Gauging Democracy: The Case of Serbia

Competitive authoritarianism

A quick glance at any methodology measuring the quality of democracy in Serbia since the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and its allies took power in 2012, reveals a marked deterioration.

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, the country’s Democracy Index fell from 6.71 to 6.22. The Transformation Index of the German Bertelsmann Foundation measures a similar decline in the quality of “political transformation”, from 8.01 to 6.95. As far as the Freedom House’s Freedom in the World Report, that evaluates the state of political rights and civil liberties in a country, Serbia was qualified as “free” in 2017, the year before its current President solidified his control of the country by winning the presidential election. Today, because of a tightening of the grip on power of its populist leader, it is ranked as “partially free”. According to the Washington D.C.-based organization, the country’s status dropped from 76 out of 100, to 64 from 100. According to all of the above-mentioned democracy monitoring institutions, Serbia is either a “flawed”, “defective” democracy, or belongs to a group of “transitional or hybrid Regimes”.

The absolute political (and economic) dominance of the Serbian president Vučić and his party rests on several pillars: media control, continued grip over the independent institutions and the judiciary, elections organized in an increasingly unfair environment and a peaceful coexistence with unreformed security services and other vestiges of the Milošević regime and the wider Communist past.

Gauged media

Another Washington D.C.-based organization, International Research & Exchanges Board, described the situation in the media in Serbia as the worst in 20 years. Justifiably, Serbia ranks 93rd out of 180 countries in the 2020 Press Freedom Index report compiled by Reporters Without Borders. The vertiginous fall of media freedom started ever since the 2014 extraordinary parliamentary elections in which Vučić’s party singlehandedly gained an almost two-thirds majority in the Serbian parliament. Since then, Serbia’s ranking on the Index fell by 39 places, one of the most vertiginous falls of media freedom in the last decade worldwide.

Television is by far the most popular media form in Serbia. According to the data of IPSOS, over 6.1 million out of approximately 7 million people living in the country, rely on television for their daily news. It is not exaggerated to say that who controls television stations holds power in Serbia. The concentration of most of the television market in the hands of only four owners poses a high risk to media pluralism in the country. All of them (Public Broadcasting Service RTS, Pink Media Group, Kopernikus Corporation and Happy TV) are under control of the regime and at the same time they are the only ones having the national broadcasting license issued by Serbia’s heavily politicalized Regulatory Authority of Electronic Media. None of the independent television stations has the ability to reach out to the totality of the country’s population. Confined to cable television, television stations independent from the government, such as N1, NOVA S, and NewsMax Adria, are viewed by a significantly smaller portion of Serbian homes with the highest concentration in the capital city.

A recent study (April 2021), sponsored by the USAID and the National Democratic Institute, divides the country’s media into two distinct groups. First brings together media (television and print) uncritical of the ruling regime, while the second is composed of the professional media equally critical of the government and the opposition. 65% of the Serbian population watches only the Media Group 1, 11% of the Serbs follows Media Group 2, whereas 19% watches both groups.

The Serbian regime does not stop only at administrative measures awarding national broadcasting licenses only to its propaganda outlets and other subservient media. It directly misappropriates taxpayer’s money to assure the solvency of the loyalist media outlets and give them an unfair advantage in the market. The Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia (CINS) exposed in 2018 that pro-governmental tabloid papers – Srpski telegraf and Informer - received important funds in open calls for media financing of the local authorities, despite frequent violations of the Code of ethics of journalists of Serbia. Srpski telegraf was created in 2016, and in only 9 months of its existence the country’s Press Council established that the tabloid violated the journalist ethics code as many as 1320 times.

The regime gives a similar unfair advantage to its favorite mouthpiece Television Pink. CINS revealed that not only that the Tax Authority agreed to unjustifiably reprogram TV Pink’s tax debt of the amount of almost 13 million Euro, but the state’s Serbian Export Credit and Insurance Agency awarded the company owning the television with export credit of approximately 11 million Euro.[1]

In Serbia media ownership is not sufficiently transparent. This situation was present much before the SNS and their partners came to power in 2021. In 2011, the Anti-Corruption Council concluded that 82% of the real owners of commercial broadcasters were not known to the public. Opaque media ownership is facilitated by incoherent legislation, but mainly due to the collusion between the government and the regulator.

