Following December 17 elections in Serbia, the main opposition alliance, Serbia Against Violence (SAV), said the vote was stolen, particularly in the vote for the Belgrade city authorities. They want the results annulled, as well as an international probe of the vote.
The governing Serbian Progressive Party, led by President Aleksandar Vucic, remains in control after garnering 46.72 percent of the vote and withstanding the mild protests that followed. Vucic has been the most powerful figure in Serbian politics since 2012 – as first deputy prime minister (2012-14), prime minister (2014-2017), and now president.
SAV, which came second in the election with 23.56 percent of the vote, called for daily protests, and an opposition MP went on a hunger strike.
The resulting protests culminated with a Christmas Eve attempt to break into Belgrade town hall, but they were fought back by riot police, and dozens were arrested. The protests have since died down, but there are still reports that a revolution is at hand:
Serbia is not being torn apart by protests. Those that did take place were minuscule, trivial and lacked popular support. They fizzled out and have zero chance of achieving anything. Anyone telling you otherwise is lying. https://t.co/2pw4ZwlN0I
— Steve Sweeney (@SweeneySteve) January 7, 2024
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said the following about the elections:
The joint observation mission from the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (OSCE PA), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and the European Parliament (EP) found that the legal framework is adequate to carry out democratic elections. However, there are still numerous issues to address, and in these elections, observers noted the misuse of public resources, the lack of separation between the official functions and campaign activities, and intimidation and pressure on voters, including cases of vote buying.
The Belgrade-based Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability, which is backed by money from the National Endowment for Democracy, USAID, and other Western governments, went further in its report alleging outright fraud. CRTA’s involvement, as well as the fact that Serbia maintains friendly ties with Moscow, as well as China, and has thus far refused to join sanctions against Russia, led to speculation that this was another color revolution orchestrated by the West.
Serbian officials said as much, as have many commentators with the following video evoking memories of the 2014 Western-backed color revolution in Kiev making the rounds:
It’s official, the protesters in Serbia carry flags with the words “Euro Maidan”. They really want to plunge their country into chaos and corruption. Who in his right state of mind would look at Ukraine and say “this is what I want for my country”. pic.twitter.com/CnmagN6Xnz
— Mats Nilsson (@mazzenilsson) December 30, 2023
Since the elections, Serbian media have frequently accused Germany of being particularly responsible for the unrest. But a closer look reveals that this narrative misses the mark while also being beneficial to elites in the West and in Serbia.
The West’s Tepid Response
It’s important to note that the Western capitols have largely shrugged about the elections and ensuing protests. Germany put out a tepid statement, but that was about it. There have been no cookies from now-under secretary of state for political affairs Victoria Nuland, and no full-on onslaught from officials and media that is common during such color revolution operations.
The response has largely been muted aside from some gung-ho German Greens.
We witnessed cases of organised bringing of voters from Republika Srpska and voters’ intimidation.
We absolutely expected higher democratic standards from an EU candidate country, which negotiates EU membership.
An international oversight and full investigation are needed.
— Viola von Cramon 🇺🇦🇪🇺🇮🇱 (@ViolavonCramon) December 19, 2023
Take for example, EU commissioners Josep Borrell and Oliver Varhely, in a joint statement simply urged Serbia to improve its electoral process in the future:
We conclude with concern that the electoral process requires tangible improvement and further reform, as the proper functioning of Serbia’s democratic institutions is at the core of Serbia’s EU accession process. The EU looks forward to the final OSCE/ODIHR report and recommendations for future elections, which should be implemented as soon as possible and well in advance of the next elections.
We also expect that credible reports of irregularities are followed up in a transparent manner by the competent national authorities. This includes also allegations related to the local elections in Belgrade and other municipalities.
These are not the typical words of color revolution supporters. The US response to the vote has been almost non-existent. The US ambassador to Serbia seemed to side more with the government than the protestors:
The biggest reason a Western-orchestrated color revolution attempt is unlikely is that Serbia’s ruling class, including the Vucic government, already largely serves the West. Before showing that’s the case, it’s probably best to first acknowledge that it wouldn’t be out of character for the US-led West to be dissatisfied with getting 90 percent of what it wants and get greedy, but again the muted response to the protests makes that appear unlikely.
That being said, Vucic and his ruling party are on good terms with the West. Some would even say it’s more of a colonial relationship ever since the conclusion of the NATO bombing of Serbia in the Balkans Wars and overthrow of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.
Vucic, an ultranationalist during the wars in the Balkans and Milosevic’s information minister in 1999, has fostered stronger economic and military integration with the West for years despite publicly playing the role of a thorn in the US/EU side.
On the military front, Belgrade maintains a close working relationship with NATO:
By the end of 2006, NATO opened a Military Liaison Office in Belgrade in order to support defense sector reforms and facilitate Serbia’s participation in the Partnership for Peace activities, whereas, in the following year, Serbia joined the Partnership for Peace Planning and Review Process (PARP), which aimed to direct and measure progress in the transformation of the defense and military sectors.
Since 2007, Serbia has been an active participant in the NATO program for Peace and Security (SPS), which enables cooperation on issues of common interest aimed at enhancing the security of NATO members and partners.
