Serbia held second consecutive snap parliamentary elections in April 2016, together with regular, time wisely, regional and local elections. Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), which called the elections in order to strenghten its position rather than to increase government efficiency, confirmed its current dominance by taking 131 seats in the parliament by their electoral fusion ticket. Although Serbia witnessed improving freedom and fairness of elections since the fall of the Milošević regime, these elections abound with irregularities. Serbia`s score will expectedly deteriorate in the 2017 Freedom Barometer publication. Abuse of authority and state resources for campaign activities, bribes and voter intimidation were an integral part of the electoral process, but the biggest problem
were unfair media coverage and vote counting process. Biased reporting in favor of the ruling party could be seen at the most broadcast media with national frequencies and in many printed media. All the opposition parties, despite all their differences, united on the ground of opposing the electoral fraud during the counting process. They held a rally in Belgrade, demanding a demise of the president of the National Election Committee and a recounting at all suspecious polling stations. Elections were repeated at 15 electoral booths. Once again, SNS formed a government together with the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), but this time they will have more, and to it more diverse, opposition parties in the parliamant, which could hold them more accountable for their actions.
There are no unconstitutional veto players in Serbia, and therefore decision making process is completely in the hands of the authorities. Executive branch dominates over judiciary and legislation in practice, thus undermines democratic procedures and system of checks and balances. Consequently, abuse of power and corruption among high ranking officials is common. Most actors are not held accountable for their actions. A case which brought the largest media attention was unlawful destruction of several private objects in the neighborhood called Savamala, where the Belgrade Waterfront project should continue to spread. While a lot of evidence emerged on the inadequate and suspicious reactions by relevant institutions, nobody was prosecuted or suspended up to date. Several scandals during
recent years drastically blurred influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has serious history of interfering into politics.
Serbia is among countries in which freedom of the press had the biggest decline in 2015, according to the Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press report. This is mainly due to intensification of political pressure on editors and journalists, and crackdown on investigative journalism. Following an article on the corruption in procurement, series of verbal attacks from the government, including by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, and by the state-controlled media, was launched against the three major investigative journalism outlets, accusing them of being funded by the West in order to take down the government and destabilize the country. Many journalists have been fired and many political and investigative broadcast programs were canceled, mainly due to their critical note in reporting
on the ruling elite. Non-transparent process of issuing broadcast licenses, dimly ownership of media outlets and biased funding remain very important obstacles to media freedom. All of the above mentioned, followed by the large number of physical and verbal attacks and poor job conditions, have enhanced the practice of self-censorship among journalists. The privatization process of government-owned media outlets ended in December, with 34 out of 73 having been bought by private investors.
The situation in judiciary is not improving. It remains the most important stumbling block for the rule of law, while the lack of the latter is the most important obstacle to freedom in Serbia. Courts are slow, inefficient, unpredictable and often under pressure or corrupted. Thereby, political pressure on courts (rather not to do than to do something) is merely a tip of an iceberg. Outside influence on police and prosecutors is even stronger. Their willingness to react and their efficiency highly depend on the hints which they get from the executive branch of power. The most drastic among such cases is the Savamala incident as of 25 April 2016. The (still unnamed) perpetrators of the illegal night-time vigilante demolition of the (allegedly illegally built) buildings in this neighborhood
in central Belgrade were, by all accounts, inspired by the Mayor and/or by his close aides, and were (passively) assisted by communal and national police. Yet no visible legal action to prosecute anybody has been made so far. The new Minister of Justice, who emerged from the snap general elections as of 24 April 2016, has promised a brand new reform of the judiciary. While she is coming from within the Ministry, it is to be expected that recently drafted strategies in the field will not be simply brushed away and rewritten but critically evaluated and then implemented.
Current popularity of the PM Aleksandar Vučić still owes much to the hopes for a corruption-free country, which he awoke in 2012. But since then, Serbia has de facto stagnated in its fight against corruption. Compared to the-then score in the Corruption Perception Index (39), it roughly stayed where it had been – e.g. in 2015, CPI score was 40 and the ranking 71 of 168. Government goals meanwhile became more realistic, acknowledging that the anti-corruption struggle will be long, expectedly resulting in putting corruption under control and seriously limiting it. Some of the meanwhile adopted laws, such as on the maximum deadlines for issuing construction permits, or on the protection of the whistleblowers, have started producing results – for instance, there was a landmark case of a
whistleblower returned to work after initially being fired for reporting corruption. But the anti-corruption struggle lacks strategic approach. Transparency Serbia noted that only 14% of the government`s strategic anti-corruption activities scheduled for 2015 were implemented. The strong political control over the entire public sector, including public-owned companies, is the biggest catalyst of high corruption. As for petty corruption, Transparency International`s Global Corruption Barometer 2016 showed that traffic police, health services and officers issuing official documentation were affected by corruption more than others. For instance, 31% of all those citizens who had dealt with the traffic police during the previous 12 months reported giving bribes. Only 1% of the estimated annual total of 375.000 cases of bribing in Serbia are ever reported.
In their report Nations in Transit 2016, Freedom House noted that Serbia`s democracy continued along its “modestly negative trajectory observed in 2014”. Meanwhile, the state of human rights varied from one aspect to the other. Domestic violence is still an important challenge to personal safety, in spite of the government and NGO activities to curb it, or of increased societal stigma against beating women or children. Secular principles are often breached, primarily to the advantage of the biggest church SPC, or occasionally of other “traditional” religious communities. Two separated Islamic communities are still on the road to reunion, following their government-sponsored split as of 2007. Bosniak and Hungarian ethnic minorities have obtained a strong leverage for the promotion
of their rights through participation in government at various tiers. But Romany also saw some small improvements, especially regarding inclusion. The LGBT community is witnessing the biggest improvement, seen through less hate speech in public, regular annual Pride marches in Belgrade and, in summer 2016, having for the first time a “come-out” lesbian (and former reputable NGO activist) as the new Minister (of Public Administration and Local Governance). The treatment of refugees and other migrants in transit has further on been near-exemplary, whereby the Government, together with CSOs, has done a lot to channel the public opinion away from occasional xenophobia towards humane, tolerant, rational and attentive attitude. The biggest downturn is felt in the fields of protection of privacy, freedom of expression and political equality. Civil democratic control over security sector is insufficient, with serious consequences on human rights. Verbal harassment or defamatory or denigration attitude towards the independent regulatory bodies, opposition political parties and their activists, human rights defenders, independent journalists, or other critics of government is practiced - rather as a norm than as an exception - not least by pro-government media but also by the Prime Minister or members of his team.
Private property is not adequately protected in Serbia. There are strong out-of-the-court influences on the judiciary, including also on the Prosecutor Office, which lie at the core of the problem. A good depiction of this was the recent Savamala affair. Corruptive practices are widespread within public institutions, including the judiciary and Land Register. Due to slow, and expensive legal processes which sometimes have uncertain outcome, legal enforcement of contracts is a painful process. First level courts are lacking sufficient knowledge and expertise to assess more complicated issues, so many cases are automatically transferred to appellation courts. There have been improvements in the process of restructuring of state-owned enterprises (SOE). They are no more legally exempted from
collections from their creditors, which strengthens property rights. Since May 2016, this applies even to the 17 of the biggest companies which enjoyed government protection. Ownership of agricultural land is restricted to Serbian nationals only, but this restriction is circumvented by registering a domestic legal entity owned by a foreign national, so this regulation affects only foreign natural persons. Inefficient