Serbia

Transitional or Hybrid Regime
46
100
DEMOCRACY-PERCENTAGE Democracy Percentage 46.43 100
DEMOCRACY-SCORE Democracy Score 3.79 7
Last Year's Democracy Percentage & Status
48 100 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.

header1 Score changes in 2022

  • Civil Society rating declined from 5.50 to 5.25 due to the intimidation of civil society organizations by government officials and progovernment media, as well as violence against peaceful protesters orchestrated or tolerated by the authorities.
  • Independent Media rating declined from 3.25 to 3.00 due to continued and increasing government pressure on independent media outlets and journalists, as well as increasing media capture through the state-owned Telekom Srbija.
  • Corruption rating declined from 3.50 to 3.25 due to a series of scandals that point to links between state structures and ruling party officials on the one hand and organized crime on the other.

As a result, Serbia’s Democracy Score declined from 3.89 to 3.79.

header2 Executive Summary

Democracy in Serbia continued its downward trajectory in 2021. After the turbulent events of 2020—including a state of emergency, the suspension of the parliament, a violent crackdown on civil protests, controversial elections, and the seating of an almost single-party parliament after the opposition boycotted elections—the year 2021 was somewhat less dramatic. However, opportunities were missed to improve democratic governance and electoral conditions. And the continuing decline of media freedom and freedom of association, as well as several high-profile corruption scandals pointing to probable links between state officials and organized crime, deepened the political crisis and further eroded democratic institutions.

Though a new phase of the European Parliament (EP)–mediated interparty dialogue was launched after President Aleksandar Vučić announced early parliamentary elections for spring 2022, the year saw few improvements in electoral conditions or steps towards resolving the political crisis. The dialogue itself was abandoned by most opposition parties in September, and the overall behavior of the ruling parties in 2021 suggested a lack of political will for an honest dialogue. Electoral contests in several municipalities showed a continuation of media dominance by the ruling parties, pressure on voters, and other irregularities.

Late 2021 represented an important pre-election phase since, besides the announced early parliamentary elections, regular presidential, Belgrade city elections, and a few other municipal elections were also set to be held on April 3, 2022. Despite their exit from the EP-mediated talks and lack of improvements to electoral conditions, virtually all the opposition parties that boycotted the 2020 elections have decided to take part in the 2022 elections. Several established opposition parties formed an electoral coalition for 2022, while one party even decided to take part in the 2021 local elections in Negotin, officially abandoning the policy of boycott after more than two years. Other opposition coalitions started to take shape as well. Although this suggested that political life in 2022 might return to normal, the elections and their aftermath will represent a true test of electoral conditions and democratic capacities that, if failed, might lead to an even deeper political crisis.

Throughout the year, ruling-party representatives and progovernment media waged a series of attacks on civil society organizations and media, including allegations of criminality or treason without evidence. The overall atmosphere for civil society representatives and journalists has worsened in some respects since 2020, even though the recorded number of attacks against journalists was lower in 2021. Due to smear campaigns conducted by the ruling parties and progovernment media, journalists’ associations left a government working group on the security and protection of journalists, demonstrating that the level of mistrust between media workers and the government has not decreased despite the government’s adoption of a Media Strategy and an Action Plan for its implementation.

Environmental protests took place throughout 2021, the largest and most dramatic involving roadblocks organized across the country on November 27 and December 4 in response to plans for and controversial legislation related to a proposed lithium mine in western Serbia. While there were no major clashes between police and citizens, other forms of violence and intimidation were used against the demonstrations. In the city of Šabac, protesters were attacked by armed thugs who tried to run over the crowd with a bulldozer, and police intimidated ordinary citizens, activists, and journalists, even in their own homes, to discourage them from taking part in the protests. Suspected links between the ruling parties and armed thugs from the criminal milieu, as well as a strong campaign of demonization against protesters by progovernment media, significantly raised tensions in society and stoked fears of large-scale violence.

State influence over the media landscape increased in 2021 through Telekom Srbija, a joint-stock company in which the state is a majority shareholder. Telekom increased its hold over the cable market with its purchase of state-owned Pošta NET, conducted without a tender procedure, and launched a new news channel, Euronews Serbia. Telekom also tried, controversially, to strike commercially dubious deals in order to hurt the privately owned United Group, its main competitor and the owner of the only two major critical television channels in the country, N1 and Nova, as well as their main broadcaster, the cable network SBB. These moves were interpreted by observers as attempts to stifle press freedom and increase the influence of President Vučić and his dominant Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), both in the country and the wider region.

