Serbia 2024: Electoral struggle for Belgrade - Is the opposition seeking power without elections?

The International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies (IFIMES)[1] based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, regularly conducts analyses of events spanning the Middle East, the Balkans, and global affairs. IFIMES analyses the current situation in Serbia following the establishment of the new Government of the Republic of Serbia and the electoral campaign for local elections in 88 cities and municipalities, slated for 2 June 2024. From the analysis titled "Serbia 2024: Electoral struggle for Belgrade - Is the opposition seeking power without elections?" we publish the most important and interesting excerpts.

Serbia 2024:


Electoral struggle for Belgrade - Is the opposition seeking power without elections?


On 2 June 2024, repeated local elections will be held in the capital city of Belgrade, as well as local elections in 14 cities and 74 municipalities.

Following the parliamentary elections on 24 December 2023, Serbia ushered in a new Government helmed by Prime Minister Miloš Vučević. In the recent parliamentary elections, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) clinched a resounding victory.

The report by the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) was published a full two and a half months after the elections were held. The report stated that " several key issues remain outstanding, including those related to ensuring a level playing field, measures to prevent misuse of public office and state resources, the separation between the official functions and campaign activities, and effective mechanisms to prevent intimidation and pressure on voters, including vote buying”

Following the unsuccessful formation of a government in Belgrade, new local elections for the capital city of Belgrade are scheduled for 2 June 2024. In the meantime, the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia has adopted a package of amendments to the electoral law to allow simultaneous elections for Belgrade and other local government units. The largest opposition bloc, previously known as "Serbia Against Violence,"(Srbija protiv nasilja) has dissolved, with some of its former member parties deciding to participate in the elections. Six out of the nine opposition parties from the former "Serbia Against Violence" coalition are participating in the elections for the city of Belgrade and most other local government units. The largest party within this bloc, the Party of Freedom and Justice (Stranka slobode i pravde-SSP) led by Dragan Djilas, has opted not to participate in the city elections in Belgrade and Niš. Djilas is aware of his unpopularity in these cities and believes his involvement could harm the opposition's prospects. This strategy has been signalled by certain members of the international community. According to this scenario, the objective is to lull the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) into complacency and passivity, fostering the belief that the opposition will secure easy victories in Belgrade and Niš. This assumption is based on the idea that citizens in these cities lean towards the opposition and will vote against the SNS rather than in favour of a specific party. However, this scenario poses the greatest risk and trap for SNS voters, potentially leading them to become complacent and fall into the scheme devised by Djilas and certain international actors. The favourite in the upcoming elections in Belgrade and Niš is the coalition list led by the Serbian Progressive Party, operating under the banners "Aleksandar Vučić – Belgrade Tomorrow" (Beograd sutra) and "Aleksandar Vučić – Niš Tomorrow" (Niš sutra), respectively.

Is it possible to seize power without elections – the case of the Serbian opposition?

Political polarisation is a characteristic feature across all Western Balkan countries. These societies bear the burden of a challenging 30-year legacy, stemming from the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. The consolidation of these states is still ongoing. A portion of the opposition has resorted to violence as a political tool, leading to further polarisation in society at a time when national unity was needed to address crucial national and state issues, such as the Kosovo question. A notable segment of the Serbian opposition has yet to grasp that their adversary isn't Aleksandar Vučić (SNS) but rather political competitors.

Serbia stands out as one of the few countries to reduce the electoral threshold from 5% to 3%, while thresholds in other countries have typically increased to foster the consolidation and professionalisation of politics, thereby nurturing robust and credible political parties.

Traditionally in Serbia, a segment of the opposition boycotts elections, mainly consisting of parties aware that elections serve to test and confirm their strength and trust among citizens. They choose to boycott as a means of asserting their importance. However, the responsible portion of the opposition recognizes that political change can only be achieved through institutions, with parliament being the pinnacle of democracy in every state, and ultimately opts to participate in the elections.

Analysts believe that the upcoming local elections transcend the usual local significance. Political parties should ascend to and descend from power solely through elections, as they validate their strength and support, rather than through other means. Boycotting elections entails evading direct interaction with voters, casting doubt on their actual support among the electorate.

Analysts view the central demand of the protests as the removal of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) from power, a core objective of the opposition. However, the opposition lacks a coherent political program beyond the call for President Vučić's departure. While some civil protests were justified, they were essentially orchestrated by a faction of the opposition and/or certain foreign power centers.

Excuses and justifications claiming that the media are under government control are only partially accurate, as there are numerous media outlets openly supporting and advocating for opposition political parties. While the media undeniably play an important role, elections are not won solely through media influence. Success primarily hinges on the results achieved, the programs presented, and the candidates offered to voters, who ultimately decide where to place their support and trust. It is imperative to calm political passions and organize peaceful, fair, and honest elections, ensuring an electoral campaign that provides equal treatment to all participants in the electoral process. Elections must be conducted without bias or violence, with transparency and integrity, allowing all political actors to express their views and present themselves to voters.

