Vucic responds to people on Facebook about Kosovo, Montenegro (Beta/N1/Tanjug/B92)
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic answered the questions, mostly about the dispute with Montenegro, Kosovo issue and the level of wages, posted to him on Facebook, Beta reported.
Vucic said that there can be no talks with Pristina if its representatives believe that there is nothing fundamental to discuss, only how to get Serbia to recognize their independence and for us to apologize for something. “If that’s what they think, we’re through with those talks. I hope there will be reasonable, rational people in Pristina who realize that it’s important to talk and try to find a compromise,” Vucic said. He said that if anyone thinks they can beat Serbia with blackmail, they are sorely mistaken. One of the first questions was about the seizure of Serb Orthodox shrines in Montenegro, which was sent to him via a Facebook account, to which the President answered and sent a message to all Serbs. He said that Serbia is closely monitoring the situation in Montenegro, with concern, but also with hope that it will stabilize and that everything will end peacefully, and that the shrines will continue to belong to the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC), as they always have. “Serbs are exposed to a perfidious, corrupt and brutal campaign that has been going on for two or three decades and whatever happens in the former Yugoslavia everything is blamed on the Serbs. It’s easiest for everyone to blame Serbia for everything,” said Vucic. He added that when asked representatives of the international community, as well as diplomats, why Serbs in Montenegro don’t have a status similar to Albanians in North Macedonia – although Serbs in Montenegro are significantly more numerous than Albanians in North Macedonia – there was no answer. The essence of that perfidious policy, he says, is that whenever some countries have an internal problem, it is always Serbia’s fault, and it will always be Serbia destroying somebody, even though Serbia has not destroyed anyone anywhere, while Serbia has been destroyed by all kinds. He says that when regular military service is announced in Kosovo and Metohija, no one is reacting, whereas when our ministers tried to announce the same, there was an uproar abroad, but now no one is reacting, nor when Kosovo announces greater funding for the military and genocide lawsuits. “It’s always silent, and if we said something we would always be guilty of everything. That is why our policy has to be smart, responsible and wise,” said Vucic, adding that no one should think they can silently and in any way abolish Serb shrines. Vucic said that our policy should be well thought out and not arrogant, to say that we respect Montenegro and others in the region but that we will protect our interests legally, through political and diplomatic action, and not endanger anyone. The President concluded that some in Montenegro are asking this question as if there were no Vasojevics living in Berane or Andrijevica, where they have lived for centuries, and that the situation is presented as if Serbia brought Kuce residents there a few days ago. Vucic added that these are people who only want to preserve the shrines and that he hopes that everything will end peacefully and stabilize, and that the shrines will continue to be of the SPC. Vucic said that before joining the EU, there are many things we can do, and opening borders to our neighbors is one of the first things. It’s crucial first of all to open the borders, first to the Western Balkans and then to the EU. And when we achieve this one day, then with our work and economy we will be winning, Vucic said. He said this replying to a question from citizens about when, according to him, we can expect Serbia to become an EU member. “I must give a slightly broader reply. I think it’s an important path for us, but that before membership itself we can achieve a lot of things. However, we must now see what the new EU methodology brings, especially for Serbia and Montenegro,” he added. Vucic stressed the importance of opening borders, first in the Balkans and then towards the EU. “If one day there are no borders towards Hungary and Croatia, as well as toward North Macedonian and B&H, then we’ll have no more problems and we will be winning with our work and economy,” he stressed. He said that he hopes we will one day become an EU member, but that not everything depends on us. “We’ll see how talks around Kosovo go. You know, if I were to tell you that, then I would tell you that the day after we will recognize Kosovo’s independence,” Vucic emphasized. Vucic said that the media is free and that the proof for it lies in the fact that everyone is asking him questions, but that political opponents usually abuse it and will not admit that he may have a better program, but they find an excuse in the media instead. In a question posed by one of the citizens received via Facebook – when will the media become free – Vucic noted that those who present themselves as free are the ones who prefer to speak about it, and probably better understand the others who think they are not free. “I think the media is free, they just ask me questions, and that is usually used and abused by people politically, because there is none of the political opponents who will say – well, that Vucic or someone else, they do a little more and better or they came out with a better program… No, but people will say it’s because of the media or I don’t know what,” Vucic said. He added that this was not a question for him, but for the media owners and everyone else. “I have no problem with it. I love when they not only criticize us because it’s always cool, but I like it when they attack us because we use it as ‘political aikido’ to show how much we’ve done, and ultimately, how wrong they are. So it’s not a problem for me,” Vucic said. Nearly 4,000 questions have arrived for President Vucic, who answered questions from the citizens he received via Facebook. “Dear people, both in Serbia and outside of Serbia, thank you for your questions. Almost 4,000 questions have arrived, we will make efforts to answer them as soon as possible,” Vucic said on the “Future of Serbia AV” account on Instagram.
