As Europe Urges ‘Reform’ in Serbia, Local Election Observers Point to State Machinery Behind Vote Rigging

When Serbia went to the polls this December, it seemed that — for the first time in a decade — the country’s beleaguered opposition had a shot at a meaningful victory.

The headwinds were strong. President Aleksandar Vučić, who served as information minister under Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milošević, has spent years tightening his grip over the Balkan country.

While there was little doubt his party would keep its majority in parliament, a separate election in Serbia’s capital offered his opponents a rare opportunity. In the wake of two mass shootings that rocked the country earlier in the year, Belgrade had become a locus of anti-government protest. Pre-election polls showed that the opposition, united in a coalition called “Serbia Against Violence,” had a chance to win control of the city assembly.

On the day of the election, however, it quickly became clear that something was wrong. As residents of the city set out to vote, many noticed an unsettling sight: People arriving at their neighborhood polling stations who seemed to have little idea of where they were.

As became clear throughout the day, Serbs from other parts of the country, and from neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, were being driven around the city to vote in organized groups.

Many assumed this invasion had been arranged to ensure the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) retained its hold on the Belgrade assembly. When the preliminary results were announced that evening, the SNS came out slightly ahead. (With no party claiming an outright majority, the Belgrade assembly election now appears to be headed for a rerun.)

The affair set off several weeks of heated protests — and calls for the international community to take notice. Serbia, after all, has spent over a decade in negotiations to join the world’s biggest democratic club, the European Union. It’s also a member of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), whose human rights arm led an international mission to observe the vote.

And yet, with several exceptions, the most prominent Western responses seemed to treat Serbia’s electoral problems as a matter of insufficient technical capacity. U.S. diplomats and European leaders alike noted their “concern” about “deficiencies” in the country’s election practices. The government, they said, should “implement observers’ recommendations” and “accelerate its work on reforms.”

This approach — finding ways to obliquely criticize President Vučić while leaving him plenty of room to rejoin the fold — has become familiar in recent years. But a closer look at the findings of Serbia’s most prominent independent election observation group suggests the problem runs much deeper than the need for a few ‘reforms.’

A report released last week by the group, CRTA The Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability. , puts it in stark terms: “The results of the election largely resulted from advantages that the ruling party gained illegally, with the complicity of several state institutions,” it concluded. “From the moment the elections were called, the institutions released the brakes of the law more and more recklessly.”

Demonstrators attempt to enter the town hall
Credit: Imago/Alamy Stock Photo Irregularities in parliamentary and local elections in Belgrade, Serbia, led to opposition protests, during which demonstrators attempted to enter the town hall.

Combining leaks from government insiders, observation at the polls, and statistical analysis, CRTA has been able to paint the most complete picture of what happened in Belgrade on election day.

More than a fifth of the city’s polling stations were affected by “serious irregularities,” the group found, concluding “very conservatively” that the SNS engineered at least 30,000 extra votes for itself in the capital. Far from technical or anecdotal, the group concluded, the violations were part of a systematic, months-long effort by the ruling party to use captured government bodies to ensure electoral victory.

Daniel Bochsler, a political scientist at Central European University, described it as a “new era of electoral misconduct” for Serbia, which has long faced accusations of various election irregularities.

“This is not a country that can make any progress on the EU membership process,” he said.

‘They Drove Us Here’

On the day of the vote, outraged Belgrade residents took to social media to post dozens of photos and videos that appeared to show the election being stolen before their eyes.

One man recorded himself confronting the elderly driver of a yellow school bus parked near a polling station. “How can there be school on Sunday?” he asks. “What is it? Organized bringing people to vote? Is that it?”

“Close the door,” the driver snaps.

In another video, a woman admits that she is from Bosnia — but registered to vote in Belgrade. “They drove us here and they have to drive us back,” she says. “I don’t know what to tell you. I just want to gather all these people here so I can get back home.”

Enthusiastic or not, these voters were part of something big. But how did it work? Who had arranged it? And how much of a difference had it made?

For senior foreign officials, including the EU’s top diplomat, its justice commissioner, and the U.S. Ambassador, the main source of truth about Serbia’s election has been the observation mission organized by the OSCE.

The organization’s Warsaw-based democracy and human rights office, ODIHR, has been observing elections for decades and the 361-strong contingent it organized for Serbia’s December poll was by far the highest-profile international mission in the country. And so a report it published on the day after the vote, technically a “statement of preliminary findings and conclusions,” has become a key reference for international commentary on what happened on the ground.

