Serbian city stands defiant against ruling party domination

by Sally MAIRS and Katarina SUBASIC
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Sabac is one of just six municipalities in Serbia not governed by the ruling SNS party

Lying due west of Belgrade on a bend in the Sava river, the small city of Sabac and its cafe-lined streets resemble those of any other typical Serbian town.

Yet Sabac has a claim to fame: it is home to one of the last opposition mayors left in all of Serbia, a status the 45-year-old local official is determined to hold onto in Sunday's elections.

Sitting in the garden outside Sabac's peach-coloured city hall, Nebojsa Zelenovic describes his town as an island of freedom in a country where all but six of more than 180 municipalities are in the clutches of President Aleksandar Vucic's ruling coalition.

Since becoming mayor six years ago, Zelenovic and his colleagues have been living in a constant "state of emergency", he says, describing threats, smear campaigns and financial pressure emanating from the central government.

"Yet we are still alive," adds the mayor, who hopes a victory on Sunday will offer a ray of hope to others in a country whose democratic credentials have been falling by the wayside.

Outside of Sabac, the spirit of competition is largely absent this election season, with the main opposition parties boycotting the national vote to protest what they say is Vucic's growing authoritarianism.

The raft of opposition parties who are still running are small and fragmented, effectively handing the president's centre-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) an open goal to extend to its rule.

For the past eight years an SNS-led coalition has enjoyed a comfortable majority in parliament.

Since SNS first came to power in 2012, all but six of Serbia's more than 180 municipalities have fallen under the government's control.

Besides Sabac, home to around 110,000, three other smaller holdouts remain: the central municipalities of Paracin and Cicevac, plus Cajetina in the mountainous west.

Two Belgrade neighbourhoods also have opposition leaders though the city's mayor hails from SNS.

With the central government wielding an "extreme" level of influence over the size of town budgets, it is not unusual for local politicians to change their stripes and re-align with whoever is in power to secure better funding, said Dusan Spasojevic, a political science professor at Belgrade University.

"But we've never had such an imbalance" across the map, he told AFP.

The ruling party "wants as much power as they can get and that's why they are focused on those three or four opposition municipalities".

- Corona bump -

This local domination is part of the SNS's "complete penetration of all institutions", says Balkans expert Florian Bieber, explaining how local networks are converted into votes.

Some of the party's support is "based not on popularity but on control and on voters who have to vote for the party because they're employed by the government or because they have relatives who are controlled or are employed by the government," he explained.

But even in Sabac, where the opposition controls slightly more than half of the local legislature, there are those who prefer the president.

"The entire family will go out (to vote) because Vucic has done what others did not for 50 years," said Kostic Dragoslav, a retired army officer watching passers-by from a city bench.

Vucic has built "roads, hospitals, companies, now this aid," added the pensioner, referring to a 100-euro handout distributed during the coronavirus pandemic, a crisis that gave the president another popularity bump for largely keeping the outbreak in check.

- 'Whiff of democracy' -

Yet other locals in Sabac, such as journalist Hanibal Kovac, feel strongly that the "whiff of democracy in Sabac has to be preserved".

"Sabac has managed so far to defend itself from the totalitarian plague that is coming from Belgrade," he said.

Like the other opposition mayors, Zelenovic says he and his colleagues have endured threats, defamation campaigns and financial pressure from the central government, whose allies have tried to sway their representatives to change sides.

"One (opposition representative) was threatened by police, the other was pursued by the Minister of Agriculture, others by a former army general," he said.

The mayor also says he was accused of corruption in a character attack and has been a frequent target of pro-government press.

"We have so many stories here in Sabac I decided with my colleagues we will sell everything to Netflix," joked the mayor.

"Game of Thrones is a silly show compared to what we have."

Sabac is one of just six municipalities in Serbia not governed by the ruling SNS party

Since becoming mayor six years ago, Nebojsa Zelenovic and his colleagues have been living in a 'state of emergency'