The campaign for local elections is overshadowed by the resolution on Srebrenica at the UN General Assembly, which has dominated headlines for weeks. Consequently, the story of local elections is not at the forefront, unlike in previous election cycles.

Serbia at the center of current events again

The recent visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping has brought Serbia back into the spotlight of global events. Serbia is striving to (re)position itself in the geopolitical vortex. The Chinese president stated that the "EU is a priority in Chinese foreign policy. China and the EU should maintain their committed partnership." Serbia also unequivocally asserts its aspiration for EU membership, a goal shared by the new government.

Serbia aims to leverage Chinese experiences with France regarding nuclear energy production to ensure energy stability, as it plans to shut down several thermal power plants in the foreseeable future. However, this will necessitate lifting the longstanding embargo on nuclear energy inherited from the former Yugoslavia.

Serbia can count on strong support from China on various issues within the United Nations framework, as demonstrated during the recent vote on the Srebrenica resolution at the UN General Assembly. Furthermore, the Free Trade Agreement between Serbia and China holds significant importance for Serbia's economic future, particularly in terms of trade in goods and services.

Serbia faces unprecedented international pressures

Serbia is currently grappling with substantial international pressures in the efforts to normalize relations with Pristina, which refuses to establish the Community of Serbian Municipalities (ZSO). Serbia is also being urged to impose sanctions on Russia. Kosovo has received a recommendation for membership in the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, which was not included on the agenda of the recent Committee of Ministers meeting of the Council of Europe due to the lack of progress in forming the ZSO.

The ban on the use of the Serbian dinar in Serbian communities in Kosovo is one form of pressure on Serbia to relinquish claims on Kosovo. The holding of repeated local elections in northern Kosovo municipalities of Mitrovica, Leposavić, Zubin Potok, and Zvečan is still pending. Conditions for the return of Serbian representatives to Kosovo institutions have yet to be met.

Serbia's foreign policy rests on four pillars: the EU, the US, Russia, China, and the Non-Aligned Movement. Serbia is being asked to relinquish two pillars of its foreign policy, Russia and China. There are explicit demands for Serbia to impose sanctions on Russia due to the conflict in Ukraine, while prospects of Serbia's EU membership remain uncertain. Additionally, Serbia is urged to distance itself from Milorad Dodik (SNSD) and the Republic of Srpska. The recent passing of a resolution on Srebrenica in the UN General Assembly, sponsored by Germany, Rwanda, and around 30 other countries, serves as an additional form of pressure on Serbia.

Amid the Ukraine conflict and the broader West-Russia confrontation, Serbia finds itself in a challenging international position as it refrains from implementing sanctions against Russia.

The policy of neutrality enforced by Aleksandar Vučić poses a significant mystery for major powers and presents a challenge for their intelligence sectors. The escalation of political events in Kosovo is tied to the upcoming elections in Serbia, aimed at testing the country’s political landscape with a focus on the political ratings and strength of Aleksandar Vučić and the SNS.

Certain politicians, tycoons, sections of the media, journalists, researchers, analysts, parts of civil society, professors, students, and criminals are involved in intelligence activities in Serbia – a wide spectrum of participants.

The security and intelligence apparatus of Serbia has largely identified and thwarted the activities of most intelligence services, allowing it to effectively counter their harmful actions and significantly impede their future operations.

Bulgarization of Kosovo

The current situation in which Serbia finds itself, coupled with the ongoing population census in Kosovo, is being exploited by Bulgaria, which is actively granting citizenship to Kosovo residents. The "Bulgarization" primarily targets Gorani, Serbs, and Bosniaks, but also extends to Albanians who, upon obtaining Bulgarian passports, become formal Bulgarian citizens. The end goal is for Bulgarians to gain recognition as a minority and potentially become the second-largest ethnic group in Kosovo after Albanians, displacing Serbs as the second-largest community.

Serbs largely abstained from participating in the population census. Bulgaria is implementing a similar initiative in Albania and has granted hundreds of thousands of citizenships to Macedonians from North Macedonia, claiming the right to regard these new citizens as Bulgarians. Most Macedonians took Bulgarian citizenship for pragmatic and existential reasons, as it provides EU citizenship, enabling them to work and live in the EU, rather than out of a sense of national allegiance to Bulgaria. The recent census in North Macedonia revealed that only a few thousand citizens identify as Bulgarians, undermining the Bulgarian claim of a significant Bulgarian presence in the country.

Ljubljana/Washington/Bruxelles/Belgrade/Pristina, 25 May 2024   

[1] IFIMES - International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has a special consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council ECOSOC/UN in New York since 2018, and it is the publisher of the international scientific journal "European Perspectives."