Nations in Transit 2021 - Serbia

TRANSITIONAL OR HYBRID REGIME
48
/ 100
Democracy Percentage 48.21 / 100
Democracy Score 3.89 / 7
LAST YEAR'S DEMOCRACY PERCENTAGE & STATUS
49 / 100 Transitional or Hybrid Regime
The ratings are based on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 representing the highest level of democratic progress and 1 the lowest. The Democracy Score is an average of ratings for the categories tracked in a given year. The Democracy Percentage, introduced in 2020, is a translation of the Democracy Score to the 0-100 scale, where 0 equals least democratic and 100 equals most democratic.
 
 

Score changes in 2021

  • National Democratic Governance rating declined from 3.50 to 3.25, after noncompetitive parliamentary elections resulted in a de facto one-party parliament and due to the personalization of power in the hands of President Aleksandar Vučić.
  • Electoral Process rating declined from 4.50 to 4.25 due to the ruling party’s instrumental modification of the electoral framework ahead of the June parliamentary elections and a lack of genuine choice for voters after most of the opposition boycotted the vote.

As a result, Serbia’s Democracy Score declined from 3.96 to 3.89.

Executive Summary

By Miloš Damnjanović

The state of fundamental freedoms and democratic institutions in Serbia continued to deteriorate in 2020, with no sign of improvement. For most of the year, political life—and indeed all other life—unfolded in the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, disrupting elections and bringing new restrictions on individual freedoms.

Parliamentary elections were originally scheduled for April 26th, along with elections for the Assembly of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina and most local municipalities. However, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in Serbia in early March led to the postponement of the elections amidst the imposition of a state of emergency. Once the first wave of the pandemic had subsided, the elections were rescheduled for June 21st.

All in all, the elections were held in a tense and unusual atmosphere. Not least, there were concerns over the advisability of conducting polls—with the inevitable mixing of large numbers of people—amidst the continuing presence of COVID-19.1 Yet from the point of view of organizing a democratic contest in which citizens could vote for their preferred political representatives, the decision of most opposition parties to boycott the elections proved a much larger problem. Indeed, the Alliance for Serbia (SzS), the main opposition bloc, had proclaimed its decision to boycott the upcoming elections in September 2019, arguing that the conditions for holding a free and fair contest simply did not exist. Despite speculation that it might change its stance at the last minute, the SzS largely held firm in its decision to boycott the elections, as did a number of other political movements.

In an apparent effort to entice smaller opposition parties to take part in the elections—and thus ensure some semblance of opposition participation amidst the threatened opposition boycott—the ruling majority, led by the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), amended the electoral law in early February, reducing the electoral threshold for entering the parliament from 5 percent of votes cast to 3 percent. The move, which amounted to an instrumental modification of the electoral framework, was announced and implemented with almost no public discussion; indeed, participants in the dialogue organized between the ruling and opposition parties in the autumn of 2019 noted that such a move had never been discussed as part of talks on improving electoral conditions.2

The efforts by the ruling SNS to ensure a semblance of opposition participation in the elections did generate some results, with 21 party lists and coalitions deciding to take part. Of these, four represented the country’s ethnic minorities, while another 15 parties, coalitions, and movements positioned themselves as belonging to the opposition. While some of these lists genuinely represented small opposition groupings, the boycotting opposition parties accused many of the 15 participating groups of serving as the SNS’s “loyal opposition,” instrumentalized by the ruling party to provide a veneer of democratic legitimacy to the electoral process and the new parliament.3

In the run-up to the elections, the electoral playing field remained firmly skewed in favor of the ruling party. Turnout stood at a record low 48.9 percent, the lowest since the introduction of multiparty elections in 1990 and down from the 56.1 percent figure seen in 2016. While this gave the boycotting groups grounds to claim their efforts were successful, the figure was also high enough for the SNS to argue that the new parliament was both legal and legitimate.

