Just when it seemed that the campaign of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) was gaining momentum ahead of the elections in April 2022, environmental protests at the end of November and beginning of December forced the party and President Aleksandar Vučić to withdraw freshly adopted laws which, the citizens believed, were enabling ecologically harmful Jadar project.
While the outcomes of the protests are still being discussed, the public attention is starting to shift to the next important political event in Serbia, the forthcoming constitutional referendum on 16 January. Its legitimacy is being questioned by part of the opposition and experts, who also doubt that the proposed changes will fulfil the goal of making the country’s judiciary independent.
Marko Kmezić, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz and a member of Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) commented on these issues, as well as on the findings of the latest BiEPAG public opinion polls, for European Western Balkans.
European Western Balkans: Protests that took place in Serbia succeeded in fulfilling the two initial requests regarding the controversial laws. The significance of this achievement immediately became a topic of disagreement among the participants, one side hailing it as a big success and another claiming that the bar should not be set that low. What is your view on this issue?
Marko Kmezić: I think that Vučić’s forced U-turn is a huge deal. Of course, his swift fulfilment of initial demands regarding the controversial laws has reduced the pressure on him ahead of April elections. But in a long run, protest did show that despite him controlling the media and capturing state institutions, his rule is not unlimited. What we have learned from the past couple of weeks is that calls for political accountability will in the future need to come from within, that is through self-organized citizen initiatives which will likely, perhaps even in the spring, lead to creation of more organized political entities willing to take part in electoral contestation where they would be able to reestablish institutional challenge for Vucic and his clique in the years to come.
EWB: It seems that the environmental issues have become much more dangerous politically for the ruling parties than numerous corruption affairs, alleged ties with criminal organizations and the backsliding of democracy in Serbia, which were the causes of protests in previous years. Why do you think this is the case?
MK: I think that all of these – corruption, democracy, rule of law, ecology – are interconnected problems. In a country in which political contestation properly functions, ecology would likely be debated by political opponents in a national parliament, or examined by independent experts at the public media broadcaster. However, in Serbia there is no opposition seated in the Parliament, nor are principles of media freedom properly observed. In fact, today there is not a single region, city, or municipality left in Serbia that is not governed by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party. Deprived of a proper political arena where their representatives could debate concerns with regard to political rights or ecology, citizens have taken it to the streets. Today it is ecology, tomorrow it could be just about anything else.
EWB: Constitutional referendum on the reform of the judiciary in Serbia will be held on 16 January. The European Commission has called on the authorities to finish the process during this parliament’s term, despite the fact that there is no opposition in it. Was this a wrong decision by the EC in your view? There is also an impression that there has been very little effort to inform non-expert citizens about the constitutional changes. Do you share this impression and do you think that the EC will take this aspect into consideration when assessing the process?
MK: The initiative of the Serbian authorities to bring the legislation in line with international standards is to be welcomed, so in this regard the EC has been right to have praised vested efforts. However, changes to electoral legislation including referendums require broad consensus and extensive public consultations with all relevant stakeholders. Furthermore, the Venice Commission has advised that that pursuant to the principle of electoral stability, amendments to the fundamental provisions on elections or referendums should be applied less than one year after their adoption only if they ensure conformity with the standards of the European electoral heritage or implement recommendations by international organisations. Lack of transparent process of consultation and preparation of the referendum, as well as the hasty procedure in which the referendum has been called thus further decrease trust in state institutions. The European Commission has decided to turn the blind eye to such practice, and therefore has once again shown that at the moment it is not a decisive factor that will spur deep democratic transformation in Serbia.
EWB: Regarding the content of the constitutional changes, multiple experts assessed that they do not in fact ensure the independence of the judiciary, which is supposed to be the goal of the process. Do you agree with this assessment?
MK: I would agree, because quite simply no matter how good the legislative solutions proposed by national parliament are, they are not able to compensate for the lack of independence of the rule of law implementing institutions, so not only courts, but public prosecutors and police as well. In other words, even the best laws make little sense if law enforcement bodies remain captured along other state institutions in a political system suffering from an insufficient culture of independence and separation of powers and functions.
EWB: Would the vote “no” in the referendum be a vote against EU integration process of Serbia, as the ruling parties portray it?
MK: Of course not, unless the referendum question is framed to address Serbia’s EU integration then the referendum is not about this matter.
EWB: Latest BiEPAG publications which include the results of the Western Balkans public opinion poll show the Serbian public to be much more pro-Russian and pro-Chinese and much more Eurosceptic than the rest of the region. Is this a leverage of the Serbian authorities when dealing with the EU and a means to avoid harsh criticism?
MK: BiEPAG’s publication on geopolitical influences in the Western Balkans concludes that despite the fact that the EU has committed unparalleled amounts of resources to the region (from the IPA instrument and pandemic-related aid to numbers of persons deployed in multilateral missions), its influence is not very highly assessed in the region. So this is not only Serbian phenomenon, rather with the exception of Montenegro, nowhere in the region is the EU the most positively appreciated external actor. The roles of Russia in Serbia, United States in Albania and Kosovo, and Turkey in North Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are more highly appreciated than the corresponding role of EU in these countries.
This mainly should be interpreted as citizens’ disappointment in never-ending EU accession process and EU’s fading credibility. But you are right insofar that nowhere are these findings so convincing as in Serbia. High level of trust in Russia and China could be understood as part of a broader pattern of value changes among Serbian citizens, actively promoted by the Serbian government and their proxies. In a final instance in the context of social changes that have marked the ongoing democratic transition period, it has been clientelist authoritarianism that gained foothold in the political and economic sphere of the country that at times emulates similar regimes, such as Putin’s Russia or Erdoğan’s Turkey, but also Orbán’s Hungary. This fact alone does not constitute a leverage for the authorities when deflecting EU’s critique, but it does allow authoritarian leaders in Serbia to promote narratives of rejection and victimhood in case of negative EC reporting.