Serbia in 2016: Year in review

Early elections consolidated the grip of Aleksandar Vucic’s ruling party, protests continued over the Waterfront project, and mysterious arms finds ignited security fears  These are the events that marked the year 2016 in Serbia.

The Ruling Serbian Progressive Party led by Aleksandar Vucic called another snap election in January 2016, just two years after the previous election, despite having a stable majority of 158 seats out of 250, stating that the “atmosphere is bad” and therefore elections were needed.

Critics doubted the stated reason for this decision, claiming that the real reason for holding an early general election was to join it with local, general and provincial elections.

It was believed this would help the ruling party win control of the northern province of Vojvodina, the last bastion of the opposition parties.

Two kidnapped Serbian embassy employees were meanwhile killed in February in an American air strike on an ISIS compound in Libya.

The diplomats were allegedly held by Islamic State at a militant training camp in northern Libya that US warplanes bombed.

After a year of the refugee crisis, which had affected the whole of the Balkans as well as the EU, at the London donor conference on 1 February, Prime Minister Vucic called for unified international solution to the crisis, saying it was affecting the Balkan region’s stability.

At the same time, Austria urged Balkan countries to significantly reduce the flow of refugees as it prepared to sharply limit the number of incomers it was willing to receive.

Although Serbia said it was increasing its capacity to accept refugees, those waiting for permits to enter Hungary from Serbia in the transit zone faced long waits, worsening weather and poor conditions.

Numbers in the transit zone had risen in mid-July after Hungary tightened border controls, cutting off that part of the refugees’ “Balkan route”.

Since July Hungary had let in only 15 refugees a day on each of its two border crossings with Serbia.

Another election victory

In March, opposition talks that started in January on forming a broad coalition for the elections, which could challenge the Progressive Party, broke down.

Vucic’s Progressive Party went on to win around 50 per cent of all votes cast in the general elections on 24 April, securing him another four years in power.

The party also achieved one of its core goals in winning control of the province of Vojvodina as well as most municipalities.

The Socialist Party of Serbia came second, winning 11.02 per cent of the votes, while the extreme nationalist Serbian Radical Party, led by the former war-crimes indictee Vojislav Seselj, came third.

Opposition parties protested over the result, claiming that the elections were rigged.

At the beginning of May, opposition coalitions continue to demand that the authorities investigate all alleged irregularities in the recent parliamentary polls and asked for an overhaul of the election law.

The coalitions around the Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Enough is Enough movement and the Democratic Party of Serbia-Dveri alliance, sought reforms to election legislation, which they claimed was full of systematic errors.

After the Progressives won the election in the province of Vojvodina, Slobodan Arezina, program director for Radio Television Vojvodina, RTV was sacked. The head of an independent journalists union in Serbia claimed the sacking was politically motivated.

Prime Minister-designate Vucic meanwhile revealed his list of potential cabinet ministers in the beginning of August. Serbia got its first openly LGBT person to sit in a government, namely Ana Brnabic.

Most of the new ministers held the same positions they had in the previous government.

At the beginning of the December, a number of experts predicted that the ruling party would call yet another early parliamentary election, this time to boost the chances of its candidate winning the presidential election due in spring 2017.

Controversy over nocturnal demolitions

On election night in April, meanwhile, masked men blocked Hercegovacka Street in Belgrade’s Savamala district, seized mobile phones from eyewitnesses, some of whom were tied up, and demolished several buildings using bulldozers.

Residents and workers in the street called the police for help, but according to a report by the Ombudsman, Sasa Jankovic, the police declined to take action.

This seemingly deliberate inactivity on the part of the police ignited a series of subsequent protests in Belgrade against the controversial riverside Waterfront development – which it was believed the demolitions were connected.

Prime Minister-designate Vucic in June admitted that senior Belgrade city officials had been behind the nocturnal demolitions in Savamala.

In September, the protest movement, “Let’s not drown Belgrade” [“Ne davimo Beograd”] scheduled another rally over this issue, almost five months after it remained unknown who had demolished the buildings in the Waterfront project area.

EU Chapters opened, eventually

After months of disputes, Serbia officials said on 3 June that they struck a deal on opening talks on Chapter 23 and 24 in Serbia’s EU accession talks, claiming Croatia had accepted Belgrade’s proposal that all remaining disputes should be solved in a regional context.

However, Croatia continued to block Serbia’s opening of Chapter 23 until mid-July when Serbia opened Chapters 23 and 24.

The head of the EU Delegation to Serbia, Michael Davenport, was unable to present the EU report on Serbia’s progress to the Serbian parliament on 10 November following objections from right-wing opposition parties.

The Radical Party and Dveri argued that the report must be written in Serbian since English – the language in which the European Commission report was written – is not an official language.

Croatia meanwhile again on 12 December blocked Serbia, in the opening of Chapter 26 in the EU negotiations, which covers education and culture, citing concerns about the lack of progress in producing textbooks for pupils from Serbia’s Croat minority, among other issues.

Prime Minister Vucic angrily cut short a visit to Brussels and anti-Croatian posters appeared in Belgrade.

Dramatic arms finds cause alarm

In a dramatic development, the Interior Minister on 29 October said Prime Minister Vucic had been “moved to safety” after police found large quantities of weapons hidden close to his home.

Stefanovic said police had found several hand grenades, bazooka and large quantities of ammunition for machine-guns and snipers, hidden in the woods near the Prime Minister’s home, close to Belgrade.

Following the arms find affair, in November, Vucic demanded an end to repeated leaks and reports on the investigations into weapons caches recently found near his home.

He also vowed to make changes to address failings by the intelligence services after the weapons cache finds in Belgrade.

Media, Gay Pride, Russian ties

The ruling Progressive Party organised an unusual exhibition of press articles to back its claim that the media is free to lie about the government and that there is no state censorship in Serbia. Most of the articles on display at

Most of the articles on display at exhibition, “Uncensored Lies”, came from the weekly magazines NIN and Vreme, BIRN and television station N1, but there was also material from comedy shows like “24 Minutes,” which is hosted by satirist Zoran Kesic, and from caricaturists.

Members of the ruling Progressive Party and the nationalist Radical Party on 14 September teamed up to accuse Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic of using his position to advance his political ambitions in the parliamentary debate on his annual report.

Some politicians joined several hundred LGBT rights supporters on a march through the capital, which concluded without incidents – although many criticised the event.

The third Belgrade Pride Parade took place under the slogan “Love changes the world”. R

In October, Russian Security Council chief Nikolai Patrushev visited Belgrade advocating closer cooperation between Serbian and Russian intelligence services.

The planned agreement would establish regular communications between the two countries’ security agencies, though not on a legally binding basis.

The Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic hailed an arms deal with Russia on 12th December, dismissed potential EU opposition to it, and launched an attack on Croatia, accusing it of building up weapons for an attack on Serbia.

(Balkan Insight, 28.12.2016)

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