Joksimovic: We don’t have to continue EU integrations according to new methodology (RTS/Beta)
Serbian Minister for EU integrations Jadranka Joksimovic told RTS that Serbia is not obligated to continue European integrations using the new EU enlargement methodology. “The new methodology was created for North Macedonia and Albania, because these countries did not get the green light for the beginning of negotiations. It doesn’t apply to us, unless we, willingly and having appraised the situation, agree to it,” said Joksimovic. She stressed the importance of “the advanced economic plan,” a segment of the new methodology, which is to be presented before the summit in Zagreb, adding that Serbia will base its decision whether or not to adopt the new methodology, on the plan’s content.
Djilas: SzS members to boycott elections at all levels (Beta)
The Party of Freedom and Justice leader Dragan Djilas said that all members of the Alliance of Serbia (SzS), parties and individuals alike, would boycott all elections – parliamentary, provincial and local – and that the Alliance would try to reach as many citizens as possible in its boycott campaign to explain the reasons why the boycott was necessary. “It will not change. We have made our position clear many times,” Djilas said at a press conference, promising that it was possible to improve the lives of Serbs within six months after a change of government.
The opposition leader refused to answer a reporter’s question if he talked to Mayor of Sabac Nebojsa Zelenovic, the Together for Serbia leader, who had said recently that a decision whether to run in the local election was yet to be made in his town. Following a number of similar questions, Djilas said he had nothing new to say, as “everything was clear” from what he had said already, repeating that the Alliance for Serbia would not take part in the elections.
Djilas also said that the purpose of the opposition campaign was to let as many people as possible know that the Alliance, as well as some other parties, were boycotting the polls. The opposition will also explain why it was necessary to boycott the “false vote,” and what kind of a struggle would follow for Serbia to eventually have a fair and free election.
Putin: Solution for Kosovo based on UN SC Resolution 1244 (Novosti/Politika/Beta)
Russia is doing a lot to make the situation in the Balkans stable and secure, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday. Moscow urges a sustainable and mutually acceptable
solution between Belgrade and Pristina based on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244, he told an accreditation ceremony for ambassadors in the Kremlin which was attended by Serbian Ambassador Miroslav Lazanski. “A number of agreements were reached, regarding
cooperation between Russia and Serbia in the fields of the economy, trade, energy, culture, coordination regarding regional issues,” Putin said in the Kremlin. Russia and Serbia are bound by a strategic partnership, which relies on the tradition of the friendship, cultural, spiritual and historical closeness of the peoples, Putin said, adding that Russia is doing a lot for the situation in the Balkans to remain stable and safe.
