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European Western Balkans
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Delays and criticism cast shadow over EU’s initial positive assessments of the Inter-Party Dialogue in Serbia

Inter-Party Dialogue meeting, September 2021; Photo: EU Delegation to Serbia

The Temporary Supervisory Body for the forthcoming election campaign in Serbia held its constitutive session last Friday, 62 days after the end of the second round of the EU-mediated Inter-Party Dialogue. The fact that the “realistic timeline” for the formation of the Body, according to the document agreed in September, had been 30 days, was overlooked.

The implementation of this measure was delayed, as is the case with all other measures for which deadlines were set. Almost none of the 16 measures have been implemented, with little more than two and a half months left until the snap parliamentary elections are called.

The 16 measures agreed on 18 September between the European Parliament facilitators and Speaker of the Serbian parliament Ivica Dačić concluded months-long attempts to improve the electoral conditions in the country under the auspices of the EU, following the partially boycotted elections in 2020 that produced a monolithic parliament. New parliamentary elections, together with the regular presidential ones, have been announced for 3 April 2022.

Even if all these measures are implemented, however, the question remains whether they will produce a positive effect on electoral conditions. Immediately after the final round of the Dialogue in September, civil society organisations such as CRTA and BIRODI expressed their doubts about whether what was agreed can solve the accumulated problems with electoral conditions in Serbia.

Meanwhile, the first reactions of the European Parliament and the European Commission representatives to the Dialogue were mostly positive. It remains to be seen whether, after the delays of the implementation, but also criticism of the content of the agreement, they will remain such in the coming months.

Deadlines missed

The establishment of an “operational” Temporary Supervisory Body was late for a month, which also caused the delay of other measures, for which it was necessary for the Body to start working. It was envisaged that the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM), nominally independent institution charged with regulating the work of the media, adopts a new set of rules for political coverage in consultation with the Temporary Supervisory Body. REM has been unanimously criticised by the opposition as an institution captured by the ruling party.

The deadlines for the preparation of all these documents were maximally 30 days from the establishment of a Temporary Supervisory Body. If the body had started working by October 18, as envisaged, all these documents would have already been prepared. They are still in the making.

The part of the delay in the formation of the Temporary Supervisory Body could was caused by the rejection of groups around the opposition Freedom and Justice Party (SSP) and the People’s Party (NS) to propose their candidates for Body’s members. The deadline for filling the remaining vacancy was extended to 26 November.

Inter Party Dialogue; Photo: EU Delegation in Serbia

However, some other activities depended only on the will of the government, and the participation of the opposition was not necessary. It was agreed, for example, to expand the membership of the Republic Election Commission with opposition representatives within 60 days of the Inter-Party Dialogue. This deadline – 17 November – came and went, without this item getting to the parliament’s agenda.

In addition to these measures, there are also the ones for which no deadlines were provided, such as the reform of the campaign finance and improving the fight against abuse of public office and public resources. There is no information about these measures being implemented. In October, the number of registered voters in each municipality was published on the website of the Single Electoral Roll – it is the only measure, in addition to the establishment of a Temporary Supervisory Body, which has been implemented.

All this is, still, only one side of this story.

Even if they are implemented, can the measures achieve much?

Immediately after the measures were released to the public, CRTA assessed that they are insufficient to improve electoral conditions, primarily in key areas of media inequality, abuse of public resources and public office and pressures on voters. The Bureau for Social Research (BIRODI) assessed that the profiter of dialogue was President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić because the “mechanisms of his personal authority”, including his ability to use the office of president to promote his party, were not tackled by the proposed measures.

The majority of the opposition which boycotted the elections in 2020 decided not to participate in the implementation of measures even after additional calls from the European Parliament facilitators Tanja Fajon and Vladimir Bilčik to change their minds in October.

Political scientist Boban Stojanović says for European Western Balkans that he found the decision of this part of the opposition logical.

“They did it for a simple reason – they think that the bodies formed do not guarantee that anything will change. If we are talking about a Temporary Supervisory Body, its conception and, in general, competencies, composition and the like, simply do not show that this body will have any impact on election conditions”, says Stojanović.

The Temporary Supervisory Body agreed in the Dialogue has 12 members, six of which are the members of the Regulatory Authority for Electronic Media (REM), while other six are nominated by the opposition parties. It can provide public opinions on the work of the media, REM and other institutions during the campaign. REM also has to consult with this Body when drafting documents relevant to the election campaign.

“Its competences, only providing opinions without any (executive) authority, showed from the start that there is no benefit in participating in such Body”, says Stojanović.

He especially emphasizes the fact that this body consists of REM members, although it is precisely because of their bad work is a new body was formed. Therefore, he does not expect a positive contribution to this body to the election competition.

