Serbia will hold a referendum on constitutional changes in the area of judiciary on 16 January 2022. The consitutional changes, as a prerequisite for reforms within the framework of the EU integration process, are related to the selection of judges and prosecutors. The changes should provide for independence of the judiciary and one of the conditions for reforms in the area of rule of law, which so far have impeded the progress of Serbia in the negotiations within the framework of EU integration. The referendum question reads: “Are you in favour of confirming the act on changing the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia?”
The proposed modifications to the Constitution will exclude political interference in the election of judges, as they envisage that the judges and court presidents will be elected exclusively by the High Judicial Council, while the prosecutors will be elected by the High Council of Prosecutors. The High Judicial Council shall include 11 members. Specifically, six judges elected by judges, four prominent lawyers elected by the Republic of Serbia National Assembly and the President of the Supreme Court. The Minister of Justice, Chair of the Committee on the Judiciary in the Republic of Serbia National Assembly and the President of the Court of Cassation, which will be returned to its former name of the Supreme Court, will no longer participate in the process. The three-year probationary mandate of the judges will also be abolished, as it was one of the major insufficiencies in the current Constitution. The High Council will of Prosecutors include 11 members, five of which will be elected by chief public prosecutors, four by the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia among leading legal experts and on the proposal of the Committee on the Judiciary by a two-thirds majority, while the Supreme Public Prosecutor and Minister of Justice will be ex officio members.
The Venice Commission had given a positive opinion on the proposed constitutional amendments and stated that they were in line with European standards. In November 2021, the Venice Commission welcomed the new proposal of the Law on the Referendum and the People’s Initiative and stated that it was “fully or partly in line with majority of key recommendations from the previous urgent opinion.” The Venice Commission also expressed regret that the modifications of the Law had been initiated only once the referendum on the Constitution “became inevitable.”
The Republic Electoral Commission (RIK) announced that the number of voters in Serbia eligible to participate at the upcoming referendum on constitutional changes was 6,510,233. Voting on Kosovo still remains an open issue, as the authorities in Pristina had stated that they will not allow organization of the referendum for citizens who hold Serian citizenship and wish to participate in the referendum.
Analysts believe that the upcoming referendum on constitutional changes regarding the judiciary can be a turning point in the reform and development of the judicial system, as well as contribute to development of a modern judicial system. Election of judges and prosecutors will no longer be under political influence but will be decided by the High Judicial Council and the High Council of Prosecutors, as is done in modern EU states. This will definitely lead to an increase in legal security, which as a result will also inform the level of foreign investment and overall improvement of the economic ambience, which will facilitate further prosperity of Serbia. Nevertheless, the risks of corruption remain present and can be reduced through appointment of professional, competent, moral and appropriate candidates as members of the High Judicial Council and the High Council of Prosecutors through a public and transparent procedure.
Opening a new cluster – chance to accelerate the path to EU
At the intergovernmental conference in December 2021, Serbia opened Cluster 4- Green agenda and Sustainable Connectivity, which includes four negotiation chapters (Transport Policy, Energy, Trans-European Networks and Environment and Climate Changes). Opening of four negotiation chapters brings dynamics to the accession talks, while the opening of the chapter on environment is particularly important, as it will be an incentive to resolve the accumulated environmental issues.
EU Commissioner for Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi holds that intergovernmental conferences send a strong signal from the EU on its commitment to the integration of Serbia into the EU. “The accession talks are progressing and EU responds to the progress of the country. Opening of the talks on the chapters means that important negotiations regarding the respective areas can begin now. This means that the hard work must not just continue, but be intensified as well.”
Varhelyi repeated that the dialogue on normalization of relations with Kosovo will be a determinant on how the negotiation process between Belgrade and Brussels will develop.
On the occasion of the opening of Cluster 4, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borell underlined that it was important for Belgrade to continue to work on the rule of law, harmonization with the EU foreign and security policy and the dialogue with Pristina.
Analysts believe it is important that Serbia had opened Cluster4, because it will provide strong motivation for the European integration process after almost two years of halt, which was primarily the responsibility of the EU. Serbia has the strongest personnel potential and political potential to be the first country in the region to finalize the talks with the EU, provided that there is the political will for such a thing in Brussels. Namely, the process of enlargement is primarily an expression of political will for enlargement in the EU member countries. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has managed to shift the responsibility for the obstructions in the dialogue between the official Belgrade and Pristina on the authorities in Pristina, which want only a dialogue with a foregone outcome – recognition.
Christopher Hill: Serbia key for stability of the Balkans
Serbia has strengthened its regional and international position through the “Open Balkan” initiative, which was launched by Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić (SNS) in cooperation with North Macedonia Prime Minister and Albanian Prime Minister, Zoran Zaev (SDSM) and Edi Rama (PS). The initiative received strong support primarily from the US, but also from the EU, as a method to accelerate integration into the EU – not as a substitute for integration into the EU.
