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Serbian authorities to start a parallel inter-party dialogue without EU mediation

Ivica Dačić and Aleksandar Vučić; Photo: Presidency of Serbia

Speaker of the Serbian Parliament Ivica Dačić announced on 6 April that the dialogue with the opposition parties which reject the mediation of the European Parliament, all of whom participated in the 2020 elections and failed to cross the 3% threshold, would start in the next two weeks. The idea of opening a “second lane” of the dialogue with the Eurosceptic parties surfaced a couple of months ago, but the opposition that boycotted the 2020 elections, as well as analysts, have serious doubts about the sincerity behind this idea.

With the country spiraling into a political crisis in 2019 when the majority of opposition announced the boycott of the forthcoming 2020 elections due to, as they claimed, the unfair domination of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) in the media and state institutions, European Parliament (EP) launched the Inter Party Dialogue (IPD) on electoral conditions in Serbia. The first phase of the Dialogue featured limited efforts of the ruling majority to improve the situation and the opposition parties went forward with the boycott of the June 2020 elections, leaving the parliament, as the European Commission put it, without a viable opposition.

The second round of the IPD is thus aiming to improve the situation so that the forthcoming presidential and the announced snap parliamentary elections could take place by Spring 2022. However, the actual round of dialogue between the ruling and opposition will start in two months at the earliest, as the mediators – Tanja Fajon (S&D), Vladimir Bilčik (EPP) and former MEPs Eduard Kukan and Knut Fleckenstein – recently announced that individual consultations with all the participants are scheduled first.

Meanwhile, Dačić announced that he would not wait for the EP and would kick-off the parallel Dialogue, so-called “second lane”, with the parties who rejected the EU mediation as a “shame” for a sovereign country such as Serbia. President of Serbia and SNS Aleksandar Vučić clearly favours this lane of the dialogue, stating that he might personally participate in that one, but not the one mediated by the EU.

“The participation in the dialogue with those who do not want the participation of European representatives is important for me. I am sure that the dialogue will bring good results to all sides”, Vučić said during one of his recent prime-time appearances at the public broadcaster RTS.

Vučić also indicated that he might step down from his position as the President of SNS in order to mediate this lane of the dialogue. All announcements of him relinquishing the helm of the party soon, which have been surfacing every few months in the past several years, have so far never materialized.

Holding two parallel dialogues is bound to complicate the already difficult political situation in Serbia even if its goal was to include all political actors in a sincere attempt to reach an agreement on electoral conditions. There are serious doubts, however, that this is the case.

Who are the parties rejecting the EU mediation?

So far, the dialogue without foreign mediation has been demanded by the conservative Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), monarchist Movement for the Renewal of Kingdom of Serbia (POKS), extreme right-wing Serbian Radical Party (SRS) and the local party of the mayor of Čajetina municipality Milan Stamatović, Healthy Serbia (ZS). They are joined by the Serbian Patriotic Alliance (SPAS) led by Aleksandar Šapić, who is, since 2020, a part of the ruling coalition. All of them reject the EU mediation as an affront to the sovereignty and dignity of Serbia.

“Our problems should be solved among ourselves. I would be ashamed to attack (the government) in front of foreigners… Dirty laundry should not be aired in public, if there is dirty laundry”, DSS leader Miloš Jovanović stated during his appearance at Prva television in January with SPAS leader Aleksandar Šapić, who in turn expressed dismay that during the previous round of the dialogue, in which he participated, the working language was English rather than Serbian.

The authorities were quick to grant the parties their wish. At the beginning of February, Speaker of the Assembly Dačić announced the possibility of holding a parallel dialogue, while President Vučić clearly expressed his preference as early as then.

“We have a large part of political parties that are not under the influence of foreigners and who do not want for foreigners to determine how their country will look like and who wish to talk with the representatives of authorities and the government. And there are those who have tutors and mentors from outside who want the foreigners to bring them to power, because they do not have the support of the people”, Vučić said at the time.

Vladimir Bilčik and Tanja Fajon meet with Aleksandar Vučić, 2019; Photo: Twitter/VladoBilcik

The parties “not under influence of foreigners” have a few things in common. They never considered boycott and participated in the 2020 elections, all but SPAS failing to cross the hastily lowered 3% threshold, despite the decreased turnout. While other opposition parties have put the improvement of the electoral conditions as the central part of their political activities, parties such as DSS, SRS and POKS rarely touch upon this issue, if at all.

