Serbia is a captured state

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Protesters wave Serbian flags during a protest march in Belgrade, Serbia, 13 April 2019. Thousands of people protested in Serbia against President Aleksandar Vucic over what they say has been a smothering of democratic freedoms under his government. [EPA-EFE/ANDREJ CUKIC]

President Aleksandar Vučić alleges that democracy in Serbia is under attack by the opposition’s decision to boycott the elections. On the contrary, writes Sergej Trifunović, we believe that Serbian democracy is under attack by the president and his party, whose actions have thrown Serbia into a political crisis.

Sergej Trifunovic is the president of the Citizens’ Movement (PSG), an opposition political movement in Serbia.

If the situation is as rosy as the president claims, why has Serbia dropped in all worldwide rankings on freedoms and democracy?

If the president were right, why would the OSCE be sending the largest election observer mission in the last decade to Serbia? Would the European Parliament have engaged in dialogue with the government and opposition in trying to improve electoral conditions?

PSG declared a boycott last month, only after all other avenues of trying to find common ground with the government to improve the electoral conditions in Serbia have been exhausted.

We were the first and only political actor to call upon the European Parliament last summer to assist in the dialogue between the government and opposition parties and engaged in all the rounds of dialogues.

We were encouraged that the process was given further traction once both MEPs Tanja Fajon and Vladimir Bilčik became part of the EP delegation, which resulted in an agreement on December 13, 2019.

PSG considered that the key elements of any agreement that would lead to more free and fair elections were media freedoms and rule of law.

In this context, that included the appointment of new REM (Regulatory Authority on Electronic Media) members, which was covered by the 3+2 formula, the opening of state television RTS and other national broadcasters so that they offer balanced coverage, and an end to the abuse of state resources and officials for election purposes.

Unfortunately, but to no surprise, the SNS government failed to deliver on the points from the mentioned agreement and broke all the promises given not only to the opposition at the table and the Serbian voters, but also the European Parliament which was facilitating the negotiations.

The agreement explicitly underlined that the changes to REM would be complete by December 31, 2019; this was confirmed verbally twice by the Speaker of the National Assembly when asked by the MEPs.

Within days after the departure of the EP delegation, SNS officials unilaterally announced a new date of 31 January 2020 as a deadline for the REM changes.

While the process for originally selecting three members of REM continued, it was not done in the spirit of the agreement, as all the candidates for those positions were in some way connected with the governing parties, and thus not acceptable to PSG.

For the other two REM members, the process only started at the end of January and is still ongoing. Thus REM, which is crucial in monitoring and sanctioning media that break standards and laws, is not yet impartial or properly functional, one month before an election campaign is to start.

This is unacceptable and makes a mockery of the entire process.

Regarding national television (RTS), it was agreed that the national broadcaster would follow “BBC standards”.

While some progress has been made with RTS, the snails pace of moving towards balanced coverage, objective news and interviews with representatives of governing parties as well as with opposition representatives, makes it impossible to believe that RTS will reach the agreed standards in time for the election campaign.

PSG underlines that the massive corruption scandals, criminal activities and abuse of office by a vast cadre of government ministers, receive almost no mention on RTS and thus considers that the points of the agreement about the national broadcasting network are not delivered by government.

This was another reason that led us to reconsider our decision to participate in the upcoming elections.

PSG has not taken the decision to not partake in the elections lightly. We have tried to be constructive, offered clear and achievable deliverables and, after all, it was PSG that asked for the dialogue with the EP, we did all this in the scant hope that we would be able to secure better electoral conditions and improve the media situation in the country.

This has not happened and we were left with no other option but to use the only method left available to draw attention to the massive democratic deficits in Serbia, by not partaking in such unfair and illegitimate elections.

It is clear, now more than ever, that Serbia is a captured state, with captured media, at the same level, or perhaps even worse, than was the case in North Macedonia when the European Union brokered the crisis in 2015.

This can be seen by the Commissions’ Progress Reports, the World Press Freedom Index and other relevant researches. There is no democracy in such a captive state, no free and fair elections.

The president is correct when he says that democracy is under attack. Under attack by his own actions and that of his party.

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