By Alejandro Esteso Pérez - 15 December , 2023

Portraying Kosovo in Serbia’s election campaign

Portraying Kosovo in Serbia’s election campaign

On the 17th of December, for the third time in less than four years Serbia will go to the polls to elect its parliament. Following the announcement by president Aleksandar Vučić in early November, the elections to the Serbian National Assembly will be held in parallel to local elections in over 60 cities and municipalities―strategically handpicked by the ruling party to strengthen its local grip―as well as the provincial elections in Vojvodina.

The final run-up to voting day is being played along a predominantly domestic dimension, which keeps dragging the trauma of the two consecutive mass shooting episodes that shook the country earlier this spring: the 3rd of May, at an elementary school in Belgrade that killed ten and injured six, and the 4th of May, in the villages of Dubona and Malo Orašje that left nine dead and over ten injured. Massive country-wide protests under the slogan Srbija protiv nasilja (“Serbia against violence”) ensued almost immediately and have consistently taken to the streets since then, with the joint cry for stricter arm regulation and government accountability. In Belgrade alone the demonstrations gathered on up to 27 occasions from May through November, and also extended to over 40 municipalities and towns across Serbia.

As the running parties fine-tune their last few campaign tricks, not least in an environment of institutional capture where Vučić’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) is openly hindering fair electoral competition, polls indicate a glimmer of hope for the opposition. While overtaking the SNS seems complicated given the unbalanced playing field, the most optimistic accounts see the opposition parties achieving their best results in years.

A trigger to unite them (almost) all

The tragic events in Belgrade, Dubona, and Malo Orašje sparked frustration and the anger for a large segment of the Serbian population, a big share of which joined a mosaic of opposition parties and grassroots groups in the first Srbija protiv nasilja protest held in Belgrade on the 8th of May, gathering several thousand participants. To this day, very few of the initial demands of the demonstrators, which include the revocation of national broadcasting licenses from televisions that promote violence, have been met.

The anti-violence rallies were initially proclaimed as non-partisan and would not feature party symbols and speeches, despite its more than evident partisanship. However, bearing witness to the protests’ huge civic traction, the Belgrade demonstrations gradually included the opposition party leaders in more prominent roles, slowly taking center stage in this open cry against the government, the state of SNS-led institutional capture, and the impunity of the authorities. In early November, the dozen parties engaged in the demonstrations revealed they would concur a joint coalition platform under the name Srbija protiv nasilja. What for years had not been an achievable option, that parties spanning from the Ecological Uprising and the Green-Left Front to the Party of Freedom and Justice (SSP) and the Democratic Party (DS)―all within the progressive side of the spectrum―would run united in a coalition, was now attained despite the dynamics of contentious politics. This decision, sets a milestone among the Serbian pro-European opposition parties, several of which refused to compete in the 2020 parliamentary elections and which otherwise have failed to break through the SNS’s institutional monopoly.

Vučić’s SNS is running on a personality-based ticket where the Serbian president is the visible image of the campaign, himself not being a candidate in any of the three elections. The SNS relies on catch-all tactics of political proselytism and draws from its decade-long infiltration into the State’s institutional apparatus to maintain and broaden its pool of voters, namely through intimidation and threats over jobs in the public sector. Instances of mass recruitment of voters via call centers and blackmailing of opposition representatives with the leaking of private video content, among others, have been reported throughout the campaign, which has otherwise been stained by a sizeable share of irregularities. These have included alleged cases of electoral clientelism towards public sector employees through threats of dismissal, misuse of State institutional channels of communication for political campaigning, illegal collection of citizens’ personal data, and the overrepresentation of the incumbent SNS in the media.

The SNS has been the main target of the Srbija protiv nasilja protests, which prompted the party to upscale its retaliation repertoire and, among other actions, to convene a peace counter-rally under the slogan Srbija nađe (“The Serbia of hope”) in late May―where prominent politicians and celebrities alike paraded their support for Vučić and his platform.