Commissioner Varhelyi says enlargement to B&H, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania remains EU’s goal (N1)
A proposal of the new revised methodology of the EU accession process was presented in Brussels on Wednesday. EU Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Oliver Varhelyi stated that the proposal tends to make the process of the EU accession negotiations more credible, more predictable and more dynamic, as well as to give it strong political impetus. He explained that the goal is to have a firm process aimed at full membership in the EU. Varhelyi added that the approval of the EU member countries should be awaited now and the approval is expected prior to the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb in May. The European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs (AFET) MEPs held the first debate on the new methodology of the EU accession process later on Wednesday, when Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H) was one of the topics as well. Croatian MEPs stressed that Croatia is interested the most in opening the accession negotiations with B&H because this country shares the same border with B&H, and also because of large number of Croatians who have B&H’s citizenship and vice versa for whom the new methodology is important as well as its brings possibility for peace and stability in the region. Varhelyi concluded that the EU-Western Balkans Summit in Zagreb in May is also very important for these citizens because the EU will be able to bring them closer faster than it was the case before. The AFET concluded that the new methodology will give a new impetus to the enlargement process, but that it is yet to be seen how practical side of the process will look like. The proposal stipulates slightly different method of the accession negotiations, higher level of participation of the EU member countries in the accession process and some of the key changes such as reversibility of the process or rewards for the achieved progress. This means that the negotiation process will no longer be divided into 35 negotiating chapters as it has been the case so far, but it will be divided into six clusters that will include 35 negotiating chapters. Clusters cover fundamental rights referring to the rule of law, judicial reform, system democratization and other things in the background of the negotiation process the EU insists on. The EU member countries will be able to send their experts to candidate countries who will check the progress with regards to reforms and issue the EC recommendations according to the situation in each of the countries. The EC finds that high-level communication is crucial in this process, so representatives of the candidate countries will come to Brussels more often to hold talks, debates and report to the EU partners. This will help improve the communication and lead to more intensive work in the process as a whole.
Varhelyi added that the adopted proposal is the first out of the three elements of the renewed strategy for the Western Balkans. According to Varhelyi, the order in opening negotiating clusters will be up to countries in the accession process, but the only requirement of the EU is to open and close negotiations with a cluster referring to the rule of law. The enlargement is the EU’s geostrategic goal and the new methodology will give the EU member states more voting rights. The methodology is based on four principles – predictability, credibility, dynamism and political management. Commissioner Varhelyi stressed that new rules cannot be imposed on Serbia and Montenegro, but that the two countries will have an opportunity to join, if they want, and use the advantages of the new methodology. “It would be difficult to say that they should change the rules of the game that is in progress. But, Serbia and Montenegro will be able to join if they want, and I believe that there are good arguments for that,” Commissioner Varhelyi emphasized.
Komsic welcomes adoption of new EU accession methodology (Hayat)
Chairman of the B&H Presidency Zeljko Komsic welcomed the adoption of the new methodology for the EU accession negotiations and process. “I welcome clear perspective of membership of Western Balkans countries in the EU and adoption of the new methodology for which the EU claims that it restores credible membership prospect. Calls for insisting on respecting of the rule of the law are encouraging. Implementation of European standards in B&H and in the Western Balkans is also important. I hope that new methodology will accelerate implementation of European standards,” said Komsic.
Experts agree new methodology of EU accession negotiations means there will be no more conditioning by EU member countries (EuroBlic)
Commenting on the fact the European Commission adopted a new methodology of the EU accession negotiations, the daily noted that the new strategy is expected to prevent some of its members to use unsolved issues with one of the countries to blackmail it or condition it when it comes to its accession to the EU. The daily also noted that this news might be especially good for B&H and Serbia, which have many unsolved issues with Croatia. Namely, Croats from the RS recently announced that they will insist on blocking B&H’s accession to the EU until compensation for the property they lost during the war in B&H is paid to them and, in this, they mostly count on the assistance of Croatia which “often insists Croats in B&H should have greater rights” in the context of changes to the Law on Elections of B&H, unsolved border issue between B&H and Croatia and return of Croats to Republika Srpska (RS). Former diplomat Slobodan Soja said that Croatia will certainly use its position to set preconditions both for B&H and Serbia but he added that he thinks it will not be able to do so without a signal coming from Brussels. Commenting on the methodology, Soja said that it is formally better and more applicable on the Western Balkans but it will make things more difficult for B&H because it is stricter and more serious. “No strategy is good for us because we have a passive and too formal and too demagogic approach to European integration. No methodology can be problematic or unfair for a country which has a serious approach,” Soja noted and added that the only chance for B&H to join the EU in past was to do it in package with others but the new methodology excludes such type of admission. Professor at the Faculty of Political Science in Banja Luka Milos Solaja said that the EU introduced many new things and also made criteria for admission stricter. Solaja assessed that the part which urges all sides to refrain from abuse of unsolved issues in the process of accession to the EU means that “the policy of conditioning is over” and he added that it is clear that countries will have to solve their own problems first and only then be able to join the EU.
