Brnabic: Serbia-Slovenia relations at highest level (Tanjug)
Both politically and economically, Serbia-Slovenia relations are at the highest level and without major open issues, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said Tuesday after a fifth joint session of the two countries’ governments in Novi Sad. At a press conference with Slovenian counterpart Marjan Sarec, she thanked Ljubljana for backing Serbia’s European integration and an initiative aimed at creating a “Little Schengen” area, which she said had been launched by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic to ensure a stable, economically prosperous region. She said Slovenian companies were among the largest investors in Serbia and that Slovenian capital in Serbia exceeded 1.1 billion Euros. She said the 1,500 companies with Slovenian capital were employing 25,000 people in Serbia. She said the volume of bilateral trade was rising constantly, totaling over 870 million Euros in the first nine months of this year – or around three percent more than in the same period of last year.
Sarec: Serbia belongs in EU, no alternative to that (Tanjug)
Slovenia will continue to support Serbia’s European path because it believes Serbia belongs in the EU and that there is no alternative to that, Slovenian Prime Minister Marjan Sarec said on Tuesday in Novi Sad after a fifth joint session of the Serbian and Slovenian governments.
Speaking at a press conference with Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, Sarec said Slovenia’s stance was that unproductive halts on that path were not helping stability. “The enlargement process is the most significant tool for ensuring economic stability in the region, and a slowdown or interruption of the process would have serious consequences for the region,” he said. He said views and proposals had been exchanged at the meeting about areas where cooperation could be improved, with particular focus on the economy. He said the signing of a memorandum on cooperation in agriculture and rural development would help a transfer of knowledge and experience to Serbian institutions in the process of EU accession talks. He recalled that Serbia was the second-largest recipient of Slovenian investments, and expressed satisfaction that Serbian investments in Slovenia were on a rise.
Upward trend in development of cooperation with Russian Federation (Tanjug/RTS)
Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic received today Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Serbia Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko. During the meeting, the prospects of further bilateral cooperation were discussed, with special emphasis on activities aimed at improving the economic relations of the two countries. The forthcoming preparatory meeting between Dacic and Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Yuri Borisov as co-chairs of the Serbian-Russian Intergovernmental Committee on Trade, Economic and Scientific-Technical Cooperation, to be held in Moscow on 20 December, was discussed. The officials expressed satisfaction with the dynamics of the high-level and top-level meeting between Serbia and Russia and assessed that the upward trend of development of cooperation was fully in line with the friendly relations between the two countries, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
Godfrey: I want to give my best to improve Washington – Belgrade relations (RTS/Beta)
US Ambassador to Serbia Antony Godfrey said on Wednesday he aimed to do all in his power to upgrade the relations between the two countries and that the best way was to help Belgrade on its European path, the Beta news agency reported. Following the meeting with the Serbian MP Group for Friendship with the US, Godfrey told joint news conference with the Group head Dragan Sormaz, he had heard a lot of opinions from MPs, that he appreciated their suggestions and advice and that he was looking forward to meeting them again. “I aim to give my best to improve the relationship between the US and Serbia, and I want to thank the Group for supporting my goal. My and my country’s view is that the best way to help Serbia is to support its intention to join the European Union,” the Ambassador said. Sormaz described the meeting as constructive, adding the topic was how the US Embassy and the Serbian parliament could improve the cooperation between the two countries. “We talked about resting our relations, to move them back where they had been before, to rely on each other and be great friends,” Sormaz said. He added Serbia was in a situation in which it “needs help from everyone, especially from the EU, the country seen as the leader of the democratic world.”
Zvizdic says new B&H CoM will be formed by 30 December (N1)
Following a session of the Joint Collegium of both Houses of the parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H), speaker of the B&H House of Representatives (HoR) Denis Zvizdic confirmed that a new convocation of the B&H Council of Ministers (CoM) will be appointed by 30 December. Zvizdic added that one day after the B&H CoM is appointed, Program of Reforms of B&H will be submitted to NATO HQs in Brussels. “We defined two possible dates. Whether it will happen on 23 or 30 December, it is not up to us. We are prepared to schedule an urgent session for appointment of the B&H CoM as soon as vetting procedures are completed and the B&H CoM Chair-designate delivers a proposal on appointment of ministers and deputy ministers,” explained Zvizdic. He went on to say that criteria for appointment of members of joint commissions of both Houses of B&H parliament were adopted at a session of the Joint Collegium of B&H HoR and B&H House of Peoples (HoP). The session of the Collegium was held ahead of the session of B&H HoR scheduled for Wednesday.
