Sunday

17th Feb 2019

Opinion

Serbia and the EU: Stability over democracy

  • Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic speaks of EU membership as a "strategic priority". (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

There were more headlines over the weekend praising the fact that the new out-and-proud Serb prime minister, Ana Brnabic, took part in a gay pride march in Belgrade.

And yes, that is in itself good news, given the disturbing context of homophobic violence that we have seen over the past years.

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The implication of this new flurry of cosy headlines about Serbia, and about Ana Brnabic, is that Serbia is now a place where rights are more generally taken seriously at last. But, on that point, many Serb activists would beg to differ.

Brussels may be reluctant to criticise Serbia because of geopolitical considerations on Kosovo and other issues. This is what the European Commission likes to call Belgrade's "constructive role in the region", but Serbian activists would point out that their country's role has often been far from constructive.

They believe that Brussels' reluctance to speak out has damaging consequences for Serbia and the region.

However, there are indeed some scraps of good news that may seem to justify the new warmth.

Scraps of warmth

Serbia did recently gain its first female and first lesbian prime minister - in a country that has been plagued by homophobic violence.

Serb leader Aleksandar Vucic - prime minister between 2014 and 2017, and newly elected president - often speaks of EU membership as a "strategic priority".

The Balkan wars seem long ago. Slobodan Milosevic - ousted in 2000 after a bloody decade in power - was delivered to The Hague and died behind bars in 2006.

The bombed-out defence ministry building on one of Belgrade's central boulevards still stands as a conspicuous reminder of the Nato bombing in 1999, but such eyesores can seem like an archaeological relic. Some Serb voters were, after all, barely born at that time.

But the appointment of a gay prime minister (welcome though that is), and the official trumpeting of "European values" do not mean that Serbia now has a government committed to tolerance, justice and rule of law.

On the contrary: for those who dare to speak out, the problems are real and growing, even while Brussels and Washington turn a blind eye.

In the late 1990s, Vucic was information minister and chief media enforcer for Milosevic. But Vucic insists his approach has changed since that time, when troublesome journalists risked being murdered.

In Vucic's own words, "only donkeys don't change".

But the Independent Association of Journalists in Serbia recorded 69 attacks on journalists last year - and there has been a sharp increase in recent years.

The Association this month highlighted the government's silence, yet there are still more death threats - and this time against journalists at an independent news website.

No media freedom

The state television news and the majority of privately owned channels provide a steady drumbeat of unquestioning support, where little to no criticism of government policies can be heard.

Media ownership is often opaque, and demonising alternative voices is routine.

Anita Mitic, Belgrade director of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, says she and her colleagues have given up reporting the death threats: "The police don't even call us back."

Under Vucic, the language used to criticise those who speak out is disturbingly reminiscent of his former master's voice.

Pro-government headlines accused the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and KRIK, the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, of being "liars" and "mercenaries".

For the moment, such attacks have subsided. More broadly, however, the pressure has not.

The apartment of a KRIK reporter, Dragana Peco, was ransacked last month in what Ljiljana Smajlovic, of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, described as a "brazen attempt to intimidate".

In a bid to keep European governments sweet, Vucic and his allies have regularly played the "Russia card" - in effect "If you don't love us, Moscow will" - including with regard to ongoing negotiations on the status of Kosovo. As a result, despite a range of human rights concerns, Brussels is much keener to praise than to criticise.

For Serbs who still dare to put their heads above the parapet, that self-censorship is a core part of the problem.

Serbia's stabilitocracy

"Stabilitocracy", a newly-coined Balkan buzzword, describes an all too familiar problem.

In the words of Jovo Bakic, a Belgrade sociologist: "The EU prefers stability to democracy or human rights. The EU made its choice. I think it's very shortsighted."

Dragana Zarkovic-Obradovic, Belgrade director of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network argues: "They are allowing [Vucic] to poison the public - and that will backfire. He is feeding [them] all the worst things, and destabilising the country."

Anita Mitic of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights believes that the failure to speak out can have destabilising consequences for the future: "We are promoting European values more than Europe itself does. I'm frustrated that I can risk my life for European values - and the European Union abandons me, for the sake of a deal."

But none of this is new, of course.

Slobodan Milosevic himself, the arch-destabiliser, was at one point regarded by Western leaders not as part of the problem but as part of the solution. Or, as Milosevic himself once told me, while the war in Bosnia was getting underway: "I am for peace."

After thousands more lives were lost, Western illusions about Serbia's then strongman were eventually shattered. It is time to shatter today's illusions, too.

President Vucic, in welcome contrast to his one-time mentor, is no unleasher of wars.

But the bottom line remains: human rights and stability are not alternatives but two sides of the same coin - and the rule of law is essential for both. We cannot afford to ignore that simple truth.

Steve Crawshaw is a senior advocacy adviser at Amnesty International, and a board member of the Balkans Investigative Reporting Network.

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