Serbia and Montenegro | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Serbia and Montenegro

Serbia and Montenegro

Freedom in the World 2005

2005 Scores



Freedom Rating
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Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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Trend Arrow: 

Serbia and Montenegro receives an upward trend arrow due to increasing stabilization of the political scene after last year's assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, including the successful holding of presidential and parliamentary elections and a decrease in official pressure on the media.


Serbia and Montenegro managed to achieve a significant stabilization of its political system in 2004 following almost two years of political tension, including the 2003 assassination of Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic. Following parliamentary elections in December 2003, a newly formed government chose Vojislav Kostunica as prime minister in March 2004. In June, Boris Tadic was elected president in a tight race.

In April 1992, the former Yugoslav republics of Serbia and Montenegro jointly proclaimed the formation of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) after Marshal Josip Broz Tito’s Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) disintegrated in 1991. Throughout the 1990s, Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia SPS) ruled the country by virtue of its control over the country's security forces, financial and monetary institutions, and state-owned media. During the wars accompanying the breakup of Yugoslavia, Serbia under Milosevic was extensively involved in the wars in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. In 1998-99, an Albanian insurgency in Serbia’s Kosovo province provoked increasingly violent reprisals by FRY forces against the guerrillas and the Albanian civilian population in regions affected by the fighting. Eventually, NATO launched a 78-day bombing campaign against the FRY to force the withdrawal of Yugoslav and Serbian paramilitary forces from the province. Since June 1999, a NATO-led force has de facto occupied the Serbian province. The end for the Milosevic regime came on October 5, 2000, when a botched attempt to steal the September presidential elections resulted in hundreds of thousands of people converging on Belgrade to overthrow the Milosevic regime.

 The Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), a coalition of 18 political parties and one independent trade union, took power following parliamentary elections in December 2000. Despite the DOS’s victory, however, relations between Serbia and its federal partner, Montenegro, which deteriorated in the 1990s, have remained difficult. The new union continues to suffer from numerous problems, largely the result of the great disparity in size between the two republics. Montenegro is only one-tenth the size of Serbia in population and constitutes a negligible part of the overall Serbia and Montenegro economy, while at the same time enjoying parity representation in most organs of government. Further complicating relations between the two republics are their difference regarding cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Montenegro, at least rhetorically, has been more supportive of cooperating with the ICTY, while in Serbia cooperation has often been grudging, if not absent altogether. One notable exception, however, was former Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic’s extradition of Milosevic to the Hague in June 2001.

In March 2002, the European Union (EU) brokered the so-called Belgrade Agreement (ratified in January 2003), creating a new state called "Serbia and Montenegro." The new union of the two republics preserves some vestiges of a common state but also provides each republic with its own central bank, customs and taxation system, and currency (the euro is the official currency in Montenegro, but not in Serbia; Serbia and Montenegro has no unified official currency). Over the past two years, the EU has begun voicing support for a stronger union of the two republics, but intransigence in both republics has made fulfillment of the Belgrade agreement difficult; Montenegro, for instance, refuses to agree to scheduling federal parliamentary elections as called for by the Belgrade agreement. In November 2004 the EU adopted a “two-track mechanism” to guide Serbia and Montenegro’s road towards EU membership. By means of this mechanism, the EU recognizes the different political and economic realities in the two republics, but still insists on the country’s eventual membership as a single state.

Although the future of Serbia and Montenegro remains unclear, there is reason to believe that time is working in favor of the union. While there is some debate within Serbia itself over whether it would be preferable for Serbia to go it alone in its efforts to gain EU accession (rather than maintaining ties with Montenegro), Serbian political parties advocating outright separation from Montenegro have faired poorly in recent elections. Similarly, in Montenegro there does not appear to be the necessary critical mass of people in favor of secession and independence to make such a move realistic, although the Djukanovic government continues to argue that a referendum on this matter be held by 2006. 

