Jeremic: Those who care about democracy in Serbia - look to France

On the occasion of the visit of the President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic to Paris on 17 July, Vuk Jeremic, the leader of a centrist opposition party, remonstrates for the development of democracy and human rights in Serbia and the Balkans.

In June 2003, EU leaders gathered in Thessaloniki to unreservedly affirm that the “future of the Balkans is within the European Union.” Fifteen years later at the Sofia Summit, a new generation of EU leaders was more circumspect. The declaration they signed made no mention of membership, simply proclaiming “unequivocal support for the European perspective of the Western Balkans.”

Of all EU leaders, President Macron has been the most forthright in presenting the reasons for this shift. In a historic address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg and in remarks made in Sofia a few weeks later, he said that he favored anchoring the Balkans with and towards Europe, but noted that moving in the direction of a further enlargement could take place only in the wake of the completion of a real reform that would result in a deepening of integration and a better functioning of the European Union.

Macron’s candor deserves deep respect: it shows statesmanlike concern for the EU’s future while at the same time making it clear that transforming Western Balkan states into well-regulated, European societies remains a shared endeavor. It strikes a blow against those who aspire to entrench the region as a sort of buffer zone between the EU and the Middle East, whilst maintaining the pretense that all is well in our part of the world. 

The latter approach is seriously wrongheaded, in my view. It would invariably increase the divide between the EU and the region, greatly reducing the European perspective of Western Balkan states in the long term. Indeed, what is needed most during the forthcoming period of European reform advocated by the French president is what he defined as a reinforced strategic dialogue [with the countries of the Western Balkans], a perspective, closely monitoring the reforms that are undertaken and that we encourage, but without laxity and without hypocrisy.”

Indeed, the Western Balkan states must manifestly undertake fundamental reforms focused on rebuilding the region’s democratic foundations and aligning them with those of the European mainstream, led by France. These foundations are increasingly under assault, both within the EU and in parts of the Western Balkans, where illiberal regimes led by reactionary rulers claim to secure stability, feign the espousal of European values, and profess to support EU integration whilst in reality relying on authoritarian means to stay in power.

Political scientists have called this form of governance “stabilitocracy,” whose characteristics also include: promotion of a single-party political culture; reliance on informal kleptocratic structures; significant electoral irregularities; firm control of the media landscape; slanderous vilification of opponents; collaboration with organized crime figures; extensive exploitation of state resources for political advantage; suppression of citizens’ fundamental rights and freedoms; downgrading of parliamentary debate; and regular staging of crises to undermine the rule of law and subordinate the independence of state institutions.

Serbia is without a doubt the stabilitocratic leader of the Western Balkans. The responsibility for this dishonorable distinction lies squarely in the hands of Aleksandar Vucic, who first rose to prominence in the 1990s as Slobodan Milosevic’s information minister. Since he took power in 2012, his increasingly iron-fisted, despotic rule reminiscent of Louis XIV’s dictum of “l’état, c’est moi” has been documented by the OSCE, the Council of Europe, Freedom House, Human Rights Watch, Transparency International, Reporters without Borders, and the European Federation of Journalists, amongst many others. And the Financial Action Task Force—the global standard setting body for anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT)—took the unprecedented step of inscribing an official EU candidate country on its list of only nine jurisdictions worldwide with “strategic deficiencies” in their respective AML/CFT regimes.

In the face of such opprobrium, now is the time for European leaders to truly engage with Serbia in a “reinforced strategic dialogue” as proposed by President Macron—but with full honesty and free of misconceptions.

Continuing to turn a blind eye to the rise of autocracy in the Western Balkans would not advance the long-term interests of either the EU or the region itself. Those of us who are committed to Serbia’s democratic future today look to France, as befits a friendship that goes back centuries. We look to President Macron, as the leader of the resistance to the resurgence of authoritarianism and oppression in Europe. The alternative to stabilitocracy in the Western Balkans is clear: the painstaking building of genuinely democratic societies that increasingly look like the rest of Europe, led by responsible governments willing to work closely with the EU, and fully prepared to respond in the event that the opportunity of a further enlargement presents itself in the future.

 

Vuk Jeremic, Serbia’s foreign minister from 2007 to 2012 and president of the UN General Assembly from 2012 to 2013, heads Serbia’s opposition centrist People’s Party

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