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Why Do Both Russia and the US Support Serbia’s Populist Leader?

Despite claims President Vukic’s party ‘stole the vote’ in recent elections, the West seems to be placing stability in the Balkans over democratic legitimacy

Opposition Protesters march during a rally in downtown Belgrade, Serbia on December 30, 2023. Photo: Associated Press/Alamy

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While Europe was celebrating Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Serbian pro-Western opposition held a series of rallies over the alleged electoral fraud. But the fact that both the United States and Russia – despite being geopolitical rivals – openly support Serbia’s populist President Aleksandar Vucic, gives the opposition leaders very little hope in their struggle for the annulment of the vote. 

On December 17, the southeastern European country held snap parliamentary and municipal elections, in which the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) won 46.72% of the votes. Ever since, the opposition has held several daily protests, expressing disagreement with the election results. 

Marinika Tepic, one of the opposition leaders, was on hunger strike, demanding the annulment of the country’s parliamentary and local elections, while the main opposition alliance, Serbia Against Violence, claims the election was stolen, particularly in the vote for the Belgrade city authorities.

Moreover, international observers from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the European Parliament and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, said that the SNS had “gained an unfair advantage through media bias, pressure on public sector employees and misuse of public resources”. 

Although The Independent broadcasted the opposition rally on December 30, the West does not seem to be unified when it comes to the situation in Serbia. The United States, as the major foreign power operating in the Balkans, seems to have openly backed the SNS-dominated Serbian government. 

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After protesters, on December 24, tried to enter Belgrade’s city council and clashed with the riot police, the US Ambassador to Serbia Christopher Hill wrote on X that “the legitimacy of democratic processes depends upon transparency and on the readiness of all parties, winning or losing, to respect the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box“. He also stressed that “violence and vandalism against state institutions have no place in a democratic society”.

Such a statement was a clear signal that Washington, despite urging Serbia to work with the OSCE to address “unjust conditions” surrounding the electoral process, is unlikely to support what Moscow portrays as a “Maidan-style coup attempt” in Belgrade.

 Indeed, both the Kremlin and pro-government media in Serbia have been spreading the “new Maidan” narrative, referring to the expulsion of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from power in 2014. It is, therefore, not surprising that, following the violent protest on December 26, Vucic met with the Russian Ambassador to Serbia, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, who accused Western countries of “trying to retaliate against the Serbian leader” because he reportedly refuses to join anti-Russian sanctions imposed on Moscow following its invasion of Ukraine.

Serbian pro-government tabloids have adopted the same rhetoric, claiming that Germany is involved in the ongoing protests over Belgrade’s policy regarding Moscow. In reality, neither Germany nor any other Western country has ever put serious pressure on Serbia to impose sanctions on Russia, but the Kremlin uses such a narrative to create an illusion at home that Putin still has friends in Europe. 

Vucic also benefits from such a Russian rhetoric, since in the eyes of his pro-Russian voters he can portray himself as a “statesman who refuses to follow Western orders and impose sanctions on Moscow”.

That is why he is among three European leaders (Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan being two others) who got letters with New Year’s greetings from the Russian President. 

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The United States, for its part, does not seem to be paying much attention to this charade. Washington remains focused on Belgrade’s implementation of the European Union’s proposal regarding the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo.

Thus, it is unlikely a pure coincidence that the Serbian government, following Hill’s statement, recognised Kosovo-issued license plates, a move that can be interpreted as Serbia’s implicit recognition of Kosovo’s 2008 unilaterally declared independence. 

Quite aware of that, Kosovan Prime Minister Albin Kurti said that Belgrade’s decision was made “in an attempt to reduce the criticism of the international community after irregularities and fraud” in the recent election. But his government seems to have followed Serbia’s path and also made a “goodwill gesture”. 

According to reports, Kosovo’s Chief Prosecutor of the Special Prosecution lifted the arrest warrant against Vucic’s ally Milan Radoicic, who played the major role in the September 24 gun battle with the ethnic Albanian-led Kosovo police in the Serb-dominated northern Kosovo that killed four people.

Therefore, both Belgrade and Pristina use the alleged Serbian election irregularities as a bargaining chip, while they quietly work on normalization of relations, which is what seems to be one of the US top priorities in the region.

As a result, Serbian opposition is unlikely to achieve its goals and get the election annulled. Although it advocates faster EU integration, fair elections, freedom of the media, and rule of law, for certain influential political forces in the West, particularly in the United States, stabilitocracy in the Balkans – and especially in Serbia – seems to have priority over democracy.

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