Analysis of the Narrative: “New Maidan” – the response of local authorities and official Moscow to accusations of election irregularities in Serbia

December 2023.

As part of the program Regional Initiative to Combat Disinformation “Western Balkans Anti-Disinformation Hub: Exposing Malign Influences through Watchdog Journalism”, we present you a new monthly analyses of fake news and disinformation narratives.

New Maidan – the response of local authorities and official Moscow to accusations of election irregularities in Serbia

In the extraordinary parliamentary elections on December 17, 2023, the ruling Serbian Progressive Party won an absolute majority of deputies, while the opposition list “Serbia against violence” achieved a result of 23%. In far more uncertain elections – for the assembly of the capital city of Belgrade – neither the current ruling coalition nor the pro-European opposition won a majority, and the formation of the city government is still being determined.

The elections in Belgrade were marked by irregularities and manipulations that resonated most strongly with the public. On election night and the following day, opposition political parties pointed to the organized migration of voters by the ruling party, which, according to their statements, influenced the election result and changed the electoral will of the citizens of Belgrade. The observation missions, led by the organization CRTA, published detailed reports on the manipulations and concluded that the elections in Belgrade resulted from illegal electoral engineering.

Immediately after the election, there were protests in Belgrade, to which the opposition and non-governmental organizations and initiatives invited citizens. For days, several hundreds of citizens gathered on the streets of the capital city demanding the annulment and repetition of the election, culminating in a mass protest on December 30, attended by over 15,000 people, according to estimates. At the same time, the preliminary report published by the international observers of the OSCE (ODIHR) confirms the observed irregularities, the misuse of public funds and the media dominance of the President of the State, Aleksandar Vučić. The German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the US State Department, and several European Union politicians made critical comments about the election conditions.

These events were used by the pro-regime media and part of the pro-Russian-oriented public to promote the narrative of Western interference in the (post)election process, open pressure on Serbia, and the creation of an atmosphere “for Maidan in Serbia.”

Protests presented as “new Maidan” and “foreign interference”

The media close to the authorities systematically insisted on the narrative of foreign or Western interference in the post-election process in Serbia and its connection with the opposition protests in Belgrade, drawing parallels with the events in Ukraine from 2014, which were presented negatively.

Among the texts that appeared in the pro-regime media is an illustrative analysis from the daily newspaper Politika entitled “Why Berlin interferes in our election process,” where the statement of the President of Serbia and member of the SNS, Aleksandar Vučić, was interpreted and put into a broader context. He pointed out that the state authorities will draft a letter about the influence of an important country in the elections in Serbia “in the most brutal way so far.”

Politika’s interlocutors emphasized that the interference is manifested by “pressure…not to respect the results of the elections, but to challenge them”, while, on the other hand, it was suggestively underlined that “this happens when the government in a country is not up to the mark of certain (Western) centres of power.”

In the same key, other pro-regime media continued to discredit the protests in Belgrade and the demands of the opposition public concerned by the controversial elections. While the President of Serbia rejected all allegations of irregularities, claiming that the elections were “the cleanest so far”, the pro-regime media continued to build the main narrative that the observers’ assessments were not objective and stemmed from the dissatisfaction of foreign officials that there was no change of the government in Serbia.

The Informer, the most influential pro-government tabloid, in a series of articles, accused the opposition public of wanting “the creation of a belt of fire” and “a colour revolution in Belgrade” and of preparing a “Maidan scenario”. The statements of the highest Belgrade and state officials were uncritically reported in most of the media who pointed out that “everything that happened looks like the beginning of the Maidan…and that (because of that) we can lose the country,” but also, on the other hand, said that such a thing would not be allowed in Serbia.

The official state narrative in Russia about the Maidan protests in 2014 was reproduced in the context of the post-election protests in Serbia. Russian officials supported the Serbian authorities and criticized the West for encouraging violent protests and changes in Serbia. The spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Maria Zakharova, stated that “the West wishes for a Maidan in Serbia and the Balkans” and that it is a matter of “bringing people to the streets to achieve the goals…of promoting Western interests.” Russian Ambassador to Serbia Bocan-Harchenko met with the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, and said on that occasion that the Maidan in Serbia would fail and that the Serbian services responded following the law and efficiently.

The previously mentioned Politika writes, in the text of the suggestive title “Moscow exposed the West’s plans for the Maidan in Belgrade,” that “(they) are Western power centres that do not agree with the international position and positions of Serbia that were confirmed on December 17.”

Also, domestic services of the Russian state media joined the campaign of the ruling regime in Serbia and the effort to stigmatize the protests after the elections in Serbia.

Thus, RT Balkan “analysed” “who is calling for the Maidan in Serbia,” stating that all those who support the protests “are against Serbia’s good relations with Russia and support the independence of Kosovo.” The text “Contesting the Serbian elections: What Germany and America want,” expresses doubt that the West has justified objections to the Serbian elections and claims that the problem is “that the result is not what they (the West) would like.”

Also, the Serbian service of the Russian portal Sputnik actively participated in spreading the given narratives. Sputnik Serbia published several articles, “questioning” “whether someone from outside is trying to organize a new Maidan” and pointing out the parallels between Ukraine and Serbia, which is trying to maintain a free, sovereign and independent politics.

Elections marked by controversies and legitimate demands of the opposition public

The extraordinary elections in Serbia, held on December 17, were followed by numerous irregularities and controversies documented and confirmed by domestic and foreign observers. The CRTA organization, which had several thousand observers throughout Serbia on election day, most extensively presented the election manipulations of the ruling structure in Serbia, which, according to their point of view, deeply compromised and called into question the legitimacy of the election process.

Also, foreign observation missions – OSCE, Council of Europe and European Parliament, which monitored the elections at the invitation of the Serbian authorities – noticed numerous irregularities both before and during the election day itself. In announcements and reports, they pointed to unequal (pre)election conditions and irregularities during the voting itself.

Regarding the alleged pressures and interference of Western countries in the (post) election process in Serbia, this is not the first time that media close to the authorities have started similar narratives, but without presenting adequate evidence. Although the President of Serbia announced a written statement on interference in internal affairs, such a move by the Serbian authorities did not happen.

Similarly, labelling opposition protests as the creation of a “new Maidan” in Serbia is an old, repeated strategy of pro-regime but also pro-Russian media close to the Serbian regime to weaken criticism of the collapse of democratic institutions in Serbia. Using interpretations identical to those from the Kremlin, the media try to delegitimize the demands of the public, drawing attention to the alleged conspiratorial intentions of the opposition, supported by the West, to change the government through non-elections, linking it to the alleged scenario from Ukraine in 2014.

Author: Igor Mirosavljević