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Inter-party dialogue is a test for Serbia’s democratic development within the EU accession process

Meeting via video link of the Speaker of the National Assembly and MEPs; Photo: FoNet

When the dialogue between the government and the opposition will start, who will participate in it, in how many columns and with how many platforms, is still only a guess. For months and weeks, the European Parliament, which should mediate the dialogue, has been saying it is ready to send its representatives. However, the authorities in Belgrade claim – there is no reason to hurry.

Although the authorities are not in a hurry, the message from Brussels is that in the coming months, the eyes will still be focused on the parties’ talks and that they expect concrete progress when it comes to election conditions, if Serbia wants to progress towards the EU. They also state that the success of the dialogue will not be a formal condition for further opening of the chapters in negotiations with Belgrade, but that the talks of political parties will actually show how ready Serbia is to work on democratization of society and to fulfill what is expected of it on the path to the EU membership – to be a democratic state with free media in which the rule of law is a principle and not an ideal.

Can Brussels put pressure on the government?

Do MEPs come to teach Serbia what democracy is and help “cramped tycoons” from the opposition to win the elections, as the government claims, or to determine through dialogue whether Serbia remains truly committed to its strategic goal, i.e. membership in the European Union, as the opposition parties say?

MEPs have repeatedly said that the dialogue is the good will of Serbia, and that the representatives of the European Parliament are coming to Belgrade at the formal invitation of the President of the National Assembly, Ivica Dačić, who will lead the dialogue. The EU wants to help, but without the will of domestic politicians, i.e. the authorities, little can be done, believes MEP Viola von Cramon, shadow rapporteur for Serbia from the Greens/EFA group in the European Parliament.

“Both sides need to understand that it is their interest to have such a dialogue and reach an agreement. The EU and especially the European Parliament is ready to help and mediate, I believe that this can be a way to find constructive solutions and to have a transparent and open discussion on the plans of the government and the expectations of the opposition, but we are limited when it comes to pressure on the interparty dialogue in itself. If some parties decide to engage in parallel dialogues, or if the SNS does not take it seriously, we can’t force them to sit together,” said von Cramon.

Von Cramon also states that the EU has some other mechanisms at its disposal, especially those related to the use of pre-accession IPA funds, because the withdrawal of money for strategic projects could be conditioned by Serbia’s progress in the field of rule of law and democratization of society. She also reminds of the obligations that a country that wants to be part of the EU must fulfill.

“In the enlargement process the Copenhagen criteria are clear, we need a functioning democracy. And the issues of democratic deficit need to be addressed before accession. The electoral conditions are simply not democratic enough, the media landscape is not pluralistic at all, there is no democratic debate,” says MEP Viola von Cramon.

Does Serbia’s progress towards the EU depend on dialogue?

Brussels has tried a new methodology to solve the problem of lack of democracy in the countries that are waiting to join the Union.

It clearly states that the first and basic cluster that the state opens is the one that refers to the political criteria from Copenhagen and includes democratic free elections, the rule of law, freedom of media and functioning of independent institutions. Progress of the candidates in all other areas will also depend on it.

However, one should not expect that the success of the inter-party dialogue will become part of the formal conditions for Belgrade on the road to the EU, believes MEP and shadow rapporteur for Serbia Klemen Grošelj from the third strongest group “Renew Europe”, which consists of liberal parties.

“The inter-party dialogue is not part of formal conditions for Serbian EU membership or part of ongoing negotiations for EU membership. However it is a kind of locums test of democratic development and state of democracy in Serbia with wider implications for Serbian aspiration to join the EU. At the end it is up to the Serbian authorities to decide which future development they wish to follow – a European one or any other one,” claims Grošelj.

He adds that the negotiation process itself should prepare Serbia to become a member of the EU and overcome some things that must certainly not characterize a country that is part of the European family.

“Inter-party dialog is an important tool in overcoming extreme political polarization in Serbia leading to the fact there is no substantial opposition in the present National Assembly. And this is something strange and I would say unacceptable for a democratic society in 21st Century,” said Grošelj.

MEP Viola von Cramon agrees with her colleague that dialogue is a place to overcome such difficulties, adding that the dialogue should solve the election problems mentioned in the reports of international organizations, such as the OSCE/ODIHR, which state that Serbia must solve the problem of the general domination of the ruling party, pressure on voters and vote buying, but also media control by the authorities.

“However, whether it makes any difference or not is depending of the implementation. If the government fails to implement the agreed points or just cherry-picks those decisions which are actually not that important for them, then the dialogue does not contribute to any substantial progress,” von Cramon explains.

Is an alibi sought for the failure of the dialogue?

That is exactly how the previous talks between the government and the opposition ended before the 2020 parliamentary elections. Despite attempts to reach an agreement between the government and the opposition, first through talks at the Faculty of Political Sciences in the summer of 2019, led by the Open Society Foundation, and then through the mediation of MEPs in the fall of the same year, only “cosmetic changes” were made.

