After the repeated de facto declaration of war on the West, the Kremlin has had a keen interest in destabilizing Europe. The strengthening of the Russian influence in the Balkans has been a critical factor in these aspirations. During the Balkans tour, the US Special Envoy for Countering Global Disinformation emphasized that the key source of threat to the region was Russian disinformation aimed at sowing discord between the countries.

Russia considers a new military conflict in the Western Balkan region to be an ideal geopolitical scenario, which would further scatter military assistance to Ukraine. That is why the electoral process in Serbia at the end of last year was under the close scrutiny of the Russian side, and the preservation of the current government in the Balkan country was a priority for the Kremlin.

The foreign policy of official Belgrade can now be described as maneuvering between the West and Russia. On the one hand, the country is at the stage of official EU accession negotiations. On the other hand, they are trying to maintain warm relations with Russia. Besides, Serbia did not support the anti-Russian sanctions. Euroscepticism and an inclination to neutrality are widespread in the country.

On December 17, 2023, Serbia held parliamentary and local elections for most municipalities, including the capital city. The main reasons for the early election process were many months of anti-government protests caused by two mass shootings on May 3 and 4, when 18 persons were killed and 20 people were injured.

In contrast to the opposition, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic convened the so-called “anti-Maidan”, but pro-government rallies were much smaller. The participation of the “friends of the Kremlin” was rather noticeable there. They were the former President, Milorad Dodik and a Foreign Minister of Hungary, Peter Szijjarto.

Gradually, the pro-government Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) began to lose their ratings, the socio-economic situation in the country deteriorated, and, eventually, the popularity of the pro-European political force “Serbia Against Violence” increased. The SNS was interested in holding elections as soon as possible in order to stay in power for another four years.

At the same time, the elections and further artificial delay in the process of forming a new government may give Vucic room to maneuver in the issues of anti-Russian sanctions and the settlement of the situation in Kosovo, since the technical government does not have the right to make such decisions.

On November 1, the President of Serbia dissolved the Parliament, the National Assembly. To achieve better electoral results, he stepped down from the leadership of the SNS party. The latter subsequently led a political coalition with the eloquent name “Aleksandar Vucic — Serbia Should Not Stop.”

On December 18, the President of Serbia announced the victory of his own coalition, but it turned out impossible to achieve the desired results without falsifications. The ruling party gained an unfair advantage through media bias, voter bribery, intimidation, and misuse of public resources.

The highest-profile violations that affected the results of the vote were found in the local elections in Belgrade. Observers of the Center for Research, Transparency, and Accountability (CRTA) and international monitoring organizations recorded the technology of controlled voting due to the mass transportation of voters with no right to vote in local elections to the polling stations in Belgrade. The authorities resorted to such audacious falsifications because the opposition forces had large ratings in the capital. “Serbia Against Violence” claimed that 40,000 voters had been brought for illegal voting.

Moreover, after the publications about falsifications, CRTA observers have been suffering from threats and disinformation attacks from the current government and pro-Russian social media accounts. After the December elections, the CRTA faced verbal abuse, threats, and calls for intolerance against their observers coming from government officials. They also raised false accusations of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order.

Mass protests against alleged falsifications took place in Belgrade. The official authorities of Serbia, following Russian playbooks with pre-determined talking points, said that the riots could have been provoked and organized from abroad in order to overthrow the Serbian government. Meanwhile, the Russian side called these protests “Maidan.” They claim that Russian “observers” allegedly did not record any violations.

In addition, Serbian Prime Minister,  Ana Brnabic, said that Russian special services provided the Serbian authorities with information about possible incidents at the protests in Belgrade. Besides, she claimed that during the rallies, Aleksandar Vucic met with Russian Ambassador, Aleksandar Botan-Kharchenko.

However, the ostentatiously pro-Russian approach of official Belgrade does not contribute to Serbia’s European integration. The role of Russian propaganda in the electoral process in Serbia still needs to be investigated but the fact that Serbs consume Kremlin narratives through Serbian and Russian media is beyond doubt. Even before the early parliamentary elections in Serbia, some observers pointed out that the Russian Federation was actively participating in the election campaign, specifically through propaganda in the media.

It is obvious that Russia retains subversive potential in Serbia, and Vucic’s next maneuver is a cause for concern. The Serbian president has been able to maneuver between Russia and the West for many years, but we will need some more time to see which turn Belgrade would eventually take. 

Dmytro Bashtovyi for Censor.NET