In such an environment, the ruling SNS and its coalition partners won a record 60.7 percent of votes cast and 188 seats—three-quarters of the parliament’s 250 seats. The SNS’s junior governing partner, the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), won 32 seats and the nominally opposition Serbian Patriotic Alliance (SPAS) won 11. The remaining 19 seats went to ethnic minority representatives.

On October 5th, President Vučić announced that a “national unity” government, including the SNS, SPS, and SPAS, would be formed under the leadership of Prime Minister Ana Brnabić. The creation of a national unity government appeared odd given that the country faced no major imminent crisis. Vučić himself suggested in August that the complex situation regarding Kosovo, the need to deal with a second COVID-19 wave in the autumn, and the accompanying global economic downturn justified the formation of a national unity government.4 Others noted that such a government conveniently helped to distract from the lack of any genuine opposition in the new parliament.5

The creation of the governing coalition that enjoyed the support of almost all Serbian legislators served to highlight the monolithic nature of the National Assembly, as a sizeable number of citizens opposed to the ruling SNS were effectively unrepresented. Moreover, the monolithic nature of the parliament seriously curtailed its ability to scrutinize the executive in practice.

Before the new government was even sworn in, Vučić announced that early parliamentary elections would be held by April 2022, so as to coincide with the next presidential and Belgrade municipal elections. Members of the boycotting opposition in Serbia saw this as tacit recognition by Vučić that the new parliament and government were illegitimate which, they claimed in turn, vindicated their own boycott.6 Independent observers echoed this point to some extent, seeing Vučić’s announcement as an effort to entice the opposition into returning to the electoral arena.7

While the year’s political events were significant, the COVID-19 pandemic and the government’s response to it made an even greater impact. In February, the authorities initially attempted to downplay the dangers of COVID-19,8 but the government quickly changed its message, with President Vučić declaring a state of emergency on March 15th and imposing a curfew and severe restrictions a few days later. While the extent of those restrictions was controversial—particularly the blanket ban on people over the age of 65 leaving their homes—the public and the medical profession largely appeared to favor them. Ultimately, Serbian COVID-19 restrictions were not radically dissimilar from those imposed in neighboring countries or much of Europe, though they were sometimes a little blunter.

From the point of view of democracy and accountability, a number of other issues were equally controversial. Legal experts questioned whether President Vučić had the constitutional right to declare the state of emergency instead of the parliament.9 Despite the imposition of a state of emergency and numerous restrictive measures, legislators did not meet until late April, at which point they retroactively approved the state of emergency and related measures.

The sidelining of the parliament on the state-of-emergency proclamation is just one example of the personalization of power in Vučić’s hands, which contributed to the degradation of Serbia’s democratic institutions. During the first wave of the pandemic, Vučić delivered somber public addresses in which he detailed his personal efforts to procure medical protective equipment and ventilators. He also personally accompanied ventilator deliveries—with media in tow—in several cities, including Niš and Novi Pazar.10 Progovernment media outlets and other SNS officials made a point of praising Vučić’s efforts, portraying him as the savior of the nation. Prime Minister Brnabić went further than most, saying “our health system has remained on its feet thanks to Vučić.”11

Independent media came under additional pressure over their reporting. The most extreme example was the April arrest of journalist Ana Lalić over her reporting on working conditions at the Vojvodina Clinical Center; Lalić was released the following day. Media outlets also noted that the authorities had underreported the number of COVID-19 deaths. These claims were first aired by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) in late June and were initially denied by government and medical officials. However, in late September, epidemiologist Predrag Kon, a member of the government’s COVID-19 Crisis Staff, confirmed that the number of actual deaths through June was significantly higher than the officially reported tally, though he blamed technical problems for the discrepancy. A day after Kon’s disclosure, President Vučić pledged a full reassessment of the number of COVID-19 related deaths.

The position of migrants and refuges currently in Serbia—most of whom were en route to European Union (EU) member states—also became more complicated over the course of the year. During the COVID-19-related state of emergency, migrants and refugees were confined to dedicated camps, where large numbers of people were concentrated in close proximity and could not socially distance. Meanwhile, right-wing movements such as Dveri sought to boost their own popularity by adopting more stringent antimigrant platforms.

