The dictatorship next door: Why Serbia’s regime threatens Europe’s credibility

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

People sit down in protest holding banners reading in Serbian 'Down with dictatorship' and 'Stop the violence, in protest against the strict measures to fight the coronavirus in Belgrade, Serbia, 9 July 2020. [Andrej Cukic/EPA/EFE]

Many European governments and institutions continue to tolerate the regime of Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić despite its descent into autocracy, writes Vuk Jeremić.

Vuk Jeremić is the president of Serbia’s opposition People’s Party, a liberal-conservative political party, having formerly served as Serbian foreign minister and president of the UN General Assembly.

Shocking recent footage of Serbian police brutality, unmatched anywhere in contemporary Europe, has gone viral across the globe.

Headlines across the continent and around the world confirm what every Balkan watcher has known for years: democracy in Serbia is held hostage by the regime of president Aleksandar Vučić, who has ruled the country with unvarnished venality since taking power in 2012.

Over the past week, tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Belgrade and other cities across the country to protest, in response to a pattern of conduct entirely unbecoming of the leader of an EU candidate country.

The protesters embodied Serbia’s silent democratic majority, constituting a faithful cross-section of our society: high school and university students, teachers and professors, doctors and lawyers, pensioners and the unemployed, underpaid workers and struggling artists, human rights advocates, environmental activists and veterans.

All are united in common cause against the undisputed Balkan champion of a nascent, pan-European axis of autocracy.

Freedom House classifies Serbia as a “hybrid regime” in the throes of state capture whereby the rule of law is shamelessly denigrated, complicity in corruption and organized crime is brazenly encouraged, freedom of speech and the press is systematically suppressed, nepotism and kleptocracy are the main criteria for socio-economic advancement, and life-threatening lies about the extent of the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic are brazenly propagated on a daily basis.

Understandably, people feel that the danger presented by the pandemic to their future is less than the one posed by the Vučić regime. It’s no wonder we see the streets as Serbia’s last bastion of freedom.

And even this is now being taken away. Vučić has managed to infiltrate the protests with thugs and agitators under his control. These include organized shock troops of football hooligans instructed to coordinate with special undercover squads and heavily armed police units in full battle gear to incite disorder and violence.

Many hundreds of protesters have been hospitalized, arbitrarily detained, or arrested with methods including injurious chokeholds, baton and jackboot beatings, cavalry charges by mounted police units in full gallop, and even the use of decades-old tear gas canisters in violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

More than anyone else, Vučić knows his regime is mired in illegitimacy, especially since he held a sham parliamentary election less than a month ago, which was boycotted by all mainstream opposition parties, including my own People’s Party.

The results speak for themselves: with his junior coalition partners, Aleksandar Vučić now controls around 235 of the 250 seats in the National Assembly. In Europe, on this score, Serbia is surpassed in infamy only by Belarus.

With this sham election, Vučić completed the case against himself. Not only did the campaign take place under falsified epidemiological conditions—grounds for criminal prosecution, in and of itself—but also in flagrantly undemocratic political ones.

Examples of egregious electoral engineering include the widespread misuse of state resources for campaign purposes, vote-buying, ballot substitution, and ballot-box stuffing. Democracy was put in a chokehold and lives were literally lost so that Vučić could confirm his total power in Serbia.

Regretfully, many European governments and institutions continue to tolerate his regime. It is said, not without cause, that their continuing embrace of Vučić is based on two factors. First, a cynical assessment that he represented a factor of regional stability.

And second, that he has secretly promised to recognize Kosovo’s February 2008 declaration of independence.

The actual record is clear on both counts:  Vučić has conducted regional policies that produced the highest level of rancour and mistrust between Belgrade and neighbouring capitals at any time since the guns fell silent more than twenty years ago.

With regards to the negotiations about Kosovo’s future status, Vučić has managed to successfully string along the international community for eight years in clandestine coordination with his counterpart in Priština, Hashim Thaci, who has recently been indicted for war crimes.

By now it should be painfully obvious that Vučić’s galloping despotism and ignominious record of violence, subterfuge, duplicity, and perjury is anathema to the democratic values that stand at the foundation of the European Union. His regime cannot and will not either achieve regional reconciliation or bring Serbia closer to the EU.

A strong, practical, and public response by the leaders of Europe—building upon the foundation laid by the sincere efforts of individual MEPs earlier this year—might yet contribute to Serbia’s reversal of fortune.

There is no time to waste, for the EU’s reputation is now truly on the line.

As a matter of priority, the European institutions, with the full backing of EU member states, should bring to bear the full moral and political strength of their influence on the Vučić regime to commit to comprehensive negotiations with Serbia’s opposition under EU auspices – predicated on the immediate restoration of media freedom in the country.

Its strategic aim should be the establishment of detailed and measurable conditions for the holding of genuinely free and fair elections, to be conducted in accordance with the highest European standards and monitored by a robust OSCE mission, as quickly as possible.

The sooner we begin, the sooner Serbia can begin to overcome its deepening political crisis, painstakingly rebuild its democracy, and revitalise its European path.

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