New majority in SC assembly submits initiative for dismissal of current SC government (BHT1)
New majority within the Sarajevo Canton (SC) Assembly, formed by SDA, SBB B&H and DF representatives, has officially submitted the initiative for dismissal of the current SC government and SC assembly speaker Elmedin Konakovic. The three parties are sure they have enough votes in support of this initiative. SDA representatives did not attend Tuesday’s session of the assembly and the official explanation was that they needed to complete previously assumed commitments. Through the signed coalition agreement, SDA will hold the SC assembly speaker post as well as seven ministries in the new SC government. SBB B&H will control three ministries and DF will get two.
ZDC: SDA, SBB B&H and DF will follow stance of party bodies re reshuffling (FTV)
Although no one confirmed it, the ruling coalition in the Zenica Doboj Canton (ZDC) formed of SDA, A-SDA, HDZ B&H, SBiH and an independent candidate is ready to be extended. According to FTV, it is likely to expect that SDA, SBB B&H and DF organizations in the ZDC will follow decisions of the parties’ headquarters. Asked to comment on this issue, Head of SDA Caucus in the ZDC Assembly Himzo Smajic stated that he cannot speak about these details. Smajic added that bodies of the party will reach decisions on this issue, while the Caucus is obliged to respect party guidelines. Head of SBB B&H Caucus in the ZDC Assembly Ismet Sarajlic said that for now, they do not know in which direction things will be developing in the upcoming period. Sarajlic also said: “However, it is sure that we will act as the party bodies decide”. Head of DF Caucus in the ZDC Assembly Edin Arnaut stated that they have not had concrete talks on this issue, adding that in his opinion, the reshuffling will happen very soon. Deputy Speaker of the ZDC Assembly Ivo Tadic from HDZ B&H said that changes in the ruling coalition are internal issues of the Bosniak bloc in the ZDC and announced that HDZ B&H and parties gathered around the HNS will be partners of the new alliance.
Cvijanovic: TurkStream brings energy independence and lower gas prices to RS (Srna)
Republika Srpska (RS) President Zeljka Cvijanovic has stated that RS is interested in participating in the TurkStream natural gas pipeline project as it wants to secure energy independence, lower gas prices for the economy and citizens and long-term involvement of national construction companies and related services. “We remain committed to the project, we want it to be implemented as it was earlier planned with the ‘SouthStream’, we are holding talks with Serbia and Russia and I believe that the project will be implemented,” Cvijanovic told the press in Banja Luka. She recalled that RS was involved in the project and signed certain arrangements when it came to the “SouthStream”. “Unfortunately, the project was suspended, but a way was found to implement a major natural gas project,” Cvijanovic added.
Presidential candidates face off in TV debate (Hina/HTV)
The incumbent president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic and the 10 contenders running in the presidential race participated in a two-hour head-to head debate on the national broadcaster’s channel HTV 1 on Tuesday evening with just five days to go before the election.