DF submits proposal of amendments to B&H Election Law into parliamentary procedure (BHT1)
DF on Wednesday submitted into parliamentary procedure proposal of amendments to the B&H Election Law which, among other things, stipulate more delegates with less authority in the B&H House of Peoples (HoP), enabling members of national minorities to run for a member of the B&H Presidency, electronic voting and video surveillance. Amendments to the B&H Election Law put forward by DF stipulate that a member of the B&H Presidency from RS would be elected by voters from the territory of the RS, while a candidate for this post can be every citizen of B&H regardless of ethnicity. According to the amendments to the B&H Election Law proposed by DF, the same would be valid when it comes to the election of the two other members of the B&H Presidency from the Federation of B&H with the condition that the two members of the B&H Presidency from the Federation of B&H cannot be from the same constituent people, i.e. from the rank of ‘The Others’. Explaining the amendments to the B&H Election Law that DF submitted into parliamentary procedure, DF representatives stressed that these amendments are aimed at complying with EU requirements and implementing domestic and international verdicts. Head of DF Caucus in the B&H House of Representatives (HoR) Dzenan Djonlagic said that without eliminating systemic discrimination both in the Constitution and the Election Law, B&H cannot become a full member of the EU. As for the B&H HoP, DF proposes for the HoP to have 21 instead of 15 delegates, including six Croat delegates, six Serb delegates, six Bosniak delegates and three delegates from the rank of ‘The Others’. DF believes that it is necessary to limit the powers of the B&H HoP. Advisor to B&H Presidency member Zeljko Komsic, Zoran Mikulic, stressed that DF believes that there is no need for a House to control, supervise and correct decisions of the other legally and legitimately elected House. “Therefore, the role of the HoP would be reduced exclusively to issues related to vital interest,” Mikulic stressed. DF also offered a proposal of a solution to the Mostar issue. Namely, DF proposes for the number of councilors in Mostar to be proportional to the number of voters in a constituency which would also be reorganized.
Mikulic: DF’s proposal of amendments to Election Law of B&H would enable compliance with rulings of ECHR and national courts in B&H as well as with opinions of EC and Venice Commission (FTV)
Advisor to Chairman and Croat member of the B&H Presidency (Zeljko Komsic) Zoran Mikulic, speaking about the DF’s proposal of amendments to the Election Law of B&H, said that this is the first time that a comprehensive solution for the Election Law has been proposed, after different amendments went through parliamentary procedure for years. Mikulic assessed that DF’s proposal would enable compliance with the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) and of the national courts in B&H, as well as with the opinions of the European Commission (EC) and the Venice Commission. “The EU path in B&H cannot even start if the state does not respect the rulings of the ECHR or the national courts, and the opinions of the EC and the Venice Commissions,” Mikulic warned. Given that DF has submitted its proposal of amendments to the Election Law into parliamentary procedure, Mikulic underscored that “the B&H parliament is the right place for this”, but he noted that it is up to members of the B&H Parliament to decide whether or not they will adopt it. Reflecting on the fact that DF announced that its proposal should lead to holding of the local elections in Mostar, Mikulic stated that an official solution for the Mostar elections still does not exist, but he emphasized the importance to reach such a solution. Asked if he thinks that SDA and HDZ B&H can come to a compromise and bring their opposite stances on the Election Law closer together, Mikulic did not directly reply if he thinks this is possible, but he remarked that HDZ B&H advocates reorganization of B&H, which he considers to be a path that moves B&H further away from Europe.
Other reactions to DF’s proposal of amendments to B&H Election Law (BHT1)
Representatives of HDZ B&H failed to comment the amendments to the B&H Election Law put forward by DF on Wednesday. SDA representatives, on the other hand, said that they will review DF’s proposal. SDA delegate in the B&H HoP Asim Sarajlic said that all of these solutions are already known from before and they are generally acceptable for SDA. “We now need to see how one could secure support in the Houses, in the parliament,” Sarajlic stressed. SNSD representatives stressed that they wish someone had consulted them. SNSD delegate in the B&H HoP Lazar Prodanovic said that it would have been good if DF consulted other political subjects participating in the B&H parliament regarding their proposal in order to secure support for such an initiative, adding that he is not an optimist that DF’s proposal will be supported in the B&H parliament. President of HDZ B&H Cantonal Board of Herzegovina-Neretva Canton Stjepan Boskovic told the daily he did not have an opportunity to read DF’s proposal, arguing it is not fair to send into the parliamentary procedure one such important document before consulting other political parties. HDZ 1990 President Ilija Cvitanovic told the daily that DF’s proposal is unacceptable, arguing that erasing of ethnic prefix in the election for the Presidency of B&H shows the tendency for sidelining. “This proposal is completely unacceptable because it weakens what is already weak position of Croats,” said Cvitanovic.
