In our ongoing series exploring the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in the CSEE region, Vuk Vuksanovic argues that the COVID-19 crisis provided a perfectly-timed opportunity for Serbia’s parliamentary elections.
On 21 June 2020, Serbia held its parliamentary elections. There was no dilemma about the winner. In power since 2012, the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) led by Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić, who dominated the campaign despite not being a candidate, won a two-thirds majority. The elections were marred by controversy as they recorded a low turnout because the opposition boycotted the elections demanding a fairer electoral condition.
Due to this boycott and despite the lowered electoral threshold, beyond the SNS, the only parties that entered parliament are the junior coalition partner of the SNS, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), the Serbian Patriotic Alliance (SPAS) and parties of national minorities. As the new parliament will have no effective opposition, the recent report by the watchdog organisation Freedom House that stated Serbian decline from the rank of democracy to a hybrid regime has been vindicated. Beyond the evident backsliding of Serbian democracy, a significant point about the elections is their timing, squeezed in between the pandemic and the lingering Kosovo dispute. This means that for the Serbian president, time is gold.
The elections came about after the challenging period of Serbia’s first battle against the pandemic of the COVID-19 virus. When the pandemic reached Serbia, the government in Belgrade introduced a state of emergency on 15 March 2020 which lasted until 6 May 2020. During this time Serbia also fought the pandemic through rigorous surveillance techniques and data rights intrusion, for instance tracking the cell phones of people who arrived from highly infected countries like Italy. It is highly likely that in this endeavour, the Serbian government and its security services relied on 1000 Huawei surveillance cameras equipped with advanced facial and licence plate recognition software that are installed across Belgrade.
The state of emergency has ended, but it left a profound degree of emotional anxiety among Serbian citizens. Namely, the state of emergency demanded self-isolation for elderly citizens, but more importantly, a practice of night curfews that were later expanded into weekend curfews. During this period there were also instances of a journalist being arrested for reporting about unsatisfying conditions in some of the medical facilities, and police officers using excessive force against some citizens, causing a probe within Serbia’s Interior Ministry.
Things are becoming complicated. As the state of emergency was being lifted the Serbian PM Ana Brnabić believed that victory over the virus could be declared “very soon.” Although the virus was still present, Serbia allowed football matches and tennis tournaments to be held in Belgrade with thousands of spectators who did not abide by social distancing measures. Even the elections were held as the shadow of the pandemic loomed over them.
After the elections, new information emerged that the government was concealing information on the number of infected and deceased. Between 19 March to 1 June this year, a total of 632 people died compared to the official number of 244 deaths during that period, while the number of people who became infected in Serbia from 17 June to 20 June was at least 300 per day as opposed to the official figures, which recorded a maximum of 97 new cases in a single day during that period. The economic fallout from the pandemic is also expected. The extent of the recession cannot be predicted, but the Serbian economy can expect a contraction between 2.5 and 5.3 per cent depending on the pace of the outbreak and recovery measures.
It is logical to presume that Vučić and his party realised that it was not possible to persevere with the rigorous state of emergency. As such, it was better to pretend that the state of normalcy has returned so that the people’s electoral mood was not lowered by a continuous lockdown. Moreover, given the potential economic recession, it was better to go for elections right away, as timing elections so close to the pandemic favours the ruling party, rather than delay and risk the population experiencing severe economic hardships from the outbreak.
However, there is another reason for Vučić to time of the elections as he did: the resolution of the Kosovo dispute. There is an intense desire in the West to finally reach a binding agreement that would resolve the Kosovo dispute between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians. This has been the desire of the EU Special Representative for the Belgrade-Priština Dialogue, Miroslav Lajčák, but more importantly for Vučić, Donald Trump’s envoy for Serbia-Kosovo dialogue, Richard Grenell.
Vučić is willing to follow the US lead, as he stated in June: “We have ahead of us six months of a tough political struggle for our national interests in Kosovo and Metohija [the Serbian name for the territory] and for the rights of our people there.… For us there is no happy solution there, whatever it may be. We cannot be particularly satisfied. I cannot lie to the people.” The six months Vučić talked about clearly correspond with the US presidential elections.
Vučić needed to consolidate power with a substantial majority that can sell the Kosovo deal to the domestic constituents and contain any internal nationalist backlash, and he needs to do so in the next six months. Namely, Vučić believes that Serbia would negotiate a less painful settlement under Trump than under a Democratic president, and it is also true in case of departing Kosovo’s President Hashim Thaçi, who in exchange for his safety after political retirement is ready to sign a deal that other Albanian leaders in Kosovo are not.
Vučić’s timing of the election was perfect as he has secured his hold on power at a time when Serbian society is dealing with the pandemic and the painful Kosovo dispute. However, the coming period will not be comfortable. The extent of the outbreak resurging is not clear. However, it appears threatening as high government officials including the Defence Minister, Aleksandar Vulin and the Parliament Speaker, Maja Gojković, tested positive for COVID-19. Vučić’s meeting in the White House with Hashim Thaçi was cancelled as Thaçi is expected to be indicted for war crimes against Serbian and non-Albanian population during the Kosovo war (1998-2000). Trump’s reelection chance also looks grim, further complicating hopes that Vučić will secure a deal with enough time to sell it to his people at home. Nevertheless, Vučić’s hold on power will remain strong in the following years, but one should still take into account a message inscribed on the wall in the Belgrade neighbourhood of Dorćol, saying: “Absolute Power, Absolute Responsibility.”
Vuk Vuksanovic is an Associate of LSE IDEAS, LSE’s foreign policy think tank, and a PhD researcher in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He writes widely on modern foreign and security policy issues and is on Twitter @v_vuksanovic.
All views expressed in this article are the views of the authors and not necessarily those of the Ratiu Forum or LSE IDEAS.