Civil society remained lively, despite the omnipresent COVID-19 epidemic. Medics critical of the government’s handling of the crisis—particularly ahead of the June elections—organized themselves into the United against COVID-19 group. Having criticized the authorities for easing pandemic-related measures too quickly, and consequently allowing COVID-19 to spread more easily, ahead of those elections, the same group called on the government to implement more energetic measures to stem the spread of the disease in the autumn. Meanwhile, environmental activists were energetic in much of the country, scoring notable victories in their efforts to stop the construction of hydroelectric plants.

No real progress was made in fighting corruption during the year. A worrying sign in this respect was the adoption of a new law in February that allows the government to exempt projects deemed to hold “strategic importance” from existing public procurement regulations.

Looking ahead to 2021, Serbia’s political system may find itself at a crossroads between continued democratic regression and the strengthening of its democratic institutions. While announcing the formation of the new government, President Vučić suggested that it would include a new ministry in charge of societal dialogue, along with human and minority rights. This, together with the announcement of early parliamentary elections, implied that the ruling SNS wished to engage in a dialogue with opposition parties and other opponents at large, with the aim of creating a more even political playing field and ending the opposition’s electoral boycott. To what extent the ruling SNS and opposition parties can engage in a constructive and fruitful dialogue and – more crucially – to what extent the SNS is actually willing to create a more free and fair political playing field ahead of the next elections, remains to be seen.