The process of constitutional reform, required within Serbia’s European Union (EU) accession negotiations, was launched once again in 2021 after previous attempts had failed, and the government set a new deadline through the revised Action Plan for Chapter 23 of the EU acquis. While the goal of constitutional reform is to increase the independence of the judiciary, expert organizations have warned about problematic aspects of the proposed solutions. The opposition demanded that the government not go through with the reform while the National Assembly lacks a parliamentary opposition and with new elections only months away, but the process continued regardless. After two opinions of the Venice Commission and a revision of the proposed constitutional amendments, the changes were adopted and subsequently confirmed in a low-turnout referendum on January 16, 2022.

Some of the most dramatic events in 2021 were high-profile organized crime and corruption scandals linked to rifts within the hegemonic SNS, which also exposed links between organized crime groups and high-ranking officials of the state apparatus. The most prominent case was the arrest of the Veljko Belivuk group, accused of serious crimes such as kidnapping, torture, and murder. Other high-profile scandals were the arrest of Aleksandar Jovičić (SNS), president of the Palilula municipality in Belgrade, as well as the investigation of the Jovanjica marijuana farm, whose owner was released from custody, placed under house arrest, and defended publicly by President Vučić. Investigations in all of these cases are ongoing, but accusations among the leadership of SNS and its intraparty struggles point to the involvement of at least some senior government figures in organized crime and corruption.

header3 At a Glance

In Serbia, President Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) dominates political institutions, and the almost single-party National Assembly serves as a stage for verbal attacks against the nonparliamentary opposition, civil society, and critical media. The apparent failure of the interparty dialogue mediated by the European Parliament after the opposition’s electoral boycott in 2020 and lack of improvements in the country’s electoral conditions characterizes a political crisis triggered by the deterioration of democratic institutions. Local civil society operates in a hostile environment, with frequent smear campaigns by ruling-party representatives and progovernment media as well as institutional pressure. Media freedom, already under threat, deteriorated further in 2021 as elements of media capture increased under the state-owned Telekom Srbija. Local elections were held in several municipalities, with clear wins for the SNS amid various irregularities; with the exception of the capital Belgrade, local self-governments remained marginalized in the Serbian political system. Constitutional reform was relaunched in 2021 to increase the independence of the currently politicized judiciary, but it remains to be seen whether this effort will increase judicial independence in practice. Several high-level corruption cases shook the country in 2021, some of which pointed to connections between organized crime and high-level state- and ruling-party officials, yet prosecution of high-level corruption cases remains infrequent.

National Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the democratic character of the governmental system; and the independence, effectiveness, and accountability of the legislative and executive branches. 3.253 7.007
  • Serbian political institutions continued to be dominated by the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and its leader, Aleksandar Vučić, the president of Serbia since 2017. The country’s political system is characterized by the dominance of the executive branch and especially President Vučić, the de facto head of government due to his firm control of the ruling coalition, who continually acts outside of his constitutional competences over both the government and the National Assembly, Serbia’s parliament. In the previous parliamentary elections in 2020, boycotted by a large portion of the opposition, the SNS list won nearly two-thirds of the vote and 188 out of 250 seats in the National Assembly.1 In 2021, the SNS’ grip on power was strengthened after the party’s merger with the Serbian Patriotic Alliance (SPAS), a parliamentary party and a junior partner in the government, which brought the SNS 10 more parliamentary seats.2
  • The opposition in Serbia remained fragmented since the Alliance for Serbia was disbanded after the 2020 elections and its successor, United Opposition of Serbia, faded into insignificance. In October 2021, three parties that boycotted the 2020 elections—Freedom and Justice Party (SSP), Democratic Party (DS), and People’s Party (NS)—reached an agreement to take part in future elections together.3 In November, these parties, along with the Free Citizens’ Movement (PSG) and other smaller parties, formally announced their participation in the 2022 elections on all levels, thus officially ending the policy of boycott.4 Other opposition coalitions, such as the green-left bloc of Together for Serbia (ZZS), Ecological Uprising, and Do not Drown Belgrade,5 and the Patriotic Alliance led by the right-wing Dveri, also began to take shape during the year.6
  • Due to the lack of a significant parliamentary opposition—and centralization of the dominant SNS—the National Assembly has largely lost its oversight role in the Serbian political system. Instead of a forum for political debate, the parliament has become a stage for praising President Vučić and his policies, as well as launching verbal attacks on the nonparliamentary opposition, civil society representatives, and the media.7 Even though there were slight procedural improvements in the work of the parliament in 2021, such as the beginning of the implementation of the National Assembly’s code of conduct adopted at the end of 20208 and a more routine presence of ministers for questioning,9 these gains have yet to be tested in a scenario with significant parliamentary opposition.
  • The main political issue in 2021 was the ongoing European Parliament (EP)–mediated interparty dialogue ahead of the announced extraordinary parliamentary elections, which were held simultaneously with regular presidential and Belgrade city elections, on April 3, 2022. This new phase began on March 1, and the EP mediators held meetings with all interested parties on July 8–9. However, after the following round held on September 17–18, a vast majority of opposition parties rejected the EP proposal (see “Electoral Process”) and left the dialogue.10 In parallel to the EP-mediated dialogue, the government organized an interparty dialogue “without foreigners” in which President Vučić himself took part.11 Almost all opposition parties that participated in this dialogue also took part in the 2020 elections, and most were widely considered to represent loyal opposition to the SNS. The final agreement within this dialogue track was signed on October 29.12
  • The year was also marked by several high-profile organized crime and corruption scandals that strongly point to the involvement of government officials in organized crime. The largest affair was the arrest of the suspected organized crime group run by Veljko Belivuk, indicted for drug trafficking, torture, rape, and murder, and accused of butchering victims to dispose of evidence.13 Explicit photographs and videos of torture, dead victims, and mutilated body parts were shown on television and newspapers on several occasions,14 as well as at a press conference held by President Vučić and Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin.15 This event was understood as an attempt to shock and intimidate the public and prove the government’s readiness to fight organized crime, especially since ruling-party officials have attempted to link both investigative media and opposition parties to the criminal group without evidence. Some high officials of the SNS, as well as progovernment tabloids, also implied the group’s connection with Nebojša Stefanović, Minister of Defense and former Interior Minister, who allegedly plotted against the president.16 Stefanović was later pressured to resign from his positions in the SNS17 but retained his ministerial post and repeatedly expressed loyalty to President Vučić.18 On the other hand, Belivuk later said that he met with and provided services for the president himself.19 Accusations against Stefanović within the party persisted for months, and the former state secretary in the Interior Ministry serving under Stefanović was arrested in October on charges of influence peddling.20 Whatever the outcome, the affair strongly suggests that there were connections between organized crime groups and elements of the state apparatus, including high-ranking officials, along with links between the fight against organized crime and intraparty struggles within the ruling SNS.
  • Environmental protests took center stage at the end of 2021, especially after violence was used against protesters by armed thugs believed to be connected with the SNS and a strong government-orchestrated smear campaign against civil activists and opposition leaders (see “Civil Society”). The protests, triggered by proposed legislation apparently connected with the controversial Rio Tinto lithium mine project, succeeded in forcing the government to change course.21
