Smoke and Mirrors in Serbia?

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:

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:

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.

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.

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  1. ambrit

    The description of a political class subverting the wishes of the population in support of an Elite agenda sounds eerily familiar to this American “citizen.”
    Any chance of the return of a “Titoist” Party in “The Powder Keg of Europe?” The Russians were highly supportive of Tito back in the 1940s and 1950s. They could do something similar today. (Perhaps they already are. Clinton showed the way back in the 1990s when he tore up the “rules” concerning the Balkans.)

    1. eg

      “a political class subverting the wishes of the population in support of an Elite agenda” sounds like most of Europe right now.

    2. voislav

      The Socialist Party, which is the successor to the former Commnunist party was a member of the ruling coalition since 2012. They suffered a serious blow in these elections going down from 11 to 6% and seem to be in disarray after their long time leader (also one of president Milosevic’s former associates) Ivica Dacic resigned due to electoral debacle.

  2. Albe Vado

    But it’s so much easier to just claim everything is a CIA backed fake revolution, which perhaps ironically is itself a kind of American Exceptionalism that strips everyone else of agency or national motivation and reduces every event in the world to being puppetered by omnipotent American supermen.

    I’m sure Langley would love to actually have even half the power regularly ascribed to it.

    1. Michael Fiorillo

      They no longer have the power (or competence) to rule, but they can still cause chaos, and skim off opportunities and wealth from that.

    1. voislav

      It’s because Vucic is useful to them as he keeps a lot of pro-Russian officials in crucial positions. For example the head of the main security agency Aleksandar Vulin, who was previously Defense Minister and Internal Affairs Minister (controls the police), was sanctioned by the US and has a travel ban.

      Opposition is much more pro-European and would not maintain such a pro-Russian slant within the administration.

    2. bidule

      I have seen a photo of the protests: a large gathering just in front of the hotel Moskva, with a tower in the background. The tower is where I park my car when I come to visit Belgrade with my kids; and from there we walk slowly the avenue which leads to the Kalamegdan park. In the summer, on evenings, this avenue is absolutely crowded almost all the way long, to the point where you can barely move. The avenue enlarges near the Moskva and can easily accommodate this number of people. Here in France, I have witnessed larger crowds and far more violence than broken doors or windows. This is not the Maïdan place, which literally looked like a war zone, for days and weeks.

      Ana Brnabic, the Prime Minister, could have pretty much stayed silent and, as said in the piece, handle the protest as usually: by sending the police to control and disperse the crowd. She chose to reveal some warning of the Russian services. In my opinion, she did so in order to score political points among the population where Russia is highly regarded (if not, among some older people, almost worshiped). She is a neoliberal, a pro-UE and pro-US (got her MBA there) stooge. Would have her said nothing, nobody would have probably spoken of a “color revolution” tentative (especially here, in the West).

      My sister was in Serbia three weeks ago. For the common people, life is quite difficult there. She was stunned by the prices: gas and diesel are more expensive in Serbia than there are in France, while the population earns way less money. To give an idea: we usually apply a ratio of 6 to 1 when converting prices from Dinars to Euros; and pretty much everything was expensive or very expensive, even for my sister, and even with Euros in the pocket.

      A final remark, for ambrit above, who asked himself if a new Tito could emerge. Tito, for the best and for the worse, was an exceptional man in exceptional times (the second world war and the cold war). Today, I fear that there are no more chances to see a new Tito in Serbia than there are any chance to see a new de Gaulle in France. Or to witness a new Roosevelt in the United States. You need a war to shuffle the chairs and break the statu quo.

      1. AnonInBelgrade

        My sister was in Serbia three weeks ago. For the common people, life is quite difficult there. She was stunned by the prices: gas and diesel are more expensive in Serbia than there are in France, while the population earns way less money. To give an idea: we usually apply a ratio of 6 to 1 when converting prices from Dinars to Euros; and pretty much everything was expensive or very expensive, even for my sister, and even with Euros in the pocket.

