Serbia election: United pro-EU opposition, balancing president and convicted war criminal Šešelj

Serbia will hold early parliamentary elections and local elections in the capital of the country, Belgrade, and in 65 more municipalities, on December 17.

The Serbian voters will elect 250 members of the national parliament. The number of votes cast determines the allocation of parliamentary mandates. If political parties representing national minorities fall short of the 3% electoral threshold, a ‘natural threshold’ is imposed.

United list of pro-EU opposition parties

Pro-EU opposition parties that have been holding weekly rallies under the banner ‘Serbia Against Violence’ for several months agreed on October 27 to run a joint list of candidates under the same name in the upcoming parliamentary elections and the simultaneous polls in Belgrade.

The Freedom and Justice Party, led by former Belgrade mayor Dragan Djilas; the People’s Movement of Serbia, led by Miroslav Aleksic; and the Green-Left Front/Ne Davimo Beograd will be on the united list.

It will also include the Srce (The Heart) movement, led by Zdravko Ponos, who finished second after Vucic in the 2022 presidential elections; the Ecological Uprising, known for leading recent environmental protests; the Democratic Party, which led the country before Vucic’s Progressive Party; the liberal, pro-European Movement of Free Citizens; and the Zajedno (Together) Party.

Their accord came after months of weekly rallies under the banner “Serbia Against Violence,” which began in May after two horrific shootings in the country.

The pro-government coalition is likely to lose the local election in Belgrade, where the pro-EU opposition is gaining strength.

Alliance of President Vucic and convicted war criminal Vojislav Šešelj

In this context, Vucic was compelled to take a measure he had carefully avoided until now to prevent the opposition from winning in the capital. The SPS has announced that it will participate in the Belgrade election and several other municipalities alongside the convicted war criminal Vojislav Šešelj’s Serbian Radical Party.

Vucic began his political career under Šešelj’s supervision, serving as general secretary of the Radical Party until becoming information minister in former Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic’s cabinet in the late 1990s.

Vucic was a Šešelj’s party member who served as vice president of the party he formed. However, realizing that a political force affiliated with a war criminal convicted in the Hague has a toxic image and will always be seen adversely in the West, Vucic abandoned his political force and created the Serbian Progressive Party.

The leader of the Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Šešelj, confirmed that his far-right force will run in collaboration with Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party in Belgrade and other municipalities, but will compete separately in parliamentary elections. It is unknown whether Šešelj himself will run at any level.

New indictments against the far-right SRS party associates

In November, Vojislav Šešelj, a Hague convict, stated that four of his party associates received new indictments from the International Residual Mechanism in The Hague, a supporter of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, but he did not.

Earlier, Serbian media issued a statement from an SRS official stating that Šešelj and four other SRS officials were charged with contempt of court before the International Residual Mechanism.

According to Šešelj, the residual system accuses them of contempt of court, and he has already received three separate prison sentences totaling more than four years.

“Why are they prosecuting us—because of the publication of my books, which contain Hague documents? There are many confidential documents that were falsified, and I also published information about protected witnesses,” Šešelj said.

“Hate speech and ultranationalism are jeopardizing peace efforts in the Balkans”

Following Yugoslavia’s deadly disintegration, a series of wars devastated the Balkans, with an estimated 130,000 people dying in conflicts in Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo, and Slovenia.

The International Criminal Court in the Hague has undertaken a succession of high-profile cases to assist in bringing the perpetrators of the worst crimes to justice. According to the Council of Europe’s study, politicians have been disseminating “ethno-nationalist discourse, denial of atrocities, and glorification of war criminals.”

Despite years of war crimes tribunals and reconciliation attempts in the nations of former Yugoslavia, hate speech and ultranationalism are jeopardizing peace efforts in the Balkans, the Council of Europe stated.

“Denial of genocide and other atrocities, glorification of war criminals, and attempts to restore the credibility of persons convicted of war crimes in the 1990s are of serious concern and are proliferating in the region, including at the highest political levels,” the authors of the research stated.

The presence of war criminals, both presumed and convicted assailants, in institutions and public services “has a serious impact on victims and survivors and on the success of rule of law reform efforts,” the Council of Europe stated.

Dangerous links between Russian and Serbian far-right

Analysts claim that Putin’s invasion increased the stakes for governments in the Balkans. The situation in Serbia is precarious since Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has been trying to balance EU efforts to isolate Moscow and Belgrad’s links to Russia, its energy supplies, and diplomatic support for its stance on Kosovo. 

Russia gets more support from the Serbian far-right groups. Serbian nationalists supporting Russia’s war against Ukraine are not just trying to whitewash Putin’s bloody war but are getting help from Moscow to promote its dangerous ideas in Europe.

The far-right group People’s Patrol and its leader, Damnjan Knežević, organized several other pro-Russian rallies in Belgrad. Damjan Knezevic was given a private tour of an infamous Russian paramilitary group (accused of war crimes on three continents), Wagner’s new headquarters in St. Petersburg, the hometown of Russian dictator Putin.

Election outcome to define Serbia’s stance on foreign policy

The participation of radical elements in the election and the impact of pro-Russian disinformation bring instability to Serbia. Belgrade has come under mounting pressure asking it to define a clear stance in foreign policy on its path towards the EU accession.

Belgrade has always maintained a prudent balance between its centuries-old ethnic and religious ties to Russia and its ambitions to join the EU and pursue an alliance with NATO.

Since the start of Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine, Aleksandar Vucic has pursued a cunning approach: wait without finally clashing with the EU, the US, or Russia.

Vucic is pleased to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to relieve Western pressure to join the sanctions. But simultaneously, Serbia’s president pledged to Putin that he would not join the sanctions, thereby portraying his country as a steadfast Russian ally. Therefore, in the West, criticism and requests for sanctions against Serbia are mounting.

On the other hand, the pro-EU opposition has grown stronger, seeking a genuine, not a phony, path to EU membership. That is why the elections on December 17 may put a stop to Serbia’s balancing approach. If pro-European forces win, then Serbia will turn more to the West; if Vucic stays in power, he will be under higher pressure and will no longer be able to continue balancing.

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