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Tear gas, water cannons, smashed heads, attacks on journalists, detention of activists – another election routine in Serbia

SNS call center at the Novi Sad Fair; Photo: Bravo Novi Sad

Editorial note. On June 2, 2024, local elections were held in 88 cities and municipalities in Serbia, in addition to rerun elections in the City of Belgrade. The local elections in Belgrade were repeated because of serious irregularities in the December 2023 elections for local representatives to the City Council. Compared to December, this time the elections were accompanied not only by violations and irregularities, but also by actual violence. With very few exceptions, the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (Srpska Napredna Stranka) declared sweeping victories everywhere, but in some towns, especially Niš, the opposition, split in two coalition-lists of “Kreni promeni” and “Biramo” contested these results, and declared victory. International observers recorded cases of vote-buying, pressure on voters, group voting and voting through intermediaries. 

Citizens, activists and journalists discovered several places which functioned as call centers of the ruling party. In some, it was suspected that not only illegal calls, but irregular voting was also taking place in the organization of the ruling party, as in Novi Sad, where after the closing of the polls, all the voting materials were to be brought to the very same building for the counting of votes. Activists called the police and attempted to prevent the illegal activities. While the prosecution and the police reacted slowly in their preventive action, citizens and journalists were also subjected to violence.  

This is a reprint of a slightly edited and expanded version of the article by Iskra Krstić, which appeared in Mašina on June 3, 2024.  The article appears within the framework of the East European Left Media Outlet (ELMO). 

If you live in Serbia and have friends and family abroad, they might have been calling you throughout Sunday to check if the civil war has started, shocked by the reports of violence in the voting places and around the call centers set up by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).

The election day was marked by scenes of conflict between the SNS machinery and citizens who were trying to prevent election irregularities.

A brick to the head

It is difficult to decide on the most dramatic scene of the elections.

In Zemun polje settlement in Belgrade, an activist of the Green-Left Front suffered head injuries from being hit with a metal rod, but the president of the local SNS board was also injured in the conflict.

During those events, the editor of our portal, Marko Miletić, was also attacked. He was attacked by several people while he was filming duplicate voter lists that opposition activists and members of the City Election Commission had given him for inspection after they received them from SNS activists.

Attack on the co-editor of Mašina; Printscreen, Mašina

The Progressives protected cardboard boxes of duplicate voter lists by water cannons and tear gas

Tear gas and water pouring from water cannons on the citizens who broke into a Serbian Progressive Party call center at the Novi Sad Fair must have been one of the most striking sights. It is complemented by pictures of the Progressives’ “activists” running away from the Fair building, carrying cardboard boxes full of papers suspected to be duplicate voter lists. 

Some of them didn’t just run away with T-shirts over their heads, but were furious that they were interrupted – so one of the “hard-working ants” from the call center hit Danas’ journalist Uglješa Bokić with his fist while retreating. What’s the catch with such catch-me-if-you-can?

Both the ruling party and the opposition are allowed to have lists of the voters they can count on, and they are allowed to remind those voters to take part at the elections – as long as the voters gave their personal data to the political parties without coercion and consented to be reminded, and their free will was not harmed in any way. The operation of partisan call centers on the day of election is not a generally accepted practice in Serbia. From a legal point of view, such a practice is neither regulated nor sufficiently controlled and implemented.

And there‘s the rub. The opposition suspect that the lists are full of people whose personal data has been „harvested“ from different sources. For example, for years there have been reasonable claims that such data was leaked to the Progressive Party by Telekom Srbija, the state-owned mobile network operator, and even The Pension and Disability Insurance Fund of the Republic of Serbia (PIO fund). Unsurprisingly, both institutions have denied such claims.

There is also an abundance of evidence that SNS is prone to exerting pressure on citizens – and not only on party members and sympathizers – in order to make them vote, including bribery, threats and intimidation. In such an atmosphere even a call from an unknown number who knows your name and asks you about your voting preferences might do the trick benefitting the ruling party.

Having a list of sympathizers is well and fine, but copies of the voter list are illegal 

“There are two options – either the parties indeed have lists of sympathizers or they have copies of the voter list,” Ana Toskić, a lawyer and executive director of the Partners Serbia organisation, comments for our newspaper on the question of how parties, including SNS, can have lists of voters that the opposition calls parallel lists. 

To keep records of safe votes, sympathizers and the like, parties must have the consent of the person whose data they process, explains Toskić. 

“In addition, considering the volume of databases, an assessment of the impact on data protection should be carried out in accordance with the Personal Data Protection Act, which I don’t believe any party has done,” she adds. 

“If they have copies of the voter list, this is illegal because according to the Law on the Unified Voter List, this register is maintained by the Ministry of State Administration and Local Self-Government, and changes can only be made by local self-government units for their areas,” says the lawyer. 

As she emphasized, unauthorized access to data is illegal and can be a criminal offense.

The Prosecution is obliged to assess duplicate lists – but fails to do so

Legal expert Vladica Ilić stated on X that a preliminary impact assessment of such extensive collections of personal data is mandatory under the Personal Data Protection Act.

