Reform activities are still not result-oriented, and the results are still not visible. Several incidents in the past six months and the inadequate response of the state to them reflect long-term problems and systemic failures that prEUgovor has been pointing to for years, it was concluded at the conference presenting the new prEUgovor Alarm Report.

Commitment to European integration will be best demonstrated by implementing substantial reforms in the area of the rule of law

In the reporting period, from November 2021 to April 2022, both Serbia and the world moved from one crisis to another - from the suppression of the COVID-19 pandemic to the Russian attack on Ukraine. Both crises affected Serbia's European integration and reform activities. In addition to interlinked changes to the Constitution and the opening of the negotiating Cluster 4, a number of incidents that marked this period manifested problems that the coalition has been pointing to for years, said Jelena Pejic Nikić, senior researcher at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy and editor of the Report.

“The lack of dialogue in the media and institutions has prompted citizens to take to the streets en masse at the end of the year to defend their rights. The absence of a clear policy of dealing with the past has led to the defense of a mural to a war criminal in Belgrade city centre, followed by tolerance of the extreme right and restrictions on freedom of assembly and attacks on activists. The widespread illegal appointments of acting directors in public administration and public enterprises showed catastrophic consequences with the accident in the Electric Power Industry of Serbia in December”, explained Pejić Nikić.

The coalition doubts that lessons have been learned from these cases, given that the most common position of the government is denial of responsibility. Although some progress has been made, there is still no will to solve key problems in critical areas, as pointed out by the European Commission, such as media freedom, the fight against corruption and organized crime.

“Reforms are still not result-oriented, and the results are still not visible. Technical activities are conducted, but the overall state has not been improved. There is an impression from the official narrative that we implement reforms because we have to, and not because we want to reach EU standards. If we want to show commitment to European integration, it is good but not enough to do so only declaratively. The best way to show that is to implement essential reforms in the area of the rule of law”, notes Pejić Nikić.

The most expensive election campaign so far, we’ll have to wait longer for final reports on funding

The fact that the final results of the parliamentary elections held on April 3 have not been determined yet affects a number of issues, starting with the postponement of the deadlines for the constitution of the National Assembly and the formation of the new Government. In addition, the deadline for submitting final reports on election campaign financing is being moved. However, it is certain that this was the most expensive election campaign so far - over 15 million euros were allocated from the budget, said Nemanja Nenadić, program director of Transparency Serbia.

“Again, an intensive public officials’ campaign, both by members of the Government and local officials, and even more by the President of the Republic, overshadowed all other types of political promotion. The laws amended as a result of inter-party dialogue did not significantly improve the electoral environment or adequately address the problem of public officials’ campaign. Although it is now the legal obligation of the President of the Republic to emphasize whether he is acting in party or state capacity, we have had obvious examples in practice that such delineation was not done, and the Agency for Prevention of Corruption did not react adequately”, Nenadić pointed out.

The new enlargement methodology, which groups negotiating chapters into clusters, has not led to noticeable improvements in the areas monitored by the prEUgovor coalition. When it comes to the fight against corruption as part of the Action Plan for Chapter 23, the reports of the Coordination Body and the Agency for the Prevention of Corruption are not mutually consistent. Even the bigger problem is that these reports are not debated in the National Assembly.

“Although GRECO recently gave Serbia better marks in this area, the Government's reaction to brag about the partial implementation of the recommendations six years after the original deadline is wrong”, Nenadic said.

The state ignores the new version of slavery for the 21st century

The case of potential trafficking for labor exploitation at the Linglong factory in Zrenjanin shows the inadequate response of the state and systemic problems in this area of Chapter 24. While international institutions and domestic NGOs reacted strongly, the authorities ignored the case. This problem will not disappear because Serbia will continue to face the migration of labor from the Middle and Far East, said Jasmina Krunić from the organization ASTRA - Anti-Trafficking Action.

“ASTRA received a meaningful response only last week after sending about fifty letters to sixteen competent institutions in the last six months. Only a third of them answered, stating that they took measures, but it is not known what their outcome is. In November, the labor inspection found 311 Vietnamese citizens in Zrenjanin without a work permit, which immediately raises the question of how they got there in the first place”, says Krunić.

She also warned that there is a large initiative in the European Union to establish a legal framework for decent work, which includes a ban on the import of products created by labor exploitation. Given that European companies are potential buyers, the question is whether they will be able to buy the products of the Linglong factory, which has been compromised in this way.

“The President of the Republic and the Prime Minister defended the company, responding to our appeals - shame on you, you want to stifle our investments. This tells us that there are other interests, which are not the interests of the citizens of Serbia. In addition, a review of reporting on this case shows that it was completely invisible to some media, which illustrates the state of media freedom in the country”, Krunić concluded.

The asylum system has been significantly redirected to the care of displaced persons from Ukraine

The planned dynamics of reform activities in the field of migration and asylum in the reporting period changed due to the elections and the war in Ukraine. The set of laws was in public consultations back in November, but to this day it is not known whether the suggestions of civil society organizations have been accepted. The capacities of the competent authorities have been largely redirected to the care of displaced persons from Ukraine, said Gordana Grujicic, a researcher at Group 484.

“The Republic of Serbia has taken the same direction as EU states, deciding in March to activate the mechanism of temporary protection, which is now being applied for the first time. These are extraordinary measures that are valid for one year in the event of a mass influx of displaced persons. They guarantee certain rights, such as the right to residence and access to the labor market, the right to collective accommodation and education”, Grujicic explained.

Since the beginning of the year, over 20,000 Ukrainian citizens have come to Serbia. They are mostly transiting to Montenegro, and according to data from April, about 6,000 have registered their residence in Serbia. They usually stay in private accommodation, and about sixty citizens of Ukraine, mostly women and children, are accommodated in the State Asylum Center in Vranje.

Representatives of the prEUgovor coalition called for reform activities, such as drafting regulations, to continue in the technical mandate of the Government, and offered specific priorities for the future Government and the new convocation of the National Assembly in the areas they monitor.

PrEUgovor Alarm Report is available here.

The conference is available in full length at this link, but only in Serbian.

The conference is organised as part of two projects implemented by the prEUgovor coalition:

"PrEUgovor for Rule of Law and EU integration of Serbia" supported by Balkan Trust for Democracy, a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade.

"PrEUgovor Policy Watch: building alliances for stronger impact in uncertain future," funded by the European Union.