To the right of SNS, a new coalition, Nacionalno Okupljanje (“National Gathering”), was formed between the ultra-nationalist and ultra-conservative parties Dveri and Srpska Stranka Zavetnici, who run on identity-based issues and seek the forceful reintegration of Kosovo into Serbia as one of their foremost policy pillars. Other platforms, such as the Socialist Party (SPS) led by incumbent Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić, and the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) of former deputy prime minister and convicted war criminal Vojislav Šešelj, will also compete among the 18 running parties and coalitions.

Three visions for Kosovo

As has consistently occurred in the past, much of the domestic electoral rhetoric has focused on Serbia’s relations with Kosovo, as 2023 marks 15 years since its breakaway. Against the background of a society where, according to recent polling, 46 percent believes Kosovo is lost forever, while over 75 percent supports the establishment of long-term peace with Kosovo Albanians, the candidate parties and coalitions have offered competing visions of how Serbia should frame its future relations with Prishtina.

Three main strategic approaches have prevailed throughout Serbia’s electoral campaign. On the one hand, ruling party SNS has defended the continuation of its current policy towards Kosovo, warning about a tumultuous and unstable 2024 and highlighting Vučić’s role in spearheading the protection of the rights of Kosovo Serbs. By fueling a narrative of permanent crisis that only Vučić can keep at bay, SNS comes out as the only guarantor of Serbia’s interests vis-à-vis the illegitimate institutions in Prishtina. The slogan “Nema predaje” (“No surrender”) has flooded SNS’s networks of political activism as an overarching mantra, shifting the political discourse towards identity-related questions and away from the staggering economic and social issues affecting Serbia.

The ultra-conservative Nacionalno Okupljanje coalition has approached Kosovo through a revanchist and mainly territorial lens amid the pledge of bringing it back under Serbian control. The leader of Zavetnici, Milica Đurđević Stamenkovski, promoted her party’s stance through a viral picture on social media where, at night and dressed in dark sportswear, she claimed to have walked across the forest into Kosovo and visited Serb-inhabited villages. “Who knows the goal, knows the way”, the post read. The coalition has openly reaffirmed its geopolitical alignment with Moscow, as its leaders held a meeting with Maria Zakharova, spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where they requested Russia to use its influence in multilateral organisations against Kosovo’s attempt to gain international recognition. SNS and Vučić have capitalized highly on the ultra-nationalists’ excessively bellicose rhetoric, as it renders the ruling party moderate and sensible before the eyes of the general public.

The Serbia protiv nasilja coalition has focused its priority checklist on undoing a decade of SNS-led institutional capture, while the Kosovo question has emerged as a visible point of dissent. The Green-Left Front has in principle accepted the so-called ‘French-German proposal’ for the normalization of relations between Serbia and Kosovo, while the leaders of the SSP and the Ecological uprising affirmed they would oppose any attempt conducive of Serbia’s recognition of Kosovo and granting Kosovo a seat at the UN. The parties have recognized the diversity of views within the coalition but argue that any decision regarding Serbia’s approach to Kosovo must be made within an open and transparent public space, for which the country’s media will first need to be liberated from SNS control. They also consider Kosovo Serbs to be hostage to local party Srpska Lista, which is directly commanded from Belgrade and has held control of Kosovo Serb-majority municipalities for years with virtually no opposition. The coalition’s unclear strategy for Kosovo has been downplayed by Vučić, who criticized it for being “exceptionally bad”. Ahead of voting day, the outcome at parliamentary level remains relatively uncertain. On the one hand, it is unlikely that Vučić’s SNS will falter, not least given its tightly-woven structure of loyalty-buying practices and clientelistic exchanges, and considering that voting results could be manipulated. However, recent polling hints at a boost in support for the Srbija protiv nasilja coalition at potentially around 25 percent―the highest result for any opposition party since 2012, when SNS came to power. It remains to be seen, however, how Election Day will play out, and what the possibilities for a potential power shift will look like in the light of the results. Serbia’s future relations with Kosovo, not least in the framework of an unresolved dialogue that risks further stagnation, will be key in the process of parliamentary majority-building amid prospects of an exceptionally fragmented Assembly.