European Western Balkans

Reports cited by Serbia in response to Freedom House show an even darker image of democracy in the country

Meeting of President Vučić with the Government of Serbia; Photo: President of Serbia

Government of Serbia recently published a detailed rebuttal to this year’s Nations in Transit Report of Freedom House, in which 0.25 points were subtracted from Serbia in one area, downgraded it to the category of hybrid regimes. There are no indications, however, that the Government is willing to discuss why Serbia had arrived to the very brink of countries that do not have the privilege of calling themselves democratic in the first place.

When the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) came to power in 2012, Serbia’s average score on the Freedom House scale from 1 to 7 was 4.36, putting it in the category of semi-consolidated democracies. Since then, this international organization has not noted a single instance progress in any of the seven areas it monitors, only regressions – before the latest decline in results in the field of corruption, Serbia’s score has been revised as many as ten times since 2012, every time downwards.

The average score of seven areas, which include electoral conditions, freedom of the media, judiciary and others, is now 3.96. In other words, under the level separating semi-consolidated democracies and hybrid regimes, located at 4.

The Government has tried to refute the latest revision, arguing that there has been no further deterioration in the area of ​​corruption. To that end, it cited reports of other international organizations, which have not (yet) downgraded Serbia into a category denoting states in which democratic institutions are largely the facade of an authoritarian rule. What the Government missed is that the reports it cited also record Serbia’s long-term decline in the areas of democracy, rule of law and freedom of the media.

What the sources cited by the Government itself say?

One of the indexes that the Government refers to in its response to Freedom House is the Bertelsmann Stiftung Transformation Index, which currently ranks Serbia in the category of “defective democracies”.

“Bertelsmann Political Transformation Index (BPT Index), published by the Bertelsmann Foundation (Bertelsmann Stiftung), an independent and impartial think thank, analyses and compares the processes of transformation towards democracy around the world”, reads the Serbian Government’s response.

It is true that the Bertelsmann Index does not classify Serbia in the category of hybrid regimes – this category does not exist in this ranking and its equivalent is called “highly defective democracy” – but that does not change the fact that Serbia had a rating of 8 out of 10 on the Bertelsmann Index in 2014, which has since dropped to 7.

Developed democracies are not included in this ranking, which assesses the situation former non-democratic regimes. The ones that have successfully democratized, have the highest scores. According to this index, Serbia is moving in the opposite direction.

The area in which Bertelsmann’s Transformation Index recorded one of the biggest declines since the SNS came to power is the separation of powers. In 2014, Serbia had a score of 8 (out of 10) in this area, and now it has a score of 5. This, as the Government itself says, independent and impartial think tank, describes the current division of power in Serbia quite directly.

“This state of play has been constantly endangered by the intentions of President Aleksandar Vučić who in practice yields more power than the constitution prescribes. The president is affecting all other branches of government and putting itself in front as a central focal point in decision and policy-making. This threatens the system of checks and balances, institutions and the rule of law. It also opens up a space for a slow rise of an authoritarian regime in Serbia”, reads the BTI 2020 Report for Serbia.

The decline from a score of eight to a score of five in the last six years has also been recorded in another area – free and fair elections.

Describing the 2017 presidential election, Bertelsmann Report states that international observers indicated that “the pressure on voters and employees of state-affiliated structures was highly present, oversight mechanisms were not effective and media coverage was unbalanced. Besides the candidate of the ruling coalition, there was little access to the public broadcast service for candidates from other political parties.”

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Since the Serbian Progressive Party came to power, this report has also seen a decline in the prosecution of office abuse, performance of democratic institutions, commitment to
democratic institutions, as well as freedom of expression.

“The independence and political pluralism of the media system has declined in recent years. This has been due to a predominance of certain political groups, falling living standards, opaque media ownership and funding, weak financial base of many private media outlets, and a corresponding dependence on business and political interest groups”, Bertelsmann Report states.

Overall, from 2012 until today, this independent and impartial think tank, as the Government of Serbia describes it, has noted progress in one of the 18 areas measuring Serbia’s political transformation towards a democratic country (social capital has risen from 6 to 7). The decline was recorded in 13, and stagnation in four.

Another index that the Government of Serbia refers to in its response to Freedom House is the Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit. On this index, Serbia is not in the category of hybrid regimes, which the Economist includes in its classification, but in the category of flawed democracies.

However, the same conclusion applies here as well – if the current trend continues, it is only a matter of time before the Democracy Index will include Serbia in hybrid regimes. Currently, the country has a score of 6.41 (out of 10), and if it falls below 6, the category will change. Six years ago, the average score of Serbia was 6.71. There has not been any progress since then.

In an attempt to prove that Serbia has not seen a setback in the fight against corruption since last year, the government in its response also referred to the European Commission’s reports on the country’s progress towards EU membership, which states that “limited progress” took place.

