Democracy and the rule of law: Ideological myth or a necessity

  • Marko Stojić (EUROPEUM)
  • 19.3.2018 15:05

After a series of crises, the EU seems to be finally ready to assume a more assertive role in the Western Balkans. There are three major challenges that hinder Serbian EU accession efforts: a lack of dedication of the ruling elite to meet political criteria, the issue of Kosovo’s status and Serbia’s close ties with Russia.

A lack of a genuine political will to deliver reforms in two areas – the respect for democratic standards and the rule of law – still proves to be the biggest hurdle. In the November 2017 Non-paper, the Commission identified ‘little concrete progress’ and numerous delays in a range of activities related to Chapters 23 and 24 dealing with these fundamental issues. The Commission thus concluded that overall ‘implementation [of the relevant Serbian Action Plans] continues to be at an early stage’. The country has experienced a clear democratic backsliding. Its democracy score has dropped to the lowest level since 2005, with freedom of expression and judicial independence being the most problematic areas. Most media outlets act as a mere mouthpiece for the ruling Serbian Progressive Party, while independent journalists face serious pressure from politicians. Pro-government tabloids and TV stations regularly target independent media through smear campaigns, trying to discredit them as liars or foreign spies.

 

The EU has long tolerated these developments.

 

Although the 2016 parliamentary and 2017 presidential elections were assessed as free, they were not fair. The OSCE reported that ‘biased media coverage, an undue advantage of incumbency and a blurring of the distinction between state and party activities unlevelled the playing field for contestants’.

Likewise, there has been widespread political interference in the judiciary. To quote the president of the Judges Association, ‘the judicial system has been brought to the absurdity’ as ‘on paper judges are independent, but we all know this is not the case’. Instrumentalization of the judiciary and public administration is particularly worrisome. The most notorious testimony to the state of Serbian legal system is the ‘Savamala case’. To make way for the controversial, government-backed project Belgrade Waterfront, an organized group of masked men demolished private properties in April 2016, while the police refused to react. This still unresolved case represents an effective suspension of the rule of law by senior state officials and a clear politicization of the police and prosecution office, the very institutions that are supposed to fight corruption and crime.

The government does not seem to be ready to relinquish a grip on the judiciary. In the words of the senior Justice Ministry official, ‘the judges and prosecutors want to take over power in Serbia’ since the independence of the judiciary is ‘an ideological myth’. It comes as no surprise therefore that the Ministry has proposed the changes to the Constitution that, to quote the Supreme Court, ‘seriously challenge the rule of law and the principle of the separation of power’ and ‘significantly reduce the existing level of guarantees of the independence of courts and judges’.

The EU has long tolerated these developments, expressing ‘very little interest for the weak institutional performance, increase of political pressure on the judiciary and the strengthening of control over the media’. This seems to be changing now. Facing strong criticism from the Serbian opposition parties, civil sector and some MEPs, the EP Rapporteur for Serbia, David McAllister, and Enlargement Commissioner, Johannes Hahn, have become more vocal in stressing that reforming the justice system and tackling corruption are Serbia’s main obstacles on its EU path. Yet, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has directly confronted McAllister, arguing that what really matters to the EU is Serbia’s relations with Kosovo and its partnership with Russia, concluding that the rule of law represents only the third priority. Different perceptions of the priorities have already had repercussions for Serbian EU integration.

 

The deep-seated political and economic interests [of Serbian politicians] have resulted in a conscious and deliberate neglect of the fundamental principles of Western European democracies.

 

In December 2017, it opened two instead of three negotiating chapters because five states – including Germany, France and the UK – were apparently not satisfied with the progress in the area of the judiciary and fundamental rights. Finally, in rather strong terms, the Enlargement Strategy also asserts that the Western Balkan countries ‘show clear elements of state capture, including links with organised crime and corruption at all levels of government and administration’. It also notes ‘extensive political interference in and control of the media’ and underlines that ‘the independence of the judiciary and of individual judges is essential to ensure fairness’. Although Vučić eventually acknowledged that ‘we will have to improve the rule of law’, this increasingly vocal rhetoric of EU officials is yet to strike a chord with Serbian counterparts. Their deep-seated political and economic interests have resulted in a conscious and deliberate neglect of the fundamental principles of Western European democracies. The building of accountable, de-politicised institutions and nurturing democratic, participative political culture is perceived as a nuisance hampering the ultimate goal – maintaining a strong grip on power at any cost. A toxic political climate in which every critical thought is perceived as hostile while investigative journalism is seen as an attack on the state is inherently incompatible with meeting EU membership criteria. In other words, the governing parties refuse to face the fact that EU-required reforms inevitably have consequences for their vested interests and the way domestic politics is conducted.

About author: Marko Stojić (EUROPEUM)

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