed.

Filip Milačić is visiting professor at the Central European University (CEU) and research affiliate at the CEU’s Democracy Institute. He is the author of Stateness and Democratic Consolidation: Lessons from Former Yugoslavia (2022).


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images




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