Freedom House: Democracy in Serbia is in the greatest decline of all countries in transition

Serbia recorded the biggest drop in results in the Freedom House report “Nations in Transition 2023”, which covers 29 European and Asian countries. Freedom House states that Serbia experienced a historic decline due to the efforts of President Aleksandar Vučić to consolidate power in 2023.

“Two consecutive mass murders in May sparked protests that lasted throughout the summer, to which the Serbian government responded with rigged early elections in December,” says Freedom House’s “Nations in Transition 2023” report, Voice of America reports.

“That’s the biggest drop this year in the entire region we cover, which includes 29 countries, from central Europe all the way to central Asia.” Considering how historically important this year was in our report, it is very noticeable that Serbia still had this precipitous decline,” Alexandra Carpi, Freedom House expert on the Balkans, told Voice of America. She adds that there are many reasons behind this rating.

“We still have frozen judicial reform in the last few years.” This means that court decisions remain mostly politicized and are more a matter of public debate than a real judicial process. It’s a multi-year trend that has contributed to this historic decline. But we also saw that many factors culminated in the special election in December. So, not only was the integrity of the election affected by allegations of fraud that were deemed credible, migration of voters, etc., and other irregularities. We had, of course, a worsening of the media environment this year. Now we see a media system that is almost completely dominated by the ruling party, and especially the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić. When you combine that with local authorities resigning en masse to pave the way for those elections, it has been a very difficult year for Serbian democracy. And as I said, the elections in December were really the culmination or really the perfect marker for what has been a difficult year for democracy there,” Carpi says.

As stated in the report, the functioning of democratic institutions in Serbia is still contested. The work of the National Assembly was marred by similar problems that led to the parliamentary and electoral boycott of the opposition from 2019 to 2022, the report added. The majority stifled the parliamentary debate by scheduling the sessions only 24 hours in advance, the speaker of the parliament, a member of the SNS, abused his position and did not act as a neutral arbiter, according to Freedom House.

Voice of America: In one part of the report, you say that President Aleksandar Vučić and his efforts to consolidate power in 2023 are responsible for the historic decline. What could the Serbian president or the Serbian people actually do to change this?

Karpi: I think this is important to distinguish between the actions of the authorities that led to this decline and the local demand for democracy that we still see in Serbia. Keep in mind that there is still a vibrant civil society. We still have an opposition that participates more in politics and had a pretty impressive performance in the Belgrade elections, despite significant efforts to keep them out of the race. So this is some good news, shall we say, notes of optimism in an otherwise difficult year. Bearing that in mind, I think there is room for the Government of Serbia to improve the situation if it wants to. There are actors in civil society and in the public who are more than willing to support reform efforts and the restoration of democratic institutions. Of course, that requires political will. And we have yet to see that in recent years from this current government. But in the end, I think it’s kind of the way forward and it will be with those local actors who are really doing the hard work to encourage reform processes.

Voice of America: What do the conclusions of this report signal to Serbia, and then to the international community? By that I mean the European Union, which Serbia still wants to join, and the USA?

Karpi : In the case of Serbia, if it is moving towards autocracy and falling more and more on our ladder, I think that a stricter approach is needed – at least in communication, maybe also the means used in countries that are more autocratic, such as sanctions or punitive measures – should be considered in these cases, at least they should be considered if we see that this is the path that the government chooses. When it comes to this region, especially Serbia, I think there is a need to reconsider the policy towards the region, in a way that is realistic and that respects the directions in which the countries are moving – which our report documents quite well.

The elections were marked by enormous irregularities, especially in Belgrade, according to domestic and international observers, according to the report for 2023. Among the most significant problems are cases of vote buying, the use of parallel voter lists to monitor voters, intimidation of voters and observers, misuse of public resources, as well as conditions that favor the SNS-led government. Freedom House points out that on election day, it was discovered that voters from Republika Srpska were brought and driven around the city to vote in Belgrade’s local elections, and that even public officials and political figures from Bosnia and Herzegovina voted in local and provincial elections in Serbia. The Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) published an analysis of voter migration, stating that it really happened and directly affected the Belgrade elections.

Freedom House concludes that there has been no significant progress in responding to the recommendations made by the ODIHR and the OSCE on electoral conditions since the last elections in 2022. According to the CRTA, none of the 15 general recommendations have been fully implemented, while only one of the nine priority recommendations – which includes standardized training for members of electoral committees – was partially implemented. Recommendations related to pressure on voters, media imbalance and abuse of position and public resources are still unresolved before the 2023 special elections, according to the report “Nations in Transition 2023” by Freedom House.

Voice of America : New elections for the Belgrade Assembly are scheduled for June 2. In your report, you said that the most controversial aspect of the election was the transfer of voters from Republika Srpska to Belgrade so that they could vote there. N1 reporters spoke with people who were brought from the village near Smederevo to register to vote in Belgrade, and the same station also announced that almost 100 people were registered at the address of the Children’s Shelter. Ana Brnabić denied that the number of voters is growing illegally. With all that in mind, how do you see the upcoming local elections and the irregularities that have already been reported?

