Next week, thousands of Serbian voters will be bused from villages to government buildings where they will place a piece of paper in a ballot box. They will be thanked for their efforts with a small donation. Elsewhere, from small pharmacies to private offices – where thousands more people otherwise unknown are registered – boxes full to the brim with more pieces of paper will, by magic, be produced.

A few citizens will make their way to the polls on their own accord. There they will be presented with the dystopian choice between a ruling party of government and sea of newly created Potemkin parties registered with the support of the ruling party of government.

Not since the 1950s – when East Germany’s governing organization and a list of phantom parties were first presented to the electorate – has such an ersatz choice been foisted upon voters in Europe. 

Perhaps this should come as no surprise: Serbia was in March declared a  hybrid authoritarian regime by Freedom House  – a severe downgrade to a country no longer deemed a democracy. Because of this – and because there are already so many abnormalities in this election - the opposition coalition decided we had no choice but to boycott the process altogether.

Many may believe this, ultimately, does not matter. Serbia is too far away, too small and too remote from the great challenges of the world in 2020, in the wake of Covid-19 and the protests triggered by George Floyd’s tragic murder.

But let Serbia fall fully into the arms of authoritarians and – as the country that is the pace-setter for its region – then, soon enough, the Balkans are lost. A candidate country in the European Union would be allowed to exist without modern democratic norms and organized crime -  already rampant and in collusion with the heart of government  - will flourish beyond its borders. 

The endgame is the return of a revanchist Serbia without any true desire to listen to its citizens, other states in the region, or even the West. It is as if the clock of history is turned back 20 years to when the forces of nationalism, sustained in office by massive electoral fraud, took the country to the brink. 

This time, however, there is a difference. Two decades ago when our current president was merely the  minister of information for Slobodan Milosevic, Serbia had few friends. Now it has China.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic China was present, building a  facial-recognition security camera network across the nation. Those cameras assisted the  Chinese-trained police force to halt and curtail protests. This invariably meant the tens of thousands of opposition supporters who marched weekly for a year before the pandemic, demonstrating against the violent beating of my deputy party leader.

The president and his party have learned well from their Chinese mentors: the free media has been crushed, with ruling party representatives occupying  99% of prime-time coverage on five national television channels. In April close to 10,000 fake government-run bots were deleted by Twitter for violating their freedom of speech rules, but not before posting 43 million messages in support of the president.

Posters supporting Chinese largesse during the COVID-19 crisis are plastered across highway billboards. As the president has declared: “The only country that can help us is China.” He has gone so far as to produce a  lickspittle thank you video of himself speaking in embarrassingly broken Mandarin. His obedient prime minister has breathlessly promised the erection of a Sino-Serbian Friendship monument.

The Serbian government is creating a client state of China at the foothills of Europe. They are doing so willingly, for they know if they ever held an election that was free and fair – with balanced media coverage – they would have little chance of winning.

Serbia is being sold for a handful of face masks, CCTV cameras and support of an authoritarian ruler. The Chinese are in turn gaining a heavily indebted government, cripplingly high-interest loan repayments for a dozen infrastructure projects and the effective ownership of Serbian lithium ore reserves – for which our country has one of the largest deposits in the world.

It is the people of Serbia who are losing. Gone are the days when - as in Yugoslavian times -  Serbs could balance east and west and withstand the crosswinds. Today, we must choose. In the election, the opposition chooses to boycott. But for the direction of our country, the opposition chooses the West. We choose democracy and freedom of speech. We choose Western investment over any other and the speeding up of Serbia’s accession to the European Union. And we know – as the Serbian people do – this cannot be achieved by all the love and money in China. 

Dragan Djilas is president of the Freedom and Justice party, part of the opposition coalition Alliance for Serbia.