Grabar-Kitarovic said that during the five years of her first term she had been “the voice of citizens” and that she delivered on the promises she had made to voters. In this context she underscored that she managed to disentangle the country from “the Region” and imposed the issue of demography as one of the top priorities. Zoran Mialnovic a former Social Democrat (SDP) prime minister who is supported by several left Opposition parties, said that he would reinstate the dignity of the presidency. Independent candidate Miroslav Skoro, who is supported by the Bridge party and is perceived as the favourite candidate of some anti-establishment right-wing movements, said that he was offering radical changes and that he would seek the enlargement of the powers of the head of state. Dario Jurican, who goes by the name of Zagreb Mayor Milan Bandic and who is giving performances in the campaign, said in his ironical remark that if elected, he would introduce the eighth (grammatical) case in the Croatian language which has seven grammatical cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, instrumental, locative and vocative). As for the issue of people who have not been accounted-for since the 1991-1995 Homeland War, Grabar-Kitarovic reiterated that she would insist on the search for the missing and concerning Serbia’s aspirations to come closer to the European Union, she said that Serbia should meet all the membership requirements and also must come to terms with its past for its own sake. Milanovic said he was not for the blockade of Serbia’s journey towards the EU, however he called for making a distinction between the Serbian people and “Belgrade’s boors” and Aleksandar Vucic on the other side. Mislav Kolakusic, an independent candidate supported by anti-establishment movements, said that Serbia’s journey towards the EU did not depend on Croatia, however, Zagreb could have a say in the process. Anto Djapic of the right-wing DESNO party said that Serbia would never give full information about the missing people.
Considering the topic of migrations, Grabar-Kitarovic called for making a distinction between asylum-seekers and irregular migrants, and praised the police for doing a great job while protecting the Croatian border. Skoro said that the border “is a sacred thing”, and Milanovic praised his cabinet for how it had tackled the flows of migrants in 2015. Concerning NATO, Kolakusic said that the alliance was dead and proposed establishing an EU army involving service-people from all the member-states. Katarina Peovic, supported by a few non-parliamentary left-wing parties, said that by its admission to NATO, Croatia actually became a target for terrorist attacks. Independent candidate Ivan Pernar, a former official of the anti-establishment Human Shield party, described NATO as a criminal organization. During the debate, Milanovic criticized Grabar-Kitarovic’s Three Seas Initiative, adding that in this way she pushed Croatia in the company with “most regressive countries”. Now I know that the president has led Croatia in Central Europe. Three Seas ends at the Black Sea, so in the Balkans and this is not even Central Europe, he said. The initiative that was launched in 2015 by Croatia’s President Grabar-Kitarovic and her Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda. The initiative comprises a dozen European states located between the Adriatic, Baltic and Black Seas: Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Croatia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Its objective is to bolster regional dialogue and connect the countries between the north and the south.
Religious Freedom Law to be reached through the dialogue (RTCG)
Bosniak Party (BS) political director Suljo Mustafic is optimistic that electoral laws will nevertheless be reformed before citizens turn out to vote next year. Bosniaks, as he told RTCG, will make a constructive contribution to reopening political dialogue. They are also in favor of dialogue when it comes to the Religious Freedom Law. Although the work of the Committee on Comprehensive Reform of the Election and Other Legislation has been blocked, Mustafic believes that an agreement will be reached. “We are optimistic. We will make a constructive contribution, as far as we are concerned, to start the dialogue again. Dialogue is the only path and there is no alternative,” Mustafic said. He stressed that deadlines should not be blindly followed, nor the stereotype that electoral laws are not to be changed in an election year. “Much more important than deadlines, is to provide a good atmosphere, reduce tensions in society and improve the conditions for elections, in such a way that no one will question it and the politicians would shake hands with each other afterwards,” Mustafic said.
Montenegro and China: Plans afoot for visa liberalization (CDM)
Visa liberalization between China and Montenegro for the holders of ordinary passports is already a certain thing. “Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working on further visa liberalization for the citizens who have ordinary passports,” said representatives of the Ministry. Montenegro and the People’s Republic of China, continuously consider the prospects for further cooperation in the domain of visa policy. Holders of diplomatic and official passports of China and Montenegro can travel without visa up top 90 days. As far as passports of business passports of China are concerned, measures aimed at the establishment of visa liberalization have been taken as well.
“Citizens of the People’s Republic of China who have ordinary or business passport, issued in accordance with the regulations in the state, are allowed to enter, pass through or stay in Montenegro for up to 30 days, provided that they have some other valid travel document and if they have positive letter stipulating more detailed requirements for issuing visas C or as organized tourist group that enters, stays in and leaves Montenegro and has a proof of the paid arrangement and guarantee of the return,” said representatives of the Ministry. China is becoming more and more open to the rest of the world. It is present in the economic and investment context across Europe. Number of Chinese tourists visiting Montenegro and the Balkan region is doubling year on year. Chinese Ambassador to Montenegro, Liu Xin, said recently that Montenegro had beautiful nature and richness of tourist resources. “There’s no doubt that Montenegro will become new tourist destination for Chinese tourists. However, in order to attract more tourists, I think we have to promote Montenegro on the Chinese market and build infrastructure with more specific offer that suits Chinese tastes,” Xin pointed out.
