The wider implications of Serbia’s disputed election results and mass protests

Serbia is a flashpoint in the European struggle between democracy and autocratic leaders, with Russia’s war in Ukraine heightening its importance. Now, the Balkan nation is being torn apart by protests accusing the government of authoritarian President Aleksandar Vučić, a strong Putin ally, of widespread election fraud. Foreign policy analyst Edward P. Joseph joins Ali Rogin to discuss.

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  • John Yang:

    The Balkan nation of Serbia is a flashpoint in Europe struggle between democracy and autocratic leaders. Russia's war in Ukraine heightened Serbia's importance, as it resists Western pressure to join sanctions on Russia.

    Now the nation is being torn apart by protests accusing the government of authoritarian President Aleksandar Vucic, who's a strong Putin ally of widespread voter fraud in last month's elections. Ali Rogin has more.

  • Ali Rogin (voice-over):

    In Central Belgrade, chants of Vucic you are a thief, more than two weeks after what protesters say was a stolen election. Vucic just declared a sweeping mandate for his Serbian Progressive Party following winds in parliamentary and local elections that he called ahead of schedule, but international observers say Vucic's ruling party dominates Serbian media coverage and intimidates independent journalists giving him an unfair advantage.

    On election day there were reports of violence, ballot stuffing and allegations of people getting bused into different cities to vote.

    Since the vote, protesters have amassed in Belgrade, demanding the results be a null. They've paused for Orthodox Serbian holidays but will likely resume in mid-January.

  • Man (through translator):

    People are on the street dissatisfied with the election, which is obvious everyone confirmed that. There has been a serious disruption of the electoral process. And that is why the elections have to be repeated.

  • Ali Rogin (voice-over):

    Opposition Coalition leader Marinika Tepic has been on a hunger strike since the election. She addressed the crowds on December 30, just before she was hospitalized.

  • Marinika Tepic, Serbian Opposition Coalition Leader (through translator):

    I'm sorry that I can't say much. The only thing I can say is that I have already said everything and that these elections must be annulled.

  • Ali Rogin (voice-over):

    Vucic has defended the results. He and Russia say the protests were being controlled by the West.

  • Aleksandar Vucic, Serbian President (through translator):

    We want to steer our own college. We don't mind paying the price for all the rubbish and lies because we know what the cost is. The election process will be concluded by the institutions of the Republic of Serbia.

  • Ali Rogin:

    For more on the implications of these election results, I'm joined by Edward P. Joseph. He teaches at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and served for a dozen years in the Balkans, including with the U.S. Army, he has observed and organize numerous elections in the region.

    Edward, thank you so much for being here.

    First of all, can you tell us a little bit about what sort of leader Aleksandar Vucic has been both internally within Serbia and with regard to other countries?

    Edward P. Joseph, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies: President Vucic, which is the classic autocratic leader. He's attempting to establish thorough control of Serbia, with a veneer of democracy and that's what we see in these recent elections. This is what is known as illiberal democracy, his neighbor and his mentor and patron within the EU of course is Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary and Orban set the model for this where there's a veneer of democracy where you hold elections, but the elections are actually meaningless because the ruling party controls has such dominance over the media landscape, the opposition is weakened.

    The media are hugely dominated by the ruling party and independent journalists, activists are intimidated. And that's what we've seen in Serbia.

  • Ali Rogin:

    And there was nothing requiring these elections to be held at this time. So why did he call for these elections at this time?

  • Edward P. Joseph:

    Well, that's exactly right. These are again, early elections. And the best explanation for them is that President Vucic, as a result, in large part mistaken U.S. policy by the Biden administration was in a crisis in late September. There was a shocking confrontation in the north of Kosovo. This is where NATO troops, including U.S. troops are deployed. And there was this Kosovo police patrol happened upon a Serb militia group heavily armed that could not have entered into Kosovo without Serbian authorities known and of course, that immediately cast suspicion on President Vucic.

    And this attack which led to a shootout in the north killing of Kosovo police officer and three Serbs was a huge shock, because it showed in fact that the U.S. policy of trying to supplicate a placate President Vucic and somehow bring him over from autocratic pro-hungry, pro-Russia orientation had failed. It was that crisis very likely, that President Bush wanted to put behind him, reestablish his authority as the sole preeminent political figure in Serbia and move forward. But it turns out that that is not going to be quite as simple as he thought.

  • Ali Rogin:

    So let's talk a little bit more about U.S. policy towards Serbia and the different priorities that the United States is balancing. How have they approached Aleksandar Vucic? What do you make of their response to this crisis?

  • Edward P. Joseph:

    I would say this about U.S. policy, which is got, again, brought us to the this spring, President Biden has gotten the Balkans right, consistently. President Biden himself understands the region, and he set off his administration with the words that we are in a challenge of democracy versus autocracy. So President Biden has gotten it right but as the administration has gotten to completely wrong. They've abandoned that.

    So we have a disparity in the Balkans where the United States treats Serbia's neighbors to a much harsher, higher standard. And I should point out, we've had two violent confrontations in Kosovo this year. We've had potential issues in Montenegro, which is a NATO ally. And now within the government, there are pro-Russian elements within that NATO ally. And we have a brewing crisis, possibly even beginning this month in Bosnia Herzegovina.

    So this is the mistake of the Biden administration has been to treat President Vucic to this different softer standard on the belief that somehow we can bring him over. Instead, what it has done is it has projected fear, the U.S. basically projecting fear of Belgrade, which President Vucic correctly interprets his weakness, and takes advantage. And this all goes of course, to the benefit of his ally, which is Russia.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Sure. And let's talk a little bit more about Russia. How does this affect his relationships with Putin?

  • Edward P. Joseph:

    Well, we see clearly that Russia and Serbia are aligned. So we have this what is called a balance, but in fact, the truth is a pro-Russian policy in Belgrade, and we see this openly now. So we have the absurdity of the United States, which continues to cater to President Vucic. And we have the absurdity where President Vucic is meeting with his close and favorite ambassador, the Russian ambassador, and the two of them are openly blaming the United States and the European Union for fomenting these protests in Serbian which are legitimate protests.

    These are protests by the opposition by democracy activists who believe and with good reason that the election particularly in the capital, Belgrade has been stolen from them. And again, we see in the communication the United States, particularly the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade. This posture of avoiding the principles the very principles that President Biden stated are the foundation of his administration.

    And instead of sticking to our principles, we again project fear which Vucic interprets as weakness, and for an administration that's in its own election year this year. This portends very badly.

  • Ali Rogin:

    Fascinating stuff. Edward Joseph with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Thank you so much for breaking this down for us.

  • Edward P. Joseph:

    You're welcome.

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