Serbia at a crossroads: to the results of the Constitution referendum

The country is being artificially driven into a new crisis. Indirectly, it is also directed against Russia

On January 16, 2022, a referendum on changing the Constitution was held in Serbia. Almost immediately, citizens drew attention to the obvious inconsistencies. For example, already at 8 p.m. on the same day, it was printed in the "Novosti" newspaper that the majority voted "for" amendments to the Constitution. However, polling stations in the country were also open until 8 p.m., and still need time to count votes.

Therefore, the information planting was prepared in advance. And during the announcement of the official results on television, figures were given that in general exceed 100%. But, most importantly - the referendum was not held on the territory of Kosovo and Metohija, which are part of Serbia, because the Albanians simply did not allow it to be done. And in this case, the question arises - is it and its results legitimate? Meanwhile, there are no statistics on the referendum on the website of the Serbian Electoral Commission. [i]

The question itself was put abstractly at the referendum - "Are you in favour of approving the law on amending the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia?” What are these changes? It is obvious that many citizens of Serbia simply did not know what they wanted to change and suspected something was wrong, for example, the alienation of Kosovo and Metohija.

But the referendum was promoted within the framework of integration with the EU and was pushed through by the Venice Commission, which in November 2021 supported a new law on the referendum, abolishing the necessary minimum of 50% of voters who voted. A total of 6,510,233 voters are registered in the country. About 30% voted in the referendum. From these, 60% of the ballots were for the changes. That is, it is less than 20% of the votes.

The proposed amendments to the Constitution were aimed at excluding political interference in the election of judges, since they provide that judges and court chairpersons will be elected exclusively by the Supreme Judicial Council, while prosecutors will be elected by the Supreme Council of Prosecutors.

The Supreme Judicial Council consists of 11 members. In particular, six judges elected by judges, four prominent lawyers elected by the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia, and the Chairman of the Supreme Court. The Minister of Justice, the Chairman of the Judicial System Committee of the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia and the Chairman of the Court of Cassation, to which the former name of the Supreme Court will be returned, will no longer participate in the process. The three-year probation period for judges will also be abolished, as it was considered as the main drawback of the current Constitution.

The Supreme Council of Prosecutors will consist of 11 members, five of whom will be elected by the Chief Prosecutors, four by the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia from among the leading legal experts and on the proposal of the Judicial System Committee by a two-thirds majority vote, while the Supreme Prosecutor and the Minister of Justice will be ex officio members.

Maybe the technical changes in the judiciary made sense. However, this should have been carried out within the framework of the sovereign state of the Republic of Serbia, and not imposed from the outside. External pressure came not only from Brussels, but also from Washington.

On the eve of the referendum, US Ambassador to Serbia Christopher Hill said: "Serbia is the key to stability and progress in the Western Balkans. Serbia's progress is an integral part of achieving the strategic goals of the United States to activate our European alliances, support democracy and the rule of law, develop economic cooperation and solve global and regional problems. The United States is committed to deepening bilateral relations with Serbia through further political, economic and security cooperation.” [ii]

"Voice of America" in Serbian published Hill's comment under the heading "We offer Serbia a better model than the Chinese and Russian ones", which indicates the obvious interest of the United States in undermining Serbia's relations with its partners and friends.

However, just before the referendum, the US embassy, as well as several other EU countries, openly called for support for changes to the Constitution, which caused a storm of indignation among Serbian citizens.[iii] This was regarded not only as the fact of another intervention, but also evidence that the current authorities are acting as collaborators and not in the interests of the people of Serbia.

On the eve of the referendum itself and immediately after it was held, protests took place in the country.

It is significant that even within the ruling coalition there was no consensus on whether this referendum should be held at all. The results of the vote clearly indicate a crisis of confidence in the authorities. But in April, a general election is planned - for the president and the National Assembly. By the same time, the grace period of payment for Russian gas will end.

It is obvious that the parties (as well as their sponsors, including abroad) are preparing to place their bets. The West clearly expects to use all its possible assets to strengthen its position and reduce Russia's influence.

Perhaps it is worth asking the question - who is more interested in bilateral contact and their development - Serbia or Russia? The capabilities and real assets of the two countries are not comparable. But if we think strategically, Russia needs Serbia for many reasons.

Serbia is a neutral state, which, alas, is surrounded by NATO countries. But, if we start from the words of NATO Secretary General Jens Stolteberg that sounded after the NATO-Russia summit, that any state can build its own security as it sees fit, therefore Serbia can rely on Russia's help. And with the current confrontation between the West and Russia, Serbia can become a platform for deterrence - modern Russian air defence systems and other equipment can be delivered there.

Additionally, a question may be raised about Kosovo, where the illegal Albanian leadership has recently been behaving rather boorishly. Finally, new defence agreements may be signed between Russia and Serbia, establishing the permanent presence of the Russian military. As an alternative, joint comprehensive military exercises with a long schedule can be conducted.

If we take into account the situation with the entity Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina, then the help of the Russian military (and not only) would be useful there.

We should also pay attention to other major projects in Serbia, in which Russia is represented. It is obvious that the growing influence of the West (and unfair competition as an indispensable attribute of Western politics) will lead to pressure on Russian assets.

PJSC Gazpromneft, which controls the Pančevo oil refinery and is the majority owner (56%) of the Petroleum Industry of Serbia (NIS) company. [iv] This also includes exploration and production not only in Serbia, but also Romania and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as a network of NIS Petrol and Gazprom filling stations. [v]

JSC Russian Railways through LLC "RZhD International" are reconstructing and modernising the railways of Serbia. [vi]

We can mention military-technical cooperation, since Serbia regularly buys Russian weapons systems, and the armed forces of the two countries conduct joint manoeuvres on an ongoing basis.

What is important is that Serbia has a Free Trade Agreement with the EAEU, which gives significant preferences for Serbian companies and access to the markets of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. It is known that about 750 Serbian companies export their goods to the Russian market. [vii]

A unique joint project of Serbia and Russia that causes unsatisfied rage among Western "partners" is the Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in Niš. [viii] It is intended for the training of specialists/rescuers of a wide profile, but, above all, firefighters. Training and instruction are conducted on its grounds, seminars for young people are regularly conducted, the centre's staff also assist in holding various sports events.

The Centre is an affiliated member of the International Civil Defence Organisation and its employees have repeatedly participated in the elimination of the consequences of fires and floods in Serbia.

Also, in the Center there is a representative office of the St. Petersburg University of the State Fire Service of the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Russia, where Serbian rescuers are trained and prepared.

Western politicians and the media controlled by them, including in Serbia itself, regularly spread misinformation that the Centre in Niš is a centre of Russian intelligence or conducting some special operations. Meanwhile, the leadership of the Centre is open to contact with everyone, but Western politicians and journalists for some reason do not want to pay visits, but give free rein to their imagination, probably with someone's prompting.

Serbia's role in Russia's information policy should also be mentioned. Since the EU countries blocked attempts to create Russian information resources on their territory, RT Deutsch was registered in Serbia.

Although the license complied with the European rules of television/radio broadcasting, the launch of the TV channel caused a serious commotion in Germany and regular accusations of misconduct, which did not correspond to reality. [ix] The legality of the license was also confirmed by the authorised bodies of Serbia, which are no stranger to such acts of information warfare. [x]

Although Russia pursues a policy of non-interference and even on the issue of Kosovo and Metohija, the Russian leadership has repeatedly stated that it will respect the choice of the Serbian people, in the current difficult situation it makes some sense to put some dots over the "i", recommending the Serbian leadership to take certain measures.