 
National Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts
Considers the democratic character of the governmental system; and the independence, effectiveness, and accountability of the legislative and executive branches. 3.25 / 7.00
  • The extent to which power is centralized and personalized in the hands of President Aleksandar Vučić came into clearer focus during 2020. The combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying state of emergency allowed Vučić to claim the center stage in coordinating the Serbian state’s pandemic response. While other politicians from the ruling and opposition parties became all but invisible, Vučić, together with Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, Minister of Health Zoran Lončar, and the medical members of the COVID-19 Crisis Staff, made regular appearances at press conferences and public addresses.12 Progovernment media and other SNS officials made a point of praising Vučić’s efforts.13
  • In early March, Vučić called parliamentary elections for April 26th.14 However, following the imposition of a state of emergency in mid-March, the Republic Electoral Commission (RIK) suspended all election activities.15 Nevertheless, many observers and commentators believed Vučić’s handling of the pandemic was instrumentalized as part of the then suspended election campaign.16 An Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) report on the elections, which were held in June, described Vučić’s activities as “tacit campaigning.”17
  • Having won three-quarters of the parliament’s seats, the ruling SNS faced no challenge in forming a government. However, while elections in neighboring Croatia and North Macedonia yielded functioning governments within weeks, a new government was not formed in Serbia for over four months. President Vučić cited various reasons for delaying government formation, including the need to select the right coalition partners, the need to consider ministerial appointments, and his own diplomatic schedule.18 Political observers and politicians expressed the belief that Vučić was drawing out the process to maintain control over it, all while keeping SNS subordinates and potential partners unclear as to the coalition’s final configuration.19
  • On October 5th, Vučić nominated Ana Brnabić as prime minister.20 The participation of the SPS and SPAS in the coalition government21 was announced 15 days later. The Brnabić-led government was approved by legislators on October 28th.22
  • Following the opposition boycott, the national legislature seems less representative of the electorate’s political preferences than ever since the introduction of multi-party elections. Serbian opposition parties will be forced to operate outside regular democratic institutions and will face a major challenge in finding ways to criticize the government and, ultimately, to remain relevant. At the end of 2020, opposition parties seemed far from agreeing on a common set of demands that would facilitate conditions for fully free and fair elections.
Electoral Process 1.00-7.00 pts
Examines national executive and legislative elections, the electoral framework, the functioning of multiparty systems, and popular participation in the political process. 4.25 / 7.00
  • The June parliamentary elections were marred by a boycott from the opposition over the lack of free and fair electoral conditions.23 Shortly before elections were called, the ruling SNS amended the electoral law, reducing the threshold for entering the parliament from 5 percent of votes cast to 3 percent.24 OSCE election monitors noted that the manner and timing of the legal changes, which Serbian observers considered an attempt to undermine the opposition boycott, were not in line with internationally recognized best practices.25
  • In early March, President Vučić called parliamentary elections for April 26th.26 However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent state of emergency, election activities were suspended in mid-March.27 In May, after the state of emergency was lifted, the RIK announced a resumption of election activities, and the polls were rescheduled for June 21st.28 Elections for the Vojvodina Provincial Assembly and 154 local governments were held the same day.
  • While President Vučić was not on the ballot, his personal power within the ruling SNS was demonstrated by the decision to name the ruling party’s electoral list “Aleksandar Vučić–For Our Children” for parliamentary, provincial, and local races, without any reference to the SNS itself. While the list’s name again demonstrated the personalization of politics within the ruling party, it did not violate existing legislation.29
  • According to the final results, the SNS-led list won 60.7 percent of votes cast and 188 parliamentary seats. The allied SPS won 10.4 percent of votes, securing 32 seats. The only other nonminority list to cross the 3 percent threshold was the SPAS, which won 3.8 percent of the vote and 11 seats. The remaining 19 seats were won by ethnic minority representatives, who faced a lower threshold. Some 20 percent of votes were cast for electoral lists that failed to enter the parliament. Turnout for the parliamentary contest stood at 48.9 percent, the lowest since multiparty elections were introduced in 1990.30
