Opposition and government present different images of Serbia to EU readers

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

BRUSSELS – Representatives of opposition in Serbia released an op-ed in Euractiv earlier this week, which was followed on the next day by a piece written by the Prime Minister Ana Brnabić. While the members of the opposition Alliance for Serbia (SzS) claimed that the European future of Serbia was threatened by the state and media capture, Prime Minister highlighted the achievements of her government, calling the SzS to drop the boycott of the elections scheduled for spring 2020.

According to Dragan Đilas, Nebojša Zelenović and Dejan Nikolić, Serbia is experiencing one of the most severe regressions in media freedom in the world in the past several years.

“Independent journalists are facing increasing pressure, exemplified by the case of journalist Milan Jovanović, whose house was set on fire and his door was shot at to prevent his escape. While members of the opposition are vilified daily in all national news outlets, high-profile government scandals are not even mentioned,” they wrote.

They reminded that Serbia has been downgraded on the annual indexes of Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders and pointed out that under the current circumstances, participating in elections would legitimise a system of corruption and repression, which is something they cannot allow.

Oppositions’ leaders stressed that the Serbian government is only nominally in favour of EU membership.

“The lack of meaningful changes speaks to the actual truth: there is no political will for structural reforms. The key indicators are lack of progress in rule of law reforms and the perpetually frozen Belgrade-Pristina dialogue,” they wrote.

Đilas, Zelenović and Nikolić wrote that they are distinctly aware that Serbia cannot advance without normalisation of relations with Pristina, and that they are committed to work on this.

“We are convinced that reconciliation lies in the promotion of communal life across ethnic boundaries, and that trust needs to be built between the two sides”, they wrote.

Brnabić: My government wants to have free and fair media

The piece by the opposition leaders on Tuesday was followed by an op-ed by the Prime Minister of Serbia Ana Brnabić on Wednesday, in which she stressed that her government wants to have free and fair media and that she stands beside any journalist who is attacked for doing their job.

“The attack on Milan Jovanović has been prosecuted and the trial has started. I have personally met with Milan Jovanović to send a clear message that media freedom of speech is valued is indisputable,” Brnabić wrote.

She, however, did not address the fall of Serbia in the rankings of the Reporters Without Borders and Freedom House, cited by the opposition leaders. Instead, she pointed out that the country is now ranked higher on the Doing business list of the World Bank and Greenfield FDI Performance Index.

Brnabić also accused Đilas and other members of the opposition who were in power before Serbian Progressive Party won the elections in 2012 of corruption and stressed her government’s commitment to reforms on its EU path, stating that Serbia will not rush to join until it is truly ready.

“The annual EU Progress Report on Serbia’s accession preparations was well received in Belgrade. The partnership we have with the Commission is based on mutual respect and honesty. We need them to offer this guidance and support for us to keep moving forward and to make the depth of progress necessary”, wrote the Prime Minister of Serbia.

This was in contrast to her initial reaction to the Report in May, when she stated that the the document contains “political assessments” on the media situation and the work of the parliament, which she found “interesting”, claiming that what EC has to say is “not so important” because Serbia is undergoing reforms for itself.

Next parliamentary elections in Serbia are scheduled for the last weekend of April or first weekend of May 2020. However, the majority of the opposition claims that the conditions for fair and free elections in Serbia have not been established after three rounds of dialogue mediated by the European Parliament, which finished last Friday, after which the Alliance for Serbia once again confirmed its intention to boycott the election.

Last week, authors of the Euractiv op-ed Dragan Đilas, Nebojša Zelenović and Dejan Nikolić participated in a panel on election conditions in Serbia, hosted in the by the Socialist and Democrats (S&D) group in the European Parliament.

On that occasion they stressed that in the atmosphere of the state and media capture citizens were deprived of their right to choose freely, adding that there was complete government control over all media with national coverage in Serbia.