In addition, members of these parties seem to have much warmer relations with the ruling parties than the rest of the opposition. They regularly appear on televisions with national coverage, which remain almost entirely closed for the boycotting opposition, with DSS leader Miloš Jovanović and SRS leader Vojislav Šešelj being particularly regular guests on the overwhelmingly pro-government television channels Pink and Happy in recent months. They are also excluded from the criticism and smearing campaigns these two channels and pro-government newspaper direct at the boycotting opposition.

Enough is Enough (DJB), once centrist but now Eurosceptic right-wing populist party, called on the authorities the reject the EU mediation, but also confirmed that it would participate in “all discussions”, distinguishing itself from the parties that outright reject the EP mediation.

A government’s ploy?

For the opposition parties demanding EU mediation in the Dialogue – including Freedom and Justice Party (SSP), Democratic Party (DS) and Free Citizens Movement (PSG) – there is no doubt about the nature of these parties and the aim of the parallel dialogue.

“Mr. Dačić announced that the government will create its own parallel dialogue mainly with their puppet and satellite parties with the pretext that not all of the opposition parties accept the EP role in repairing our evaporating democracy. Last night, on the national public service television closed to the opposition, President Aleksandar Vučić announced that he will take part in that parallel dialogue, without EP facilitators and with a clear political intention to undermine the prospects of the process that we are going to be part of together with you”, these parties stressed in their letter to the European Parliament sent a couple of weeks ago.

Political scientist Boban Stojanović also believes that the “second lane” of the dialogue serves to put focus away from the EP-mediated dialogue. He stresses that all of the parties who will participate in it are excluded from the true political conflict in Serbia, which is, according to him, between the ruling parties and the parties that boycotted the elections which, in addition to SSP and DS, include the conservative People’s Party (NS) and right-wing Dveri.

“The parties rejecting EU mediation are irrelevant political actors in Serbia not only from the point of view of election results, but also from the point of view of the key political divide, because of which the negotiations between the government and the opposition are actually held. The aim of these negotiations is to return the actors who willingly remained outside the political system and decided not to participate in the elections back into the system, which is why all of this is happening”, Stojanović says for EWB.

He has no doubt that the idea of the parallel dialogue comes from Aleksandar Vučić in order to both render the EP-mediated dialogue meaningless, but also to boost his image among his own voters.

“Vučić is motivated by internal political needs and the perception of his voters of the EU and European integration. These are not pro-European voters, and, to them, the second lane would probably seem more relevant, with Vučić showing his teeth to the EU and willing to talks with everybody who is against EU, which is exclusively for the purposes of the internal campaign. Does anybody who regards himself as opposition really wish to participate in this?”, Stojanović asks.

Parallel dialogue puts the results of the IPD in peril

One of the main criticisms of the previous round of IPD was that the ruling parties focused only on the aspects of the electoral process that were less relevant to the opposition and boiled down to mere technicalities. This time around, the opposition seems more willing to ensure that key topics will be the part of the discussion, but the parallel dialogue might prevent this from happening.

Recently, the boycotting opposition and its allies appear to have agreed upon the negotiating platform , which focuses on media pluralism, putting an end to the pressure of voters and holding the presidential, parliamentary and local elections in Belgrade separate from each other.

Vladimir Bilčik, Tanja Fajon, Knut Fleckenstein and Parliament Speaker Maja Gojković following the 2019 IPD; Photo: EU Delegation to Serbia

On the other hand, Ivica Dačić stated on RTS on 6 April that the parallel dialogue would focus on the topics of electoral legislation, control of the elections, party financing and the media. There is a clear risk of the two dialogues arriving at different outcomes and, according to Boban Stojanović, this might be the point.

“I am quite sure that the parties rejecting the EU mediation will have some demands that Vučić will accept, and some of the demands will be accepted exactly because they will be contrary to the demands of the other side of the opposition. This will then be used as a justification not to accept the demands of the boycotting opposition”, Stojanović says.

This puts another difficulty on top of the already complicated situation, in which the IPD is being delayed beyond what most of the public originally expected, while the parties accepting the IPD have been skirmishing over the issue of who will represent the opposition and showing disunion over other issues as well. According to Stajanović, there is a risk that Vučić will use the current situation to make no real concession on electoral conditions while simultaneously appearing constructive.

“These negotiations will succeed and substantially improve the situations only if the representatives of the government, including Vučić, are on one side, and the boycotting opposition is on the other. If this does not happen, Serbia will continue to sink further into a political crisis and the true negotiations will take place only in a couple of years”, Stojanović concludes.

With less than a year remaining until the next elections and still many unknowns about both “lanes” of the dialogue, including the exact issues, participants and the schedule, despite the fact that the topic has been in the public eye for many months now, there is no doubt that the frustration of the citizens will only continue to grow.

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