Hodges: Kremlin doesn’t want stability of the Balkan region (Pobjeda)
Former commanding general of the United States Army Europe, and the present researcher in the American Center for European Policies Analysis, Ben Hodges, said that a lot had to be done in order for the security of the Western Balkans (WB) to be ensured fully. In the margins of the NATO Summit in London, Hodges said that the interest of the Kremlin wasn’t stability of the Balkan region. “The Kremlin has nothing from the WB stability. Instead, they want to use Serbia as their satellite” said Hodges. He said he wanted to see US commitment to the region. “We don’t want Balkans to lose interest in the European integration,” said Hodges. Serbia-Kosovo relations are one of the most serious challenges in the WB. Presidents of both countries are advised to sit and talk. Hodges said that the West should provide help for the WB. “It is very disappointing that Emmanuel Macron closed the door in a way,” said Hodges. According to him, political leaders have to make tough decisions and hold difficult negotiations. “They must be able to offer something that will make young people in Montenegro, Serbia and North Macedonia stay in their homeland. That’s why integration of WN in the EU is crucial,” said Hodges. Asked to comment on the situation in Montenegro, Hodges said that there were still many challenges in the rule of law and that our country had to build up trust in the election process.
EU doesn’t trust Zaev, is waiting for his replacement, the vetting will wait for the new government (Republika)
In just a few days, the outgoing prime minister Zoran Zaev has changed his mind again. This time Zaev changed his mind about vetting in the judiciary. After the EU Ambassador to Macedonia Samuel Zbogar said that at this moment no such thing is needed, Zaev rushed to agree with him and explained that it was really not a moment for vetting and that only a few dishonest judges and prosecutors should be purged. “I expect that the institutions themselves, in accordance with the current regulation, which is the Law on Judicial Council and the Law on Courts and the Law on Anticorruption, will act according to the laws themselves. During such actions, they will make the purge,” said Zaev on Monday. But that is quite the opposite of the statement he made on 17 November when he said full vetting in the judiciary was needed. “Here I am saying that there will be full vetting in the judiciary, both in the judiciary and the prosecution,” Zaev said last month. Zbogar said that the situation in the judiciary is not that bad and there are other ways for the judiciary to improve, first and foremost, from the inside, and sees no need for vetting of judges and prosecutors. “Our position on vetting is clear. I think we prefer to use all the other elements to improve the judiciary, which at the end of the day is not in such a bad situation in the country. There are many ways to improve the judiciary, first and foremost, from the inside. The judiciary needs to self-regulate,” said the Ambassador. After the Ambassador’s assessment, it becomes clear that the EU does not believe that this government can deliver quality judiciary vetting and that it will probably be left to the next government. The EU fears that Zaev will abuse the vetting to fight those judges and prosecutors who do not serve the Zaev family.
Albanian opposition parties preparing a coalition to take on DUI (Republika)
The Alliance of Albanians and the BESA party, as well as the smaller Alternative party, have announced they are in talks over the creation of a pre-election coalition. The two conservative parties that represent ethnic Albanians are planning to join forces for the purpose of getting DUI out of office after almost uninterrupted 18 years. “We in the Alliance of Albanians are interested in a pre-election coalition with BESA and the Alternative party. We are prepared on our own, but we want our victory to be even greater and we are ready to cooperate with Alternative and BESA. We are in talks with both these parties, we are open to make a deal and we hope that together we will have a coalition which will definitely defeat DUI and will win the legitimacy of the Albanian voters,” said Alliance spokesman Flakron Bexheti. He said that the parties are still not engaged in talks with potential Macedonian partners. Outgoing Prime Minister Zoran Zaev has raised the opportunity of a pre-election coalition with DUI, which would be the first time that a major Macedonian and a major Albanian party join forces ahead of the election. DUI dismissed the option and the Albanian wing in Zaev’s own SDSM party is also bitterly opposed to this. Zaev is now even opening the idea of removing DUI from his coalition, even as there are only a few months to go before the elections expected in April 2020.