In 2018, Telekom Srbija, a state-owned telecommunications operator, has acquired a majority stake in a smaller Serbian cable TV and broadband services provider Kopernikus Technology operating in the city of Niš and the south of the country. According to Reuters, the takeover amounted to an exorbitant sum of approximately 200 million Euro of taxpayers money, or a seemingly overpaid 1000 Euro by customer. One of the owners of Kopernikus, who led his business operations in Serbia for years via the off-shore bank accounts, is a brother of the head of the ruling party for the city of Niš.[2] A month after the acquisition of Kopernikus by Telekom, the same owner bought two television stations with the national frequency TV Prva and TV O2 (formerly B92) and the rest of the media operation of their Greek owner Antena group for a total of 180 million Euro. The two transactions led independent observers to logically conclude that the money of the state Telekom operator was used to allow the people close to the ruling party to get full control over the two television stations.[3] From a previous editorial policy, where they avoided criticizing the regime, the two media slowly transformed into its reliable mouthpieces.

Credible allegations that Serbian government weaponized state-owned Telekom to curb media freedom Serbia were reinforced in August 2020, with a leakage of a 38-million-Euros-worth contract between Telekom and Wireless media, a company of a media mogul close to the ruling SNS. The opposition claimed that part of the sum was used to buy off the tabloid newspaper Kurir, one of the daily newspaper with the highest circulation, with a previous track record of shifting allegiances and an occasional harsh criticism of the SNS government. Under the new ownership, Kurir transformed into a predictable pro-Vučić propaganda outlet.

In the case of the acquisition of Kopernikus, Telekom was unconvincingly claiming that it had nothing to do with the purchase of the television stations, but that the purchase was aimed at reaching the 53% share of the telecommunications market controlled by Serbia Broadband (SBB), a private cable television and broadband internet service provider, operating across the Balkans region. Serbia Broadband is owned by the United Group, who equally owns the television stations N1 and Nova S, critical of the government.

Unlike in the above cases, even a seemingly “apolitical” and “market driven” behavior of Telekom, can very well serve a political purpose. Just before the Covid-19 pandemic started, several cable operators (the Supernova, Radius Vector and Copernicus Technology), which are part of the Telekom group, did not renew the contract, with United Media on broadcasting their channels, among which, N1, CNN affiliate-news television. The European Commission’s reactions for more media pluralism were to no avail.

Announced merger between state-owned Telekom and mobile and fixed telephone operator Telenor (a former subsidiary of the Norwegian company, now owned by a Czech investment group) threatens to significantly alter the market share to the detriment of the still leading SBB, reducing it from 53% to under 30%. Whereas, the motivations of Telenor’s owners seem purely financial, same cannot be said for Telekom.[4]

In the scramble for the installation of fiber-optic cable across Serbia’s homes, between Telekom and SBB, Telekom is going so far as to offer painting the facades of numerous run-down buildings in exchange for the installation of their optic cables.[5] In this context, the impressive political micromanagement of the ruling party aimed at a full control of the media goes down to the smallest level of democratic social organization, the building tenant assemblies. A malleable president of the assembly can usually stir the majority of tenants in the direction of accepting Telekom’s offers.

Independent media are equally losing the battle for a larger share of the advertising market. Aside from the fact that for years the state through its Ministries and public enterprises has also been the biggest advertiser in the country and that none of them would advertise their services on independent media, as a result of the regime’s pressures, numerous private companies, in fear of retribution and administrative harassment from tax authorities refrain from placing adds in media critical of the government. Anecdotal evidence from independent weekly newspapers reveals a tragicomic situation in which private companies that already paid for their adds in the critical papers, called the editors not to publish them.

The state capture of the media sector, is accompanied by numerous physical attacks on independent journalists, alongside the vilest smear campaign in pro-regime media. Individual civil society activists, independent journalists or opposition politicians occasionally win court cases against the pro-governmental media, but the few fines proscribed by the Serbian courts for tarnishing independent journalists honor, are no measure to generous government funding. In the legislative environment of decriminalization of defamation, thanks to the government’s generosity, fines become nothing more than an affordable expense in the tabloids’ yearly balance sheets.

In addition to the grim local picture of media freedom in the country, inherited low media literacy, Serbia was certainly not bypassed by negative global processes, such as pauperization of print media, proliferation of fake news, extreme polarization of the audiences and click bait economy. The maxim “if it bleeds, it leads” best describes the rupture of an implied social contract between the media and the population, in which media was primarily there, to help the public understand the world in which they are living in, not simply, as it is today, to make money.