  • The OSCE sent a limited mission to observe the elections, though no systematic election-day monitoring was carried out. In its final report, the OSCE noted that the elections “were administered efficiently,” but also noted numerous problems and irregularities, ranging from pro-SNS media bias to pressure and intimidation of voters on election day. OSCE monitors also reported that “the advantage enjoyed by the governing parties, the decision of some opposition parties to boycott the elections and limited policy debate narrowed the choice and information available to voters.”31
  • The Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA), an independent domestic election-observation organization, issued a critical assessment of the elections in an October report. CRTA called the elections “the worst of all election processes observed to date, and although on the whole the elections fulfilled minimal democratic standards, they will have negative consequences for the quality of democracy in Serbia.”32 In particular, CRTA concluded that events on election day were “on the edge of regularity,”33 with significant irregularities observed in at least 8 percent of polling stations, two to three times more than in past elections. The CRTA report notably concluded that irregularities did not affect the electoral outcome as much as turnout, which it estimates would have been around 4% lower in their absence.34
Civil Society 1.00-7.00 pts
Assesses the organizational capacity and financial sustainability of the civic sector; the legal and political environment in which it operates; the functioning of trade unions; interest group participation in the policy process; and the threat posed by antidemocratic extremist groups. 5.50 / 7.00
  • The Serbian Business Registers Agency counted 34,450 registered civil society organizations (CSOs) in October, an increase of just over a thousand compared to 2019.35 Although this represents a sizeable number relative to Serbia’s population, it likely includes many organizations with little or no activity.
  • However, the Civil Society Sustainability Index for 2019, published in October, noted a deterioration in CSO sustainability in five of seven criteria, primarily due to “the hostile environment in which civil society activists operated.”36
  • Meanwhile, the European Commission’s (EC) Serbia report, also published in October, stated that “an enabling environment for the development and financing of civil society still needs to be established,” while noting that CSOs operate in a polarized environment that is “not open to criticism.”37 The EC report also noted the prevalence of negative statements made against CSOs by the authorities, particularly over funding, in the context of “smear campaigns.” Notably, the EC report concluded that “organizations and individuals that criticize the authorities in developments related to the rule of law are under particular pressure.”38
  • Environmental protests, which are relatively new phenomena in Serbia, continued during the year. Most visible were the protests against the construction of hydroelectric power plants in the Stara Planina nature park. The “Let’s Defend the Stara Planina Rivers” movement organized protests in the area,39 as well as in Belgrade.40 The movement won a notable victory when plans to construct hydroelectric plants in the park were removed from the planning documents of the local Pirot municipality in April.41 Citizens also protested over a range of other environmental problems; in Bor and Smederevo, protests were organized against air pollution generated by local industrial complexes owned by Chinese companies.42
  • In July, an informal group of medics known as United Against COVID-19 issued a public letter—initially signed by more than 350 doctors—in which they criticized the government’s COVID-19 response. United Against COVID-19 called for the dismissal of the government’s COVID-19 Crisis Staff, and stated that “the complete easing of anti-epidemic measures in the pre-election period (rallies, matches, tournaments, celebrations, etc.) led to a loss of control over the epidemiological situation.”43 Subsequently, media outlets reported that several signatories faced pressure and sanctions in state workplaces.44
  • Serbia was also swept by a short but intense wave of protests in July. The protests were originally prompted by an apparent announcement of a weekend-long COVID-19-related curfew, attributed to President Vučić.45 Left-wing and right-wing protesters gathered in front of the parliament building with little or no active coordination. During that protest, a group of right-wing demonstrators, apparently led by former Dveri official Srđan Nogo, briefly broke into the parliament building before they were removed.46 Over the next few days, protesters continued to gather in front of the parliament, motivated by issues ranging from government policy on COVID-19 to Kosovo.47 Protests were held in several other cities including Kruševac, Niš, and Novi Sad.48 Police used force against demonstrators, who were often peaceful, in scenes not witnessed since the 1990s.49
Independent Media 1.00-7.00 pts
Examines the current state of press freedom, including libel laws, harassment of journalists, and editorial independence; the operation of a financially viable and independent private press; and the functioning of the public media. 3.25 / 7.00