        Yes, costs in Serbia have exploded in the last 5 or so years. Belgrade property for example is pretty much western European prices at this point, while some things are actually more expensive here than in the EU.

        As for reasons for that I would say it is primarily due to a large influx of money. The sources of this money seem to be:

        1. Reselling EU goods to Russia. From the moment EU sanctioned Polish apples, which then they sold to Serbia who put “Made in Serbia” stickers on them and resold to Russia, there has been an increase in this re-selling of EU goods to Russia. Of course you need the government to grant you an import/export licence, so the government and their supporters get the bulk of the income. Making them fabulously wealthy (and also keeps them from sanctioning Russia, as it would kill their lucrative income streams).

        2. An influx of middle-class Russians and Ukrainians, who have brought money and have started up businesses and buying up properties as buy-to-let investments in Belgrade. A lot of them are also IT specialists, and their IT companies offer very good salaries for IT people in Serbia.

        3. A lot of people from the UK have also been coming here. Especially since Brexit it is actually easier for them to get Serbian residency than EU residency papers. Quite a few are buying multiple properties to rent out. Since the UK left the EU trade has increased between the two countries as well.

        4. There has been a lot of investment from the middle east, especially in Belgrade (e.g. “Belgrade Waterfront” estate).

        So what is happening is that society is splitting into the standard Capitalist “upper/middle/lower” classes.

        The upper classes are very rich (multi-millionaires) and politically well connected with the ruling party. In addition you have the celebrities, business owners, sportsmen,etc…

        The middle class is is being newly formed. Both from the Ukrainian/Russian middle classes, but also from skilled locals. This is primarily due to the influx of foreign capital and businesses, which are offering higher salaries for skilled professionals than before.

        For example I can talk about IT in Serbia (as that is the area I work in). Remote work has allowed a lot of foreign companies to hire skilled talent here. The average salary in Serbia is approx €1,400 a month. A low-level IT salary is around €1,500 a month, mid level is €2,500-€5,000 a month, and the very top can earn €5,000+ a month.

        Those salaries are still lower than equivalent in western Europe, but for Serbia they are large, and as a result costs (especially in Belgrade) are rapidly increasing to compensate for increased disposable income.

        Most likely other middle-level jobs will pay those kinds of salaries, so what we are seeing is a “top” 1%, a ~10% “middle” being formed, and the rest struggling to survive, which they really are.

        €1,400 is the average salary, not the median, as such all these high salaries are skewing the average upwards. The majority of people in Serbia get by on less than €600 euros a month, which makes everything expensive and difficult for them, especially if they live in Belgrade.

  3. The Rev Kev

    Serbia is certainly in a tough neighbourhood with maybe only a friendly Hungary to their north. So they are playing with a pretty weak hand but you have to admit that they are playing it well. With the development of lithium production, that country is more valuable as a stable one rather that racked by violence so perhaps that is why certain interests told the neocons to put a lid on it when their little colour revolution flopped so badly. The EU needs those lithium deposits too badly and they do not have to import them from the other side of the world if they can get it from Serbia. It will be interesting to see what happens in Serbia when the Ukraine finally falls though.

  4. voislav

    Thank you Conor. I’ve seen a lot of speculative reports over the last several weeks here on NC and it was puzzling to me as this was contrary to what I was hearing from the ground. Even though I don’t live in Serbia anymore, I still have extensive connections in the political and economic circles there. None of the people I talked to had any idea that anything unusual is brewing.

    My reading of the situation is that there is widespread discontent with Vucic’s party if not necessarily with Vucic himself. Local strongmen have been getting more brazen with intimidation and violence and this has built up a lot of anger in the population. Also, corruption has increased to record levels, a friend has commented that the local government officials are looting like there is no tomorrow.

