Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

The Serbia Challenge

Adelina Marini, November 28, 2015

Serbia is a major challenge to EU enlargement. It is ruled by a government, which is a serious hindrance to the reconciliation process because of a differing appraisal of events from the last 25 years. This became clear once more during the historic visit of the Secretary General of NATO to Belgrade at the end of last week. There, Mr Jens Stoltenberg apologised to the Serbian people for the civilian casualties during the NATO bombings. In a joint press conference after his meeting with Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, Mr Stoltenberg stated that the goal of the military intervention of the North Atlantic Alliance was to stop “unacceptable actions by the Milošević government”. “NATO’s intervention ended years of conflict in the Balkans”, added the former prime minister of Norway and offered his condolences to families on both sides of the conflict. 

Despite opening a new page in the relations between NATO and Serbia, the Serbian PM stated that there are still differences between the two sides regarding events of the past. According to him, not only Serbia, but its leadership at the time as well were never responsible for “what happened in 1999”. “These are different assessments of the past events”, added Mr Vučić, who was part of the government of Slobodan Milošević. Serbia has a different assessment of the past regarding some of her other neighbours, which is a challenge to the EU. Foreign affairs views of Serbia are problematic as well. The refugee crisis, however, presented a great opportunity to the Serbian PM to atone for his sins. During the several conflicts, created by the thousands of refugees and migrants walking the Western Balkans route, Aleksandar Vučić and his government played the role of humble and constructive partners to the EU. 

Certainly, this comes with a price tag, and it is the opening of the first negotiation chapters, which the EU has been delaying for over a year because of the fact that Serbia has been demonstrating symptoms of authoritarianism and misunderstanding of the concepts of rule of law and pluralist democracy. One of the prominent adversaries of opening negotiation chapters is Germany, who has two pre-conditions – progress in the field of rule of law and a strong commitment to the Belgrade-Priština dialogue. There is some progress on the second one, albeit wavering, but there are way too many failures on the first one. Nevertheless, Aleksandar Vučić hopes that his gestures, especially the ones towards Germany and the few states that announced an open-door policy towards refugees will not go unappreciated. During the visit of European Council President Donald Tusk, who toured the Western Balkans states last week, himself quite conservatively set regarding refugees, Aleksandar Vučić answered a journalist’s question with an appeal to read between the lines. 

At the question how would he deal with economic migrants if borders were closed down, Aleksandar Vučić answered in his typical style that he was a loyal person and that Serbia was set on its European way. “Even if I do think differently, I would not say it in public”, he said. According to him, Germany, Sweden, and the Netherlands are in the direst straits, for they took on the heaviest burden. “It is our obligation to help, not hinder them”. He did say, however, that Serbia had enough power and capacity both to respect European values and to protect its national interests as well. “I hope you understood what I wanted to say, even though you have to read between the lines”. During his press conference with Tusk, the Serbian PM did not look happy at all. He was unusually cross and serious, picked his words slowly, but looked resolute. 

Serbia is not like the others

Its efforts along the refugee crisis did not go unnoticed in the annual report of the European Commission on the state’s progress towards EU membership. Serbia, however, is a special case in the enlargement, along with Turkey. Unlike all other former Yugoslavia countries, which have aspirations for a European future, Serbia has a different view on the world. In all other states, including Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, there are authoritarian symptoms or a display of the same problems to a larger or lesser degree. All of them, however, with no exception, see no other alternative than a Euro-Atlantic perspective. Serbia can manage without the EU and has demonstrated more than once that it is losing patience. It has Russia as its ally, which it is even more economically dependent on. Additionally, there are the bad results of the implementation of accession requirements, as is made clear in this year’s progress report, published on November 10th.

The report establishes that in Serbia the political influence over the police force, judges and prosecutors, remains considerable. The Constitution itself allows for it, says the report, for Parliament appoints the Supreme Court President and all court presidents, the State Prosecutor and all prosecutors. There is regress, rather than progress in the media freedom situation, as well as with violence against journalists. “The overall environment is not conducive to the full exercise of freedom of expression”, says the report in which this year the EC is paying special attention to media. Reporting has been changed this year, with every piece of the reforms that is particularly important to the Commission there are specific recommendations made. Regarding media environment, the EC demands a public reaction following every case of violence against journalists and bloggers, finalising the process of media privatisation, and guaranteeing adequate financing to public media. 

