International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly analyses developments in the Middle East and the Balkans. IFIMES made an analysis of the current developments in Serbia with a focus on the upcoming parliamentary, provincial and local elections scheduled to take place on 21 June 2020. We bring the most interesting excerpts from an analysis titled “Serbia 2020: Serbia – scene of confrontation of intelligence services?”
Regular parliamentary, provincial and local elections in Serbia were scheduled for 26 April 2020. However, due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the declaration of state of emergency in Serbia on 15 March 2020, the elections have been postponed. The state of emergency was suspended on 6 May 2020. Although when the pandemic broke out Serbia was in the midst of the election campaign, at the recommendation of relevant medical experts, the elections were postponed indefinitely. Following the suspension of the state of emergency, 21 June 2020 was designated as the new date for elections.
At the upcoming elections, 250 deputies of the Republic of Serbia National Assembly (Parliament) will be elected under proportional representation system. The total number of eligible registered voters in Serbia is 6,734,802. At Kosovo, which Serbia according to the positive constitution still perceives as its autonomous province, the parliamentary elections will take place in the areas were the Serb community lives. A novelty at the upcoming elections is the lowering of the electoral threshold from 5% to 3%, which gives a bigger chance to smaller political parties to get into the parliament.
Serbia was also affected by the pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus. Despite the appeals by the government on the Serbian citizens not to come to Serbia, unless necessary, from the beginning of the year until the declaration of the state of emergency 400,000 citizens entered Serbia, whereas 40,000 citizens entered the country in the period of seven days prior to the beginning of the state of emergency. In fact, many of them came from high risk countries affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, such as Italy.
Serbian authorities decided to introduce unpopular measures such as the state of emergency, quarantine and curfew. Opinions of the citizens on the introduced measures were divided. Particularly, the opinions of opposition political parties.
Experts believe that the introduced measures had been necessary and timely. Experiences from Bergamo, Italy, show that had Bergamo introduced measures similar to the ones in Serbia 10 days earlier, a disaster of enormous proportions could have been avoided. Furthermore, experts also asserted that had Serbia not introduced the listed measures it could have expected mass casualties, estimated to around 10,000 dead.
China and its medical experts, demonstrated strong support to and solidarity with Serbia. So did the European Union, Norway and the United States. Furthermore, Serbia even managed to assist Italy in the Covid-19 pandemic and sent eight aircrafts of medical supplies to Italy. “Serbia has enough equipment, which is why we believe that it is of utmost importance that we give it and help our Italian friends,” said Aleksandar Vučić (SNS), President of the Republic of Serbia.
The Covid-19 pandemic also revealed some developments in the political background to which Serbia was exposed during the pandemic. Specifically, geopolitical changes and influences, which are known as the shock doctrine and take place in crises and emergencies. The British Guardian wrote about corona diplomacy and how China, Russia, EU as well as some other countries, such as Turkey, vied to win over Serbia. As the pandemic gathered speed, the key players on the international scene deployed soft power and aid to advance their geopolitical interests and goals. During the pandemic the European Union was slow and clumsy, as a result of what other countries tried to step into the created gap.
According to analysts, during the crisis Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has reaffirmed his position of a leader whom the key countries are vying to win over, managed to avoid a disaster of major proportions and even provided medical equipment to Italy, which is one of the seven most develop countries in the world and a G-7 member.
The political polarization is characteristic for all West Balkan states, whose societies carry the burden of a 30-year legacy, dating back from the collapse of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The process of consolidation of these states is still ongoing. Serbia was in a particularly difficult situation during the rule of Slobodan Milošević (SPS), and still feels its consequences. After the end of his rule, democratic changes occurred. Specifically, on 5 October 2000. In the first few years, during the rule of Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić (DS), Serbia went through some changes. Nevertheless, Serbia ended its period of changes with the Government headed by Prime Minister Zoran Živković (DS). Subsequently, with the arrival of Vojislav Koštunica (DSS), Serbia experienced a sharp growth in crime and corruption (24 disputable privatizations, Report of the Council for Fight against Corruption, headed by the late Verica Barać) and unfree media.
The EU intensified its requests for processing of those responsible for the committed organized crime and corruption in Serbia after the opening of an investigation in Austria in September 2011 into the purchase of mobile operators in the region by the Austrian national telecom operator, particularly the Mobtel Company, as well as the adoption of the Resolution of the European Parliament of 29 March 2012 demanding from Serbia to conduct a revision of disputed privatization processes. A special emphasis was put on the Mobtel Company, which was violently and illegally taken away from Bogoljub Karić to be sold initially to Martin Schlaff, a controversial Austrian businessman, and later to the Norwegian Telenor Companyfor 1.513 billion EUR.