Parliament meets over the blocked SDSM election request (Republika)
In the Macedonian parliament, a debate is scheduled on the several thousand amendments which the DUI party submitted to the Electoral Code proposed by its coalition partner SDSM. Since it’s impossible to go through all the amendments, the DUI move effectively blocks any debate on the SDSM proposal to abolish the six electoral districts and have all members of Parliament elected in a single district. This way of distributing the votes would like harm the largest parties, both SDSM but most importantly VMRO-DPMNE, and will harm the Albanian parties like DUI, but would allow the entry of several small parties – like those representing smaller ethnic minorities. SDSM is counting on having smaller ethnic or protest parties absorb votes from VMRO and from dissatisfied SDSM supporters, and then reeling their representatives back to the SDSM group in the next Parliament. The move by DUI to block this plan has caused friction in the coalition with SDSM, and if DUI doesn’t withdraw the amendments, the proposal will likely fail.
VMRO-DPMNE criticized Zaev for attempting to change the electoral model with just a few months before the vote, and without consensual agreement from all major parties. The opposition party states that, if the model is to be changed, it should be toward a first past the post system, such as those used in the US, UK and Canada. DUI, on the other hand, said that it would accept having one electoral district, but only if Albanians have guaranteed 30 seats in parliament, with strictly defined quotas for Macedonians and the smaller minorities as well.
PM’s Office responds to Haradinaj on next ‘mini Schengen’ meeting (ADN)
Albanian Prime Minister’s office has reacted to statements of Kosovo’s resigned Prime Minister, Ramush Haradinaj, that Kosovo is not invited at the meeting on the Balkans “mini-Schengen”, to be held in Durres on December 21st. Through a press release, the Prime Minister’s office says that Kosovo is invited to the highest level and that the invitation has been forwarded to President Hashim Thaci. “Based on a statement made by the resigned Prime Minister of Kosovo we explain that given the format of the regional meetings and the fact that the new government in Kosovo has not yet been formed, Kosovo has been invited to the highest level just like at the Ohrid meeting, through an invitation to the President of the Republic of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci,” PM’s office reported.
Regional meeting of Western Balkans to be held on 20-21 December in Tirana (Radio Tirana)
The third regional meeting of the Western Balkan countries will take place on 20-21 December 2019. This meeting follows the two previous meetings of this level, held in Novi Sad, Serbia and Ohrid, North Macedonia, attended by top state leaders and representatives of the Western Balkan countries, as well as senior representatives of European institutions. On Friday, December 20, Prime Minister Edi Rama will host the invited leaders in an informal meeting at the Hotel “Rogner”, Tirana. Then, at 7 pm, Prime Minister Edi Rama along with the participating delegations will attend a special charity event “You Will Never Be Alone!”at the Olympic Park, dedicated to the reconstruction process following the 26th earthquake November. On Saturday, December 21, at 08:45 am, guests will visit some of the earthquake-affected areas of Durres. Then, at 10:00, the “Leaders’ Session” will take place at the Rogner Hotel. At 12:00 it will be followed by Plenary Session with the participation of delegations. At 13.15, Saturday, activities will conclude with a joint press conference, which will take place in the same venue, at the Rogner Hotel, Tirana. The President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic will conduct an official visit in Albania, according to the note of the Serbian presidency. According to these sources, President Vucic will stay in Albania on 20-21 December, where he will participate in the meeting of the leaders of the Western Balkan region that will be held in Tirana. This is the second time within 2019 that President Vucic comes to Tirana, after his participation in the summit of Brdo-Brijun in April, an event organized by the President of the Republic, Ilir Meta.
