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Serbia votes: All you need to know about Europe’s first national election since COVID-19 lockdown

Coronavirus has cast a long shadow over Europe for the last three months, and its looming presence w..

Coronavirus has cast a long shadow over Europe for the last three months, and its looming presence will continue to be felt on Sunday as Serbia holds Europe’s first national elections since the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the continent.

The election is not without controversy; it takes place amid what is seen as a premature easing of lockdown restrictions and a boycott by some opposition parties over corruption concerns.


Whats happening?

Serbians are electing a new parliament, as well as representatives in the provincial legislature in Vojvodina and local municipalities.

Whats the background?

Elections were originally scheduled for April 26 but were postponed after a state of the emergency was declared to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

The ruling government — a nationalist coalition headed by the Serbian Progressive Party and Socialist Party of Serbia and their allies — decided to push ahead with the ballot, even after the first cases of COVID-19 in Serbia were detected at the beginning of March.

The seriousness of the health crisis, however, forced the coalition government to postpone the election, after its legitimacy had been called into question by the opposition and democracy watchdogs.

The largest block of parties in the fractious opposition — including the Serbian Radical Party, the Democratic Party, the Party of Freedom and Justice, The Doors (Dveri), the Peoples Party and the Let’s not drown Belgrade movement — have decided to boycott the election amid fears that the elections could be rigged.

What’s the current situation?

There is no clear delineation between the political left and right in Serbia. The ruling populist and right-wing Serbian Progressive Party are more open to migrants and refugees than some of the left-leaning parties in opposition, for instance.

Both ruling and opposition coalitions are gathered from nominally left and right-wing parties. Since the biggest opposition parties are boycotting the elections, new movements and parties have been created to fill the vacuum.

Electoral laws have been changed, lowering the threshold for entering parliament to 3 per cent of the vote, from 5 per cent previously. There will be 21 parties, movements and coalitions on the ballot, but only a few are expected to enter parliament.

Who’s who in the ruling parties?

Serbian president, Aleksandar Vučić is heading the list of the ruling Progressive Party. Also on the electoral list are also the Pensioners Party (PUPS), the Social-Democratic Party (SDP), the Serbian Renovation Movement (SPO) and others.

Their coalition partners, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) is second on the ballot. They also have other parties represented among their candidates, including the right-wing United Serbia (JS) party.

The Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians, a partner of the ruling coalition at the municipal and provincial level, is also participating in the elections, as is another minority party and government partner, the Party of Justice and Reconciliation.

AP Photo
Serbian president Aleksandar VučićAP Photo




Who’s who in the opposition?

The Serbian Radical Party (SRS), whose leader Vojislav Seselj was convicted for war crimes in the Hague, will be third on the ballot. Seselj is the “political father” of President Vučić who started his political career in the Radial Party as secretary-general. In 2008. President Vučić broke ranks and formed Progressive Party with former Serbian president, Tomislav Nikolić.

Former water polo player, Aleksandar Šapić is making his debut in national politics as the leader of the Winning for Serbia list. He was involved in local politics in Belgrade.

The Party of Democratic Action is a Bosniak minority party which co-operates with the government from time to time. Whether is it in the government or not influences the partys policy on whether the Serbian region of Sandzak (mostly populated by Bosniaks) should be autonomous or not. Usually, when the party is in the government, the party does not advocate for home rule.

United Democratic Serbia, whose members are mostly from the Democratic Party and who left because they were unhappy with the decision about boycotting the election, is also participating in the elections. The party was formed just months before the election.

The Movement of Free Citizens is the largest opposition party to decide not to boycott the election. Despite the party declaring that it would be fighting for liberal values, a leaked video released a week ago showed its highest-ranking officials singing ultra-nationalist and fascist songs in a pub. Leader party and actor, Sergej Trifunovic said it was “funny video” mocking nationalists.

Whats expected to happen?

Polls are showing that there will be no big surprises and that the ruling coalition will return to power in Serbia. However, it will come at a cost, both to the handling of the health crisis and democracy.