Electoral Process 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Examines national executive and legislative elections, the electoral framework, the functioning of multiparty systems, and popular participation in the political process. 4.254 7.007
  • Even though there were no national elections in 2021, Serbia’s electoral process was nevertheless the primary political issue in 2021 due to the opposition’s boycott of the 2020 parliamentary elections and early parliamentary elections announced for 2022 by President Vučić immediately after the formation of the new government.1 The decision to announce new parliamentary elections only four months after a convincing victory in the June 2020 elections could be seen as a response to the apparent success of the boycott and controversy of having an almost single-party parliament without an opposition. These elections took place simultaneously with the regular presidential and Belgrade city elections on April 3, 2022. In the meantime, this decision opened the space for continuing the EP-mediated interparty dialogue. The government also launched a second dialogue track “without foreigners” in order to include those parties that had rejected EP mediation,2 yet this was seen as an attempt to sideline the EP-mediated dialogue.
  • As noted, the EP-mediated interparty dialogue resumed in 2021, with two current MEPs and two former MEPs serving as co-facilitators together with the speaker of the National Assembly, Ivica Dačić. After the first round held July 8–9, the participating parties submitted their proposals by August 1, and the EP mediators presented their proposal for an agreement in September.3 However, after the round of talks on September 17–18, almost all opposition representatives rejected the proposed agreement as insufficient to address longstanding issues with Serbia’s electoral framework.4 The document, which the co-facilitators nevertheless agreed to, proposed expanding the Republic Election Commission (RIK) and the creation of a new temporary media monitoring body, among other provisions.5 Expert organizations warned that the proposed solutions do not adequately tackle the problems with Serbia’s electoral conditions in Serbia.6 Moreover, even the implementation of these measures was slow and failed to show clear improvements.7
  • The second track of the interparty dialogue, which took place without EP mediation, brought together ruling and other opposition parties, all but one of which participated in the 2020 elections.8 Many of these parties are also considered part of the “loyal opposition” to the SNS. President Vučić himself took part in this track, but the content of the talks remained off the record. An agreement was signed on October 29 envisioning that all three elections would be held on April 3, 2022; the details focused on certain technical improvements of the electoral process and limiting campaigning by public officials to 10 days prior to the elections. The agreement also included members of this other group of opposition parties in the expanded RIK and the creation of a temporary media monitoring body envisioned by the EP-mediated dialogue.9
  • On the matter of implementing Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) recommendations ahead of the next elections, only two meetings of the working group for cooperation with ODIHR took place in 2021, in March and April. The government opted to implement only 18 of the 29 recommendations from ODIHR’s latest report, which experts consider insufficient to significantly improve the country’s electoral process.10 The government initiated a public debate for changing several electoral laws in late 2021, but experts considered the proposed changes as inadequate for improving electoral conditions.11
  • The preelectoral environment during the year still suffered from media dominance by the SNS and President Vučić.12 Local elections held in parallel with the interparty dialogue were marred by campaign by public officials as well as allegations of electoral fraud brought by participating opposition parties (see “Local Democratic Governance”). There was increased presence by opposition representatives on the public broadcaster RTS in special debate shows and morning programs, but this hardly changed the overall picture according to monitoring reports.
Civil Society 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 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. 5.255 7.007
  • The Serbian Business Registers Agency (SBRA) counted 35,726 registered civil society organizations (CSOs) and associations as of December 9, 2021, showing modest growth since 2020.1
  • Civil society representatives were frequently subjected to verbal attacks and smear campaigns by ruling-coalition politicians and progovernment media. For example, the president of the SNS parliamentary caucus, Aleksandar Martinović, accused the Center for Research, Transparency, and Accountability (CRTA), an organization focused on democracy and elections, of money laundering, even disclosing where the CRTA director lives and what kind of car she drives. Martinović has also called for violence against critics of the government.2 Progovernment tabloids published analyses of the financing of CSOs and media in Serbia, implying they work for foreign interests.3
  • The infamous “Spisak” (List) case from 2020, when a large number of critical CSOs and independent media came under investigation by Serbia’s Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering (APML) without evidence or justified cause, remained unresolved. The EU, UN, USA, Financial Action Task Force (FATF), and Amnesty International have all protested and demanded explanations for this act, but there were still no conclusions presented from the investigation nor an explanation from the government during the year.4
