After a COVID-19 imposed hiatus, Serbia announced that it will hold its postponed parliamentary elections on June 21. Some of the biggest opposition parties will boycott the elections, blaming the government it had not provided fair game conditions. Ruling parties, on the other hand, started the campaign in earnest, continuing their tradition of controversial campaign ads.

Prior to this announcement, the country ‘relaxed’ its anti-pandemic measures, which included lockdown. Data provided by the country to the WHO indicates that by June 18 it recorded 12,522 confirmed cases and 257 deaths.

In a controversial move, on June 7 Serbia declared 4.000 persons who previously tested positive to COVID-19 as ‘healed,’ reducing the number of active infections by about 10 times. Epidemiologist Zoran Radovanović said that:

“It’s clear that they had not been tested during a 24 period, and received negative results. They were written off by an act of the quill, and it was “an administrative decision”, epidemiologist Zoran Radovanović said.

This reduced the ratio of infected persons per 100.000 inhabitants, which provided rationale for reducing the restrictive prevention measures, and an added benefit of putting the country in a category that allows travel of its citizens to some of the neighboring countries.

Kicking off with atmosphere of dystopian science fiction

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić, the head of the Serbian Progressive Party, a right-wing populist political party allied with Hungarian Fidesz within the framework of European People’s Party, started the campaign during the lockdown period with an ‘online rally’ on May 16.

The event incited comparisons with characters and scenes from dystopian science fiction works, from the Big Brother from 1984 to the Architect from the Matrix.

Soon after, Twitter users also compared the footage with the photos from rallies of the toppled Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević, when masses of people were bused across the country in show of support. However, even with such investments, the government at the time was blamed for doctoring the photos in order to show that there were more people expressing their love for Milošević.

“In 2000, pictures from Milošević’s election rallies were doctored to inflate the number of supporters, 20 years later, the number of virtual supporters is inflated in Vučić rally (hard to offer free sandwiches in a virtual world,” Austrian Balkans scholar Florian Beiber commented via Twitter.

President Vučić actually served as Minister of Information within the government during the reign of his predecessor Milošević, between 1998 and 2000.

Weekend in Greece

One of the most talked about video clips  issued by the ruling party is titled “Weekend in Greece? Yes, it’s possible!” The video was released before opening of the borders in Europe, which were closed to limit the spread of COVID-19 pandemic.

The video addresses the frustrations of the people who had been locked in due to quarantine measures, and also gives credit to the president for recently built stretches of the motorways that connect Serbia with North Macedonia and Bulgaria, the thoroughfares for reaching the popular holiday destination – Greece.

In the video, a family from southern Serbia (judging by their accent) enjoys the freedom to decide to take a weekend in Greece at the spur of the moment – implying both economic affluence and freedom of movement.

TV announcer: Another weekend with record  high temperatures is ahead of us…
Mother: Oh my, we’ll all drop dead!
Father: Let’s go to Greece, right away!
Sons: Yes!
Mother: You are out of your mind. Such a long road trip for two days at the sea!
Father: What road trip?! Just a pedal to the metal and we’ll be there in four hours.
Mother: So let’s go. I would need twice that much to pack.
Father: The best of all is that all the way we’ll travel via [modern] highway.
Mother: Ela, ela! [“Let’s go” in Greek] Let’s go, let’s go!
Voice over: Aleksandar Vučić. For our children.
[Changed scene, indicating they’ve arrived a the Greek seaside.]
Father: Kalimera. [“Good day” in Greek].
Mother: Sagapo. [“I love you” in Greek, while looking at a pendant with the image of Aleksandar Vučić.]

 

In May, President Vučić and Serbian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ivica Dačić announced that Greece will open its borders for Serbian visitors on June 15.

In fact, Greece planned to open its borders for Serbian tourists from July 1, so Serbian tourists who actually rushed towards the beach through Bulgaria got stuck on the Bulgarian-Greek border. At one point, the line was over 15 km long, and many of the blocked families flooded the social media with complaints about the hellish conditions affecting the children and senior travelers.

Serbian diplomacy pleaded with Greece, which conceded to opening its Bulgarian border for incoming Serbian citizens ahead of schedule.

However, Greece still keeps closed its border with North Macedonia, which would provide the shortest route for Serbian tourists to the seaside. The SNS commercial implies using this route, because part of the road through Bulgaria is not motorway.

However, contrary to the braggadocio from the election campaign video, even this route takes more than four hours drive. According to Google maps, driving within speed limits from capital Belgrade to Thessaloniki takes 6.5 hours through Macedonia and 7.5 hours through Bulgaria. The road from the southern city of Niš takes at least 4.5 hours through North Macedonia and nearly 5.5 hours through Bulgaria. This is not counting any stops at the borders or gas stations which would add additional few hours. Once near Thessaloniki, the tourists also need to drive more hours to actually reach the popular beach vacation spots.

Chinese robot expresses love for Serbian traditions

On Monday June 15, President Vučić visited the Center for Robotics and Artificial Intelligence in Education (CRVIO) in Belgrade, holding a public meeting with a humanoid robot made in China, called Ema.

They held a conversation in Serbian language. Vučić stressed that under his leadership the country promotes digital education and artificial intelligence as roads to future, and has gained 800 million euros from software exports.

Vucic asked Ema why she came to Serbia, and she replied that the country had a rich tradition and that she came to improve education in Serbia with the help of modern Chinese technology.

President Vučić: Dear Ema, could you tell us why you came to Serbia?

Ema, the robot: Of course. I love Serbia. Considering the fact  that I am a kind of smart technology, it is obvious  why I choose to be in Serbia. It’s not only because it has exceptional people, rich traditions and nature, but also because it’s a country which has bright future.

The President also announced the construction of similar centers in the northern city of Novi Sad and in the central town of Trstenik, and plans for training of additional 4.000 people.

Current Serbian government has long-term cooperation with the People’s Republic of China, in particular in the field of digital surveillance. It has purchased over 1,000 cameras with face recognition technology to be placed in 800 locations throughout the capital Belgrade from the Chinese company Huawei.

Stage diving in the South-West

Meanwhile, the politician Rasim Ljajić made the news on June 17 by performing rock-star style stage diving into the crowd during a rally in the South-Western city of Novi Pazar.

Ljajić (56) currently holds the position of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Trade, Tourism and Telecommunications in the Government of the Republic of Serbia. He is running as the leader of an election list “European Novi Pazar – Rasim Ljajić” composed of several smaller political parties whose voter base is the area of Sandzak which is mainly inhabited by ethnic Bosniaks.

His party has been a fixture of almost all ruling coalitions in the recent history of Serbia, and he has been holding similar positions to the current since 2012. At the rally he praised his list as the only one which has “majority of female candidates and the only one which would win the  highest number of Bosniak and Serbian voices [together], which is impossible in this day and age [for others].”

According to Serbian Electoral Code, the country will enjoy an electoral silence starting on midnight on Thursday and ending at 21:00 hrs on Sunday. The days are long, and there is still time for more eye-catching campaign stunts.