A number of donations stemming from NATO and the United States, as well as the number of joint military exercises, are by far higher in comparison to those of Russia, but for reasons of military neutrality or the desire of political elites…
Just this past year Serbia hosted two international military exercises in the Balkans involving NATO members were completed: Platinum Wolf 23 and Defender 23.
Economically, two-thirds of Serbia’s trade is done with the EU. Russia and China rank a distant second and third, respectively. EU countries (especially Germany) are increasingly relocating industry to Serbia, especially for steel and metal fabrication, as well as industrial and automotive equipment.
The EU is the largest provider of financial assistance to Serbia with 571 million euros delivered from the 2021-23 Instrument for Pre- accession Assistance. Much of that money is going to support the EU-backed wider plan to build 3.5 billion euros worth of gas-fired power plants, pipelines, and liquefied natural gas terminals in the Western Balkans. According to a March report from Global Energy Monitor and Bankwatch:
Plans for €3.5 billion worth of new gas-fired power plants, gas pipelines, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals in the Western Balkans, promoted by European Union (EU) and U.S. institutions, would force countries to import far more gas than they have in the past and delay the region’s shift toward clean, domestic energy production.
In 2021, the six countries of the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia – consumed a mere 3.7 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas or 4% of what Germany used that same year.
This would help accommodate the shifting of industry and energy from inside the EU garden to outside the walls in Serbia. There are numerous plans or projects already completed linking the power grids of the Western Balkans with the EU. For example, there are power interconnectors under the Adriatic Sea that will send energy from the Balkans to Italy (which is being expanded), and there are other interconnector projects linking to the EU nations like Hungary and Croatia. Importantly, this will in effect help “green” Europe as the natural gas will be burned outside the EU’s borders. Serbia plays a central role in all these plans.
Serbia has likewise signaled its interest in getting off Russian gas supplies once its current three-year deal with Gazprom expires. Vucic attended the inauguration of works for a floating LNG terminal off the Greek coast back in 2022 and the launch of the Greece–Bulgaria interconnector pipeline that would send that gas onwards to Serbia. Belgrade is also negotiating imports with Azerbaijan and LNG producers. All of this is what the West desires.
Serbia doesn’t have great options even if it was determined to move closer to Russia, as it is landlocked and surrounded by NATO members. For example, it was forced to abandon Russian oil after the EU imposed a full embargo on seaborne Russian crude oil, starting in December. That move cut supplies to Serbia, which depends on the Adria pipeline, linked to terminals on Croatia’s Adriatic coast.
Maybe the biggest prize in Serbia that both the Vucic government and the West are after is a mega lithium mine, which could supply 90 percent of Europe’s current lithium needs.
The $2.4 billion Rio Tinto project faces overwhelming public opposition, but opponents of the mine believe the Vucic government plans to move forward nonetheless, and there are plentiful reasons to believe that to be true. Rio Tinto has continued to buy up land in the area, and is also offering financial aid to local businesses in an apparent effort to curry good will.
Berlin is one the strongest proponents of the project, which also has strong backing from the UK, Australia, the US, and EU. The latter is currently reliant on China for roughly 97 percent of its lithium but aspires to quickly secure an entire supply chain of battery minerals and materials. According to Handelsblatt, the German government listed the Serbian lithium mine as one of the most important projects in order to secure the raw material and reduce dependence on China.
The issue of the lithium mine is representative of the wider dynamic between the Serbian public on one side and the governments of Serbia and the West on the other.
The appearance of being at odds with the West is beneficial to the ruling elite in Serbia where the public is overwhelmingly against the West:
A July 2022 survey by New Third Way, a research organization, found that 66 percent of Serbs felt closer to Moscow than to the West and that 40 percent favored an end to membership talks with the EU. only 20% of those surveyed viewed the EU positively. As data from numerous polls suggest, a great majority of Serbs look at Russia as an ally and a desired partner, well ahead of the EU—not to mention the United States, which is faulted for taking Kosovo away from Serbia. Additionally 80 percent were against the introduction of sanctions against Russia and the majority of Serbs see Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine as wholly justified due to NATO agression.
Despite the ever increasing ties between the West and Serbia, Belgrade’s relationship with Moscow is given much more attention – both abroad and in Serbia. The likely reason is that such window dressing increases public support for the government.
Russia would like nothing more than for Serbia to be what is often portrayed as: a Russian satellite in Eastern Europe. But that is not the case. The fact is Russia’s only leverage is appealing to Serbian people and keeping them onside and guaranteeing that it would be political suicide for Serbian leaders to openly move to the West.
The problem for the West and Serbia’s ruling class is that they cannot move whole heartedly into open coordination due to public opposition.
Therefore any move to recognize Kosovo (which paints Serbia as a Russian puppet state because it is in Pristina’s interests to do so) and move into the EU and NATO would cause widespread backlash in Serbia, likely making the recent protests look tame by comparison. Such overreach could potentially usher in political leaders who would really respond to public opinion and move Serbia closer to Russia. Therefore, the current arrangement of the country’s ruling elite moving quietly closer to the West while at the same time maintaining the public illusion of an independent state playing the middle ground between West and East is likely to continue with Vucic likely using the alleged Western color revolution attempt as an excuse to further tighten control and using the increased authority to more easily please his masters in the West.