Cvijanovic meets Palmer to discuss current political and economic situation in RS and B&H (RTRS)
RS President Zeljka Cvijanovic who is in an official visit to the US held a series of meetings in Washington on Wednesday. She met with US Special Representative for the Western Balkans Matthew Palmer with whom she discussed the improvement of cooperation between the RS and the US in all fields and the current political and economic situation in the RS and B&H. Cvijanovic voiced the commitment of the RS institutions to preservation of peace and political stability in B&H and the region, as the most important preconditions for economic development, the improvement of business environment and living standard of all citizens. “The Dayton Peace Accords (DPA) and respect of the constitutional structure of B&H, which implies full equality of the three constituent peoples, are a good framework for the functioning, development and progress of B&H. As for security challenges in the Western Balkans, the coordination between the competent institutions at all levels of authorities in B&H is necessary”, Cvijanovic stressed. Cvijanovic and Palmer assessed during the meeting that the ‘Mini-Schengen’ initiative is positive for the region as a whole. Cvijanovic reminded that the RS institutions have already supported the initiative, which is aimed at improvement of the regional economic area.
Markovic calls for dialogue (CDM)
Prime Minister, Dusko Markovic, sent a letter to relevant political and social factors, inviting them to discuss all issue that might help them overcome divisions. “Montenegro’s EU membership and its importance for the future of our country transcends all political interests. It’s up to us to put additional effort and try to reach political consensus on this essential issue,” reads Markovic’s letter. Part of that is definitely the dialogue and agreement on the electoral legislation and related conditions for the elections. In that context, we are ready for the open and honest conversation and agreement, so we can further improve legislative and other preconditions in relation to election process,” said Markovic. Markovic firmly believes that political consensus and compromise is expected by everyone. Markovic stated that democratic elections were in accordance with international standards. “Although the government assumes most responsibility, opposition has it too,” says Markovic in his letter. “That’s why we are ready for the dialogue and the compromise on this and other issues relevant to our citizens,” concludes Markovic in his letter.
Opposition agreement required before local elections take place (Dan)
In order for Montenegro to come out of deep political crisis it is faced with, a joint political action of the relevant opposition is required, says Aleksandar Damjanovic, independent MP. He said that opposition had to reach a deal before local elections took place. “Local elections in Tivat are approaching and that means opposition has to reach a deal. I’ll remind you that the election law hasn’t been amended but the government has rejected opposition’s proposal for the formation of technical government and amended the laws unilaterally,” said Damjanovic. He stresses that opposition agreement must be unique and fixed. According to him, in the present situation Montenegro absolutely needs joint political action of the relevant opposition.
“Request by the representative of the Metropolitanate for the withdrawal of this terrible law is the key fact to be considered by the opposition,” Damjanovic pointed out. He commented on the role of the international community in the overall situation in Montenegro. “In the present circumstances, Montenegro really needs serious international mission,” Damjanovic said.
