State capture threatens Serbia’s EU integration process

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

Protesters hold letters forming a word 'Ostavke' ('Resignations') in the city center 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. [Srdjan Suki/EPA/EFE]

For years, Serbia has been labelled as one of the frontrunners for EU accession in the Western Balkans, being one of two countries in the region currently negotiating membership. Unfortunately, there is little truth in this perception, write representatives of the Serbian opposition.

The authors are Serbian opposition leaders and members of the Alliance for Serbia coalition: Dragan Đilas, President of the Freedom and Justice Party, Nebojša Zelenović, President of Together for Serbia, and Dejan Nikolić, Vice-President of the Democratic Party.

Serbia has experienced a dramatic democratic backslide since the 2012 ascent to power of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) led by current President Aleksandar Vučić. In recent years, we have seen a resurgence in authoritarian leadership which has captured the state almost in its entirety.

Most prominently, Serbia is experiencing one of the most severe regressions in media freedom in the world. According to the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, Serbia dropped 36 ranks since 2014. All national frequency television stations are either directly controlled by the government or owned by those with close government ties. In addition, independent journalists are facing increasing pressure, exemplified by the case of journalist Milan Jovanović, whose house was set on fire and his door was shot at to prevent his escape. While members of the opposition are vilified daily in all national news outlets, high-profile government scandals are not even mentioned.

But while Serbian investigative journalists have received several international awards for their reporting on these issues, the Serbian government tries to bury their findings and Serbian institutions remain silent. This illustrates the complete government capture of key institutions, especially the judiciary. The most prominent example of this is the entanglement of the Interior Minister’s father in a weapons trade scandal. Despite glaring evidence of widespread corruption, the only response from the public prosecutor has been to place the scandal’s whistleblower, Aleksandar Obradović, in custody – where he remains to this day. This shows that the judiciary is being abused to serve the regime of President Aleksandar Vučić. If the law rules selectively, there is no rule of law.

The decline in media freedom and increased state capture have led to Serbia’s demotion from a ‘free’ to a ‘partly free’ country by the well-respected Freedom House Freedom in the World report The primary reasons for this are the deterioration of election circumstances, government-condoned media repression, and the unconstitutional accumulation of executive powers by the President.

Lack of free and fair elections

The sine qua non to start solving all of these issues is to ensure free and fair elections in Serbia. Voters are continuously put under pressure to support the regime, and are at risk of losing their job or access to services, such as education. This is compounded by the pro-government media through which the vast majority of the population informs itself.

As a result of these mounting pressures, almost all relevant opposition parties in Serbia are boycotting both the parliamentary assembly and the upcoming parliamentary elections. Under the current circumstances, participating in such elections would legitimise a system of corruption and repression, which is something we cannot allow. Therefore, substantial improvements need to be made in order to ensure free and fair elections, starting with the fulfilment of the ODIHR recommendations.

The Serbia-EU relationship

The situation described above has clear implications for Serbia’s relationship with the EU. The key challenges facing the Union at the moment cannot be addressed properly without the Western Balkans, referring not least to the Green New Deal and migration. We therefore wholeheartedly welcome the EU’s re-engagement with the region and the recognition that a stable Western Balkans is necessary for all of Europe to prosper.

While the Serbian government is nominally in favour of EU membership, the lack of meaningful changes speaks to the actual truth: there is no political will for structural reforms. The key indicators are lack of progress in rule of law reforms and the perpetually frozen Belgrade-Pristina dialogue. Although President Vučić claims he will deliver normalisation with Kosovo, his regime only fuels tensions that prevent any solution. This narrative includes referring to Kosovo Albanians in derogatory terms, and labelling members of the opposition as traitors when they establish cooperation between Serbs and Kosovo Albanians. We are distinctly aware that our country cannot advance without normalisation of relations with Pristina, and we are committed to work on this. We are convinced that reconciliation lies in the promotion of communal life across ethnic boundaries, and that trust needs to be built between the two sides.

One thing is for certain, we are unequivocal in our pursuit of Serbia’s future in the European Union. But this future is put in question by the government’s behaviour and capture of all meaningful institutions, including the media and the judiciary. We therefore urge EU leaders to help us achieve the following: Media freedom. Free and fair elections. An independent and functioning judiciary. Only by achieving this, can we realise our European future.

All of us, in Serbia and in the EU, have worked too hard in the last two decades to see our efforts go to waste. Time is running out, but we are firmly determined to work with the European Union on a peaceful and democratic transformation of Serbia as a force for positive change and full reconciliation in the wider region.

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