INTERNATIONAL MEDIA SOURCES
Serbia will not rush to join the EU until it is truly ready (EurActiv, by Ana Brnabic, 18 December 2019)
As Serbia heads into an election year, the rhetoric of political parties rises. In an exclusive op-ed for EURACTIV.com, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić writes that a fair election requires all parties to participate and present their vision in order to give people a real choice. Ana Brnabić has been the prime minister of Serbia since June 2017. Serbia is a nation in transition. In recent years, the country has passed several sound fiscal decisions, which have stabilised the economy, ensured reduced debt levels and allowed us to invest in a better future. This has translated into better jobs, better education and healthcare, better salaries, pensions and standards of living. The work continues, but we are on the right track. EU Membership is our strategic goal. Under my government, there is an unwavering determination to implement the comprehensive reforms necessary for EU Membership. Every year, we are making further progress across the spectrum of accession chapters and to date have opened 18 chapters. There is more to be done, but we have accomplished a lot over the last couple of years. The reforms implemented with the support of the EU and the IMF are already giving results, even though we continue to tackle issues that were left behind by previous governments. Serbia was one step from bankruptcy. Hundreds of thousands of people had lost their jobs. According to Verica Barac, president of the Anti-Corruption Council of Serbia, the media was “robbed” by Dragan Djilas and other people in power. This is the description of the old Serbia, when Dragan Djilas and other members of the Alliance of Serbia left power. Serbia is no longer that country. Salaries are higher, the unemployment rate has fallen to single digits and is now on a historical minimum compared to over 25% back in 2012. According to the Financial Times, Serbia topped the 2019 Greenfield FDI Performance Index. We ranked as the number one country in the annual study by fDi Intelligence – a Financial Times data division. Back in 2012, Serbia was ranked 92nd on a Doing business list of the World Bank. Today, we are 44th and aim to be in TOP 10 countries in the next couple of years. Media freedoms are part of this discussion. We want to have free and fair media in Serbia. In fact, we need one. The government does not shy away from the tough questions, we are accountable and transparent. I know this is an essential part of our democracy and when we are challenged by the media to be better, I want us to keep rising to that challenge.
Our commitment to a free media environment is also shown through negations with Euronews to open an office in Serbia. I would urge those who do not see the strength of our domestic media and the role they play, to keep partisan point-scoring out of this discourse. The latest front page of weekly magazine NIN with the sniper aiming at the president VučIć is just another clear example of the media atmosphere perceived towards the government. The attack on Milan Jovanović has been prosecuted and the trial has started. I have personally met with Milan Jovanović to send a clear message that media freedom and freedom of speech are values that are undisputable. The balance of media and journalistic rigour is important for us all. It is simply untrue to say the government is not open and regularly held to account by our national media, in all its forms. I stand beside any journalist who is attacked for doing their job, as I stood by our state broadcaster, RTS, when their headquarters were raided earlier this year by threatening opposition protest groups carrying a chainsaw and gallows. In my view, this process of reform and the preparations across all aspects of Serbian society are more valued than the eventual date of our membership. We will not rush to join until we are truly ready and capable of joining from a position of strength. I want both the EU and our citizens to have confidence in a future inside the EU club. We are heading into an election year in 2020, so it’s normal to see the rhetoric of the political parties rise. Any claims to the contrary are misleading and seek to undermine that process. There are those who do not agree with Serbia’s ambition to become an EU member, and they should be honest about their intentions. The annual EU Progress Report on Serbia’s accession preparations was well received in Belgrade. The partnership we have with the Commission is based on mutual respect and honesty. We need them to offer this guidance and support for us to keep moving forward and to make the depth of progress necessary. In an election period, tensions can be high. On behalf of the government and our citizens, I ask that we all conduct ourselves with the respect and behaviour that a democratic process deserves. We must not increase those tensions, but instead explain what holds us all together. That is why a fair election requires all parties to participate and to present their vision and give people a real choice. Those who claim to be excluded from this process are trying to mislead once again.
The truth is that they have excluded themselves, despite our best efforts to accommodate the wishes of opposition parties. The progress Serbia has made will not be undermined in the political debate ahead, it will be strengthened by it.
State capture threatens Serbia’s EU integration process (EurActiv, by Dragan Đilas and Nebojša Zelenović and Dejan Nikolić, 17 December 2019)
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.