Boris Tadić, then Serbian President and President of the Democratic Party (DS), lost the elections in 2012 because he had not adequately responded to or addressed this issue, despite the fact that at the time the majority of the media was under the control of his close associates and directly supported him. The effect of the media on the results of the elections is often overestimated. In 2012, although the media in Serbia was under the control of Boris Tadić's regime, in an unequal election race Tomislav Nikolić (SNS) won and became the next Serbian President. A similar thing happened in 2016 at the US presidential elections when Donald Trump (R) became the US Presidents despite the fact that majority of the media did not favor him as well as the unprecedented election machinery working for Hillary Clinton (D). In democratic countries one comes to power through elections, not through protests or boycott of elections.
A part of the opposition begun to use violence as a political means, which led to escalation of relations in the society in the period when a demonstration of unity of the nation was required, as the political dialogue between official Belgrade and Pristina was entering its final phase. A point of concern is that some political leaders and individuals in Serbia are embracing violence as a part of political (un)culture.
The ruling and opposition parties held talks on improvement of election conditions. One of the most important outcomes of the talks was the lowering of the electoral threshold from 5% to 3%. Serbia is one of the few countries to lower the electoral threshold, as countries are predominantly increasing their election threshold in order to “aggregate and professionalize” the politics, and in such a way form serious and strong political parties.
When the elections were announced a part of the opposition decided to boycott them. These were mainly nonparliamentary parties or parties with only a handful of representatives in the parliament, which being aware that their strength and the support they enjoy among citizens will be tested at elections had decided to boycott them. At the same time, the other part of the opposition, which is aware that a policy can be created and changes can be made only in the institutions and that the parliament is the highest institution of democracy in any country, has decided in the end to participate in the elections.
Analysts believe that political subjects verify their strength and support they enjoy only at elections and that boycotting of elections is equal to avoiding a confrontation with citizens/, thus creating justified suspicions about the true support they enjoy among voters/citizens. The excuses that the media is under the control of the government are only partly true, because there are many media outlets that openly support and agitate in favor of the opposition parties. Elections are not won through the media, which do have an important role, but primarily through achieved results, programs and candidates presented to the citizens/voters, who may or may not give their support to someone. That is why it is important to pacify the political passions, organize fair and honest elections, as well as ensure an election campaign that will allow for equal treatment of all participants in the election process.
Elections need to be conducted without any violence, in a transparent and fair way, while all political actors need to be given an opportunity to present their stances and introduce themselves to the voters.
It is no secret that official Priština has very strong connections and an alliance with Podgorica and Zagreb. The connections between Kosovo and Zagreb are maintained through the until-recently Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj (AAK), while the Kosovo President Hashim Thaci (PDK) has cultivated the connections and cooperation with Podgorica and the regime of Milo Đukanović (DPS) for decades already. If this was normal cooperation it would not constitute a problem. However, this is an alliance that has been directed, in a planned manner, against Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. It involves Croatia and Montenegro, both full-fledged members of NATO, which have been interfering in internal developments in Serbia. Their intelligence activities and relations with a part of the Serbian opposition are particularly interesting.
Analysts warned that any engagement of Croatia and Montenegro in and towards Serbia can be detrimental for NATO because activities of these two countries as NATO members contribute to creating of additional negative perception of Serbian citizens about NATO. Instead of investing efforts to create trust and positive perception of NATO among Serbian citizens, such activities carried out through Croatia and Montenegro further undermine the already poor image of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Serbia.
At the beginning, the protests were protests of citizens. However, the protests were later abused that is “stolen” by the opposition. The civic rebellion has a long tradition in Serbia. In some segments the civic protests were justified, but, essentially, they were directed by a part of the opposition and some foreign centers of power.
The key request of the protest was the request for withdrawal of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Serb Progressive Party (Srpske napredne stranke -SNS) from power. There is no clear political program of the opposition except for the requests for removal of President Vučić.
The citizens started the protests in November 2018. It is symptomatic that the protests commenced only seven days after the introduction of taxes on import of goods from Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina into Kosovo by the then Kosovo government headed by Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj. Shortly after, the Serbian opposition parties “embraced” the protests and stole the idea if the citizens. Later, the citizens realized that they had been abused by the opposition political parties. They ended the protests and organized themselves to participate at the elections, believing that participation at the elections and a political engagement in the Serbian National Assembly is the only way to inform the developments in Serbia and contribute to political changes that are underway or need to be initiated.