“Despite there being practically no campaign, we know who will win the elections – the Progressive Party,” Dušan Spasojević, a political scientist at the University of Belgrade, told Euronews. “Everything else is highly unusual. We can only guess which of those parties that are participating in the election will also enter the Assembly,” concluded Spasojević.

In light of the opposition boycott, the Progressive Party is predicted to take over 50 per cent of the vote.

How will coronavirus impact the vote?

Professor Zoran Radovanović, an epidemiologist who was part of the Yugoslav team which fought a smallpox outbreak in 1972, believes that the government prematurely eased measures deliberately so that the elections could take place.

“In May, almost all measures were cancelled, because if you permit political activities, you have to allow also work of restaurants, clubs, freedom of movement and even football matches,” said Radovanović.

Serbia is the only country in Europe so far to allow fans to return to watch football matches. More than 15,000 people watched Partizan play Red Star two weeks ago without masks or social distancing in place.

“There is no drop in the numbers of cases. After the elections, we could expect another surge in numbers. Today, the number is roughly 100 newly-discovered cases per day,” he said. State emergency and curfew in Serbia, which were introduced in March, were justified with the fact that 100 cases were discovered daily.

“We already have new hotspots, like in the city of Novi Pazar and elsewhere, but until the election, there has been no talk about it. The health situation is already worse then it used to be”.

While he admits they are necessary, Radovanović doesn’t think strict measures will be reintroduced.

“Simply that country cannot take it, economically speaking. There are already severe problems with the economy, so lockdown or similar measures would finish the economy. From my professional point of view, festivals and similar activities should not be taking place, but you see, nothing is cancelled”, he concluded.

What are the key voter issues?

“For ordinary citizens, the biggest issue is as always, the economy. However, the political elite is trying to ‘push’ the big topics, like Kosovo’s independence. This is leaving citizens confused and easy to manipulate,” said Spasojevic.

“After the elections, we can expect the further degradation of the institutions, which has become the trademark for the rule of the Progressive Party. It will continue until citizens of Serbia decide to react.”

There are over half a million unemployed people in Serbia but the incumbent government claims that the number is the lowest it has been in decades. In recent years, the method for measuring the unemployment rate has changed twice, leading to conflicting statistics.

Dejan Bursac, from the Belgrade-based Institute for Political Studies, said: “I think that opposition, the one that is going to elections and the one that is boycotting, is mistaking for not addressing economic problems.

The recognition of Serbia’s neighbour, Kosovo is subject to a heated debate. Spasojevic added that there is a possibility that after the elections, the Constitution of Serbia could be changed to remove references to Kosovo as being part of Serbia. The move would be seen as a stepping stone in negotiations with the Kosovan government when representatives meet at the White House on June 27.

Bursac believes that should the Progressive Party win a majority of votes as expected, Serbians are giving it legitimacy to tighten its grip on the country.

“Election irregularities have been going on for so many elections that we have ‘normalised’ them. We have got to use to them,” said Bursac. He agrees with Spasojević that the economy worries the most voters in Serbia and besides the ruling party, the opposition parties are not addressing those issues properly.

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Europe

Russian voters back reform allowing Putin to extend rule

Issued on: 01/07/2020 – 22:09Modified: 01/07/2020 – 22:09

Russians appeared to have paved the way ..

Issued on: Modified:

Russians appeared to have paved the way for Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036 by voting overwhelmingly for a package of constitutional changes which will also boost pensions, partial results of a nationwide vote showed on Wednesday.

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Results, after almost a third of ballots had been counted, indicated that the former KGB officer who has ruled Russia for more than two decades as president or prime minister would easily win the right to run for two more terms. That means he could remain president for 16 more years.

The Central Election Commission said 74% of votes counted across the world's largest country had supported changing the constitution. Just under 25% had voted no of the 30% of ballots counted.

Russians have been encouraged to vote with prize draws offering flats and an ad campaign highlighting other constitutional amendments in the same reform bundle, such as the pensions protection and a de facto ban on same-sex marriages.