One of the testimonies of the key role that Serbia has in the region is the statement given by the US Ambassador in Serbia Christopher Hill, who said “Serbia is key to the stability and progress of the Western Balkans.Serbia’s progress is an integral part of achieving American strategic goals to revitalize our European alliances, support democracy and the rule of law, promote economic cooperation and solve global and regional challenge. The United States is committed to deepening bilateral relations with Serbia through further political, economic and security cooperation.”
Analysts believe that it is of major importance to ensure enduring peace and lasting stability in the region, which can be achieved through the “Open Balkan” regional initiative, finalization of the dialogue between the official Belgrade and Pristina, and the implementation of the Brussels and Washington agreements. Serbian President Vučić has managed to make a quality step forward, as Serbia has moved from being an object of international relations to being an actor in international relations. This was also confirmed at the Nonalignment Movement summit in October 2021 in Belgrade, which brought together senior officials from more than 100 countries and was the largest multilateral event in Europe and one of the largest events in the world in 2021.
Exploration and exploitation of mineral resources – development opportunity for Serbia
Serbia is a country rich in natural resources. This has also been confirmed by different researches that have been conducted on the territory of Serbia since the aftermath of World War II. Activities related to exploration and exploitation of mineral resources were particularly intensive during the rule of Boris Tadić and the Democratic Party (DS). Currently, exploration of different natural resources is being conducted on more than 40 locations in Serbia.
Lately, the major attention was directed at exploration of lithium deposits conducted in West Serbia. Lithium deposits exist also on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to estimates, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina have around 10% of global lithium deposits. The country that “garners” lithium deposits become a global actor on the market. As this is a strategic raw material, the state then becomes a strategic partner. Lithium has a high market value and price, which will only increase. Technologies required for exploration and exploitation of lithium are very complex, which requires compliance with and implementation of high technological and environmental standards.
Analysts believe that Serbia, as a country rich in mineral resources, should continue to pursue such exploration and responsible exploitation of such resources. In this context, the analysts offered the example of the Arabs and Arab states in the Middle East. Namely, exploration and exploitation of oil had launched them on the global scene as important actors. What would have happened had the Arabs refused the oil exploration and exploitation? What would be their status nowadays? Therefore, it is important to establish partnership with EU, US, but also some other countries, as that can be a way to accelerate the path of Serbia to membership in the EU. Of course, with recognition of the up-to-date standards used in this area. The world is on the verge of a crisis with unforeseeable consequence, which will be even more difficult that the Corona crisis. Hence, it is of exceptional importance that the states make the right strategic decisions and position themselves in line with the new geopolitical developments. The politicians must not play with the fate of their state and its future. After all, what is the purpose of the existence of natural resources if you are not aware of what resources you have, that is if you do not know how or do not want to use them appropriately.
Incidents on ethnic and religious basis
In its earlier analyses the international institute IFIMES warned about the intrusions into the security-intelligence and defense system of the Republic of Serbia. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić detected and thwarted such negative occurrences, as well as undertaken appropriate measures to combat them. However, this is still insufficient. Namely, the problem is the connection between individual holders of senior public officials, who together with a part of the international factor are working to destabilize Serbia with the aim of overthrowing Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić from power.
Lately, the incidents aimed against citizens of Bosniak ethnicity and Islamic religion have intensified. Despite the continuous efforts on improvement and affirmation of minority ethnic communities, the number of incidents is on an increase, particularly with respect to the Bosniak community. The relations between Serbs and Bosniaks are key for stability and the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Ministry of Internal Affairs (MUP) of the Republic of Serbia has initiated disciplinary proceeding against 12 members of the Border Police Administration in Priboj, whose off-duty conduct was an insult to citizens of different religious and ethnic background. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić contributed to the relaxing of the situation through his statements, the visit to the Priboj Municipality and contacts with citizens. On this occasion he said “We have to live together. I am a Serb and the President of Serbia, but cannot imagine Priboj being without Bosniaks and it will not be without Bosniaks. This is their country, just as it is ours.” The heightened interethnic tensions have been lowered and concrete measures undertaken to ensure full security for all citizens of Serbia, while those responsible for causing of interethnic and interreligious hatred will be sanctioned.
Analysts believe that the recent incidents directed against the Bosniaks can predominantly be linked to the activities related to the intrusions into the security-intelligence and defense system of Serbia. Specifically, participants in the intrusions include holders of important positions in the government, who in cooperation with a part of the foreign factor are working to destabilize Serbia. The state has the duty to provide protection to all its citizens regardless of their ethnic, religious or other background. According to assessments, the attacks with an ethnic or religious background will intensify as parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled to take place in Serbia on 3 April 2022 near. This implies that the state of Serbia is to act urgently, because such attacks are an attack on and a threat to its security-intelligence and defense system that could take the state in an unwanted direction- complete destabilization. Therefore, it is important that the state of Serbia undertakes intensive activities to “cleanse” the security-intelligence and defense sector and remove the “infected” members.