Bondage of independent institutions, judiciary, law enforcement and the parliament

Media capture is accompanied by the full politicization of all independent institutions built after Serbia’s democratic revolution in 2000. The Office of the Serbian Ombudsman (in Serbian "Protector of Citizens") was established in the current constitution adopted in 2006. First office holder Saša Janković, twice elected in 2007 and 2012, was regarded by a vast portion of the population, as fiercely independent from the executive power. Second highly regarded independent institution of the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection, assuring the transparency of government, was established by a 2003 law. The position of the Commissioner has been held since 2004 by Rodoljub Šabić, who was appointed for an initial 7-years term and then re-elected in 2011. His second term expired in 2018. Thanks to the Commissioner, numerous investigative journalists and citizen groups were allowed to access information exposing abuse of power and were thus a formidable tool in defense of democracy.

The ruling SNS party did not dare to replace the two respected office holders Janković and Šabić before the end of their term of office. The regime strategy was rather to wait the formal end of their tenure in 2017 and 2018 respectively for the SNS-dominated National Assembly to appoint two of its henchmen as their replacements.

If one take into account that successful post-authoritarian regimes in Serbia never managed to establish the judicial and prosecutorial independence, with the capture of the Ombudsman and the Commissioner, Serbia lost its only two independent institutions able to pose somewhat of a check on the executive power.

Previous post- Milošević government of the Democratic Party tried to reform the judiciary branch in 2009. As a result of the reform, in a matter of days, as many as 1000 judges and prosecutors lost their jobs. The aim of the reform was to get rid of the corrupt officials from the previous authoritarian period, but the result was very different. The government of the Democratic Party at the time did not resist the temptation of filling the courts with their own people. The fact that they were in a coalition with former Milošević’s Socialist Party of Serbia meant that some of the judges and prosecutors from the time of the dictatorship survived the purge. The result of the 2009 reform was reinstitution of almost everyone evicted in 2009, and millions of Euros in indemnities and lost salaries that the state had to pay to the purged judges and prosecutors.

Final confirmation that the independence of the police is heavily constrained by political considerations came in the night of 24 April 2016 in Belgrade’s bohemian Savamala district. In order to clear the way for the construction of a multi-billion real-estate project Belgrade Waterfront, a group of masked men armed with excavators illegally destroyed several private buildings standing in the way. In the process they roughed-up and unlawfully detained the people guarding the destroyed property and several passers-by. Published transcripts show that when the witnesses dialed the police, they refused to intervene arguing that they got such an order from their superiors.[6] Investigative journalists from the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) got hold of a police report showing that several public enterprises of the city of Belgrade took part in the illegal demolition.[7] In an interview with the same media, the wife of the SNS mayor of Belgrade at the time of the incident, said that her husband bragged about having organised the demolition.[8] Former mayor denied the allegations.

The policeman in charge in the night of the incident was the only one judged for failure to act. The law enforcement officer admitted guilt and received a mild parole sentence, leaving the impression that he was a scapegoat to ensure the impunity of the top brass of the regime. Both the European Parliament and the European Commission urged the Serbian authorities “to deliver convincing results, including a sustainable track record with effective investigations” in several top affairs, including the Savamala unlawful demolition. The case of Savamala and a number of other internationally less prominent examples, reveals that the state and its law enforcement almost entirely ceded, to use Max Webber’s definition, “the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force” to the political party in power.

As several electoral observation mission of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe concluded, the absence of media freedom, insufficient neutrality of the country’s democratic institutions, blurring of the line between government and President’s official duties and the election campaign, as well as opaque campaign financing, limit voters’ choices and give an unfair advantage to the ruling party. Additionally, widespread incidents of carousel voting, intimidation of the civil servants and their families to vote for the ruling party, as well as other techniques of pressure, have been registered by Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) and other civil society organisations and opposition parties monitoring the elections. In this atmosphere, with the media gauged, state and independent institutions fully captured, no one but the ruling party and their allies stand a chance in the Serbian elections. Elections exercised in Serbia are the Trojan horse of its modern autocrats.