Within Serbia itself, the dominant parties and political leaders of the DOS for most of the post-Milosevic period were the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), led by former law professor Vojislav Kostunica, and the Democratic Party (DS), led by the late Serbian premier Zoran Djindjic. On March 12, 2003, Djindjic was assassinated by a group of organized crime figures associated with members of Milosevic-era security structures. With Djindjic’s killing, Serbia and the DS lost one of its most capable politicians, and over the summer of 2003, revelations emerged of the involvement of some members of the DS in a variety of corruption scandals, which led to a sharp drop in the DS’s popularity. With the DS losing control of the political situation in the parliament, new elections were called for December.

The new parliament elected in December 2003 stabilized the Serbian political situation somewhat by eliminating a number of small, relatively weak parties from the ruling coalition. However, the elections were somewhat marred by the fact that some parties, such as the SPS and the SRS, actually ran indicted war criminals on their parliamentary lists. While the nationalist SRS won the most seats in the December 2003 parliamentary elections, the parties loosely considered to be “pro-democratic” or “pro-Western” were able to form a coalition government to keep the SRS from coming to power. This new Serbian government, formed in March 2004 after two months of wrangling, made Kostunica Serbia’s new prime minister. The minority coalition was composed of the DSS (with 53 seats); the liberal, reformist G17 Plus party led by the economists Miroljub Labus and Mladjan Dinkic (31 seats); the center-right Serbian Renewal Movement—New Serbia coalition led by Vuk Draskovic and former Cacak mayor Velimir Ilic (18 seats), with tacit support from Milosevic’s former party, the SPS (22 seats). However, the weakness of the minority coalition government made it difficult throughout the year to advance reforms, adopt necessary legislation, and attract foreign investment. In addition, the government found itself unable to meet its obligations to extradite indicted war criminals to the ICTY for fear of losing the support of the SPS.

Following three unsuccessful attempts to hold presidential elections during the course of 2002-2003, Serbia finally managed to elect a president in June 2004. Despite a tight race, Djindjic’s successor as head of the DS, Boris Tadic, succeeded in gaining a victory over Tomislav Nikolic, the leader of the nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS). Importantly, despite the growing strength of Tadic’s DS (and the subsequent increasing weakness of the DSS), Tadic has promised to support the Kostunica government for a period of one year for the sake of political stability. Indicative of the continuing volatility of Serbian politics, however, was the fact that the Milosevic-era business tycoon, Bogoljub Karic, was able to run in the race and gain 20 percent of the vote without having any previous experience in politics. In September, Serbia held municipal elections. The main winners throughout the republic were again the DS and the SRS, which confirmed their leading positions in Serbian politics. Turnout for the municipal elections was a meager 23 percent.

At the end of 2004, the DS and the SRS had become the most important political parties in Serbia, although Kostunica’s personal popularity continues to make the DSS a force to be reckoned with. The breakdown in the Serbian political spectrum shows that the coalition of parties that joined to topple Milosevic in October 2000 can continue to count on some 1.7 to 2 million votes, while the dominant parties from the Milosevic era, the SPS and the SRS, together retain the support of some 1 to 1.4 million voters. There is considerable concern, however, that a downturn in the economy, or a major foreign policy shock (such as the loss of Kosovo), could lead many people to start supporting more extreme parties such as the SRS.

In Montenegro, the republic’s veteran strongman, Milo Djukanovic, who served as president from 1998 to 2002, decided to step down from his post in 2002 and become Montenegro’s prime minister. Two attempts to elect a new Montenegrin president that year failed after the elections did not attract the required 50 percent voter turnout. In February 2003, a new presidential law that dropped the 50 percent rule came into force. Subsequently, in May, Filip Vujanovic, a Djukanovic ally, was elected. Vujanovic won 64 percent of the votes, with 48.3 percent of eligible voters participating. Opposition parties refused to field candidates, although the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) deemed the elections to be generally in line with international standards.