“From the point of view of criminal law, the prosecution would have to take an interest in whether the data on voters from the lists were collected legally”, accentuates Ilić. As he elaborates: “For example, we heard today the statements of people from the SNS that on the lists of voters called up are party members ‘and members of their families’; however, family members must not be on the list if they personally did not agree to it”.

„Before declaring that there are no elements of a criminal offense, the prosecution should also check whether the data of voters on the lists in the call centers was illegally obtained from institutions (we have a rich history of leaking data from institutions; let’s remember the theft of personal data of voters in December 2023 when falsified voter declarations of support for some election lists were attached)”, stated Ilić.

In his opinion, The Prosecutor’s Office should make efforts to check the content of conversations with voters, e.g. by taking statements from a number of invited voters. As he elaborated, offering money or any other benefit to a voter in order to induce them to vote is a criminal offense, and there have been a large number of testimonies about “buying votes” on June 2nd.

This is exactly why the SNS “activists” were so eager to play “catch me if you can” with the representatives of the opposition and the civil society, and even violently prevent the “capturing” of the duplicate lists, which could be used as proof of illegal activity.

The Progressives claim to be victims of a terrorist act

The Progressives reacted to these events by blaming the victim. A Serbian Progressive Party’s press release states that “about a hundred citizens” carried out a “brutal and destructive attack on the public property of the Novi Sad fair, on the premises that were legally and legitimately leased by the SNS, and where the party’s call center is located. …Vandals and criminals, about 100 of them, tried to break into the premises where the call center is located, broke down the doors and destroyed everything in front of them,” The Progressives stated. The SNS emphasized that the party’s call center legally leased the premises and that it worked according to the law, and called the power cut, executed by citizens, a “direct act of terrorism”.

The police contributed to this scandal by declining citizens‘ request to enter the Fair to check for illegal activities. The Ministry of Internal Affairs even stated that “apart from attacks on the police and damage to the property of the Fair in Novi Sad”, there were no serious incidents during the elections.

And, maybe to avoid such events in the future, police officers later detained several opposition activists who were traveling to Novi Sad from Belgrade and handed them over to the Serbian Security Intelligence Agency (BIA) for an informative interview that lasted three hours. Ivan Bjelić, one of the detainees, a “security-indicative” person in the eyes of the BIA, informed the public about this through social networks.

If you ask the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs, the only incidents were the citizens’ attempts to prove illegal actions

At the time the Ministry of Internal Affairs issued the above-mentioned statement it was already known that a similar SNS call center had been discovered in Belgrade, in the sports center “Banjica”, and that there had indeed been “incidents” there as well. The “Kreni-promeni” movement stated that in Banjica “private data of citizens, duplicate voter lists were observed, and that an illegal use of public space is taking place”, as reported by the NIN magazine. “The occupants of the premises refused to clarify what kind of activity they were participating in at SC ‘Banjica’ and what they rented the premises for,” added “Kreni-promeni”.

The Progressives followed a similar script as in Novi Sad: here, too, a person appeared with a lease agreement, the validity of which is contested by the opposition representatives, and the Higher Public Prosecutor’s Office in Belgrade, in cooperation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs, announced that “so far, in SC ‘Banjica’ there is no evidence of the criminal acts which some participants in the election process claimed were ongoing”.

An owner of a notorious tabloid TV Informer, Dragan J. Vučićević, came to defend the call center. N1 reported that Vučićević shouted at MP Đorđe Pavićević from the Green-Left Front (ZLF), and the head of the Green-Left Front parliamentary club Radomir Lazović stated that he received death threats during the attempt to prevent the call center from operating.

A pizzeria in Belgrade turned into a bunker for double lists

An incident caused by duplicate voter lists also occurred in Dorćol neighborhood in Belgrade, where citizens and representatives of the opposition discovered an SNS call center in a pizzeria. The videos show how one of the young women who were gathered there attacked a Green-Left Front activist, strangling her with a T-shirt, after the activist addressed her with the words “Shameful”. The owner of the pizzeria also considered it legitimate to physically “defend” himself against the opposition representatives, hitting Lazović.

As reported by, the owner of the pizzeria Sovtić at one point says: “Do you know what I live for? I live to f**k such faggots as you are? That’s my reason to live. I’m holding Dorćol!”. Those who follow social networks may also worry about the number of comments that justify these and such statements and behavior.

The local elections on June 2 2024 signal further deterioration of rights and freedoms of Serbian citizens. Already at 11 a.m. on election day, CRTA found over 20 irregularities in the elections in Belgrade, Niš and Novi Sad, and the voting continued in that spirit. The Progressives won a convincing victory in the large majority of place, with the exception of Niš and Čačak.

Iskra Krstić is an independent researcher from Belgrade, with a focus on critical urban studies. She is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Belgrade. She graduated from Faculty of Architecture and the Faculty of Political sciences, UB. Krstić is an author at