As a result of these undemocratic practices, main part of the opposition boycotted the June 2020 parliamentary elections, leaving as a result a National Assembly populated almost exclusively by the MPs of the ruling SNS and their allies. Compensating for the lack of parliamentary debate, the National Assembly became a loudspeaker engaging in the abhorrent smear campaign against anyone critical of President Vučić and his party: opposition politicians, independent journalists, citizen activists and university professors. Inappropriate language, a total absence of meaningful policy debates, make of the post-June 2020 Serbian parliament, a perfect example justifying David Van Reybrouck’s ingenious proposal to replace the elections as we know them by a system of sortition.[9] Any parliament elected randomly from the ranks of the legally competent adult population of Serbia would be more capable to enact the laws of the land than the current National Assembly. 

The legalistic nature of the Serbian democratic revolution in 2000, and the absence of transitional justice, excluded most members of the former Communist and Milošević’s security services from criminal prosecution. Far from lustrating or processing the spies during Serbia’s authoritarian phase, an embarrassingly small number of them were tried for crimes they had committed. Only two people from Milošević's security services ended up in prison for the political crimes the regime committed in the 1990s. Others are not only living out their lives with impunity, but in some cases continue to hold the reins of power. Many are still employed by Serbia’s security services, others, including some investigated for alleged participation in the murder of a prominent Serbian journalist Slavko Ćuruvija in 1999, are high ranking members of the ruling party.

In coalition with Milošević during the 1990s, individuals from the ruling SNS party, including its president Vučić, found an accommodation with the authoritarian deep state. On the morning of October 7, 2000, two days after the democratic revolution, while most of the country celebrated a long-awaited freedom, Milošević's political police began working round-the-clock to destroy all evidence of the atrocities committed by the disgraced regime. Apart from destroying the security service’s classified files, Milošević's spies organised the collection and theft of countless other documents that his government had left behind but had not been destroyed. The intention was not only to protect the dark secrets of the dying autocracy but retain these files and use them as a tool with which to blackmail a succession of post-authoritarian governments. The files became stocks that guaranteed their illegal holders the ability to control and exploit the economy and politics of Serbia. President Vučić’s illiberal regime is not immune to this system of extortion.

What about the right of rebellion?

Why don’t the Serbs rebel against such a regime? Grab a copy of Bertrand Russel’s “A History of Western Philosophy” from your university or local public library, flip through its almost thousand pages, and you shall read what, since the down of time, political philosophers wrote about the right (or even duty) of the people to overthrow an oppressive government. Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, just to name a few, firmly believed in the right of rebellion against regimes that act against the safety or common interest of the people.

In his “On the Origin of Inequality”, Rousseau, one of the fathers of Enlightenment, wrote,

“the contract of government is so completely dissolved by despotism, that the despot is master only so long as he remains the strongest; as soon as he can be expelled, he has no right to complain of violence. The popular insurrection that ends in the death or deposition of a Sultan is as lawful an act as those by which he disposed, the day before, of the lives and fortunes of his subjects. He was maintained by force alone, it is force alone that overthrows him.”

The belief in this right has warmed many hearts, clenched numerous fists, and propelled countless popular uprisings.

The rebellion of the Thirteen Colonies against the British Crown, the onslaught of the Bastille, the beheadings of the King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette and thousands of others, the storming of the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg by the Bolsheviks immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein's 1927 feature film “October”, the explosion of rage that overthrew the bloody regime of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979 in Iran, all used this right of revolution to justify their violent actions.

Today, few mainstream writers venture into justifying violence even in the case of most brutal dictatorships. Facing the contemporary tyrants, non-violent civil disobedience, coined by the poet-philosopher Henry David Thoreau in 19th century, professed and practiced by Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. a century later, has gradually become the new norm.

The global prevalence of democracies (against which unlawful violent rebellion is never justified) with respect to previous periods, has made its internal ways apply to the rest of the globe. The overall progress of civilization shields the al-Assads and Lukashenkos of today’s world. For the global public opinion, popular violence is difficult to digest, even in the face of the most brutal dictatorships.

According to the Democracy Index of the Economist Intelligence Unit, as of 2020, almost half of the world population live in either full or flawed democracies, about a fifth in hybrid regimes, and a third in authoritarian ones. At the times when Locke and Rousseau wrote, the world was very different. The very standards of safety and wellbeing of the people changed dramatically. Faced with the opportunity to choose, if endowed with a time machine, many inhabitants of a Britain’s 19th century parliamentary democracy would probably opt for living in Ergodan’s Turkey in the 21st, certainly before the 2016 coup, but maybe even in the oppressive regime that followed. Albeit of little comfort for those living in them, most authoritarianisms of today, in some ways look much more like “democracies” of the past.

