National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

BELGRADE – In a joint statement following the first round of the European Parliament-mediated dialogue between ruling and opposition parties in Serbia on 9 and 10 October, Speaker of Parliament Maja Gojković and former MEP Knut Fleckenstein stressed that the steps to improve the electoral conditions need to be taken before the next meeting. 

One month later, the second round of dialogue is taking place today and there are no meaningful changes. Although initial steps have been made in some areas, such as the work of the electoral committees, the registry of voters and the misuse of public resources, the two most important problems of the electoral process – media reporting and pressure on voters – remain untouched.

The second round of the dialogue will once again be boycotted by the representatives of the Alliance for Serbia (SzS), country’s main opposition coalition, who demand the change of the current format. There are already some improvements in this direction – apart from Fleckenstein and Eduard Kukan, new European Parliament Rapporteur for Serbia Vladimír Bilčík and Chair of the Parliament’s Delegation for Serbia Tanja Fajon have arrived in Belgrade yesterday. However, SzS stresses for our portal that it will not give up the boycott of the elections next spring.

It is precisely the threat of a boycott that seems to have led to some concessions from the authorities and greater involvement of the EU in resolving the political crisis. However, the government’s current behavior shows that it is ready to risk the non-participation of the opposition after all.

The smallest concessions possible 

The joint statement by Gojković and Fleckenstein emphasized the need to ensure equal access to the media for all political parties. Five weeks have passed since then, and no opposition party leader has appeared on a television channel with the national coverage.

In fact, all that has been done with regard to the media is a meeting in the National Assembly to clarify the notion of “equal representation” that was held this Tuesday, Bojan Klačar, Executive Director of the Center for Free Elections and Democracy (CeSID), told European Western Balkans.

Meeting of Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanović with Tanja Fajon in October; Photo: Government of Serbia

Apart from that, other steps that have been undertaken during the last month are the measures proposed by the Republic Electoral Commission aimed at the training of the members of the election committees, the publication of scanned reports and the additional regulation of conditions for domestic and foreign observers.

“Overall, the measures adopted are important, useful and necessary, but in order to achieve meaningful progress, interventions in the areas of media and pressure on voters are needed,” Klačar emphasised.

Another step the Government has taken over the last month is to propose the amendments to the laws regulating the misuse of public resources in a political campaign. They were adopted at the Government’s meeting on Wednesday.

According to Program Director of Transparency Serbia Nemanja Nenadić, the proposed changes to the Law on Financing Political Activities are insufficient, and the changes in the remaining laws are “so minor that it can be said that they were made primarily to make the impression that there is a willingness to do something, and not to truly prevent abuses”.

Nenadić explains that the changes in both laws specify what is meant by public resources that officials and especially directors of state-owned companies are forbidden to use for political activities.

“The point is, there has been no doubt that either type of the abuse was forbidden even before the amendments. On the other hand, there are forms of the use of the public function as an instrument for party promotion which are not banned even now and which would not be banned in the future. Of course, I am speaking of the “public official campaign”, inventing public events with promotional potential at the time of the campaign etc”, Nenadić says for European Western Balkans.

Even if the intention of the government is sincere, it is one thing to amend the law and quite another to change the exisiting practice. Nenadić agrees with this assertion, giving an even worse assessment of what is happening “on the ground”.

“When it comes to practice, there have been some events (in the past month) that could even be interpreted as a change for the worse, given what the government is formally committed to. For example, the Prime Minister of (the Autonomous Province of) Vojvodina openly admitted that he had abused his office for party purposes (by sending government vehicles to the local elections in Lučani in 2018), and not only have there been no criminal proceedings against him, but he has not been dismissed or even reprimanded by his colleagues from authorities that reform electoral legislation”, he stresses.

Recommendations of the Republic Electoral Commission, updating of the registry of voter, roundtable discussions and legislative changes in the area of ​​misuse of public resources – this exhausts the list of everything the Government has done to improve election conditions not only since the October meeting but since the Working Group of the Government for this area was established at the end of August. Political scientist Boban Stojanović agrees with the assessment that nothing of substance has changed between the two rounds of political dialogue.