  • In September, after the draft law on interior affairs came under strong criticism from the civic sector due to several controversial provisions (see “Judicial Framework and Independence”), Interior Minister Vulin withdrew the proposal citing unsupported fears of violence instigated by CSOs in league with foreign security agencies.5 President Vučić later gave different reasons for withdrawing the draft law, but Vulin’s accusations were not followed by an apology.
  • As a result of attacks on the civic sector by government and SNS representatives, on April 24, CSOs left consultations with the Ministry of Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue on the creation of a strategy for establishing an encouraging environment for Serbian civil society, claiming they would not take part so long as civil society and independent media operated under hostile conditions.6
  • Environmental protests became the most prominent form of civic demonstrations in 2021, as several rallies brought together activist organizations and political parties to draw attention to various issues, from air pollution and the building of hydro-electric power plants to the announced construction of a lithium mine by the Rio Tinto multinational company.7 Environmental protests were viewed as a political challenge for the government and attracted increasing public interest, leading to government attempts to dismiss them as “political” events.8 The largest and most radical environmental demonstrations took place on November 279 and December 4,10 when protesters across Serbia blocked roads and bridges to demand the rejection of two laws adopted in the National Assembly—the Law on Expropriation and the Law on Referendum and People’s Initiatives—which are believed to be linked with the Rio Tinto project. Due to mounting pressure, President Vučić showed readiness to accept the protesters’ demands, and the parliament eventually withdrew the former law, which the president was yet to sign, and amended the latter.11
  • Authorities resorted to intimidation, using armed thugs to stop the protests. In Šabac, on November 27, protesters were attacked by masked men armed with wooden boards and hammers. Masked men also attempted to run a bulldozer through the crowd.12 The assailants, believed to belong to the criminal underworld, left the scene using vehicles allegedly owned by local authorities.13 While the protester who stopped the bulldozer by attacking its driver was arrested, no legal actions were taken against the assailants.14 There were also cases of intimidation of potential protesters and journalists by the police, who visited citizens’ homes,15 as well as propaganda against the protests by government officials and progovernment media, which labeled the protest activities as fascism, terrorism, and attempts by foreign organizations to violently overthrow the government.16 Additionally, an incident of hate speech against an ethnic Romanian opposition figure on a progovernment TV station created a diplomatic scandal.17
  • Serbia and Russia pledged to combat “color revolutions” at a meeting between Interior Minister Vulin and the secretary of the Kremlin’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, on December 3 during the environmental protests. The two countries have also allegedly formed a “working group” for combating color revolutions as instruments of the West used to destabilize free countries.18
  • In November, CSOs and independent media worked to expose the alleged abuse and mistreatment of Vietnamese workers in the construction of a tire factory commissioned by the Chinese company Linglong in the city of Zrenjanin. Linglong’s management and the government attempted to downplay the gravity of the workers’ situation, but the case nevertheless garnered significant public attention and raised questions about Chinese-hired workers in Serbia.19
  • There were several incidents regarding a mural in the capital Belgrade of Ratko Mladić, the war commander of Bosnian Serbs convicted for genocide in Srebrenica in July 1995. Activists attempted to remove the mural on November 9, but the police effectively protected it by separating the protestors and the mural’s defenders, detaining activists who were throwing eggs.20 In the following weeks, there were several more attempts to both remove and restore the mural, as well as another mural and graffiti with Mladić’s name appearing elsewhere in Belgrade.21
Independent Media 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 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. 3.003 7.007
  • Threats and attacks on journalists remained a major problem. According to the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia, there were 151 attacks on journalists in 2021, somewhat lower than the 189 reported cases in 2020 but still the second-highest number since 2008.1 There were important cases of attacks on journalists, including by SNS officials. The most serious were against the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK), which was accused without evidence of connections to the Belivuk organized crime group by both government officials and progovernment media.2 These allegations appeared after the arrest of the Belivuk group, which is suspected of having links with elements of the state apparatus that KRIK had reported about for years.
  • Media outlets also faced SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation) in 2021 after reporting on the suspicious operations of companies with suspected links to state officials, especially Millennium Team linked to Finance Minister Siniša Mali. Various media were sued for large sums on defamation charges, but these cases have yet to be resolved in the courts.3 The investigative KRIK alone has 10 active lawsuits initiated by businesspersons close to the SNS, with 90 million dinars (€750,000) in demanded compensation.4