Once more, there are criticisms on opaque media ownership, unregulated financing, open and covert political and economic influence on media. The most prominent practise for exerting editorial pressure is through the advertisement money, thinks the EC. It continues to be a problem that certain media are being financed by state institutions on all levels. Regarding the fight against corruption and organised crime, the EC proposes to Serbia to boost investigations using intelligence techniques and guarantee that they will end with sentences. At the same time the EC warns that in Serbia there is a threat of misuse of communications monitoring. According to the Commission, there needs to be a platform for exchange of intelligence data between law-enforcement agencies and vote in a new law for the organisation of the police, so that independence of the Internal affairs unit is granted. 

A problem, seen in the entire region, including EU member states, is the frequent change in legislation, Besides, Serbia has not fulfilled the recommendations of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of OSCE, which Serbia presides this year, regarding the financing of election campaigns and the election process. Some local elections and other local events have been marked by violence and claims for threats and irregularities, which have not yet been investigated. Those responsible should face justice, thinks the EC. 

A change of tone towards Croatia

This year bilateral relations between countries of the region are reviewed much more thoroughly than before. Moreover, the report is trying for the first time to be objective and balanced when dealing with problems between EU members and non-members. In this respect, one cannot help but note the analysis of relations between Serbia and Croatia, which have been tensioning very seriously on several occasions this year. The return of cultural treasures to Croatia and the transfer of a Croatian citizen, sentenced for war crimes in Serbia, to serve his sentence in Croatia are listed as positive steps. Those, however, seem negligible gestures at the background of other actions, which create the feeling that reconciliation is one of the greatest challenges for the region.

The report attempts to take no sides and simply lists the facts, starting with the premature release of Vojislav Šešelj by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague. It is pointed out that his subsequent political appearances caused sharp reactions in Zagreb. The next big dividing line between the two countries was the differing appraisal of events of the last 20 years. It is about the date August 5th, which is a day of huge national celebration for Croatia, marked this year for the first time in a very long time with a military parade. August 5th, 1995 marks the successful completion of operation “Storm”, with which Croatia restores its territorial integrity. On the 20th anniversary of the operation Serbia named August 5th a day of mourning. The report refrains from assessments. It just says that Serbia announced this day to be a day of mourning and that to Croatia this day marks operation “Storm”. It is also noted that Serbia protested against the manifestation of hate speech and the demonstration of Fascist symbols during the Croatian celebrations. It is about the celebrations on the eve of August 5th in Knin. 

Further on the report mentions the decision of authorities in Vukovar to remove the bilingual street signs, which provoked sharp reactions in Belgrade. It is noted that the tension, provoked by the temporary restrictions on the border between the two states in September, has later been overcome, but it does not say that it was all about the refugee crisis. Regarding bilateral relations, the EC refrains from recommendations. 

Serious challenges to economy

The EC feels very much on familiar ground in the part regarding economic reforms. For the first time this year progress reports include a much expanded economic part with specific recommendations, which now fully reflects the participation of candidate states in the European semester. Serbia is expected to continue with fiscal consolidation, and with the restructuring and privatisation of state-owned enterprises, with recommendations to start with the largest companies, to introduce better corporate management, improving the management of public finances, solving the problem with non-performing loans in the banking sector, improving the business environment, launching a labour market reform, and stimulate private investment. 

Public administration is a subject to severe criticism in the report. According to the EC, it is still being appointed by political criteria. Although on paper the administration code ensures appointments are merit-based, some provisions leave wide open spaces for the opposite. Almost 60% of high-ranking officials are still appointed by exception. The remuneration system is also unfair. There is lack of accountability, many agencies report straight to the prime minister, or Parliament, rather than to the minister in charge of the sector. Supervision of public agencies is difficult, says the EC. 

According to the autumn economic forecast of the EC, which includes candidate countries, the Serbian economy is coming out of the recession. However, risks to growth now come not only from the unsteady step of the reform of state-owned enterprises and public administration, but also from the bad foreign environment. With this proviso the EC forecasts that Serbian economy will grow by 0.7% this year, by 1.4% next year, and by 2.5% in 2017. Unemployment, however, remains high – 17.7% in both 2015 and 2016, and 16.6% in 2017. 

The report on Serbia is not encouraging at all. The steps in the right direction are too few and too small. Cosmetic changes that the EC introduced to the method of assessing progress, namely through specific recommendations and naming of the worst problems would hardly contribute to a significant change in content, which does not differ much this year from last year’s reports. A possible start of negotiations could prove stimulating for a more serious progress, but this would have a rather short-term effect, for the changes that Serbia needs to make are very deep and will take time. Regardless, Serbia should be “rewarded” for its effort at least to show attachment to European values by starting negotiations. And when they begin, changes in methodology could be considered, so as to avoid fatigue.

Translated by Stanimir Stoev

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