“There are no mechanisms for the people who are the members of that Body influence the media landscape”, Stojanović concludes.

There are still, on the other hand, those who think it was worth participating in the work of TSB. Professor Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade Rade Veljanovski, who became a member as a nominee of the opposition Social Democratic Party, criticised the parties that withdrew from the Dialogue, describing it as “leaving the battlefield”.

“I don’t have the illusion that we will improve the situation completely, but we will try to improve these conditions … How much we will be able to do, we’ll talk about it later. I hear now that people are saying that it can’t be done – how can you be so sure? We will see, be patient”, Veljanovski said during his appearance on N1 television.

Despite such arguments, there are no signals that the entire opposition will participate in the implementation of measures. This fact, as well as the way in which the measures have been implemented thus far, open the question of whether the European Union will need to revise its assessment of this process.

Positive assessment of the Dialogue undermines the credibility of the European Parliament?

The first reactions that arrived from the representatives of the European Union on the outcome of the Dialogue were mostly positive. Thus, one of the facilitators, the Rapporteur of the European Parliament for Serbia Vladimír Bilčík, at the end of the talks on 18 September, described them as a “significant breakthrough” and “encouraging step forward”.

An even better assessment was given by the European Commissioner for Enlargement Olivér Várhelyi, who on 19 October congratulated MEPs of Tanja Fajon and Vladimir Bilčik on their “successful mission” in the Inter-Party Dialogue.

Additionally, a regular meeting of the EU-Serbia Stabilisation and Association Parliamentary Committee took place nine days later, in which the MEPs and Members of the National Assembly of Serbia adopted conclusions welcoming the “huge contribution of the facilitators and the set of measures they were proposed”.

Co-Chair Tanja Fajon during SAPC meeting in Brussels; Photo: Twitter / @tfajon

Somewhat different tones were heard from MEP Tanja Fajon in her statement for N1 this month.

“We are not satisfied with the agreement, but we did everything we could,” said Fajon, announcing the forthcoming arrival of the facilitators to Serbia to follow the implementation of measures.

Igor Bandović, Director of the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, assesses for EWB that the European Parliament, which showed the willingness to mediate in the Dialogue between the government and the opposition, did its job superficially, without understanding the complex nature of the state captured in Serbia, the state of the media and the entire electoral process.

“If they care about the credibility of the EU institutions in Serbia, they will have to review their assessment of the success of the Inter-Party Dialogue,” he emphasises.

When it comes to further engagement of this institution in Serbia, Bandović says that the EU institutions and their representatives must be able to tackle the political crisis in Serbia that threatens to get out of control.

“Therefore, in addition to its own authority, the EP representatives must find a way to obtain the support of other EU institutions and especially the European Commission as well as the Member States. They must, if they decide to get engaged, guarantee fair and free elections in Serbia, because they took responsibility for this, intervening the Inter-Party Dialogue and thus in the election process”, says BCSP Director.

No encouraging signals for the continuation of the process

Theoretically, Inter-Party Dialogue would not be necessary if the government implemented all the recommendations that the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) has provided after multiple election cycles in recent years.

However, as Tamara Branković, CRTA Research Team Manager, reminds for our portal, in 2020 ODIHR assessed that, out of 56 recommendations sent to Serbia since 2012, none was fully implemented.

Last year, the government received additional 29 recommendations, and their implementation may be the best indicator of the seriousness of the ruling parties when it comes to the electoral conditions, since this process should not depend on the agreement between political parties.

After the 2020 election, the Working Group for Cooperation with the OSCE was set up, but on the official website of this body, there are only two announcements from 2021: one from 1 March and the second from 16 April, both of the consultations phase of the process.

It is difficult to determine the level of implementation of ODIHR recommendations at this point, Tamara Branković says, adding that the full picture will only be known after the elections in April.

She notes that some of the measures agreed in the Inter-Party Dialogue are on the line of these recommendations.

“However, the measures that were agreed neglect key problems in elections or insufficient or inadequately deal with them – from the equal representation, through misuse of public resources and pressures on voters, to the protection of election rights”, Branković concludes.

Meanwhile, one of the latest indicators of the election conditions in Serbia were the local elections in the city of Negotin held in mid-October, which ended with the accusations of the opposition People’s Party that some of their polling board members were temporarily arrested by the police so that the results of the elections can be manipulated in their absence. These accusations have not received a legal epilogue.

These events, together with research showing that the equal representation on the television channels with national coverage is still an unattainable target and announcements of the ruling parties that they would give up on the abuse of office only in the last ten of the election campaign, do not leave space for optimism that, with or without mediation the EU, the citizens will vote in fair elections next spring.

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