  • The number of independent media outlets remained broadly stable, but these outlets remained limited in their ability to reach the wider Serbian population. In late January, the government adopted the Media Strategy to 2025 plan, which was largely well-received by the two main journalists’ associations.50 However, both associations, as well as independent journalists, voiced caution over the ultimate fate of the plan’s envisioned legal changes.51 While a related action plan was originally due for adoption in May, the Brnabić government only pledged to adopt the document during its first 100 days in late October52 and announced the formation of a working group to monitor its execution by December.53
  • Independent outlets faced headwinds while reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic and related state of emergency, with Serbian authorities proving themselves unwilling to accept critical coverage. The most drastic example was the case of journalist Ana Lalić, who reported on a lack of protective equipment and on chaotic working conditions at the Vojvodina Clinical Center in an April article published by news site NovaS.rs.54 The day the article was published, police arrested Lalić for “spreading panic and disturbance.”55 Lalić was released a day later, after her arrest stirred public outcry,56 and the charges against her were eventually dropped.57
  • At the end of July, Serbian media revealed that the Finance Ministry’s Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering had requested the banking information of 20 journalists, activists and other individuals, as well as 37 organizations—primarily media outlets and CSOs—as part of its investigations into terrorism financing and money laundering.58 Organizations targeted by the ministry included Serbia’s two main journalists’ associations, BIRN, the Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia, the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, CRTA, and the European Movement in Serbia.59 Journalists, media outlets, and CSOs reacted angrily, seeing the move as a deliberate attempt to silence and intimidate critics. The EC, the US Embassy in Belgrade, and Amnesty International also voiced concern over the move.60
  • The Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia (NUNS) reported a sharp increase in the total number of registered attacks against journalists. NUNS counted 151 such attacks in 2020, up from 119 in 2019—the 2020 figures were the highest since the database was created in 2008.61 NUNS also recorded a notable increase in physical assaults. Particularly worrying were a string of attacks on journalists by riot police—and some protesters—during the July protests in Belgrade.62
Local Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts
Considers the decentralization of power; the responsibilities, election, and capacity of local governmental bodies; and the transparency and accountability of local authorities. 4.00 / 7.00
  • Local elections were held in 154 of Serbia’s 170 local municipalities, taking place concurrently with national elections. Electors in the autonomous province of Vojvodina also cast their votes for the Vojvodina Provincial Assembly. The same parties that boycotted national parliamentary elections largely boycotted the local contests. As a result of the boycott and the weak organization of the opposition groups that did participate, voters benefited from even fewer choices in local races than in the national elections.
  • The ruling SNS secured overwhelming majorities in nearly all the municipalities that held local elections. While the political representatives of ethnic minorities prevailed in municipalities with sizeable minority populations such as Novi Pazar, the SNS lost in only seven municipalities outside such areas—Beočin, Čajetina, Novi Beograd, Ražanj, Surdulica, Svilajnac, and Topola.63 Even then, parties such as the SPS, a coalition partner, won power in some of these municipalities.
  • Fierce contests took place in the towns of Paraćin and Šabac, which were among the last municipalities with large urban centers under opposition control. Paraćin mayor Saša Paunović defied the Democratic Party’s (DS) decision to boycott the elections, leaving the DS in order to seek a new term.64 Paunović publicly described his choice as that between letting down his party and letting down his supporters in Paraćin.65 Paunović and his electoral list were defeated, with the SNS taking 45.1 percent of the vote to Paunović’s 24.2 percent.66 In a subsequent interview, Paunović argued the elections were neither free nor fair, but that voters were free of intimidation, and accepted the results.67
  • The elections in Šabac—where incumbent mayor Nebojša Zelenović and his “Together for Serbia” group faced off with the SNS—were marred by procedural chaos. Following the local elections in June, the SNS proclaimed that it won more than half the votes cast.68 However, the City Election Commission (GIK) decided to annul the voting process on procedural grounds at all 100 polling stations;69 an administrative court later quashed the decision, ordering a rerun at 27 polling stations.70 Amidst an outbreak of COVID-19 infections, the rerun elections were held in early September, but the GIK ordered the vote to be repeated once again at five polling stations.71 The third round of voting took place in early October, after which the GIK annulled the results at one of the five polling stations.72
  • In the aftermath of this, 10 GIK members close to Zelenović resigned, while a group of GIK members close to the SNS organized a hunger strike. Eventually, a rump GIK cancelled a fourth round of voting73 and proclaimed the final election results on October 17th—almost four months after the elections were first held—confirming that the SNS had won an absolute majority of seats in the local assembly.74

