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[EWB Interview] Flessenkemper: Constitituonal reform only the first step towards genuine change in Serbia

Head of the Belgrade Office of the Council of Europe Tobias Flessenkemper finishes his 5-year mandate on this position at the end of August. During his five years in office, Flessenkemper has witnessed many important political processes in Serbia, including the process of constitutional changes, the adoption and implementation of the Media Strategy and work on the law on same-sex unions. In his farewell interview for European Western Balkans, Flessenkemper shares his thoughts about the most important developments during his time in Belgrade.

European Western Balkans: How do you see the results of your mandate as the head of the Council of Europe office in Belgrade? Are you satisfied with the results of your office in these 5 years?

Tobias Flessenkemper: Since Serbia joined the Council of Europe in 2003 as part of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, the country has changed and the role of the Council of Europe office in Belgrade has evolved considerably. The last five years were momentous for Europe and Serbia. Certainly, the most important milestone has been the wish of the citizens of Serbia to change their constitution.

The constitutional referendum of 16 January 2022 showed that reforms can be started and remains to be seen how far the potential making judges independent and prosecutors more autonomous will be realised. The pandemic dominated half of my time in Belgrade and maybe without it more reform could have achieved in the areas of human rights, democracy, and rule of law.

EWB: How do you assess the current situation in Serbia when it comes to protection of human rights, minority rights and fight against discrimination? Are we seeing any meaningful progress in this area?

TF: Serbia, as all other 45 member states, has voluntarily agreed to monitor their adherence and implementation of the Council of Europe standards. For instance, the statistics of European Court of Human Rights provide us with some indications. Applications from Serbia remain high, in proportion to the population there among the highest numbers. This shows that more needs to be done within the overall administrative, political, and judicial system to work for a culture of human rights. The protection of the rights of national minorities is very important for European unity.

Looking at the public discourse I must say that I am at times disappointed. It seems that more needs to be done by everyone to raise awareness on the harm caused by discrimination, hatred, negative stereotyping, and stigmatisation.

Politicians, public figures, media, and journalists need to be more alert to the dangers of proliferating prejudice and of furthering negative stereotypes about individuals and groups. This problem concerns many people and groups on grounds of belonging, gender identify or sexual orientation, and unfortunately also most Roma people in Serbia.

EWB: When it comes to LGBT rights, we have seen in recent years a ban on the Europride 2022 walk, as well as signals that the government is not ready to adopt the law on same sex partnerships. Do you believe that there is a lack of political will to move forward with LGBT rights?

TF: During the last years we could witness how unstable positive trends can be. Two years ago, upon the request of the Minister for Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue, the Council of Europe prepared an expert opinion on the draft Law on same-sex unions. The draft law that was discussed then was about changing lives of people for the better. It was an important step to move towards Council of Europe legal standards in the field of combating discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as on the protection of social rights of LGBT people.

After the EuroPride debacle last year, it would be good to come back to the positive approach which Prime Minister Ana Brnabić started some years ago. Unfortunately, the brutal murder of Noa reminded us that LGBT people have to fear for their lives. Hate speech may lead to harassment and ultimately to such mortal violence – we are confident that many in Serbia want to stop this kind of negative trend.

EWB: Media freedom is frequently singled out as one of the key issues plaguing Serbian democracy. Not only has the media situation been discussed in inter-party dialogues but is also at the centre of the ongoing “Serbia against Violence“ protests. What do you see as the main challenges in this area?

TF: Since 2015, the Council of Europe is supporting the platform to promote the protection of journalism and safety of journalists. The platform reports on serious threats to the safety of journalists and media freedom in Europe to reinforce our member states’ accountability. Generally, one can observe an increase of alerts and reported threats since 2020.

Unfortunately, Serbia is among those countries where reports increased significantly in the last five years and at the same time only two alerts were resolved since 2019 (of a total of 50 alerts during the same time). This situation cannot satisfy anyone.

EWB: The process of constitutional changes has been completed with the adoption of judicial laws and the appointment of distinguished lawyers at the High Judicial Council and High Prosecutorial Councils. Do you consider this process to be a success?

TF: As pointed out before, the fact that constitutional change could happen is a step forward if we compare it to the constitutional history of Serbia in the last 200 years. Evolutionary change has been almost absent. Now, the potential of this reform needs to be realised.  What happened is only the first step towards genuine change.

Ultimately, it is the implementation of the new laws and rules that will be decisive. This entails creating and sustaining an environment that secures the independence and the efficiency of the judiciary on a daily basis, or as the Venice Commission pointed out a change of political and legal culture.

My impression is that there many people who wish such changes to happen rather sooner than later. For instance, we are working on improving the fight against corruption and money-laundering. For this Serbia needs an effectively functioning independent judiciary and prosecutors who can do their work without undue influence.

EWB: There was a controversy regarding Serbia’s participation in the Council of Europe due to Kosovo’s progress towards accession to the organization. Did these events have practical effects on your cooperation with the Serbian government?

TF: We have always enjoyed productive and good co-operation with the Serbian authorities. Thanks to committed personalities like Minister of European Integration Tanja Miščević who supports our office to focus on specific cooperation activities helping Serbia to achieve Council of Europe standards and their aim of EU accession. We are working in sync with Serbia’s own level of ambition when it comes to scope, speed, and significance of reforms.

Fortunately, the political continental developments had only had a limited influence on the progress of our work in the last years. I wish for Serbia’s citizens, including those belonging to a national and other minority that progress can be made faster in the coming years.

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