Montenegro remains split between the majority of the Orthodox Christian population that declares itself to be Montenegrin and/or Serb and wants to maintain ties with Belgrade, and a minority of the Orthodox Christian population, supported by ethnic Albanians in Montenegro, some Muslims in the mainly Muslim Sandzak region, and some Roman Catholics along Montenegro’s Adriatic coast, who prefer independence. (Many Sandzak Muslims, however, prefer maintaining the union because separation would mean the division of the Sandzak region, their ethno-religious community, between two independent states.) The pro-independence cause suffered a setback in 2003 when a new census showed that 30 percent of the Montenegrin population declared itself to be Serb, an increase of some 21 percent over the past decade and a further indication of how strong ethnic and emotional ties between Serbia and Montenegro remain. Djukanovic’s independence aspirations continued to suffer further blows in 2004 as public opinion surveys showed that support for independence was falling; a poll published in November showed that less than 43 percent of Montenegro’s population favored independence, far short of what would be needed for a legitimate referendum on the issue to pass.

Serbia and Montenegro’s economic situation is starting to show some signs of a turnaround after several years of a difficult transition—which itself was preceded by more than a decade of war and international sanctions. The gross domestic product in 2004 was forecast to grow by 8 percent, while the country scored an important victory in international financial markets in July when the London Club of international creditors agreed to write off 62 percent of Serbia and Montenegro’s debt. FDI has slowed to a trickle.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Serbia and Montenegro can change their government democratically. The latest national elections were conducted freely and fairly. The chief executive in the state union of Serbia and Montenegro is the president, elected by the unicameral Assembly of Serbia and Montenegro, which is composed of 126 deputies (91 from Serbia and 35 from Montenegro). A major point of contention between the two republics has been holding direct popular elections for the state union Assembly as called for in the Belgrade Agreement (the current deputies have been nominated by their respective parliaments). Montenegro has consistently delayed scheduling elections in order to avoid the creation of popularly legitimized federal institutions.

Each republic elects its own president in direct popular elections, and each republican government also has its own prime minister. The Montenegrin National Assembly is a unicameral, 75 seat legislature, and the Serbian National Assembly is a unicameral, 250-seat legislature, with deputies in both assemblies elected to four-year terms of office.

Numerous political parties exist and compete for power in elections. As noted above, the main parties in Serbia currently are the DS, the DSS, and the SRS. In Montenegro, the main parties are prime minister Djukanovic’s Democratic Party of Socialists (SDP), and the main opposition party, the Socialist People’s Party of Montenegro (SNP-CG).

Corruption has decreased overall from the excesses of the Milosevic era. However, the popular perception is that corruption remains at very high levels, perhaps due to more open media coverage of the problem. Serbia and Montenegro was ranked 97 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of the press has improved significantly since the Milosevic period, when the regime controlled state-owned media and some prominent members of the independent media were assassinated by "unknown" assailants. The government of Zoran Djindjic (January 2001-March 2003) also exerted considerable pressure on the main electronic media to support the government. During the state of emergency imposed after Djindjic’s assassination on March 12, 2003, many journalists and media watchdog groups criticized the government for going too far in censoring coverage of the government’s crackdown on organized crime groups. In Montenegro, the publisher of a major opposition daily highly critical of the government, Dusko Jovanovic, was assassinated in May. Although the investigation into Jovanovic’s death is ongoing, one person arrested in connection with the murder claimed that he has ties to Montenegro’s security services.

Libel remains a criminal offense in Serbia punishable by up to six months imprisonment; media advocacy groups continued to call for libel to be decriminalized in 2004. In Montenegro as well, libel remains a criminal offense, but punishable by fines rather than prison terms. During the course of 2004, the Kostunica government drafted, and the Serbian National Assembly passed, a Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance, although the OSCE has stated that improvements still need to be made to the law as it is now written. There were no reports of the government restricting access to the Internet.

