Critics object to self-congratulatory reading of Serbia’s ‘progress report’

Serbian Prime Ana Brnabic (R) welcomes the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen (L) ahead of their meeting in Belgrade, Serbia, 30 September 2021. [EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC]

Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić said that the recent Commission report on her country was “the best report of European Commission in the last few years”. However, a more in-depth view actually shows that the report is very critical.

The Commission published on 19 October its regular “Enlargement package’ reports, covering Serbia, Albania, North Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. The 135-page report on Serbia repeats in its various sections that the country is “moderately prepared” for EU membership.

Among other issues, the report highlighted Belgrade’s differences with the EU on foreign and security policy.

EU candidate Serbia misaligned with EU foreign policy, Commission says

In its annual report monitoring Serbia’s progress toward EU accession, the European Commission highlighted Belgrade’s significant misalignment with EU foreign and security policy.

But Brnabić pointed out the Commission had noted progress “in almost all areas” and most media in Serbia, which are generally considered close to the government, repeated her words, except for a few dissident voices.

According to ‘Crta’, the independent ‘Centre for research, transparency and responsibility’, behind the Commission’s positive tone, there are sharp and worrying criticisms of the functioning of democracy and the rule of law in Serbia.

“When it comes to the rule of law, which Serbian officials cite as an example of significant progress, the report reads in several places that there is hardly any concrete progress in practice,” Crta said.

“Moreover, reports from 2018 and 2019 state that ‘some progress’ has been made in the area of justice, while in 2020, there was no progress. The ‘limited progress’, as it was called this year, is hardly a positive assessment,” it said.

According to ‘Crta’, warning assessments are repeated from year to year. Few concrete (and no substantial) results or progress in reforms were noted, except for the improvement of the legal framework, which is barely respected in practice.

The Serbian website Istinomer (Truth-measurer), an online outlet specialised in fact-checking, analysed Brnabić’s statements against actual excerpts from the report.

According to ‘Istinomer’, her statements are “an abuse of facts”, as she focused on the positive tone while avoiding reference to the recommendations and objections.

Brnabić pointed out that for the first time since 2016, progress had been noted in freedom of expression.

The Commission report said that “limited progress was made by adopting and starting to implement a limited number of measures under the action plan related to the media strategy. However, verbal attacks against journalists by high-level officials continued, and cases of threats and violence remain a concern”.

“Regarding freedom of expression, most media associations withdrew from the group on the safety of journalists in March 2021, citing hate speech and smear campaigns against journalists and civil society representatives, including by the head of the ruling party caucus in Parliament,” it added.

MP Biljana Pantic Pilja from President Aleksandar Vučić’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party recently blasted two private cable televisions, N1 and Nova S, as “anti-Serbian” and said they can be described with the words “foreign mercenary, domestic traitor”.

Prime Minister Brnabić also claimed that the Commission had clearly emphasised that the government was giving priority to reforms on the European path and especially to the rule of law.

The report, however, pointed out that “the current legal framework does not provide sufficient guarantees against potential political influence over the judiciary.”

“Pressure on the judiciary and the prosecution still remains high. Government officials, including of highest levels, and Members of Parliament continue to comment publicly on ongoing court proceedings and to attack individual judges and prosecutors.“

Brnabic also highlighted that the report had noted progress in the fight against corruption and organised crime, whereas the Commission’s actual phrase was “some level of preparation” which usually indicates insufficient efforts.

“Serbia has yet to establish a convincing track record of effective investigations, prosecutions and final convictions in serious and organised crime cases, including financial investigations leading to a track record of freezing and confiscating criminal assets. The number of convictions for organised crime decreased compared to 2019,” the report said.

Srdjan Majstorovic, chairman of the board of the Center for European Policies and a member of the Balkans in Europe Advisory Group, told the ‘European Western Balkans’ website that “there is no reason to triumphantly call this report the best so far.”

Given the control the state exerts over most Serbian media, he explained, it is very easy for the leaders to pitch the Commission report as the best so far, without going into substance.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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