Freedom in the World
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Freedom in the World Scores
Serbia is a parliamentary democracy with competitive multiparty elections, but in recent years the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has steadily eroded political rights and civil liberties, putting pressure on independent media, the political opposition, and civil society organizations. Despite these trends, the country has continued to move toward membership in the European Union.
Serbia received a downward trend arrow due to President Aleksandar Vučić’s continued consolidation of power, including through opaque party financing methods, politicization of law enforcement, and attempts to undermine critical journalists with financial investigations and smears in government-friendly media.
Key Developments in 2017
- Incumbent prime minister Aleksandar Vučić won 55 percent of the vote in an April presidential election, securing a five-year term after a campaign marked by media bias and allegations of pressure on voters, misused public resources, and vote buying.
- In June, Vučić named Ana Brnabić to succeed him as prime minister, though he retained his post as head of the ruling party, and it was widely understood that he would remain the government’s de facto leader despite the presidency’s largely ceremonial role under the constitution.
- The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS) documented 92 attacks against journalists during the year, the highest total since 2008. Most of the incidents were either verbal threats or some other form of pressure short of a physical assault.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 28 / 40 (−1)
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 9 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
In April 2017, Vučić secured a five-year term as president with 55 percent of the vote in a field of 11 candidates. The campaign was characterized by media bias and allegations of misuse of public resources and vote buying. Vučić remained prime minister throughout the election period, blurring the line between official and electoral activities.
Vučić named Ana Brnabić, then the minister for local government and public administration, to succeed him as prime minister in June, and she was confirmed in office by the parliament later that month. The rest of the cabinet remained largely unchanged.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
The Serbian National Assembly is a unicameral, 250-seat legislature, with deputies elected to four-year terms according to closed party lists in a proportional representation vote.
Vučić called snap parliamentary elections for April 2016, alongside previously scheduled local and regional elections, prompting speculation that he sought to use the national campaign effort to bolster the SNS in local races. Leaders of several opposition parties accused the SNS of rigging the polls, including by tampering with ballot boxes. Election observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) noted pressure on public-sector workers to vote for the ruling party. Media reports by private television outlets largely favored the SNS.
While the SNS and its coalition partners won the largest portion of the vote, enabling Vučić to remain prime minister, they lost 27 seats in the parliament, falling from 158 to 131. Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić’s Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and its allies took 29 seats, 15 fewer than they had held before the polls. The far-right Serbian Radical Party (SRS) placed third with 22 seats, returning to the parliament after a four-year absence. The conservative and Euroskeptic Dveri–Democratic Party of Serbia won 13 seats. The progressive Enough Is Enough movement took 16 seats. A coalition led by the Democratic Party (DS) won 16 seats, down from 19 in the previous parliament. The pro-EU Alliance for a Better Serbia bloc won 13 seats, down from 18. The remaining seats went to smaller parties representing ethnic minorities.
The SNS performed well in the local and regional elections, particularly in Vojvodina, where the DS had previously enjoyed broad support.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 3 / 4
Electoral laws largely correspond to international standards, but aspects of the electoral process are poorly regulated, and implementation of existing rules is flawed in some respects. The Republic Electoral Commission’s composition before the 2017 presidential election raised concerns about partisan influence. In its observation report, the Centre for Research, Transparency, and Accountability (CRTA) noted irregularities in 3 percent of polling stations. They included failure to check voters’ personal documents and failure to mark voters’ fingers to prevent multiple voting. A parliamentary oversight committee meant to monitor the campaign was never established, and the media regulator did not proactively track and punish biased media coverage.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 12 / 16 (−1)
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 3 / 4 (−1)
Political parties may be established freely and can typically operate without encountering formal restrictions. However, campaign finance regulations are weakly enforced and place no overall cap on the private funds raised and spent by parties and candidates. Following the 2017 presidential election, the OSCE reported that the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) had decreased the resources dedicated to proactively monitoring campaign funds and did not thoroughly investigate dubious donations. The Vučić campaign enjoyed a considerable financial advantage over its rivals and reportedly benefited from the misuse of public resources, including support from state media and use of public buses to transport loyalists to rallies. In October, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) found that the SNS had orchestrated the use of thousands of proxy donors to bypass legal limits on individual donations and disguise the true source of funding.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to observed irregularities in the financing of the ruling party and its presidential candidate ahead of the 2017 election, as well as the misuse of state-controlled media to support the government-backed candidate.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 3 / 4
There have been peaceful transfers of power between rival parties over the past two decades, and the political system remains competitive. However, in recent years the ruling party has used several tactics to reduce the opposition’s prospects in elections. These include manipulating the timing of snap elections, smearing critical journalists to bolster the government’s image and discredit its opponents, and mobilizing public resources and state institutions to support the SNS’s campaigns.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 3 / 4
Voters are largely free to make political decisions without intimidation or coercion, though the ruling party and allied private businesses allegedly use patronage networks to influence political outcomes. During the 2017 election, there were widespread reports of employees at state or state-affiliated entities facing pressure to support Vučić and compel their friends and families to do the same. Various incentives have also been used to convince hundreds of local elected officials to form alliances with the SNS or change their party affiliation after elections.