“It is enough to look at the case of the whistle-blower Aleksandar Obradović, who pointed at the abuses and the obvious conflict of interest, to see that, first of all, the media are not in the service of the public and that they do not inform the citizens as they should. In such circumstances, it is not possible to talk about any improvement of the electoral conditions, because they cover not only the election campaign period but everything that happens in the period between the elections”, said Stojanović.

Whistle-blower Obradović was put under house arrest following his revelation that the father of the Minister of Interior has been receiving a privileged price for the trade of arms from a state-owned company. His claims, made more than two months ago, have not been seriously tackled by any media station with the national coverage.

Problems with establishing fair and fair election conditions were also pointed out by Tanja Fajon during a recent session of the Parliamentary Committee on Stabilization and Association in Belgrade. On this occasion, she told N1 that the implementation of the adopted laws is what matters and that she is personally afraid that even if something is adopted, it will only remain on paper and will not be put into practice.

To this end, the opposition and part of the expert public demand a new format of a dialogue between the ruling and opposition parties. According to them, the current format was doomed from the start. Free Citizens Movement (PSG) is the only relevant opposition party that has participated in the dialogue mediated by the European Parliament; other opposition actors Boban Stojanović describes as “lacking influence or support among the voters”.

SzS demands a change of the format, will boycott spring elections in any case

In a statement for the European Western Balkans earlier this week, President of Democratic Party and member of Presidency of the Alliance for Serbia Zoran Lutovac confirmed that international representatives from Belgrade have shown willingness to meet separately with opposition representatives but that they will also attend the previously announced SzS-boycotted government-opposition dialogue in the Parliament.

“This could be the first step towards a definitive change in format. The format of the dialogue so far, mediated by NGOs and representatives of the European Parliament, has not led to a solution. That is why we (SzS) have suggested to EU representatives that free and fair conditions should be reached in bilateral discussions with the representatives of the opposition and then the government”, Lutovac says.

Under the proposal of the Alliance for Serbia, individual negotiations should result in a comprehensive agreement on electoral conditions, a mechanism for its implementation – a transitional government – with a minimum of nine months for the establishment of the conditions.

Anti-government protest in Serbia on 8 June 2019; Photo: Tanjug / Tanja Valić

Asked whether the election boycott of the Alliance for Serbia was guaranteed even if the format would change in a relatively short time, Lutovac answered affirmatively.

“Given the fact that we are requesting at least nine months for the Free and Fair Elections Agreement to be implemented, it is clear that these elections could not be held on regular schedule (April-May 2020). The opposition has been demanded that the electoral conditions be changed from December 2018, when there was enough time. If something had been at that time, we would have elections within the legally stipulated time, but since this is not the case, it is necessary to postpone them”, Lutovac told EWB.

The postponement of the election, although never actually implemented in Serbia before, is theoretically possible, requiring a special law to be adopted by the National Assembly.

But will the government be ready to delay the election? While not ruling out this possibility, Boban Stojanović believes that a more likely scenario is that elections are held within the time stipulated by law but without the participation of both the Alliance for Serbia and the Free Citizens Movement.

“In that case, the authorities will do everything they can to reduce the effects of the boycott, but I’m pretty sure that this will be the point at which a serious political crisis will arise, and the EU will have to ‘solve it’, whether through new, realistic negotiations on some new early elections in 2020”, says Stojanović.

He concludes that the mere arrival of Fajon and Bilčík at today’s round of dialogues is an indication that serious problems exist and believes that the opposition should put more pressure on them to change the format of the dialogue.

Judging by the state of reform on improving electoral conditions, the “Jean Monnet Dialogue” that was proposed by the European Parliament and welcomed by the Serbian Progressive Party in September has failed to avert the political crisis in Serbia, and its future scale will only depend on the level of further engagement of the opposition, civil society and the European Union.