One-off payments of 10,000 roubles ($141) were transferred to those with children at Putin's order as people headed to polling stations on Wednesday, the last day of the vote, held over seven days to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

"I voted for the amendments to the constitution," Moscow resident Mikhail Volkov said. "We need radical changes and I'm for them."

Others voted for the changes with less enthusiasm.

"I didn't read about the amendments if I'm honest," another voter, Lyudmila, said. "What's the point of voting if they've already decided for you. It's like that in our country – read something and vote. I voted."

Turnout was around 65%, election officials said. The required turnout is 50% and the amendments will pass if they are backed by a simple majority of voters.

Putin, 67, made no mention of how the changes could affect his own career in an eve-of-vote speech on Tuesday. They would allow him to run for another two six-year, consecutive stints after his current term expires in 2024.

Putin has said he has yet to decide on his future. Critics say they are sure he will run again, but some analysts say he may want to keep his options open to avoid becoming a lame duck.

At 60%, according to the Levada pollster, his approval rating remains high but well down on its peak of nearly 90%.

With Russia reporting thousands of new Covid-19 cases each day, opponents have been unable to stage protests but have mocked the vote online, sharing photographs of polling stations in apartment stairwells, courtyards and the boot of a car.

Small protests

A small group of activists staged a symbolic protest on Red Square on Wednesday afternoon using their prostrate bodies to form the date — 2036 — before being swiftly detained by police, TV Rain reported.

The "No! Campaign," called on supporters to vote against the changes and then discuss the result on Moscow's Pushkinskaya SquarRead More – Source

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The European projects pooling data to defeat COVID-19

Futuris travels to Marseille and Cambridge to look at two European projects pooling and sharing data..

Futuris travels to Marseille and Cambridge to look at two European projects pooling and sharing data to help the scientific community beat COVID-19.

While one part of the scientific world is struggling to fight the SARS-Cov2 virus, institutes like the European Virus Archive in Marseille are making sure pathogens like it still exist.

Twelve years since its launch, the EVA has become one of the most important databases in the world. It holds more than 3000 products, including viruses, test substances and other types of material.


“This collection is a virtual collection. The idea was not to put all the viruses in the same place, like a Fort Knox of virology. The viruses remain in each laboratory,” says Jean Louis Romette, the EVA’s project coordinator.

This non-profit EU project makes it possible to rapidly supply scientists with the knowledge and material they need during a virus-related emergency.

“When the coronavirus appeared in China, our coronavirus researchers in the EVA organisation immediately saw that this virus was one of the SARS family, and they quickly developed a diagnostic system to detect the virus in patient samples,” Romette adds.

The Marseille-based Institute brings together nearly forty cutting-edge labs in human, animal and plant virological research. Its online catalog allows users to have access to genetic material and other various products. The coronavirus pandemic has led to a rise in online traffic: in just two months requests for diagnostic kits and viral strains have matched that which was received in the previous four years.

“When you have an emerging virus and there is very little data available about it, it’s very important to be able to compare it with other existing viruses, from the same family. So the bio-banks are useful in that sense, as they allow us to confront what is new with what already exists,” explains Christine Prat, EVA’s Market Strategy Developer.

The virological material is sent by research centres, laboratories, universities and specialised companies. Once it has arrived, it is tested, certified and filed in an online catalog, along with in-depth information thats key for the scientific community.

Bruno Coutard is responsible for collating what the EVA receives.

“We are increasing the amount of information through cell culture techniques. Using cell cultures, we are able to grow the virus, produce it and distinguish it. Distinguishing is what we call sequencing – to get the complete genome sequence of the virus. This enables us to associate this virus with a known virus species,” he says.

“During an epidemic you don’t have much time to work.”

Xavier Lamballerie, the Director of the EVA’s Emerging Virus Unit, says when an epidemic strikes it is important for scientists to be able to quickly rely on updated models and studies.