Therefore, this time the emphasis will be on the application of existing regulations, says Srđan Majstorović from the European Policy Center in his interview for EWB Screening.

“A lot of time has passed and a lot has been lost in the preparation of the dialogue. Some of the first reactions of Serbian officials show that there are no excessive expectations and good will invested, because an alibi is already being sought for a possible failure of the dialogue,” Majstorović explains.

He adds that the very fact that EP representatives are necessary to talk in Serbia speaks volumes about the sad reality of the country’s political system.

“It is a sign of low political culture and shows how much we have fallen behind in the previous decade. It is wrong to look at this process from the angle of European integration, because the process must come from domestic politicians who wish this country well “, says Majstorović and adds that it is possible that Brussels will wait for Serbia to show concrete progress in the inter-party dialogue, in order to unlock it in the process of European integration. He also reminds that this was the case earlier with North Macedonia and Montenegro, which also at one point faced a boycott of the opposition.

How to make the dialogue meaningless?

Instead of the content of the dialogue and the concessions it is ready to make in order to create conditions for the opposition to run in the next elections, the government is working on a new project – forming a parallel dialogue that would include parties that do not want to be part of the process. President Vučić also spoke about this for TV Pink from Bahrain, where he was on an official visit.

“Our elections are always free, I just don’t know if they will participate in any elections. That one, especially the tycoon part of the opposition, will not even participate in the elections because it knows that it cannot win even three percent. And then they tell you that in advance, thinking that they will do something on the street… In the preparation of the election campaign, our representatives will talk to those who do not want the presence of foreigners, and there will be stronger and more parties, than those who want foreigners to determine what it will look like. You always have those who are more libertarian, who want to see their country as independent.” (TV Pink, 13 March 2021)

While the government claims that these are parties that are patriotic and do not want foreigners to solve problems in Serbia, it is necessary to mention that these are the so-called “favorite oppositionists” and parties that did not even boycott the elections.

In that block is the Aleksandar Šapić’s SPAS, which is also part of the current Government, as well as the Democratic Party of Serbia and the Serbian Radical Party. It is expected that some other movements that participated in the elections, and which are mostly right-wing, such as the “Movement for the Restoration of the Kingdom of Serbia”, but also the movement of Miša Vacić, will seek dialogue without international actors.

Who participates in the dialogue?

Technical issues regarding the composition and format of the dialogue change from week to week. They are being changed by the government, but also by the opposition. While the government is more concerned with how to present the dialogue that has not yet begun as a “dictation” coming from “biased” MEPs, the opposition itself does not know in how many columns it wants to enter into a dialogue and with what goal.

The only ones who know what they want – a solution to the political crisis and the return of the opposition to the institutions – are members of the European Parliament delegation who make it clear that there is no time to wait, elections are around the corner and that it is necessary to start talks as soon as possible in order to have enough time for an agreement and the implementation of what the two sides agree on.

“Due to the situation with the pandemic, only teleworking is possible, which should be used in order to achieve results effectively when live meetings are possible,” European Parliament Rapporteur for Serbia Vladimír Bilčík, who will lead the whole process, recently said this in an interview with Demostat.

Besides him, the delegation of the European Parliament will also include the Chair of the European Parliament Delegation to EU-Serbia Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee Tanja Fajon, but also two experienced negotiators, who come to Belgrade for negotiations from political retirement, Eduard Kukan and Knut Fleckenstein.

Bearing in mind that part of the opposition believes that Vladimír Bilčík, who comes from the European People’s Party, and of which the Serbian Progressive Party is an associate member, is able to “close his eyes” to the undemocratic moves of the authorities in Belgrade and make certain concessions due to their political ties, and that Tanja Fajon, with her unequivocal criticism of the government, caused enormous anger and intolerance of all parties participating in the Government, the most is expected from these two people.

Fleckenstein and Kukan, just like Bilčík and Fajon, come from the two largest political groups in the EP – the European People’s Party and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, but what most remember them for is resolving the political dispute between the government and the opposition in North Macedonia in 2015. Then, with their authority, the two of them managed to persuade the two sides to agree on holding free and fair elections, which later led to a change of government in this country.

While the beginning of the dialogue between the two sides is awaited, Serbia has not opened a single chapter in the negotiations with the EU for a year now, and it is recording an increasing decline in almost all international indices of democracy. Thus, Freedom House classifies Serbia as “partially free”, the Swedish V-Dem Institute states that Serbia is in the group of countries with the greatest democratic decline, while Serbia falls every year on the list of Reporters Without Borders, which measures the level of media freedom.

This article is published within the project “Supporting media freedom in Serbia in relation to the EU accession process”, implemented in cooperation with EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy and supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic. The views expressed in this article do not represent those of the EUROPEUM Institute or those of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic.

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