US supports Montenegro in its fight against misinformation (CDM)
President of Montenegro’s parliament, Ivan Brajovic, met with Matthew Palmer at the very beginning of his visit to Washington. Brajovic expressed satisfaction with the relations and overall cooperation between Montenegro and the US. President talked about the events in Montenegro after the adoption of the Law on Freedom of Religion. In a constructive discussion, interlocutors agreed that dialogue is very important in the fight against dangerous misinformation campaign and propaganda, the office of the president of the parliament said. Special representative Palmer reiterated that Montenegro was a star performer in the region and served as an example to its neighbors. He offered any kind of support for Montenegro in the further promotion of its democratic values. Brajovic discussed current situation with the Ambassador At Large for International Religion Freedom, Samuel Brownback. Brajovic explained that country’s goal was to regulate that area in a democratic manner, implement constitutional principles and confirm civic character of the Montenegrin state. Ambassador welcomed the initiative for direct talks and pointed out that religion should always be an instrument of peace, not conflict. Brajovic held talks with the Congressman, Eliot Angel and president of the Sub-Committee in the Senate for Europe and regional security cooperation, Senator Ron Johnson. Brajovic said that Montenegro never had dilemma over what value system it should belong to. He expressed conviction that enlargement policy was in the focus of attention again. “I am very proud of Montenegro and the progress you made on your European path,” said Angel. Brajovic delivered an address in the Senate reunion dedicated to current challenges of the South-East Europe and the role of the cyber safety and 5G, organized by the American Senator James Inhofe, president of the Armed Forces Committee. In his address, Brajovic pointed out that we had been faced with various threats of the kind but that we had managed to reinforce our sovereignty and territorial integrity owing to NATO membership. “As a responsible and reliable ally, Montenegro adopted Strategy for Cyber Security 2018-2021, encompassing a set of activities and measures aimed at strengthening resistance of networks,” concluded Brajovic.
Osmani voiced expectation that new methodology for the EU accession negotiations will accelerate pace of the process of negotiations (Republika)
The European Commission (EC) adopted the proposal of the new methodology for the EU accession negotiations. Commenting on the new methodology, North Macedonian Deputy Prime Minister in charge of European Affairs Bujar Osmani voiced his expectation that it will accelerate the pace of the process of negotiations and make it possible for the EU to recover its credibility. Representative of the Institute for European Policy in Skopje Malinka Ristovska assessed that the accession process will be more difficult and complicated with the new methodology. “It is not objective at the very beginning. It already divided the countries of the region into groups. One principle now applies to Serbia and Montenegro, while other principles should apply to us, which suggests that there is no credibility,” Ristovska concluded.
Mickoski: It is not democratic to forbid people to fight to correct the injustice done with the Prespa Agreement (Republika/TV Telma)
It is not democratic and it is not in the spirit of values to forbid people to fight, to rectify the injustice that they think has been inflicted on them, VMRO-DPMNE’s leader Hristijan Mickoski told TV Telma, after the question of the Prespa Agreement was raised. As he has said many times before, Mickoski said that neither the politicians nor anyone else should be allowed to ignore reality, but that does not mean that citizens should be forbidden to fight and correct the injustice done with the Prespa Agreement. “If I say we will ignore it, I will not be honest with you and the citizens. Nobody ignores that reality, but we will fight to correct that reality. We, as politicians, are people who will fight to correct that injustice,” said Mickoski.
Albania and EU plans for reforming the enlargement process (Radio Tirana)
Brussels is making plans for the EU enlargement process and give to the member countries higher competences for stopping of returning the accession talks, and as response to the concerns of Paris or other European capitals. The draft of the European Commission will be published today and will be the reference point of a possible battle between the member countries of the EU for giving or not the green light for Tirana and Skopje. The document has taken under consideration the request of the member countries and those of Western Balkan, for making things clear from the applicants block and the consequences for fulfilling or failing the tests. The document calls for improved stimulus from the aspiring countries according to the good performance, including the increase of funds and investments for the integration process that is closely connected with the policy of EU, for the markets and other areas of interest. The diplomats and officials of the EU stressed that the document was a topic of debate, including the debate regarding the votes that the member countries need to rewind the accession talks. These rules will be applied for the talks approved after the plan, especially for the countries such as Serbia and Montenegro, which are on a slow pace regarding the negotiations. The promise that a clearer picture can be appealed by the six countries of Western Balkan that want to join the EU, but there is a slight opportunity to worry because the plan can increase the chance of preventing the membership. PM Edi Rama said that the postponement by French President Emmanuel Macron is nothing more than a “glance of clean air in a process that is being prevented by the schizophrenic techniques and political decision-making”. In the assessment of PM Rama the hope that the new process brings more clarity and honesty, has been brought by a long and injustice process. ‘’Making a difference between the countries of Western Balkan that had already started the negotiations with those which followed was ‘’righteous’’ but a ‘’geopolitical mistake’’ – Rama is cited as saying. But this won’t change the pro-EU orientation of Albania for his general thought regarding the new methodology of the European Union.