Serbia is a scene of confrontation of intelligence services. At one period, there were more than 100 intelligence services actively operating in Serbia. The activities of intelligence services were predominantly aimed at attempts to topple Aleksandar Vučić, Serbian President. They include well elaborated and carefully premeditated measures and moves, undertaken in line with the previously established scenario. Apart from the direct attempts to discredit Serbian President Vučić, these measures also include discrediting of his closest associates, family members, friends, that is anyone close to him. Intelligence activities aimed against his underage children have also been conducted.
While vying to win over Serbia, each and every one of the major powers also aspires to advance its specific geostrategic interests. In this respect, they continuously verify and test “successfulness” of their policies through various activities of their intelligence services. While solidifying its position of an officially neutral state, Serbia will be under increasing pressure, in the intelligence context, from the major powers. The pressure will be particularly increased during the election process, because all intelligence services make their assessments of possible winners and then adjust their policies accordingly. In fact, the policy of neutrality of Serbia, which had been consolidated by Aleksandar Vučić, is actually the biggest unknown for the major powers and a challenge for their intelligence services. The escalation of political developments on Kosovo and Montenegro is related to the upcoming elections in Serbia and aimed at testing of the political scene in Serbia with a focus on the political rating and strength of Aleksandar Vučić and his SNS.
A whole catalogue of participants, including specific politicians, tycoons, media outlets, journalists, researches, analysts, civil society elements, professors, students, criminals, etc., are involved in these intelligence activities.
The security- intelligence apparatus of Serbia has detected and thwarted activities of majority of intelligence services. This has enabled Serbia to successfully counter their detrimental effects and significantly hinder their activities in the coming period.
The upcoming elections will be a major test and a trial for the security-intelligence sector of Serbia. As some political subjects are already resorting to violence as a political means, there is a realistic possibility that violence could intensify during the election campaign and that even unrests could be instigated on the very election day in order to declare the elections illegitimate and illegal, and thus invalid. This would be an attempt to dispute the elections and destabilize Serbia.
Some circles in Serbia, together with a part of the foreign factor, would like to see Serbia destabilized.
Analysts warn that it is important to ensure peace and stability in Serbia, as the key country in the region, because after the successfully implemented Prespa Agreement in North Macedonia, its full-fledged membership in NATO and opening of talks with the European Union, it is now necessary to finalize the dialogue between official Belgrade and Priština, and then to resolve the political crisis in BiH through normalization of relations in the country, which all together would provide for lasting peace and long-term stability in the West Balkans. There are (international) factors who do not want to assist the West Balkans but would prefer to push it 30 years backwards, so that visions such as “2020-2025 Vision of Serbia”, which had already been presented to citizens of Serbia, could be implemented. Serbia achieves the best progress in the entire South East Europe. Its public debts is under 50% and unemployment rate under 10%, while the average salary is growing over 500 EUR. Its growth level is above 4%, and according to the estimates of international financial institutions it has potential for a 6-7% annual growth.
The EU – West Balkans Summit held in Zagreb on 7 May 2020 is yet another missed opportunity and failure of the EU. At the Summit the EU reaffirmed the European perspective of West Balkan countries. Because of such a relation of the EU towards West Balkan countries, these countries are increasingly more inclined to change their geopolitical orientation. Such decisions of the EU gradually “push” West Balkan countries in the direction of Russia, China, Turkey and other interest spheres, which have geopolitical and geostrategic interests in the Balkans.
Instead of specifying its policy of enlargement on the West Balkans and the respective timelines, the EU still resorts to platitudes about a European perspective, which mean nothing to West Balkan countries and their citizens. In this context, the Zagreb declaration reads “We will reinforce our cooperation on addressing disinformation and other hybrid activities originating in particular from third-state actors seeking to undermine the European perspective of the region. Closer collaboration is needed in resilience-building and cyber security. Strategic communication is essential in this regard.” However, facts show that specific EU countries are actually the ones conducting such activities in West Balkan countries.
Hence, this is why it is important that West Balkan countries preserve political and economic stability so that the positive trend of their mutual cooperation would not come to a halt. Analysts believe that the Croatian chairmanship of the EU, which was greeted with media fanfare, was obviously more than this country can and wants to show, as well as how (un)capable it is, has ended in a complete fiasco.
Ljubljana/Belgrade, 19 May 2020
 IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES) from Ljubljana, Slovenia,has a special consultative status with the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC)/UN since 2018.