    As I mentioned in several of my prior comments, the key here is the Kosovo issue. Vucic is committed to delivering full recognition, which is not only hugely unpopular, but would likely trigger violence from right-wing groups with full support from police and military, possibly even a coup. He is trying to bumble his way through this, for example, after signing the overreaching agreement in March, Vucic refused to sign a subsequent agreement in October that would start implementation of the March agreement, but then implemented the part of the agreement regarding Kosovo vehicle license plates just before New Year.

    The sense is that Vucic is stalling for time, he knows that signing Kosovo recognition would be the final act of his political career. He is trapped with no way out, while EU and US are steadily pressuring him to deliver. My sources are saying that the original plan was for a national referendum to be held in 2024 to remove constitutional protection from Kosovo recognition. Poor election showing has disrupted those plans as it looks doubtful they’d get 50+% of the vote needed.

    Now Vucic is again in stalling mode. Original plan was to form the parliament and the cabinet as quickly as possible, now formation of the parliament will be delayed until February and the cabinet until March or April.

  5. Feral Finster

    Vucic is probably 90% pro-western. That obviously is not enough. Even 100% abject fealty will not do, as demonstrated by how the United States and its puppets treated Saddam Hussein and Muamar Ghedaffi, to name two.

  6. Jimmy Jazz

    Yes, absolutely, it’s all smoke and mirrors in Serbia. There’s no color revolution, nor there will be major political unrest, because US, as well as other key players (Russia, EU, China) have their main objectives accomplished with status quo.

    While completely neglected elsewhere, the explanations of the relevant energy, industrial and economic drivers behind the election scene are spot on. Naked Capitalism has such an accurate read of the situation that it’s hard to believe that you don’t have regional analytical presence.

    Several points: US has by far the most local influence; Russia has little, although they would like to paint a different picture; China may in fact have more influence than Russia – e.g., Aluminum Corporation of China is the largest shareholder of Rio Tinto. So, more hands will be dealt in this game, :-).

  7. Ferencvaros

    such window dressing increases public support for the government.

    It’s not just window dressing. Vucic is genuinely friendly with Russia and Putin. He has to maintain ties with the West for economic reasons.

  8. AnonInBelgrade

    As a resident of Serbia, I can say it is a land of contradictions.

    The polls say 66% of Serbs want closer ties with Russia, 40% don’t want to join the EU, something like 80%+ say we should never recognise Kosovo’s annexation and independence, and a similar amount says Serbia should never join NATO.

    The EU for its part has been very clear (Germany in particular) telling us that to join the EU we need to:

    1. Align with EU foreign policy (so not only cancel the Russian free trade agreement we have, but put sanctions on Russia)

    2. Join NATO (it is pretty much a de-facto requirement for membership)

    3. Recognize Kosovo (the other EU members who have already recognized it will veto our application until we do)

    Yet, Vucic’s party, which has made it a clear goal to join the EU, gets 46.72% of the vote, and the “opposition” which is even more rabidly pro-EU/NATO gets 23.56% of the Vote.

    That is 70.28% of the votes for pro-EU/NATO parties. The parties that vocally oppose sanctions on Russia and recognizing Kosovo got 2.76%, below the threshold to even have a seat in parliament.

    The only party that got into Parliament which is pro-Russian and has said they would look to join BRICs instead of the EU is the “Peoples voice” party, and they only got 4.69%.

    So there is a huge disconnect between polls and votes, which so far I’ve been unable to reconcile.
    The pro-EU “opposition” Is mostly westernised liberals, and 20% of the country sounds about right as a proportion of those kinds of people (mostly in the Urban capital).

    I don’t know who votes for Vucic and co though. Based on the polls of what is important to people they should have nowhere near the votes they do, yet here we are.

    As for “color revolutions”. The government loves to big them up. If Vucic and co is to be believed, there has been 1 colour revolution attempt and 3 coup d’etat attempts in the last few of years in Serbia.
    It is a convenient distraction for the government when they want to do something unpopular without the people noticing.

    What can I say? People in the end always get the government they deserve, and Serbia is no different.

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