EU lawmakers seek an investigation into Serbia vote fraud allegations with an eye to freezing funds

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union lawmakers called on Thursday for an independent investigation into allegations of vote-rigging in Serbia and demanded that EU funds be cut off if the authorities in Belgrade fail to cooperate with the inquiry or are found to be implicated in election irregularities.

The governing Serbian Progressive party of populist Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić won the Dec. 17 parliamentary and municipal elections, securing 129 seats in the 250-seat assembly. The opposition Serbia Against Violence coalition finished a distant second with 65 seats.

A vote-monitoring mission set up by international rights watchdogs said in a preliminary report that the polls were “marred by harsh rhetoric, bias in the media, pressure on public sector employees and misuse of public resources.”

Serious irregularities included alleged cases of vote-buying and ballot box stuffing, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, which aren’t part of the EU, and the European Parliament.

In a resolution, passed in a 461-53 vote with 43 abstentions, the lawmakers noted with “serious concern” that evidence collected by observers showed that irregularities “may have critically impacted” voting results, notably in the capital Belgrade, and “undermined the legitimacy” of the polls.

The resolution called for “an independent investigation by respected international legal experts and institutions” into all the polls, with “special attention” focused on what happened in Belgrade.

The lawmakers called “for the suspension of EU funding on the basis of severe breaches of the rule of law in connection with Serbia’s elections,” should the authorities ignore the investigation’s findings or are found to have been directly involved in voter fraud.

The resolution has angered Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić.

“I can hardly put into words the extent to which the European Parliament’s resolution is scandalous,” Brnabić said, and she condemned opposition officials for traveling to the EU legislature to lobby for the resolution to take a tough line.

“They want MEPs (members of the European Parliament) to line up our citizens, for Serbs to account to them, and I wonder how can they have the right to humiliate the citizens of Serbia in this way,” Brnabić said. “Shame on them.”

The resolution, adopted during a plenary sitting in Strasbourg, France, is nonbinding but it constitutes yet another official expression of concern about Vučić and his party. Vučić’s ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his failure to enforce EU sanctions on Moscow have dismayed many.

Serbia is a candidate to join the 27-country EU, and Thursday’s resolution underlined that Belgrade’s membership talks “should advance only if the country makes significant progress on its EU-related reforms.”

On Tuesday, Serbia’s National Assembly held a tense inaugural session as the ruling nationalists ignored the reports of vote-rigging and other irregularities.

As it started, opposition lawmakers gathered around the speaker’s stand, whistling, booing and holding signs that read “You Stole the Elections.” Others held photos of Vučić with a caption that read “The mafia boss.”

Supporters of the ruling party displayed a large banner denouncing the opposition.

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Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade contributed to this report.

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