Karpi : These local elections have been announced in approximately half of the municipalities. We still have voting in 100 municipalities or cities that have to vote this year in the regular period. So I would be very cautious about making predictions, but I think we have to really trust the observers who we hope will continue to do a good job, like they did in the special election, documenting these kinds of irregularities. It seems that the effort was concentrated in Belgrade when you look at the data they provided. So, if there is a new vote in Belgrade, you know, these are things that should be paid attention to, and we hope that we will not see these types of irregularities in other municipalities later this year.

Voice of America: When it comes to the upcoming elections in Belgrade, some opposition parties, who are not satisfied with everything that is happening now and what happened before, may be ready to boycott these elections. Can you comment on that?

Carpi: On the one hand, I understand the concern, in that there hasn’t been a credible or genuine effort by the government to respond not only to the immediate concerns from the last election, but over several voting cycles. Now we have seen the refusal to deal with the recommendations of the OSCE, the Venice Commission, etc. I can understand that, from the point of view of the opposition, adequate conditions have not been achieved. But, you know, at the end of the day, we’ve seen in the past that these types of boycotts end up only endangering the citizens of Serbia who want to vote for that option, to show their dissatisfaction with the ruling party. We won’t have a sense of how many citizens there are or who actually goes out to vote if the entire political option is removed from the offer. I don’t want to speculate too much about what decision he will make. But in the past, when there was a boycott of the opposition, it did not help Serbian democracy. If anything, it has resulted in a critical voice missing from the democratic process.

The report states that autocratizing hybrid systems such as Hungary, Serbia and to a lesser extent Georgia are on the way to becoming semi-consolidated authoritarian regimes based on the report’s methodology. Key institutions, from the media to the courts, have gone beyond the level of politicization expected under classic definitions of hybrid regimes and are now effectively captured by the ruling parties and abused for party or personal gain.

According to the report, the prosecution of high-level corruption remains problematic in Serbia. The effectiveness of the judiciary was put to the test after numerous delays and exclusion of evidence in the “Jovanjica” case in connection with it “Jovanjica 2”, the report states and states that the inspectors who discovered the marijuana plantation were replaced.

Media freedom in Serbia remains under pressure, attacks on journalists are on the rise, smear campaigns remain common, and regulatory body REM has clearly placed itself at the service of the government by awarding national broadcasting licenses, according to Freedom House. The report notes that in February 2024, the Court of Appeal revealed that the previous April it had decided to overturn the convictions of members of the security services who were sentenced to 100 years in prison in the first instance for the murder of journalist Slavko Ćuruvija in 1999 during the reign of Slobodan Milošević. PEN International, a non-governmental organization for free expression, had to relocate Serbian writer and TV presenter Marko Vidojković abroad due to repeated serious death threats.

“The situation is the same, if not worse. The verdict in the case of Slavko Ćuruvija at the beginning of the year was a real turning point for the safety of journalists, the feeling that after all these years there is impunity for the violence and murder of journalists. And that’s why I would emphasize the feeling that the situation worsened in 2024, the effect “spill over” to the rest of the region where independent media are already struggling and where media freedoms are already threatened. Again, it is a bit too early to say, because we are only in the first few months of 2024. But I can say with certainty that the situation for independent media in Serbia has not improved compared to what was recorded in 2023,” says Aleksandra Karpi for Voice of America.

There have been nominal improvements in the fight against corruption, but the adoption of a special law on EXPO 2027 and the government’s handling of high-level corruption cases demonstrate a lack of real progress in this regard, the report said.

Serbia has made some progress on paper when it comes to the fight against corruption. The anti-corruption strategy and its accompanying action plan have not yet been adopted almost five years since the previous one expired, but some progress has finally been made in this regard, as the Government formed a working group for its preparation and organized a public debate, Fridom writes in the report. Hausa. The public procurement law was amended in October to meet Serbia’s EU accession obligations, and the government has taken steps to respond to recommendations from the Council of Europe’s Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO), the report said.

Kosovo with an unchanged rating

According to the report of Freedom House, the rating for Kosovo has not changed. The government, which took office in 2021, reportedly tried to steer the country away from a legacy of parliamentary conflict by promoting a reform agenda based on the rule of law. Despite the agreements with the Government of Serbia in early 2023, there has been instability and an escalation of violence partly fueled by Belgrade’s informal ties to organized criminal groups, according to Freedom House.

“When you think about the kind of existential threat, and also the security challenges that Kosovo has been facing, in the current government since taking power, they certainly had mistakes as a ruling party. The Prime Minister did not always approach negotiations with Serbia in a way that was accessible to international partners. With all that in mind, the fact that we haven’t seen a drop in the rating of democratic institutions is a good sign. This government is at least able to keep things stable and fight. Despite the promises of performance, there were significant obstacles in its way. So maybe we shouldn’t read this as bad news, but just this stagnation,” said Alexandra Carpi.

Voice of America: The report cites Serbia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo’s independence as one of the obstacles to democratization. Does this mean that Serbia still has the future of Kosovo in its hands and to what extent is democratization in Kosovo affected by this?