INTERNATIONAL MEDIA SOURCES
Return of the mediators: What is the state of electoral reforms in Serbia? (European Western Balkans, by Aleksandar Ivković, 6 February 2020)
BELGRADE – It seems that the authorities of Serbia will formally adopt the measures they agreed to during the dialogue mediated by the European Parliament, aimed at improving electoral conditions. However, there are not many indicators that this will lead to substantial changes. Mediators of the European Parliament, Tanja Fajon and Vladimir Bilčik, together with the Commissioner for Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi are coming to Belgrade today, one of the goals of their visit being to take stock of the reform process that has been going on over the past several months. Based on what the current state of affairs is, the conclusion will probably be that there is a form, but that the content is lacking. Almost all of the reforms listed in the “Implementation Timetable”, which was agreed after three rounds of dialogue, are a mare formal basis for the improvement of the electoral conditions, while, for the real change, it will be necessary to implement these measures in practice. As of today, this implementation is mostly non-existent. Milan Antonijević, Executive Director of the Foundation for the Open Society, says for European Western Balkans that the difference between what is listed in the Timetable and what is happening in reality is significant. “The implementation is important – if there are three changes to the laws, and if they have not caused an “effect on the ground”, if there is no true accountability of the public officials, then it was just a preparatory action that hasn’t had any effect. Only when we see the implementation of these laws on the ground, when we see the work of the Republican Electoral Committee, when we see how the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media is working, can we say that the recommendations from the Timetable are respected”, Antonijević emphasises. Elections in Serbia are scheduled for 26 April, but the biggest opposition parties have announced that they will boycott them due to the unfair advantages they see from the side of the ruling parties.
The laws are not being implemented
The aforementioned laws address the misuse of public resources during a campaign – the use of municipal buildings, vehicles, websites and other resources to promote a single party. The “improved versions” of these laws, which further specify some terms and prohibitions, were adopted by the Assembly on 13 December 2019. Back in November, however, program director of Transparency Serbia Nemanja Nenadić said for our portal that the proposed changes to the laws were “so minor, that it can be said that they were taken primarily to give the impression that there is a willingness to do something, and not to truly prevent abuse”. Nenadić explained that even before the new laws were proposed, there had been no doubt that neither of these types of misuse of resources was allowed. “On the other hand, there are forms of using the public function for party promotion, which are not banned even with the new laws, and would not be banned in the future. Of course, I am talking about of a “public officials’ campaign” – inventing formally official events with promotional potential at the time of the campaign”, he said. And at the beginning of February 2020, there is no specific indication that the authorities will take the problem of the unfair advantage that its officials have over their competitors seriously, as noted by Milan Antonijević. “I will remind you that CRTA (Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability) has initiated two misdemeanor proceedings against state authorities which, in their estimation, have violated their legal competencies, and so far we have had no answer. We have to wait and see how the laws are enforced. It is one thing to change the laws, and the other to see how they are applied”, he clarifies. Public officials’ campaign and misuse of public resources, however, have only been one aspect of the electoral irregularities discussed by the participants of the dialogue. The other one concerned media coverage.
Can the public trust the media regulating bodies?