Because of this, with few exceptions, peaceful protests, in combination of the refusal of citizens to abide to certain laws of the land, are the contemporary manifestations of the right of revolution. Violence is seldom tolerated and almost never justified. The torches and pitchforks of the past are today’s whistles and drums, guillotines are replaced by postings on social networks, daggers by tents on public squares, guns and tanks by the avalanche of paint thrown on government buildings or mocking slogans written on the cardboard signs held by a cheerful demonstrating crowd.

This is how the Serbs exercised their right of rebellion against the Milošević dictatorship in the 1990s, this is how Georgians or Ukrainians threw Shevardnadze and Yanukovych to the dustbin of history a decade later, this is how Macedonians chased their corrupt strongman Nikola Gruevski to a humiliating exile. The advice given by an Egyptian king to his heir Merykara 22 centuries ago, that “words are deadlier than any weapon”, is gaining new confirmation in contemporary world.

Yet, illiberal democracies, or competitive authoritarian regimes to use a more appropriate term, such as Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, Aleksandar Vučić’s Serbia, present a particular challenge for the theoretical concept of the right of rebellion.

Like in most illiberal democracies, the current Serbian regime rarely uses physical violence against its political opponents. The appetite for it is present, incidents like the savage beatings of the people who protested against government’s mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic in July 2021, do occur, but a pragmatic restrain generally prevails. Unjustified arrests by politically instrumentalized prosecutors and police, albeit existent (like in the case of the illegal arrest of the courageous whistleblower Aleksandar Obradović in October 2019), remain rare. Political pragmatism and the need to preserve the democratic aura with the international community and the country’s silent majority, prevents the SNS from using the more violent means. More than anything else, Serbian regime does not need to use force.

A succession of spontaneous, largely peaceful citizen protests, in 2016 sparked by the demolition of Savamala, subsequent demonstrations in 2017, in 2018 and 2019, and latest in July 2020, lasted several months, initially gathered thousands of angry citizens, but over time dissipated and eventually died out. None of them came close to seriously threatening the ruling-SNS’s monopoly of power.

An important factor holding Serbian regime power structure intact, is the prevailing disappointment of most of the population with the democratic transition, and their utter disrespect of the entire political class. Like the impunity for the crimes of the previous regimes, the seeds of Serbia’s current illiberal democracy were sawn during the rule of successive democratic governments from 2000 to 2012. The inability or lack of willingness of the post-authoritarian political class to build sustainable democratic institutions, opened the way for the present-day abuse by the Vučić regime. The refusal of the majority of the population to participate in the country’s political life, accompanied by mass migration to Germany and other EU countries, allows SNS to rule Serbia with 30% or less of registered voters depending on the election. Not only do they hold absolute and undisputed power at the national level, but the opposition does not govern a single town or municipality in the country.

What is to be done facing such levels of state capture making it virtually impossible to change the current government by democratic means?

The 1776 American Declaration of Independence recognizes the right of the people to alter or abolish destructive forms of government. Yet, it also wisely warns that “[p]rudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes”, as well as that “mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

In the situation where it is virtually impossible to change the current illiberal government through democratic elections, Serbian population is evidently for the moment more inclined to suffer its abuses than to try other form of protest to overthrow it.

The power holders of illiberal democracies, including Serbia’s President or the Hungarian Prime Minister, find themselves in a situation strangely similar to that of a fable of the frog floating placidly in a slowly boiling water, allowing itself to be boiled to death.

Illiberal democracies are incompatible with a lasting status quo, and the strongmen leading such regimes are bound to slide into an outright authoritarianism like in Erdogan’s Turkey post 2016, or become victims of their own absolute power.

Depriving its hold of power of the relief valve, seeking absolute control, eliminating any criticism or decent, illiberal democratic regimes, create a situation where the pressure within a society will build up to the point of explosion. Paradoxically, the more a regime seeks a monopoly of power, the more it prevents normal democratic alteration of government, the more it will antagonize the population and create a situation where everything, including violence is possible.










The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the "Europe’s Futures–Ideas for Action" project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).