Crisis at Europe’s periphery – Serbian democracy in quarantine

16 April, 2020

Written by:
  • BiEPAG
Crisis at Europe’s periphery – Serbian democracy in quarantine

Authors: Lasse Lohmann and Stefan Stojković

The spreading of the virus Covid 19 has put everyday life on hold in many countries worldwide. While the world is fighting the pandemic, leaders in countries with fragile institutional settings have not wasted time to suspend laws and procedures, and to introduce the rule by decree. Under the umbrella of the corona crisis, extensive restrictions on human rights are being introduced, while criticism is often discarded in the name of a broader cause. What remains problematic is, however, not only the way corona-related measures are introduced, but also the extent of coercion that governments impose on society in order to fight the virus.

In Serbia – arguably the frontrunner among candidate countries to join the European Union – the necessity and the extent of the measures adopted remain rather debatable. Serbian authorities have further restricted freedom of the press and shut down the competitiveness in the political arena, while the opposition remains quarantined. Moreover, the state is harshly penalizing their citizens for not sticking to constantly changing rules in the state of emergency. Lastly, what makes actions employed by Serbian authorities also interesting to analyze is the way these authorities have taken advantage of the crisis for the purpose of foreign policy. Put differently, the country that largely depends on external aid to fight the Covid19 politicizes the import of medical supplies in order to feed domestic public skepticism about the EU.

Within just a couple of weeks the Serbian government has come from labelling the virus as “the most ridiculous one in human history” to being on the verge of a 24-hour lockdown. In other words, when in late February Prof. Nestorović - who later became a member of the COVID19 crisis response team within Serbian government – was making jokes about the virus and inviting Serbian citizens to visit Milano as “everything must be on discount there now”, President Vučić could have been seen to be very supportive of Nestorović’s humor, claiming that “people have no reason for concern, just do your jobs.”

By now, however, the government’s statements have not only become much more serious, but the aforementioned crisis response team, that was formed in the meantime, has introduced among the toughest – if not toughest – restrictions in Europe: seniors above the age of 65 in urban areas (70 in rural) cannot leave their households under any circumstances except on Saturdays from 4am to 7am when stores are exclusively open for them to buy weekly supplies. Additionally, people under the age of 65 may walk freely on working days only between 5am and 5pm, while free movement is restricted on weekends for everyone in the period from Fridays 5pm until Mondays 5am. Last but not least, dog walks are allowed daily from 11pm to 1am and on Sundays between 8am and 10am. These measures have been accompanied by constant threats from the officials that, if citizens do not stick to them, a 24-hour lockdown will follow, or, as President Vucic put it on March 29, “In that case, there will be no life in the streets, no grocery store, never!”

What is perhaps more intriguing are not the measures themselves, but the way they were introduced. On March 15, despite constitutional provisions that give the President only a ceremonial role, it was him who declared an open-ended state of emergency. The parliament has been sidelined from this very moment, as the President claims they cannot meet because a meeting of over 100 people would be a high-risk event in the middle of corona pandemic.

Upon taking over parliamentary jurisdictions, one of the first measures was to call upon military patrolling in the streets. Ever since the declaration of the state of emergency, the measures have changed almost daily. This has made people breaking the rules without even knowing these are in force, for which they are often harshly penalized. For instance, non-mainstream media has extensively reported the case of a girl who returned from Montenegro on March 14, a day before the state of emergency was even announced. Understandably, she received neither written nor verbal instruction for self-isolation after coming from abroad, let alone she was coming from Montenegro where there were zero corona virus cases at the time.

Nevertheless, a few days after the declaration of the state of emergency, she was reportedly visited by a police patrol which did not find her at home. After they have found out the girl was in her boyfriend’s apartment, she was taken into custody for breaking self-isolation measures. It has been more than three weeks now that she is in jail and the court just recently rejected her complaint. Worth noting is perhaps that this young woman is an artist who publicly supported the opposition’s upcoming electoral boycott with her music performance at one of their rallies. This is not an isolated case of harsh penalizing. Two citizens from the city of Pozarevac were fined with 2 and 2.5 years of imprisonment for breaking self-isolation rules. By comparison, rich celebrities like soccer players and singers who were also caught breaking self-isolation rules were sanctioned with up to a few months house arrest at best. One remains to wonder where this discrimination between wealthy and non-wealthy individuals who face the same charges is coming from.

