Serbian democracy is under attack, indeed

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

File photo. General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic addresses the opening of the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 25 September 2012. [Jason Szenes/EPA/EFE]

The united front held by Serbia’s mainstream democratic opposition to boycott Vučić’s sham election at all levels is the only honourable and practical course of action, writes Vuk Jeremić.

Vuk Jeremić is the president of Serbia’s liberal-conservative opposition People’s Party and one of the founders of the Alliance for Serbia—the country’s largest opposition grouping. He formerly served as Serbian foreign minister and President of the UN General Assembly.

In a recent opinion piece, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić has unintentionally done a great service to European public opinion: he has laid bare his affection for the dark arts of propaganda and manipulation first brought to the surface during his notorious tenure as Slobodan Milošević’s information minister in the late 1990s.

Serbian democracy really is under attack, as the title of Vučić’s essay announces. But it is he who is the assailant, not its defender; his regime is actively wrecking the basic tenets of democracy, not championing them.

Literally every sentence of his essay—like most of his public addresses—is either outright false or deliberately misleading. For instance, Vučić manifestly lies in writing that Serbia’s “public debt is consistently being reduced.”

The fact is that between the end of December 2018 and the end of November 2019, the debt rose by nearly €1.2 billion; and since Vučić came to power in the summer of 2012, the debt has increased by at least €8.2 billion in total.

Vučić claims that by advocating a boycott of the forthcoming elections, Serbia’s opposition “could be denying […] the basic democratic right to political representation” of “genuine Serbian opposition voters.”

Yet at the same time, he asserts that we are “leaders without followers.” This begs the obvious question: how can we be denying the right of political representation to our followers if we have none?

Vučić boasts, in feudal, lèse-majesté style, of having recently reduced the parliamentary threshold from 5% to 3%, notwithstanding the fact that this constitutes a direct violation of the Code of Good Practices in Electoral Matters issued in 2018 by the Venice Commission, which states that “the fundamental elements of electoral law, in particular the electoral system proper […] should not be open to amendment less than one year before an election.”

Vučić made this decision only after it became clear that Serbia’s democratic opposition would stay the course in our commitment to boycott his sham elections.

Far from representing a magnanimous move that goes against his electoral self-interest, the threshold reduction is an integral element of his latest strategy to create, coopt, and prop up fringe political movements and parties to serve as his puppet opposition—including his former party led by a convicted war criminal who recently had his Twitter account suspended for spewing hate speech.

A comprehensive refutation of the claims made by Vučić would be a straightforward exercise but would require much more space than the present format allows.

However, I urge scholars of tyranny to undertake a detailed examination of his stranglehold over our country, which Freedom House no longer classifies as “Free.” The underlying evidence is overwhelming, and just a click or two away.

A direct consequence of Vučić’s galloping despotism is our people’s loss of hope for a better future, as evidenced by alarmingly high rates of emigration.

A massive human exodus has occurred on Vučić’s watch: hundreds of thousands of Serbian citizens—most of them young and educated—have left since he came to power more than 8 years ago, with the IMF projecting that we’re on track to lose 20% of our workforce over the next three decades.

To make matters even worse, our citizens are having fewer children than ever before in history—including during both world wars. All told, Serbia is in the midst of a demographic free-fall.

Under enormous pressure from the EU, late last year Vučić initiated a sham “dialogue” designed solely to deflect their growing criticisms regarding electoral conditions in Serbia. In his opinion piece, Vučić preposterously claims that he does not wish to influence the forthcoming report on this issue, chaired by one of his most servile lackeys, Serbia’s police minister Nebojsa Stefanović.

Stefanović belongs to a troika of government ministers who would have been ousted from public office long ago in any country where basic ethical standards of accountability are taken seriously and the rule of law is actually practised.

In one of contemporary Europe’s most glaring conflict of interest examples, Stefanović issued the necessary paperwork to enable his own father to become one of the country’s leading arms dealers, nearly bankrupting Serbia’s state armaments industry in the process.

Another one, Siniša Mali—the country’s finance minister—has been formally stripped of his doctorate for having plagiarized dozens and dozens of pages of his dissertation.

The third one, Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin—a Milošević family loyalist whose recent misconduct includes the failure to report the origin of the cash he used to purchase a luxury apartment—last week issued a scandalous press release responding to an article written by a member of a mainstream opposition party.

Since the article was never actually published, Vulin’s actions only served to confirm that our country’s security services are illegally spying on political opponents and journalists.

Not once has Serbia’s puppet prime minister, Ana Brnabić—whose brother has enriched himself beyond measure through government contracts since her instalment by Vučić—called for any of them to resign.

It is no wonder she seems totally uninterested in curbing corruption, abuse of power, and other outrageous behaviour unbecoming of public figures from a country that profess adherence to the values and principles of the European Union.

It is against this backdrop that Vučić’s absurd statement about ensuring freedom of the media should be considered. In his essay, he states that his regime intends on adopting new measures to ensure “representation without discrimination of all registered political parties, coalitions, and candidates in the course of the electoral campaign.”

The fact of the matter is that Vučić shows no intention whatsoever of reducing his status of Serbia’s media overlord—on the contrary, he has been strengthening it recently. A little over a year ago, for instance, he engineered the illegal purchase of several private media outlets and cable-television and internet providers by a state-owned company.

Direct government subsidies are paid out to loyalist outlets, with the regime actively assisting some of them in outright tax evasion. Literally no television network with a national frequency license and no mass-circulation newspaper could be today characterized as being free and independent. A muzzled and brutally subjugated press has become Serbia’s new normal.

The bottom line is that the united front held by Serbia’s mainstream democratic opposition to boycott Vučić’s sham election at all levels is the only honourable and practical course of action.

Restoring a democracy that is being systematically dismantled by an arrogant autocrat cannot be done without establishing the conditions for a genuinely free and fair election. Until that happens, Serbia is destined to grow increasingly distant from achieving the standards necessary for EU accession.

Vučić cannot and will not bring Serbia closer to Europe. Every diplomat posted in Belgrade knows this to be true.

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