Its main conclusion is that the election, “though technically well-administered,” had taken place in “unjust conditions” due to the “the ruling party’s systemic advantages” and the “decisive involvement of President Vučić” (who was not himself on the ballot). The report also noted “allegations of organizing and busing of voters to support the ruling party” in the local Belgrade election and “9 cases of vote buying and 5 cases of ballot box stuffing.”

But it provides no answer to the key question on the mind of many in Belgrade — how their city assembly election had come to be infiltrated by outsiders.

In part, this is because ODIHR’s picture is incomplete. The mission’s several hundred observers could only hope to view a small fraction of the country’s 8,200 polling stations, often only for an hour each.

More importantly, the mission was deployed specifically to observe the nationwide parliamentary vote, leaving the Belgrade city council race outside its purview. Asked why, ODIHR spokesperson Katya Andrusz said that the organization had limited financial and human resources and needed to focus on its primary mandate.

Aleksandar Vučić in the Stark Belgrade Arena
Credit: Imago/Alamy Live News Aleksandar Vučić, the President of Serbia, addressed supporters at a pre-election rally held in the Stark Belgrade Arena, with his party's flag prominently displayed.

‘This System Is Rigged’

Fortunately, Serbia has its own election observers. The key player on the ground, CRTA, is a non-profit that has its roots in the democratic transition that followed the ouster of Milošević in 2000.

With funding from several foreign governments and foundations, the organization has spent years advocating for stronger civic culture and better citizen involvement in Serbia’s political life. On December 17, it carried out its biggest election observation mission yet, featuring about 2,500 accredited observers.

CRTA’s fast-talking director, Raša Nedeljkov, has the harried air of a man with a mission — there is always too much to uncover, and too little time and money to do it.

“Тwo weeks before the election day, we discovered what was going on with the voter registry,” he said. “We had different insiders giving us documents that proved our suspicion that there was something wrong. So we wanted to actually play the role of investigative journalists.”

What he and his team say they’ve uncovered is an organized effort by the ruling SNS party to change voters’ places of residence. The scheme was possible, Nedeljkov said, because, in a move without precedent in the history of modern Serbia, local elections had been called in only about a third of the country’s municipalities. As a result, government supporters who were not voting at home were available to vote where they were needed.

“We’re talking about a completely rigged system within the Ministry of the Interior, which is in charge of residences and citizenship, and the Ministry of Public Administration and Local Self-Government, which is in charge of maintaining the voter registry,” Nedeljkov said.

The preparations started weeks before the election, according to CRTA’s findings. In one case investigated and verified by its researchers, a person living near Belgrade reported that their elderly parent, a supporter of President Vučić, had been invited by an SNS party committee to “show up at the local police station and bring their ID.”

Raša Nedeljkov
Credit: Marko Risovic Raša Nedeljkov, the director of CRTA, speaks at the organization’s press center on election day.

There — along with about 20 others, they said — the parent’s official residence was changed to a neighboring village that was technically part of Belgrade. In exchange for voting there, an SNS activist promised each attendee 2,000 dinars ($18).

As many Belgrade residents noticed, voters were also brought in from outside the country, particularly the Serb-majority region of neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina.

An analysis by CRTA that compared voter lists from both countries found over 1,400 Belgrade addresses where unusual numbers of voters who appeared to be living in Bosnia had been registered as “residents.” In one especially egregious example, 129 people from Bosnia were registered at a building in the working-class neighborhood of Dušanovac that was still under construction.

If they hold Serbian citizenship, there’s nothing to stop people living in Bosnia from taking part in national elections, Nedeljkov said: “We encourage them to vote!” But, he said, only people who genuinely live in Belgrade should be able to vote for its local assembly.

On the day of the election itself, CRTA’s observers documented how foreign voters were distributed across the city. According to the organization’s final election report, a large sports hall, known as Belgrade Arena, was turned into a logistical hub.

“Observers reported seeing private security personnel in front of the arena, many buses and vehicles from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and groups coordinating voter transportation,” the report reads. “The scheme entailed welcoming voters, facilitating their registration inside the arena, assigning [them] to polling stations, arranging complimentary transportation using party-organized buses, vans, taxis and private cars, and bringing them back.”

This system, Nedeljkov said, was a sign of the regime’s sophistication.

Back in the 90s, the Milošević regime “would literally bring big bags of pre-filled votes and put them in the ballot box. Today it’s not like that. We’re talking about ten or twenty [votes] here, ten or twenty there. And it accumulates just enough.”