Carpi: Yes, it definitely has an impact. I mean, at a very basic level, this government in Kosovo has to invest a lot of time and resources in the negotiation process, as it should, but that means that it’s basically pulled away from other policymaking or has to prioritize other issues if it goes ahead with this. issues with Serbia, at least at the political level. But I will give you a very practical example. On the other hand, you know, this government has been criticized for not consulting the Kosovo Serb community to the extent it promised during its campaign. As a result, and partly due to influence from Belgrade, we have again seen mass resignations of Serbian officials in recent years. And this means that there is often no quorum in the parliament for making basic political decisions. So we haven’t had a full quorum and a functioning parliament for some time.

Voice of America: Kosovo’s international partners actually reacted harshly to Kurti’s tough approach in negotiations with Belgrade and to the lack of consultation with the Kosovo Serb community, according to the report. Do you think that some of that could change in the near future, and how would the government in Kosovo accept these international signals?

Carpi: I think in 2023 we really saw how the Western policy towards this region was heavily criticized and really exposed for all its flaws. And I would just repeat that there is a need to review the approach to the countries in this region. There is no longer any reason why there should be a one-size-fits-all approach. We would definitely urge the US authorities to look closely at the trajectories of these countries and refine their messaging accordingly. And I think our findings kind of speak for themselves.

The report added that the international community had put pressure on the Serbian government to explain its role in the Banjska incident, with potential sanctions being discussed by the EU. However, the report adds, the incident in Banjska was largely overshadowed by the campaign for the upcoming elections.

Montenegro between democracy and autocracy

Montenegro turned into hybrid regimes, or as Freedom House describes countries where regular changes in the ruling elite undermine the lack of meaning of structural change over time. Consequently, these regimes can oscillate between democratic and autocratic without the prospect of achieving full consolidation in either direction, the organization’s report explains.

“The category cyclical regime is used to describe countries where there are shallow political changes. Maybe there are those revolutionary moments, for example the fall of Gruevski in North Macedonia, the fall of DPS or Đukanović in Montenegro, which was a huge event in 2023 when he finally lost the presidential elections. That means some seemingly revolutionary moments that ultimately did not lead to essential institutional changes for democracy. In those countries, we often see that there is a fair amount of political pluralism, but sometimes too much in the sense that the parties are very divided among themselves and the divisions also exist within the parties themselves. We recently saw the resignation of Jakov Milatović from Europe Now, which is the ruling party in Montenegro. So there is a bit of chaos in many cyclical hybrids. Montenegro is an excellent example of this because the country is still emerging from the constitutional crisis from 2020 to 2023. Although the immediate threat in the Constitutional Court has been resolved, the reality is that we are now seeing the consequences of national instability at the local level and this will be seen in the report for Montenegro for 2023, which is that many municipalities faced difficulties in holding elections or peaceful transition of power, in large part because there were no national authorities to control it after all. That is the meaning of cyclic hybrid. And the consequence is that institutions decay over time and do not function as they should for citizens, or are increasingly susceptible to being captured by certain politicians,” explains the Freedom House expert.

VOA : Basically, you’re also describing the dangers of generational change, which was welcomed at the time?

Karpi: The hopes stemming from some revolutionary moments may not have been completely extinguished yet, it would not be fair to say that because there is still a great aspiration for democracy in Montenegro, but we are beginning to see that it is not easy even when you have these revolutions or elections which are a turning point. It is not easy to immediately repair years of institutional damage.

Voice of America: In the report on freedoms in the world, Montenegro recorded one of the biggest advances in the European Union. How does that fit with this report?

Karpi: We are talking about very different methodologies. The report on freedom in the world is about the citizens’ experience with democracy. I also think that there were seismic changes in Montenegro, with a complete change of DPS. Citizens felt this and it had a positive impact on their rights and freedoms. On the other hand, our transition report is perhaps more conservative with regard to those changes in the sense that it sometimes takes longer for institutions to change, compared to the reality on the ground. And many institutions in Montenegro are improving very slowly. However, it is a long process, very technical in nature. You have a new government that does not have much political experience and of course a complicated coalition with several parties that are historically opposed. Therefore, it will not be difficult to fix 30 years of either institutional decay or capture, depending on which institution we are talking about. It’s a slow process.

The future of European democracy

The future of European democracy and security is now inextricably linked with the fate of Ukraine, the Freedom House report states, as a recommendation for the future. The most important political imperative this year, as well as last year, is to ensure that Moscow is defeated, the report points out. Member states of the European Union and NATO must not only invest much more and more efficiently in their collective defense, but also provide Ukraine with the help it needs to reverse Russia’s advance and build a lasting democracy of its own, Freedom House recommends. To achieve this, democratic governments, particularly in the United States and Europe, should maintain and increase military, humanitarian and financial aid to Ukraine, seize and reallocate frozen Russian assets to support the reconstruction of Ukraine, fully implement sanctions against Russian entities and individuals, ensure full accountability for crimes committed during Russia’s war against Ukraine (by creating a special tribunal for the crime of aggression), extend Ukraine’s bid for NATO membership, and support Ukraine’s ongoing democratic reforms as the country pursues EU accession.

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