Russia has been accused of attempting to influence Serbian politics through its state-owned media and an array of small pro-Russian parties, media outlets, and civil society groups in Serbia.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
The country’s 5 percent electoral threshold for parliamentary representation does not apply to parties representing ethnic minorities. Groups centered on the ethnic Albanian, Bosniak, Slovak, and Hungarian communities won a total of 10 seats in the 2016 elections. Nevertheless, ethnic minorities have a relatively muted voice in Serbian politics in practice. No party representing the interests of the Romany minority ran in the 2016 elections.
Women enjoy equal political rights. According to electoral regulations, women must account for at least 33 percent of a party’s candidate list, and women currently hold 34 percent of seats in the parliament. Ana Brnabić became Serbia’s first woman and first openly gay prime minister in June 2017, but critics argued that her appointment was a superficial bid to please the EU rather than a genuine sign of greater engagement on issues of importance to women or LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 7 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 3 / 4
Elected officials are generally able to set and implement laws and policies without interference, though Vučić’s move to the presidency in 2017 raised new concerns about the personalization of governance and politicization of state institutions. Both Vučić and Brnabić made statements indicating that the president, who was also the SNS’s leader, would remain the dominant figure in government despite the presidency’s limited executive powers under the constitution.
Opposition members of parliament have accused the parliamentary leadership of using disciplinary measures—including fines for insulting or disruptive remarks—to undermine their role as a check on the ruling party. The EU has also criticized the extensive use of accelerated legislative procedures and late changes to the legislative agenda among other practices that weaken the lawmaking process.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4
Although the number of arrests and prosecutions for corruption has risen, high-profile convictions are very rare. In August 2017, a court in Belgrade dismissed a corruption case focused on the defense minister’s purchase of an apartment. The work of the ACA is undermined by the ambiguous division of responsibilities among other entities responsible for combating corruption, and it was further crippled by leadership vacancies for much of 2017. A new agency director, Majda Kršikapa, was chosen in September, but after launching numerous investigations and showing other signs of vigorous activity, she resigned without explanation in November. Among other steps, she had reportedly requested a probe into suspicious campaign donations to the SNS.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 2 / 4
Public officials are subject to asset disclosure rules overseen by the ACA, but penalties for violations are uncommon. While a 2004 freedom of information law empowers citizens and journalists to obtain information of public importance, authorities frequently obstruct requests in practice. In a prominent case involving illegal 2016 demolitions for a development project on Belgrade’s waterfront, prosecutors repeatedly failed to pay fines imposed by the information commissioner in 2017 for refusing to respond to information requests about their investigation.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 45 / 60 (−2)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 13 / 16 (−1)
D1. Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4
Despite a legal framework that guarantees freedom of the press and the 2012 decriminalization of defamation, media freedom is undermined by the threat of lawsuits or criminal charges against journalists under other legislation, lack of transparency in media ownership, editorial pressure from politicians and politically connected media owners, and high rates of self-censorship. The state and ruling party exercise influence over private media in part through advertising contracts and other indirect subsidies. While many outlets take a progovernment line or avoid criticism of the leadership, some continue to produce independent coverage.