As our portal wrote in a separate article, behind the diplomatic expression “limited progress” is the statement that a certain legal framework has been changed and improved, but that at that time the European Commission cannot give a judgment on their application in practice (which is the essence of every law) and calls on the Government to urgently improve the results in the fight against corruption. The same assessment has been made at least since 2015, and whether the Government believes that citizens should be satisfied with maintaining the status quo when it comes to the fight against corruption is a separate question.

However, even a look at previous European Commission reports, which do not measure the situation in various areas numerically and mostly use diplomatic terms when describing the situation in Serbia, indicates a setback in the state of democracy.

Plenary hall of the National Assembly of Serbia; Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Thus, for example, on the occasion of the parliamentary elections held in 2016, it is only stated that it is necessary to implement all the recommendations of international observers, while next year, on the occasion of the presidential elections, it is noticed that the competition was unequal. When it comes to the work of the parliament, in 2015 it was written that the accelerated legislative procedure is used too much and that the supervision over the executive power is weak, while in 2019 it is very clear that “ruling coalition’s parliamentary practices led to a deterioration of legislative debate and scrutiny, and undermined the parliament’s oversight of the executive.”

When it comes to the area of ​​freedom of expression, the last time the European Commission recorded some progress was in 2015. Since then, it has been stated three times that there is no progress, in 2018 it was a reason for increasing concern, and in 2019 it was a reason for serious concern. The assessment of the situation in 2020, as announced, will wait for the fall.

One of the indexes that the Government rightly referred to as proof that there is no significant setback is the Corruption Perceptions Index conducted by Transparency International. According to it, Serbia has fluctuated between 39 and 42 points every year since 2012. Again, however, the question arises as to how satisfied citizens should be with the simple stagnation in this area.

There is no report that records progress

The reports that the government did not refer to do not provide a different picture of the state of democracy. If, for a moment, we re-focus to Freedom House and its Nations in Transit reports, to which there were no objections until this year, one can see that they notice the problematic cancellation of political talk shows on national television already in 2014, irregularities during the 2016 elections, power shift to the constitutionally much weaker function of the President of the Republic since 2017, as well as the growth of central government control over local self-government, due to which Serbia received worse grades in this area in 2018 and 2019.

The second, more well-known Freedom House index, Freedom in the World, also recorded decline of Serbia, which sinked from a group of free to a group of partially free countries in 2019, due to “deteriorating elections, continuous attempts by the government and allied media to undermine independent journalists through legal intimidation and defamation campaigns ”. This year’s report marked no progress.

The new World Press Freedom Index, compiled annually by Reporters Without Borders, was recently published, ranking Serbia 93rd in the world in terms of media freedom (180 countries in total), which is three places lower than last year’s result. In the last six years, Serbia has fallen 39 places, since, in 2014, it was 54th, and in the Western Balkans it fell from the leading to the penultimate place.

Media; Photo: European Union

“The number of attacks on media has risen sharply, while officials increasingly use inflammatory rhetoric against journalists. Some courageous journalists continue to cover dangerous subjects such as crime and corruption. However, due to the high concentration of media ownership in the country, their stories are usually only available on the Internet”, the explanation reads.

The Reporters Without Borders explanation also states that many threats to the work of journalists in the Balkans went unpunished. It is especially emphasized that the case of journalist Milan Jovanović, whose house was set on fire in 2018 while he and his wife were sleeping inside, has not yet received its court epilogue.

In recent years, it has become impossible to find an international organization that, in its reports and indexes, records Serbia’s progress in the field of democracy, rule of law and media freedom. Domestic civil society organizations do not make their own rankings, but that did not stop them from noticing that the trends in Serbia are negative. In December 2018, Program Director of the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA), Raša Nedeljkov, stated that the local elections in Lučani were the worst the organization had ever observed.

“More and more citizens are losing confidence in the election process”, he said back then, describing bribes through which the ruling party secured the votes of the locals.

Instead of addressing all of these issues, however, the government has so far focused only on how to prevent Serbia – this year – from qualifying as a hybrid regime. As a success, it stated that it is still the best ranked in the region of the Western Balkans, as well as that it has not fallen the most compared to 2019. Why that year was taken as a reference, and not, for example, 2014, when the Serbian Progressive Party first won the majority in parliament, remains unclear. Starting from that year, Serbia really did experience the biggest drop (0.4) compared to the rest of the region.

Last week, seven Serbian civil society organisations sent an invitation to the Government to start a serious social dialogue on the state and future of democracy in Serbia, instead of trying to refute methodologically, selectively present information from certain reports and disparage the assessments of renowned international organizations. Prime Minister Brnabić only vaguely confirmed her readiness for a dialogue, without taking any concrete steps – and for the interest of the citizens, it is crucial that the next reaction of the Government does not come only when it comes to classification in an even lower category.

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