The government did not adopt a law on funding for Vojvodina, despite a constitutional requirement to do so. While the constitution stipulates that at least 7 percent of the national budget should be devoted to Vojvodina, disagreements over how that commitment is calculated persisted.

Judicial Framework and Independence 1.00-7.00 pts
Assesses constitutional and human rights protections, judicial independence, the status of ethnic minority rights, guarantees of equality before the law, treatment of suspects and prisoners, and compliance with judicial decisions. 3.50 / 7.00
  • The EC’s October report on Serbia noted a lack of progress on judicial reform during the year,75 concluding that “the current constitutional and legislative framework continues to leave room for undue political influence over the judiciary” and that “pressure on the judiciary remains high.”76 The EC also noted the willingness of government officials to publicly comment on court proceedings, sentences, and investigations, even though existing codes of conduct for government officials prohibit such behavior. Individual judges and prosecutors often found themselves subjected to personal attacks, including by parliamentarians, which were also carried in tabloid newspapers.77 In September, the Judges’ Association of Serbia called on the parliament to establish an ethics committee to investigate code-of-conduct breaches.78
  • In January, Justice Ministry official Radomir Ilić issued new proposals that would institute more “external control” over the judiciary, after claiming that it was becoming “an unaccountable branch of government.” Ilić cited the French model when discussing his proposal, highlighting the French president’s apparent power to appoint judges and prosecutors.79 While the proposals caused a storm in judicial and legal circles, they appear to have only amounted to a trial balloon.80 The proposals were put forward despite the Vučić government’s 2018 move to offer constitutional amendments on judicial independence.
  • In July, the government adopted a national judicial development strategy for the 2020–25 period; the previous strategy had expired in December 2018.81 The EC report on Serbia warned, however, that no impact assessment had been carried out, nor was a financial analysis of the proposed reforms’ costs conducted.82 A revised action plan for EU negotiating Chapter 23 pertaining to judicial and other fundamental rights was adopted that same month.83
  • The EC’s report on Serbia noted a smaller, though still large, number of backlogged cases in 2019 over the previous year. The EC counted 685,456 cases that were at least two years old in 2019, as opposed to 781,137 in 2018. The same report counted just over 250,000 cases that were at least 10 years old in 2019.84
  • Judicial authorities increasingly relied on so-called “Skype trials” during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and related state of emergency. Following the imposition of the state of emergency in mid-March, the work of the courts was essentially suspended, with only urgent cases—primarily related to state-of-emergency violations—being processed. Given the social distancing measures in place, some of these urgent trials were held via Skype, the sole legal basis for which was an instruction from the Ministry of Justice.85 One month into the state of emergency, media reported that dozens of trials were conducted via videoconference, noting that seemingly similar offenses were often punished with very different sentences. Thus, while a Niš resident received a three-year prison sentence for breaching a self-isolation order from the Basic Court in Dimitrovgrad, the Basic Court in Zrenjanin issued a €680 ($880) fine for a similar offense one week later.86
Corruption 1.00-7.00 pts
Looks at public perceptions of corruption, the business interests of top policymakers, laws on financial disclosure and conflict of interest, and the efficacy of anticorruption initiatives. 3.50 / 7.00
  • While the SNS took power on a pledge to fight corruption in 2012, the party has lessened its public rhetoric on the issue. Indeed, while outlining the priorities of her new government in late October, Prime Minister Brnabić put a strong focus on fighting organized crime but only mentioned anticorruption efforts in passing. While laying out her government’s program, Brnabić made a reference to implementing an action plan for the National Anti-Corruption Strategy, even though both the strategy and action plan expired at the end of 2018. No new strategic framework has been adopted since.87
  • The EC noted only “limited progress” in the fight against corruption in its report on Serbia.88 While the report noted positive steps taken to “strengthen the mandate and to ensure the independence of the Anti-Corruption Agency,” it also stated that the “number of finalized high-level corruption cases has decreased compared with the previous years.”89
  • In early February, the parliament adopted a law that effectively allows the government to exempt selected infrastructure projects of “strategic importance” from public procurement rules.90 The new law was criticized by numerous anticorruption campaigners, including the local chapter of Transparency International, which called for the law to be withdrawn because it would undermine the public procurement system.91 The EC’s report on Serbia also criticized the legislation, warning that the new law “raises serious concerns regarding its potential for corruption.”92
  • In late February, the parliament adopted the Law on the Origin of Assets, which expands the ability of tax administrators to compare the assets of natural persons to their declared income, with a view to taxing or confiscating assets in case of major discrepancies.93 The law will come into effect in 2021, though many anticorruption experts have reservations over how it will be implemented.94
  • In an unusual move, President Vučić told Austrian newspaper Kleine Zeitung that there had been a significant amount of corruption in the Serbian government.95 The statement was carried by some Serbian media outlets, with observers noting that Vučić only made those admissions to foreign—rather than local—media.96
  • The Anti-Corruption Council, an independent government body, continued to be understaffed and underresourced: currently, only 7 of the body’s 13 seats are filled. More worryingly, the Council faced sharp attacks from government officials in September. After the Council issued a report on the operation of the state railway, Transport Minister Zorana Mihajlović threatened to initiate procedures to “reexamine the Council’s work” in order to “reform” the body. Members of the Council saw this as a veiled threat to end its work.97

Author: Miloš Damnjanović is a political analyst working and living in Belgrade. He holds a doctorate in Political Science from the University of Oxford, where he worked on post-1989 democratization in Serbia and Croatia.

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