According to the constitution, all citizens enjoy freedom of religious belief. However, with ethnic and religious identities closely intertwined in the region, increases in interethnic tensions often take on the appearance of religious intolerance. When Albanian extremists in Kosovo launched violent attacks against Serbs in Kosovo in March, mobs in Belgrade and Nis responded by torching two mosques in both cities. Restitution of church property nationalized by the Communists remains a point of dispute between church and state. There were no reports that the government attempted to restrict academic freedom during the year.

Citizens enjoy freedom of association and assembly. Foreign and domestic nongovernmental organizations enjoy the freedom to pursue their activities. New laws are currently being drafted to codify relations between trade unions and the government.

Legal and judicial reform is underway, although progress has been slow because of the complicated political situation in the country. The judicial system is still plagued by a large backlog of cases, underpaid judges and state prosecutors, and an excess of judges left over from the Milosevic era. There are reports that the system takes an excessively long time in filing formal charges against suspects. Moreover, the authority and independence of the judicial system continue to suffer as a result of the failure of legislative institutions to heed judicial rulings. Prison conditions generally meet international standards.

Serbia and Montenegro continues to have considerable difficulties in its relations with the ICTY because of a reluctance to hand over indicted war criminals. However, in October, Serbia handed over the former head of the Bosnian Serb intelligence service, who was accused of participating in the Srebrenica massacres, easing tensions somewhat.

Increasing concern was being raised about the independence of Montenegro’s judicial system after details emerged about procedural irregularities in a case involving Montenegrin prime minister Milo Djukanovic. In a case filed in October 2003, Djukanovic claimed that an opposition party member had committed libel by claiming that Djukanovic was engaged in human-trafficking operations. The judge fined the opposition leader in question, Miodrag Zivkovic, 8,000 euros after prohibiting Zivkovic from submitting any evidence to the court on his own behalf. The judge also refused to accept as evidence reports from the OSCE and the U.S. State Department. Defense requests for access to earlier investigations into the sex-trafficking scandal were also turned down.

Post-Milosevic reform of the military and security services continues to be an ongoing problem, as many analysts believe there are close ties between Milosevic-era security officials, networks supporting war crimes indictees, extreme nationalist forces, and some organized crime groups. Many of these problems were highlighted in the still-unexplained deaths of two conscripts in a barracks outside of Belgrade. Claims quickly circulated that the two recruits had been killed because they had seen war crimes indictees hiding in the barracks, but these claims were never proven. Officially, Serbia and Montenegro officials maintain that one of their goals remains entering NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, and, ultimately, NATO itself, although these goals remain hotly debated in a country that was in conflict with NATO less than seven years ago.

Cultural and ethnic minorities have their own political parties, access to media in their mother tongue, and other types of associations. Nevertheless, the numbers of individuals from ethnic minorities participating in government do not represent their percentages in the entire population. An important constitutional and political challenge facing Serbia and Montenegro is to satisfy increasing demands from regions with large ethnic minorities, such as Kosovo, the Sandzak, and Vojvodina. Similarly, there are frequent complaints of unfair treatment and police harassment of the Roma (Gypsy) community. During the March attacks against Serbs in Kosovo, mobs attacked mosques in Belgrade and Nis; however, senior government and political leaders quickly condemned the violence. Some incidents of violence also occurred during the year between various ethnic groups in Vojvodina, although these were primarily linked to small groups of thugs and barroom brawls rather than to any organized, coordinated campaign. In September, Kostunica announced the formation of a National Minorities Council within the government, whose task will be to protect religious, language, and other features of ethnic minorities living in Serbia.

Although women are legally entitled to equal pay for equal work, traditional patriarchal attitudes prevalent throughout the Balkans often limit women's roles in the economy. In general, women are underrepresented in higher levels of government. In October, the Serbian government set up a Council for Gender Equality to work on issues of importance to women. Domestic violence remains a serious problem. Some towns in southern Serbia have become an important part of the network trafficking women from the former Soviet Union to Western Europe for purposes of forced prostitution.