This year’s report on Serbia’s progress towards EU accession resulted in an unusual domestic reaction. Prime Minister Aleksandar Vu?i? contested claims by the European Commission about media freedom, at the height of a scandal over the removal of political talk shows from influential TV channels. EURACTIV Serbia reports.
The government had nothing to do with it, he claimed. This issue aside, Vu?i? responded very positively to the report, expressing grattitude for a positive assessment, saying that he would have been “even harsher” than the Commission in assessing certain areas, while the opposition maintained that there are no reasons for joy. The report was also an opportunity for Serbia to clarify its stand towards Russia, particularly concerbing demands that South Stream not be built before harmonization with EU regulations.
The authorities have welcomed the report, insisting on the stand that it represented as evidence that Brussels recognized the efforts and the political will of Serbia, particularly in the context of the fight against corruption and organized crime. Corruption is widespread in Serbia, and the European Union has been expecting positive changes for years.
Vu?i? said he read the report a day ahead of the government session at which the chief of the EU Delegation, Michael Davenport, handed the document to him personally. Afterwards, Vu?i? said that he would have graded Serbia even worse than the European Commission in some areas. He cited the judiciary, saying that almost no verdicts in Serbia came into legal effect.
However, regarding the freedom of expression and the media, which are some of the key standards of the Commission, Vu?i? presented the report in a favorable light for Serbia, but spoke in relative, if not critical terms, about claims regarding state pressure against the media.
Specifically, he stressed the grade for Chapter 10 – Media and Information Society – in which Serbia’s progress was estimated as moderate, while Serbia was praised for passing the package of media laws.
However, the EU’s main concerns are found in Chapter 23, about fundamental rights. Serbia was given a negative grade for freedom of expression. The report cites concerns about the deteriorating conditions for the full exercising of free speech, a growing trend of self-censorship, undue government influence on editorial policies, and a series of attacks on websites. Serbia was asked to investigate these cases.
Vu?i? reacted harshly, saying that he only agreed with the conclusion that Serbia should investigate those cases, and announced that it will do so. The prime minister dismissed claims about the government being responsible for the pressure. He said that the Serbian government is being criticized “much more than some others”, and hinted at influences on the media coming from other sources, including advertisers, and foreign embassies.
No South Stream before agreement with EU
At a joint news conference with the chief of the EU Delegation in Serbia, held after the report was presented to the government, Vu?i? also declared his position on cooperation with Russia. This is another delicate issue for Serbia, considering its energy dependence on Russia, particularly the South Stream pipeline, and public opinion that about the importance of relations with Moscow.
Vu?i? stated that Serbia will honor EU regulations, while maintaining its relations with Russia, and that he will inform Russian President Vladimir Putin, during his forthcoming visit to Serbia, that Belgrade is on the path of acession with the EU.
Concerning South Stream and he stated that although he believes that the contract is good for Serbia, the construction of this gas pipeline depended on relations between the EU and Russia.
He also stressed that Serbia, regardless of its relations with Russia, had done nothing – it had not even made a statement in that regard, in his words – to incite the conflicts in Ukraine, whose territorial integrity it honors.
The Democratic Party, which was the main opposition, and pro-European party, before the breakup and the departure of its former leader Boris Tadi?, believes that there are no reasons for optimism. Its parliamentary whip, Borislav Stefanovi?, stated that the report contains both positive and negative elements, and drew attention to the fact that the negative grades about the reform of the judiciary and about the poor state of the media are a cause for concern.
The anti-Europe, right-wing Democratic Party of Serbia described the report as more proof that Serbia’s European path is damaging for the country. The party believes that the fundamental part of the report is the demand for the normalization of relations with Kosovo, which it considers as a euphemism for the recognition of Kosovo’s independence, and for the harmonization of Serbia’s foreign policy with that of the EU regarding Russia. In its opinion, these two positions are the embodiment of the evil that the West brings.
The European Commission’s reports have been viewed as important events in the Serbian political circles for years now.
This is all the more important due to the fact that Serbia’s association with the EU was the clearest goal of the several previous governments, and that the negotiations started, not during the mandate of the so-called democratic bloc which has been verbally advocating the association with the EU for a long time now, but by the former nationalist parties. The two strongest parties in the government are Vu?i?’s Serbian Progressive Party, created in 2008 after the division of the extreme right Serbian Radical Party, and the Socialist Party of Serbia, which was run by the former president of Serbia, Slobodan Miloševi?, during the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. They were the ones which took certain steps, like progress in the dialogue with Pristina, that enabled the opening of negotiations with the EU.
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