In total, CRTA’s election-day observers found signs of “organized voter migration” at 71 Belgrade polling stations, representing 14 percent of those observed. Statistical analyses conducted after the election found data anomalies at the same locations. One of these techniques yielded a lower-bound estimate of how many extra votes the ruling party had finagled: 30,000.

Nedeljkov does not like to tout this number, pointing out that it is both conservative and prone to misinterpretation.

“At some point, when you accumulate enough different tools to say something is wrong, the most professional thing from our side is to say that the will of the people has not been represented,” he said. “The most important thing is how we combined different types of irregularities and triangulated them to specific polling stations.”

‘The Ring Is Closing’

Following its observations, CRTA submitted a number of complaints to official bodies, from the anti-corruption agency to the police to the electronic media regulator. But these submissions, along with the opposition’s formal filings and the protests of tens of thousands of outraged citizens, have failed to overturn what they say are flawed results.

Senior government officials have admitted that Serbs from abroad had voted — but only, they said, in accordance with the law. President Vučić described the elections as the “cleanest and most honest” in Serbia’s history. The prime minister dismissed reports of violations as anecdotal. And the state-aligned media blamed the protests on foreign organizers.

CRTA itself has also come under sustained attack, with top SNS officials branding the staff as representatives of foreign interests, revealing their private information in public, and calling for their arrest.

The SNS party and President Vučić’s administration did not respond to requests for comment.

In his conversation with OCCRP, Nedeljkov repeatedly underscored that the organized voter migration is only the tip of the iceberg.

“We are talking about a cancer that just exploded this year, but it’s been growing, mutating for years,” he said.

He noted problems that have undermined the country’s elections for years, including widespread intimidation of voters, the use of public funding to compel people to vote for the ruling party, pressure on public sector employees, and an overwhelmingly pro-government media environment.

Nedeljkov worries the deteriorating state of Serbian democracy is not getting through to international observers.

“We’re trying to prove the case to the international community that Serbia is sliding into autocracy, dictatorship. And they’re always saying: ‘Come on, you’re not Belarus or Turkey. You have elections. You can get into parliament.’”

“They’re right, I’m still able to speak from the warmth of my home,” he continued. “But we’re seeing that the ring is closing. From month to month, from year to year, every election is worse than the previous one.”

Srdjan Milivojević, a longtime parliamentarian with the Democratic Party who was once a key figure in the uprising against Milošević, said the current state of crisis reminded him of that era. “I asked [U.S. Ambassador] Christopher Hill: If this happened in America, would it be ok?”

“He said no,” Milivojević said with a laugh.

Raša Nedeljkov
Credit: Imago/Alamy Stock Photo Srdjan Milivojević, center, a member of parliament with the Democratic Party, is interviewed by reporters in front of Serbia’s state election commission building on December 27, 2023.

Hill is among those who have come under fire for reactions that, critics say, have failed to meet the moment. He has been roundly pilloried by Vučić opponents for a post-election video message in which he said he was “really looking forward” to continued cooperation with the Serbian government and urged it to “work with the OSCE, work with the international observers,” to address “deficiencies” in the vote.

In this kind of rhetoric — implying the Serbian government and international election monitors were pulling in the same direction — he was not alone.

The EU’s initial response was to “conclude with concern that [Serbia’s] electoral process requires tangible improvement and further reform.”

And even when the election was taken up for debate in the European Parliament, some comments had the flavor of urging a wayward friend to do better. “We expect that all credible reports of irregularities [be] followed up in a transparent manner by the competent national authorities,” said EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders in his introductory speech.

Representatives of these EU officials did not respond to requests for comment. A representative of the U.S. State Department pointed reporters to what she described as “complete, fulsome” comments that had been made by State Department officials. In each of the linked briefings she provided, the official acknowledged problems with Serbia’s elections and included references to “working with Serbia’s government” to address them.

Other actors have stepped forward with stronger demands. Earlier this month, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for “respected international legal experts and institutions” to look into electoral violations. A separate group of senior European politicians have also urged the EU to investigate. And the German Foreign Ministry has used harsh language, calling an election of this kind “unacceptable for a country with EU candidate status.”

But there has been little visible recognition of what some say is the most logical conclusion: That the Vučić government is more interested in staying in power than in joining any foreign club.

“The Serbian government is not interested in EU accession,” says Professor Bochsler. “The Serbian government is interested in this limbo situation they have, where they can get some financial and other support from the EU. They don’t want to make proper reforms, because the reforms would mean they would need to start prosecuting themselves.”

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