  • After approving the Media Strategy for 2020–25 in early 2020, the government adopted the strategy’s Action Plan in December 2020. The plan envisions changes to 13 different laws by 2022, and some processes were already underway in 2021.5 The most notable effects were shutting down and privatizing the Tanjug news agency, which had operated as a public enterprise,6 and the creation of a working group to implement the Action Plan.
  • Another working group on the security and protection of journalists was established in late 2020 to create better and safer working conditions for journalists and to improve the state’s response to attacks on journalists. This body’s actions resulted in some positive measures, such as the launch of a hotline for journalist in danger and a “Safe Journalists” app,7 as well as categorizing journalists as a priority category for COVID-19 vaccination.8 However, in March 2021, representatives of six journalists’ associations left the working group due to the attacks on KRIK as well as on members of these associations from progovernment media without repercussions from the government or the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media (REM).9 These journalists’ associations later created the Coalition for Media Freedom, which aims to fight for better security and professionalism among journalist ranks.10
  • The state continued to play an important but controversial role in financing media, especially progovernment media at the local and national levels. Financing of media by the state and local municipalities through co-funding schemes continued in 2021, as well as funding of progovernment media through promotional contracts with government ministries.11
  • Telekom Srbija, a joint-stock company in which the state is a majority shareholder, remained the most prominent vehicle of political influence over the media market. Even though the 2014 Law on Media and Information required the state to privatize all media outlets it owned, Telekom Srbija, as a joint-stock company, continued to own and create new media outlets as well as strengthen its position as a cable television provider. The commercial battle between Telekom Srbija and its main rival, the privately owned United Group, has strong political implications as the latter company is the owner of two major critical TV news channels, N1 and Nova, as well as their cable TV broadcaster, SBB. Since Telekom Srbija’s cable network does not broadcast United Group channels, its push to beat its commercial rivals had major implications for media freedom in Serbia.12
  • There were several controversies in Telekom Srbija’s push against United Group in 2021. In March, reports surfaced that Telekom aims to strike a commercially dubious deal with Telenor Serbia, previously owned by Norwegian Telenor but currently by the Czech PPF investment group, explicitly to hurt SBB.13 In July, Telekom bought the TV rights for the English Premier League for an alleged 600 million euros for 6 years, which is 10 times more than what the United Group previously paid for the same rights. This was seen by experts as an attempt to hurt United Group by stripping it of its most popular TV product and increasing the political influence of the SNS and President Vučić in Serbia and abroad.14 Telekom Srbija also attracted attention through its acquisition of the state-owned cable operator Pošta NET without a tender procedure.15 Lastly, Telekom launched the channel Euronews Serbia through its subsidiary company, thus creating a TV station considered to be direct competition for United Group’s critical news channel N1.16
  • Another problem the United Group faced in 2021 was the inability to print its new newspaper Nova at existing printing houses in Serbia, most of which claimed a lack of capacity.17 The United Group said this was evidence of self-censorship and not a technical issue. Nova eventually began to be published by a press in Osijek, Croatia.18
  • According to the EUI’s Media Pluralism Monitor, the media landscape in Serbia in 2021 was subject to a high risk of political interference in media independence (92 percent) and suffers a lack of diversity both in terms of viewpoints and inclusion of underrepresented groups. The report concluded that there is a solid legal framework for protecting traditional media, but it lacks full enforcement.19
  • Perpetrators of the 2018 arson attack on journalist Milan Jovanović, including former Grocka mayor and high-ranking SNS member Dragoljub Simonović, were sentenced in February 2021.20 However, the lead prosecutor, facing threats from Simonović, was removed from the case after the first-degree verdict, and journalists’ organizations feared this change might jeopardize the verdict on appeal.21 An appellate court, in fact, annulled the verdict on December 25 on procedural grounds and ordered a new trial. Reporters Without Borders considered the court’s decision as evidence of the “Serbian state’s inability to defend press freedom.”22
Local Democratic Governance 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 pts
Considers the decentralization of power; the responsibilities, election, and capacity of local governmental bodies; and the transparency and accountability of local authorities. 4.004 7.007
  • In 2021, regular local elections were held in Serbia in the municipalities of Zaječar, Kosjerić, and Preševo in March, and in Negotin and Mionica in October. The SNS list won in all four municipalities with a Serbian majority (around 47 percent in Zaječar, 67 percent in Kosjerić, 75 percent in Negotin, and 71 percent in Mionica,).1 In Preševo, which has a majority Albanian population, former mayor Shqiprim Arifi’s Alternative for Change won the most votes, followed by the Democratic Party of Albanians. The Serb list around the SNS won around 6 percent and managed to enter the local parliament.2 The March elections were characterized by the usual campaigning of public officials, as visits by government leaders to these municipalities were 40 times more frequent than in the past four years.3 In October, the opposition People’s Party (NS) took part in the elections in Negotin and won around 13 percent but complained of serious electoral irregularities, from electoral fraud to the arrest of its members on election boards for filming alleged electoral irregularities.4 This was the first instance of parties that had boycotted the 2020 elections taking part in the electoral process at any level after more than two years.