The “Implementation Timetable” envisaged four measures aimed at improving media reporting: the adoption of the new Rulebook by the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media (REM), the election of new members of this body, its constant monitoring during the election campaign and the establishment of a National Assembly Monitoring Committee. The very title of the REM Rulebook on the “obligations of the public media services during the election campaign” points to its potential shortcomings. The previous Rulebook, in force from 2015 to 2019, regulated “media service providers”, i. e. both public and private broadcasters. This is not the case now, and REM will only make “recommendations” for the private television channels. Executive Director of the Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CeSID) Bojan Klačar tells EWB that this civil society organization, which has been monitoring elections in Serbia for over twenty years, is not satisfied that the rules do not apply to private media, but only to public service broadcasters. “Also, the opportunity was missed to define the obligations of the public service regarding the monitoring of public officials in a stronger and more precise manner. It is commendable that REM envisages monitoring of the media in the election campaign and publication of reports, although it would be even more useful if the monitoring included the behavior of public officials outside the electoral blocs”, emphasizes Klačar. It is questionable how much the new Rulebook, which does not contain drastic differences from the old one, will actually contribute to improving media coverage of elections and political actors. The backsliding in this area, recorded by organizations like Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, took place during the implementation of the old Rulebook, which applied to both public and private media. What could nevertheless amount to a significant difference, as noted by Milan Antonijević, is the announced reporting that REM will conduct on a weekly basis. “REM has committed itself to weekly reports during the campaign, which will help us to see what our media space looks like, which politicians occupy the most space, whether there is a balance. Media monitoring is an exact thing – you can measure to a second how much of each politician had time, determine whether the reporting was positive or negative, and this is the data that REM itself has to publish”, Antonijević told EWB. Whether REM will really improve its monitoring remains to be seen after the election of all new members, which is still pending, although the deadline in the Implementation Timetable was 31 December. Another body that should improve the situation is the Monitoring Committee of the National Assembly, which is tasked with “the overall oversight of the actions of political parties, candidates and the media”. However, the influence of this body, founded by the parliament at the end of December, is highly questionable. In addition to its merely advisory powers, at least half of its members have connections to the ruling party. These include actor Svetislav Goncić, candidate of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) for the last election in Belgrade, and narrator of several of the party’s election spots, as well as opera singer Aleksandar Stamatović, signatory of the “Appeal 1000+” of the public figures endorsing SNS. Since its establishment, the Monitoring Committee has not given signs of life, and the opposition has already raised objections to its composition. The Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CeSID) also raised concerns about this body in its analysis of electoral conditions. “Although the Monitoring Committee has formally been formed, it must be said that at the current time, there are a number of problems regarding its functioning, for which there is good faith that they will be addressed in the coming period. It primarily refers to the fact that for the time being, it is not known how the Committee will function, what will the methodology of its work be, how often it will meet, how much it will be visible to the public and how well it will work”, reads a recent CeSID publication. The launch of an election campaign will definitely show whether the establishment of the Monitoring Committee has only served to tick another box in the electoral reform Timetable.
What is in the rest of the Timetable?
In addition to the issues of public officials’ campaigning and media reporting, the table also contains measures that should alleviate doubts about election irregularities on election day itself. As noted, extraordinary oversight of the Single Electoral Roll has been held, officials are being trained to maintain it, and the relevant Ministry has issued a Rulebook for this area. In addition, the Republic Electoral Commission has organized training for members of polling station committees, and the status of domestic and foreign observers has been formally regulated, which will enable them to observe the whole process from start to finish. All of these measures have been marked as completed or are still ongoing, and their evaluation will have to wait for the election day. Nevertheless, neither of them relate to the most serious problems of electoral conditions raised by members of the opposition and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), which mainly occur during the campaign, but not on election day itself. Despite the relative success in adopting the measures in the Timetable, at least in formal terms, allegations of pressure on voters to vote for the ruling party in the upcoming elections are still reported on a regular basis. The appearance of opposition politicians on television channels with national coverage is slightly more frequent than in the previous period. However, no leader of the parties and movements that have declared a boycott except Vuk Jeremić has appeared on these channels since the start of the EP-mediated dialogue, not even after the “Declaration of boycott” was formally signed at the opposition rally on 1 February. On the occasion of the arrival of European Parliament mediators Tanja Fajon and Vladimir Bilčik, as well as Commissioner Várhelyi, Milan Antonijević once again underlines the importance of adopting and implementing these reforms. “These measures are not related to the decisions of individual parties to participate or not to participate in elections, these measures are related to one atmosphere in which elections in Serbia, as a country that wants to enter the EU, must take place. This is what the conditions for elections in a country that wants to be in the EU should look like – that will be the attitude of European mediators when they come to Belgrade”, he concludes.
The message is clear, and the seriousness of the authorities on this issue is indicated by the fact that, as in previous weeks, the focus of the visit of the EU mediators is likely to be something that no one has asked for during last year’s dialogues – lowering the electoral threshold.