Yet, with regards to the toughness of the measures one may note that the government just recognized that the health system would not stand this crisis and that undertaking such extraordinary measures is to prevent the system to collapse. Even though there might be truth in this argument, it is the extent of coercion and politization of the crisis that remains the point of debate. In other words, apart from the parliament being suspended, freedom of movement restricted and citizens severely penalized for not sticking to the rules, there are serious concerns in at least two more areas: media freedoms and political campaign. First, after the government announced to centralize the news distribution related to Covid19, a journalist who criticized the conditions under which medical staff operated in the clinical center of Vojvodina was arrested for releasing the text in an online news portal. A police patrol knocked on her door, confiscated her cellphone and laptop and took her into custody. The next morning, however, under a strong internal and external pressure, the government withdrew the controversial measure and the journalist was released.

Second, even though elections have been delayed indefinitely, political campaign seems to be taking place in the shadow of the corona crisis. For instance, when leading officials of the city of Belgrade decided to supply the city with protective gears, only two municipalities of Belgrade were reportedly denied access to this supply. Interestingly, these two municipalities are the only ones in the Serbian capital where the opposition parties are in power.

Finally, there are reasons to believe the crisis has been politicized for geopolitical positioning. President Vučić has harshly criticized the EU for how Serbia is treated in the time of crisis. In light of the announcement that the export of medical supplies from the EU will be conditional on member states’ approval, he publicly stated that “European solidarity does not exist”. He certainly understands that this resonates well with the wider public in a country were approval ratings of the EU are rather low. Despite the EU’s and NGO’s efforts to familiarize the public with how much the EU has invested in the Serbian health system, what has predominantly made headlines was that the EU is letting the country down. Simultaneously, it is interesting to see how President Vučić and the Serbian government portray the relationship between Serbia and China.

In the last few years, Serbia has become one of the biggest European recipients of foreign direct investments from China. In several parts of the country, China has invested in infrastructure projects, sent officers to support Serbian police forces and lent a number of loans. Most recently, China exported medical supplies and sent experts to support the crisis response team. For Vučić, the Chinese aid comes as no surprise as the Chinese president Xi Jinping is not only a “friend of the Serbian people” but also a “brother of this country.” As a sign of gratitude, Chinese flags are displayed on institutions and billboards, while the news related to the EU aid are marginalized.

When it is perhaps prudent and efficient leadership that is needed to succeed against the spread of Covid19, the Serbian government misses no opportunity to stir up political battles. The aforementioned examples show how corona measures create confusion, insecurity and cause concern about how the country’s fragile democratic system will be affected in the long run. President Vučić and the Serbian government continue to manipulate the facts and compare Chinese medical supply imports with the absence of such imports from the EU, even though they silently admit that the EU has invested money. Comparing a deeply centralized Chinese state structure where a swift decision-making of exporting supplies is possible, especially now that the crisis there is largely over, with the EU that lacks a centralized health system and where such decisions are made on a member states’ level, is at best manipulative. Why this manipulation of facts and the promotion of China is taking place in the middle of the country’s accession process remains debatable.

Current developments signal the danger of strengthening authoritarianism in Europe’s periphery, which might be worrisome for both Serbia and the EU. What is more, authoritarian tendencies might become even more resilient as they are likely to be backed by Eastern powers who have no particular interest in political stability in the region, let alone in promoting democracy. It remains to be seen how the EU will react to these trends in its backyard. Given that Serbia is in the negotiation process, the EU still has a strong conditionality leverage and is expected to be more cautious after its recent experiences with democratic backsliding in Hungary and Poland. In this sense, it also remains to be seen whether or not Serbian authorities have overestimated their position and what price, if any, will the country have to pay for their actions.

About the Authors:

Lasse Lohmann holds an BA in International Relations from the University of Groningen. Recently, he graduated with an MA in Southeastern European Studies from the Universities of Belgrade and Graz. In his Master thesis he has examined the role of social movements as a democratizing force in a backsliding environment. Lasse’s research interests include contentious politics, democratization, migration and nationalism studies. He is currently an intern at GIZ in Belgrade.

Stefan Stojković is an MSc student at the Institute of Political Science at Leiden University and is currently working on political dissatisfaction and vote choice in new European democracies. He also holds an MA degree in Nationalism Studies from Central European University in Budapest, as well as BA and MSc degrees in Psychology from the University of Novi Sad in Serbia. He is interested in electoral politics, voting behavior, political parties and South-East European politics.

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