A number of critical journalists and outlets faced smear campaigns, punitive tax inspections, and other forms of pressure in 2017, and the weekly Vranjske closed in September, citing harassment from local officials and criminals. There were 92 attacks against journalists during the year, according to NUNS, the highest total recorded by the group since 2008. They included physical assaults, though most incidents involved aggressive rhetoric and other forms of pressure or intimidation.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, which is generally respected in practice.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4 (−1)
Academic freedom has largely been upheld. However, evidence that multiple politicians plagiarized academic papers with impunity to advance their careers has raised questions about the quality and integrity of the education system. In April 2017, the Ministry of Defense proposed a regulation requiring preapproval for any research that involves foreigners or foreign entities and is relevant to national security; the proposal was withdrawn amid objections from academics. A new Law on Higher Education adopted by the National Assembly in September increased the presence of state-appointed members on the National Council for Higher Education and a national accreditation body, and another education law adopted the same month gave the education minister centralized control over the appointment of school principals, adding to concerns about academic autonomy and political influence.
Score Change: The score declined from 4 to 3 due to the approval of new laws that increase the central government’s control over appointments at schools and universities.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
Private discussion is generally free and vibrant, though potential deterrents to open debate include a pattern in which progovernment tabloids have smeared individuals for criticizing government policies on social media.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 10 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
Serbians enjoy freedom of assembly. However, in October 2017 two students accused of organizing a protest against Vučić following the presidential election were charged for doing so without a permit, despite the fact that the protest had no clear leaders.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 3 / 4
Foreign and domestic nongovernmental organizations generally operate freely, but those that have taken openly critical stances toward the government or address sensitive or controversial topics have faced threats and harassment in recent years. In January 2017, activists from the Youth Initiative for Human Rights were physically attacked at an event organized by the ruling party.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4
Workers may legally join unions, engage in collective bargaining, and strike, but the International Confederation of Trade Unions has reported that organizing efforts and strikes are often restricted in practice.
F. RULE OF LAW: 9 / 16 (−1)
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 2 / 4
The independence of the judiciary is compromised by political influence over judicial appointments, and many judges have reported facing external pressure regarding their rulings. Politicians regularly comment on judicial matters, including by discussing ongoing cases or investigations with the media.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2 / 4 (−1)
Due process guarantees are upheld in some cases, but corruption, lack of capacity, and political influence often undermine these protections. Among other problems, rules on the random assignment of cases to judges and prosecutors are not consistently observed, and mechanisms for obtaining restitution in civil matters are ineffective. High-profile, politically sensitive cases are especially vulnerable to interference. The failure of police and prosecutors to make any visible progress on the investigation of illegal 2016 demolitions in the Savamala district on Belgrade’s waterfront was widely seen as an effort to protect politically powerful perpetrators.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to signs of political interference in the work of police and prosecutors, most prominently in the case of illegal 2016 demolitions in the capital.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4
Serbians are generally free from major threats to physical security, though some prison facilities suffer from overcrowding, abuse, and inadequate health care. Radical right-wing organizations and violent sports fans who target ethnic minorities and others also remain a concern.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 2 / 4
Legal safeguards for socially vulnerable groups are poorly enforced. For example, women are legally entitled to equal pay for equal work, but this rule is not widely respected. The Romany minority is especially vulnerable to discrimination in employment, housing, and education. LGBT people continue to face hate speech, threats, and even physical violence, and perpetrators are rarely punished despite laws addressing hate crimes and discrimination. However, the government has made some gestures of support for the rights of LGBT people; Brnabić attended the annual pride parade in Belgrade in September.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 13 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
There are no formal restrictions on freedom of movement. Serbians are free to change their place of employment and education, and have the right to travel. Citizens have been able to enter the Schengen area of the EU without a visa since 2010.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3 / 4
In general, property rights are respected, but adjudication of disputes is slow, and problems such as illegal construction and fraud persist. Approximately 1.5 million buildings in Serbia are not registered. The irregular 2016 demolition of a number of homes and businesses in Belgrade’s Savamala district was aimed at clearing the way for a government-backed private development project. While the perpetrators violated property rights guaranteed by law, the investigation into the incident remained stalled in 2017.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3 / 4
A new law aimed at preventing domestic violence took effect in 2017, but such violence remains a problem. There were more than 20 deaths in 2017 as a consequence of domestic violence; in July, in two separate incidents, two women and one child were killed at social care centers. Early and forced marriage is reportedly more common among the Romany minority, with more than half of Romany girls marrying before the legal age of 18.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4
Residents generally have access to economic opportunity, but factors such as weak macroeconomic growth and a relatively high rate of unemployment contribute to labor exploitation in some industries. Several reports in recent years have described poor conditions in factories, including low wages, unpaid overtime, and a hazardous working environment. Legal protections designed to prevent such abuses are not well enforced.