  • In June, there was much attention on elections for local community councils in Novi Sad, where the SNS lost a majority in several community councils to independent candidates.5 Even though the competences of local community councils are largely irrelevant to the wider public, these elections took the headlines because of the SNS’s losses. In the Liman 3 local community, there were progovernment rallies and the painting of Serbian flags on walls over the following months, which was interpreted as retaliatory pressure on residents related to the SNS’s electoral performance.6
  • Even though municipal elections were boycotted by most political parties and movements in 2020, along with the parliamentary elections, there was no discussion about having nation-wide local elections again in 2022. The exceptions were the capital Belgrade and a few other municipalites, where regular elections for the city and municipal assemblies were expected in spring 2022, along with extraordinary parliamentary and regular presidential elections. Among these, the Belgrade elections are widely regarded as the most important in 2022, as the opposition was believed to have significant chances of winning.
Judicial Framework and Independence 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 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. 3.504 7.007
  • Constitutional reform, a requirement for Serbia within the Chapter 23 negotiations of the EU accession process, was restarted in 2021. Focused on improving judicial independence mainly through changes to the mechanisms for appointing judges and prosecutors, the constitutional reform originally needed to be completed by the end of 2017, but after the adoption of the revised Action Plan for Chapter 23 in 2020, a new deadline was set for the end of 2021. The National Assembly accepted the government’s proposal for constitutional changes on June 8, and the proposed changes that a working group had been crafting were presented in the parliament on September 3.1 The National Assembly adopted documents necessary for implementation of the constitutional changes on November 30, and the speaker of the parliament scheduled the required referendum for January 16, 2022.2 The referendum approved the constitutional amendments but with a low turnout of only about 30 percent.3
  • Although some CSOs welcomed the constitutional changes as a step in the right direction, most remained neutral, while others pointed out problematic provisions and the possibility of further politization of the judiciary through subsequent legal changes.4 Concerns were also raised about the short time span for public hearings. The opposition demanded that constitutional changes not be implemented by a parliament with no opposition, but after the referendum was scheduled, most either ignored it or advocated for the “no” option.
  • The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission issued its opinion on the first draft of the constitutional reform on October 18, identifying concerns with the rules of appointment for the High Judicial Council and the Supreme Public Prosecutors, and with the roles of “prominent lawyers” who take part in the High Judicial Council. The Venice Commission also recognized the problematic lack of parliamentary representation and warned that the process of adopting constitutional changes should involve both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition.5 On October 26, the speaker of the National Assembly submitted a revised proposal to the commission, which issued an opinion on November 24 stating that the new version included most of the commission’s recommendations and was in line with European standards. However, it noted room for additional improvement and the need to reduce the risk of politicizing the High Judicial Council and High Prosecutorial Council.6
  • The Law on Judges and Law on the High Judicial Council were also amended in July 2021 to implement recommendations from the Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO), as well as commitments within the Chapter 23 negotiations with the EU. According to the legal changes, a Board of Ethics of the High Judicial Council was created as a permanent body to monitor compliance with the judges’ code of ethics.7
  • There was some controversy over several appointments in the justice sector during the year. Zagorka Dolovac was appointed for a third six-year mandate as Public Prosecutor after much criticism of her work and passive record in prosecuting high-corruption scandals.8 A new president of the Supreme Court of Cassation, Jasmina Vasović, was appointed in April after being the only candidate to apply for the position.9
  • There was significant controversy about the proposed law on internal affairs, with CSOs stating serious concerns over proposed biometric surveillance, a ban on revealing officer identities, the addition of new ministerial competences, and reduced ministerial transparency.10 Adoption of the law was eventually postponed.11
  • Numerous cases in 2021 raised questions about the independence and passivity of the prosecution and courts, including those involving the Veljko Belivuk organized crime group, the Jovanjica marijuana plantation, allegations of organized underage prostitution in the city of Jagodina involving local strongman Dragan Marković Palma, and the Pandora Papers (see “Corruption”).12 The issue of a passive prosecution and courts was also raised in the unresolved cases of police violence from the July 2020 protests13 and hooligans shooting flares from Belgrade rooftops during the COVID-19 lockdown.14
