Serbia: A country without rights is a country without stability

There were yet more headlines at the weekend praising the fact that the new out-and-proud Serb prime minister 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 in past years.

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

Brussels is reluctant to criticize Serbia, because of what the European Commission likes to call Belgrade’s “constructive role in the region”, but for activist their role is far from constructive

Steve Crawshaw

Whilst Brussels may be reluctant to criticize Serbia, because of geopolitical considerations on Kosovo and other issues — what the European Commission likes to call Belgrade’s “constructive role in the region”, Serbian acitivists 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.

Yes, there are scraps of good news that may seem to justify the new warmth. The election of their first female and first lesbian prime minister – in a country which has been plagued by homophobic violence.

Serb leader Aleksandar Vučić – prime minister since 2014 and newly elected president — talks of EU membership as a “strategic priority”.

The Balkan wars seem long ago. Slobodan Milošević, 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, Vučić was information minister and chief media enforcer for Milošević. Vučić insists his approach has changed since that time, when troublesome journalists risked being murdered. In Vučić‘s words, “only donkeys don’t change”.

But the Independent Association of Journalists in Serbia recorded 69 attacks on journalists last year; there has been a sharp increase in recent years. The Association this month highlighted the government silence in response yet more death threats, this time to journalists at an independent news website. The state television news and majority of privately owned channels provide a steady drumbeat of unquestioning support, where little or no criticism of government policies is heard. Media ownership is often opaque, and demonization of alternative voices is routine. Anita Mitić, 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 Vučić, the language used to criticize 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 pressures have not. The apartment of a KRIK reporter, Dragana Pečo, was ransacked last month in what Ljiljana Smajlović, of the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, described as a “brazen attempt to intimidate”. 

In a bid to keep European governments sweet, Vučić 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 criticize.

For Serbs who still dare to put their heads above the parapet, that self-censorship is a core part of the problem.  “Stabilitocracy”, a newly coined Balkan buzzword, describes an all too familiar problem. In the words of Jovo Bakić, a Belgrade sociologist: “The EU prefers stability to democracy or human rights. The EU made its choice. I think it’s very shortsighted.” Dragana Žarković-Obradović, Belgrade director of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network argues: “They are allowing [Vučić] to poison the public – and that will backfire. He is feeding [them] all the worst things, and destabilizing the country.” Anita Mitić of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights believes that the failure to speak out can have destabilizing 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.”

The bombed-out defence ministry building stands as a conspicuous reminder of the NATO bombing in 1999, but such eyesores can seem like an archaeological relic

Steve Crawshaw

None of this is new, of course. Slobodan Milošević  himself, the arch-destabilizer, was at one point regarded by Western leaders not as part of the problem but as part of the solution. Or, as Milošević himself once told me, as the war in Bosnia got under way: “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 Vučić, 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.

This article was first published here in the EU Observer.