Democracy, rule of law and human rights represent elements of the ideological core of the European Union (EU). Not only is the EU promoting these values within the Union, but also outside the Union. If we look at its enlargement policy, it can be noticed that these values represent one of the political criteria which a candidate state needs to fulfill to become a full member of the Union.
Serbia is a pro-EU oriented country, which has initialed the Stabilization and Association Agreement in 2007. In 2012, it officially became a candidate and in 2014 opened accession negotiations. To become a member Serbia needs to open and close 35 chapters. The first chapters were open at the end of 2015, and seven in total will be opened by the end of 2016.
The current Prime-minister of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić has been in power since 2012 and there are many indications of his autocratic ways of governing. Since he came to power, there is an evident trend of an increased media censorship, state corruption and corruption of judicial system. With such existing problems, one would think that the EU would criticize Serbian officials for decreasing its level of democracy. However, that is not the case. It can easily be noticed that the EU tends to favor Vučić. For example, Angela Merkel is a big supporter of Vučić, with whom she has established good relations. One wonders if the EU is indeed aware of the problems Serbia is facing under the reign of Vučić. If so, why is the EU accepting the leadership of a person who is known to have autocratic characteristics? Isn’t that the opposite of what the EU is stands for?
Each year, the EU Commission publishes a special report on Serbia’s development on its way to becoming a member of the EU. For this analysis, the section of the report called “Political Criteria” is the most relevant, since it indicates the level of democracy and human rights in Serbia. It also shows whether Serbia has improved or worsened compared to previous year. If we look at the reports from 2012 until now we can see a constant negative trend regarding democracy, media censorship, corruption and the judicial system. Additionally, there are number of NGOs which point at the existence of the similar problems. This confirms that the EU is fully aware of Vučić’s undemocratic actions within Serbia. Perhaps a reason why chapters 23 (judiciary and human rights) and 24 (Justice, freedom and security) remain the biggest hurdles for Serbia. These chapters were among the first ones to be opened and will take the longest to be closed.
Vučić has proven to be an energetic leader who can gain great support of the majority in Serbia. During his four years, he has won almost the absolute majority on three elections. Besides having such an internal legitimacy and having proven his leadership skills, he has also proven to be a dedicated pro-European leader. Even though Serbia is still balancing its relations with Russia, the EU is not doubting his dedication to the euro-integration.
If we go back to the annual reports of the EU we can see that there is an improvement of relations with neighbouring countries, like Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania and Montenegro. But most importantly, Vučić is often praised for having kept the dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina. The Brussels Agreement is a direct result of such dialogue, which is supposed to normalize relations between these two conflicting sides. Additionally, regarding Serbia’s relation with Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, Vučić has not exploited his popularity back home to impose hawkish policies towards those neighbours in order to gain even more political points. On the contrary, his rhetoric and proposals for cooperation, are more like of a dove towards those countries. On some occasions he has even withdrawn the support for Dodik, the leader of Republika Srpska who is not favored by the EU. Thus, Vučić policies are not only fulfilling the EU’s wish to compromise with Belgrade and Pristina, but they are also directed towards achieving normalization of relations with all of the neighbours of the region. However, even though his foreign policies have been successful, it does not entirely translate to the same success on a domestic level.
Autocratic leadership is not something that the EU stands for. Although, within the EU there are countries with such leaders, like Victor Orbán in Hungary, but one would think that the EU would try to limit such kind of leadership in the candidate states. However, as this article has shown, that is not the case. Such actions actually illustrate the priorities of the EU, which is focused on regional stability of the Western Balkans, rather than on the internal level of democracy of candidate states. One can also ask why are the EU’s priorities are set like this. Not to mention the EU has already too many issues on its plate, which are destabilizing the Union and potentially leading to its destruction. With problems like the Greek finantial crisis, Brexit, refugee crisis, Ukraine crisis, rise of populism in Europe, ISIS and terrorism, the EU’s support for Vučić, a popular leader who is stabilizing an unstable region, is a means to save time and resources and allows them to focus more on issues that matter for the Union’s survival.
This paradoxical approach neglects the consequences for Serbia, which potentially gives rise to an ’illiberal democracy’. The EU is stabilizing the region by endorsing Vučić, but at the same time it’s endorsement is undermining Serbia’s democracy. By having the EU’s support, Vučić gains an external legitimacy for his actions within Serbia, which additionally boosts his internal legitimacy. Additionally, by hiding his true autocratic characteristics behind the veil of the EU, Vučić gains an advantage against the opposition, which is also pro-EU, but critizes the autocratic features of Vučić.
One has to wonder how the region can be stablizied when it’s ruled by autocratic leaders? How sustainable is such a solution? Is it worth sacrificing democracy and rule of law for temporary stability? The answer to these questions are somewhat negative.
Strahinja Subotic obtained a BA in Political Science at the University of Belgrade (Serbia), having attended his junior year at the University of Missouri (USA). He received a master’s degree in Political Science after graduating from Central European University (Hungary) in 2016, with a focus on transitional justice and reconciliation. Strahinja is currently a Political Science PhD student at the University of Belgrade.
- List of all EU’s annual reports on Serbia: http://www.seio.gov.rs/documents/eu-documents.231.htmlThe latest report on the major issues: http://ec.europa.eu/enlargement/pdf/key_documents/2015/20151110_report_serbia.pdf, pp. 6-19.
Ibid. pp. 22-23.