  • There was pressure on the judiciary in the case of the Jovanjica marijuana plantation, as President Vučić publicly downplayed the guilt of owner Predrag Koluvija and defended his release from custody to house arrest.15 More controversially, the lawyer defending Koluvija was Vladimir Đukanović, an SNS deputy and member of the High Judicial Council that appoints prosecutors and judges.16 The police inspectors who dealt with the case were under investigation and faced a smear campaign by progovernment tabloids, which allege their connection with organized crime.17 The unusual support for Koluvija coming from the SNS raises suspicions about links among the state apparatus and ruling-party officials with the marijuana plantation and drug trafficking.
Corruption 1.00-7.00 pts0-7 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. 3.253 7.007
  • According to a network of CSOs monitoring the fight against corruption in Serbia, there was no progress made in the first half of 2021; the legal framework was not improved and there was even a decline in implementation of existing laws, especially regarding public procurement and management of public enterprises.1 The CSO network’s November 2021 report notes improvements in certain anticorruption regulations but also a lack of reforms according to the Action Plan for Chapter 23 of the EU accession process.2
  • The government adopted several strategic acts, such as a strategy of state ownership and management of state-owned public enterprises for 2021-2027,3 and the parliament adopted changes to the Law on Prevention of Corruption in order to meet GRECO recommendations and resolve problems in the existing law recognized by civil society.4 Among the most important changes were the more precise definition of corruption, expansion of the list of legal entities required to report to the anticorruption agency, and criminalization of unreported income of public officials.5 Serbia still needed to adopt a new anticorruption strategy and accompanying action plan, as well as change the legal framework regarding whistleblower protections and the Law on Financing Political Activities in order to align with the EU acquis and OSCE/ODIHR recommendations, respectively.6
  • Public procurement remained an issue of high importance for corruption. The new Law on Public Procurement that took effect in July 2020 increased the threshold for open tenders and reduced the transparency of the process.7 It is estimated that the size of direct agreements with foreign countries surpassed the total amount of public procurement through public tenders.8 This was allowed by the provisions of the Law on Linear Infrastructure Projects that was adopted in February 2020, which gave the state ample space to bypass public tenders for infrastructure projects of special importance. As a result, there were only 34,441 public procurements in the first 10 months of 2021, while in 2019 there were around 62,000.9
  • The European Commission 2021 Report on Serbia notes a decrease in the number of first-degree judgments and indictments in high-level corruption cases, as well as a lack of investigations into whistleblower cases in accordance with the law, especially in the case of the Krušik ammunition factory, a major corruption scandal in 2019.10
  • There were several affairs that strongly pointed to involvement by high-level government officials in organized crime and corruption. The largest was the arrest of the Veljko Belivuk group11 that strongly suggests connections between organized crime and elements of the state apparatus, including high-ranking officials, which investigative media alerted the public about years ago.12
  • Only a few months after the Belivuk affair, Aleksandar Jovičić—Defense Minister Stefanović’s ally within the party, president of the Palilula municipality in Belgrade, and member of the SNS Presidency—was arrested on corruption charges related to the construction of unpermitted buildings.13 This arrest represented the highest official from the SNS arrested on corruption charges since the party came to power in 2012. However, the conflict that plagued the SNS throughout the year relativized this important milestone by putting it into the context of an intraparty power struggle.14
  • The “Pandora Papers,” leaked in October, have brought forth more evidence of ownership by Finance Minister Siniša Mali of two offshore companies that owned 24 apartments in Bulgaria. This accusation against Mali dates back to 2015, but the Pandora Papers discovered the missing link that Mali was indeed the owner of the two offshore companies.15 The prosecution remained passive,16 however, and despite Mali’s previous rejections of these accusations, Prime Minister Ana Brnabić claimed that this case does not constitute corruption as it occurred before he entered politics.17 Yet Mali was, indeed, a public official at that time and did not report the properties as obliged by law.
  • The Pandora Papers also mentioned minister-without-portfolio Novica Tončev and his ownership of offshore companies,18 as well as possible links between the Chinese company Huawei and Telekom Srbija, a joint-stock company in majority ownership of the state, through offshore shell companies.19 These startling revelations similarly met with no legal consequences.

Author:

Nikola Burazer is a political scientist from Belgrade, Serbia. He is Program Director at the Belgrade-based think tank Centre for Contemporary Politics, and Executive Editor at the European Western Balkans media portal. He holds an MA in Nationalism Studies from Central European University (CEU) in Budapest and a BA in Political Science from University of Belgrade.

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