“During an epidemic you don’t have much time to work. Epidemics are usually short. If people work with different and poorly defined material, were never able to put all the studies together to compare them. The role of a reference collection like EVA is to provide very quickly, to as many partners as possible, the same products, very well identified, so that they can do research with them.”

The French institute has also been able to provide assistance to developing countries by sending reliable and simple to use testing kit.

“The EVA database allows us to prepare and react, to develop diagnostic tools, that are freeze-dried, so they are stable, at room temperature. They can be sent without being refrigerated. They are usable, extremely stable over time and laboratories can use them under conditions that are similar to those that are in the field,” says Virus Collection Supervisor, Remi Charrel.

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How Pandemic Upended Croatias Bold EU Presidency Plans

Among the many things that have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic around the world was Croati..

Among the many things that have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic around the world was Croatias ambitious agenda for its six-month term at the helm of the European Union, which ended Tuesday.

“Despite all our best original plans, related to promoting a whole set of issues most important for Europe’s security and prosperity … our presidency has ended up being a genuine crisis-management presidency,” said Pjer Simunovic, Croatias top diplomat in Washington.

Simunovic said his country took its turn in the rotating office in January with plans to address employment, technology, competitiveness, environment, green energy, EU enlargement, external partnerships, as well as to work toward a smooth and well-regulated Brexit and adoption of the EU’s budget.

Instead, he said in an interview, Croatias presidency has been dominated by “virtual meetings replacing the in-person meetings at all levels, and almost everything getting focused on dealing with the immediacy of the multifaceted danger in front to us.”

“We all had to plan and execute on the fly,” he added.

The role of the EU presidency is to build consensus and facilitate joint decision-making among the blocs nearly 30 members, Simunovic said. Toward that end, he credited the member states for working together to bring home more than 500,000 EU citizens who were left stranded by the pandemic around the world.

Simunovic said his country – an EU member since 2013 – also advocated strongly for the union to open accession talks with two other countries in its southeastern Europe neighborhood – Albania and North Macedonia. An EU-Western Balkans summit in May confirmed the “EUs commitment to the region,” he said.

As another example of solidarity within the EU, the ambassador cited ongoing negotiations on financial rescue packages for the member nations most severely hurt by the pandemic.

“On top of the first EU relief package, adopted in April, of 500 billion euros, complemented by a banking package facilitating lending, the European Commission proposed, in late May, the second relief package, consisting of 750 billion euros, 500 billion in grants, 250 billions in favorable loans,” he said.

Simunovic described that proposal as “fair, balanced and appropriate,” adding that progress towards an agreement was made at the final EU summit of Croatias presidency, including a pledge to finalize an agreement at a summit in July.

Independent analysts also are pleasantly surprised by the EUs success in responding to the pandemic.

“There is some pride along with a sense of shock that Europe has been pulling together,” said Stephen Szabo, a senior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. But he said the success came only after “a disastrous beginning” in which the member states failed to help the hardest-hit countries, such as Italy.

“Still this is only the first stage of what promises to be a long-term crisis,” he said, adding that the economic effects “will be felt for years and will pose a challenge for European solidarity.”

Simunovic discussed the concept of “strategic autonomy” as the pandemic forces nations to evaluate the strength of their supply chains. The notion is perfectly understandable, he said, but he believes collaboration among the EU members will be critical going forward.

He predicted that ties will be “established and reinforced along the lines of reliability” among what he described as “genuine allies.”

Simunovic said Europe stands ready to work alongside the United States to strengthen transatlantic ties and tackle global challenges, including those posed by state actors playing with different rules – Russia and China most prominently among them.

“Globalization will not disappear, trade and investment will continue to flow around the world, as it is happening, but there will be more caution, more safeguards,” he said.

The ambassador predicted Germany, which assumes the presidency for a six-month term beginning Wednesday, will find itself like Croatia in a continuous “crisis management” mode, with “hard issues remaining to be addressed and resolved.”

“We wish our German friends the best of luck, with our full support and great expectations,” he said. “We are in the same boat amidst the rough seas.”

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