Upon the ousting of Milošević from power in 2000, national and international hopes were optimistic that the new century heralded political transition for Serbia. Under the guidance of the European Commission’s policy towards the Western Balkans, namely the Stabilisation and Association Process, Serbia seemed open to the slow process towards democracy. However, nearly two decades later, Serbia is neither considered an open democracy, nor progressed substantially in the process towards EU membership, and in 2017, the Milošević-era politician Aleksander Vučić continued his political rise through to the presidency.
In March 2018, just weeks before securing his third term as Hungary’s Prime Minister, controversial politician Viktor Orbán travelled to Serbia to meet with Vučić. As leaders of neighbouring, post-communist countries, they share regional and narrative interests; they also both demonstrate the slide to authoritarianism occurring in Europe’s young democracies. Orbán and Vučić have both been at the helm of governments that have overseen considerable democratic backsliding in the last ten years.
Serbia and Hungary have exhibited a slide towards autocracy through the subtle mechanisms of “stealth authoritarianism,” outlined by Ozan O. Varol. In this process, incumbents consolidate power using the existing legal apparatus: they infiltrate and compromise judicial review, they bolster the power of the leader through executive aggrandizement, they restructure electoral laws and practises, and they silence the opposition and any criticism by control and intimidation of of the media.
Since 2006, it would be fair to categorise Serbia as an illiberal democracy. Although they appear to hold ‘free and fair elections,’ there are gaping holes in the narrative in regards to electoral intimidation, campaign financing, faith in the judiciary and particularly in the domination of the government through the media and advertising. Civil liberties have been restrained, most significantly in the area of media exposure and press freedoms. Over the last ten years, the Serbian government has subverted an independent and fair media by creating a hostile environment through intimidation and exploiting libel laws, thus cultivating a systematic advantage for favourable coverage.
The governmental control of the media in Serbia is facilitated by several factors. Firstly, the country, as is many in the region, is plagued by corruption and clientelism up to the highest levels. Business elites and media moguls may enjoy unchecked freedoms if their coverage of the government is favourable. The lack of checks on party and campaign finance promulgates the influence powerful, rich individuals, and severely transgresses on a free and fair electoral process. A government with access to unregulated funding and patronage is able to cement their power and undermine the exposure and sustainability of an opposition. In Serbia, Vučić has been able to take control of the media by taking control of advertising, whose agencies are owned by media tycoons loyal to him. Vučić has also ensured the loyalty of many media platforms by making them dependent on financial and political support from the government. In this way, he has been able to prohibit independent and critical reports from reaching a wider audience.
Another ‘stealth authoritarian’ method of media control in Serbia is the forcing the self-censorship of journalists through the threats of fines, imprisonment, and physical assault. There is little impartial review on due process and the rule of law–some court cases have take over twenty-four months to move forward–and fines are extortionate. Serbia has suffered economic hardship due to both external (e.g. the Eurozone crisis) and internal (e.g. transitional economy, flooding) factors. High fines “raise the cost of critical commentary” as people are unable to afford to speak freely for fear of their livelihoods and in some cases, their very lives. There have been numerous cases of verbal and physical assault on journalists in Serbia, often without appropriate investigations and convictions.
To its fault, the international community have been grossly inactive in limiting the democratic backsliding in countries such as Serbia and Hungary. The European Union has been criticised for favouring “stability over democracy” in the Western Balkans, thus allowing authoritarian regimes to fester for the sake of stability in the region, and security interests. As Serbia is not a member of the EU, its internal proceedings are not technically in direct betrayal of the EU values, however, Hungary has been a member since 2004, and the continued consolidation of power under Orbán, as well as the EU’s deference, marks a shameful digression from the EU values.
Although President Vučić claims to have reformed his previous ultra-nationalist views, and has even suggested being open to “compromise” on the independence of Kosovo (which 113 UN countries recognise, but Serbia does not), his tenure as prime minister was a decidedly weak, recessionary period for a free and functioning Serbia democracy. Upon his election, thousands took to the streets to protest, and yet European leaders seem open to welcoming further cooperation with him; Vučić has visited Chancellor Merkel in Berlin twice already in 2018. Going forward, it is imperative that both the internal events of Serbia and the external responses to them are monitored closely for indicators of anymore democratic backslide in Europe. As the presidency of Vučić unfurls, the future for Serbian democracy remains at risk.