Growing Challenges in the Republic of Serbia Towards European Union Accession
The article below was published in the Spring 2018 edition of Active Measures, IWP’s student journal.
This essay will analyze the accession steps of the Republic of Serbia towards European Union membership and the emerging challenges that may undermine Serbia’s commitment to this objective. These emerging challenges include the Serbian leadership’s blatant disrespect for certain common values of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the increased use of Russian soft power efforts in Serbian affairs, and Serbia’s resistance to a shared European identity. In reaction to these emerging problems, the EU should undertake initiatives to promote support for EU accession in the country while maintaining its standards of good governance and accession criteria.
The Republic of Serbia has faced several hurdles on its path towards accession to the European Union (EU) since it first applied for membership in 2009. These challenges have centered on the country’s relations with Kosovo, its wavering cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and its balancing act between its Western aspirations and its historical ties with the Russian Federation. One example of how these hindrances have affected the country’s accession is the EU’s decision in 2006 to call off its initial membership negotiations, formalized by the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA). This was done because of Serbia’s refusal to cooperate in capturing a prominent war criminal, General Ratko Mladić, for the ICTY. The granting of EU candidate status to Serbia in 2012 and the initiation of the SAA in 2013 occurred in conjunction with the country’s major efforts towards normalizing relations with Kosovo under the Brussels Agreements. EU accession talks have continued since that time with the first negotiation chapters opening in 2014. However, emerging challenges threaten to weaken Serbia’s internal commitment towards EU membership. These developments include the wavering commitment of Serbian leadership to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the increased use of Russian soft power to offset EU support, and Serbia’s resistance to a shared European identity.
The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights defines the common values of the EU. Written in 2000, the document became legally binding for all members through the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009. The Charter defines and merges the rights and values of various European institutions, including the Court of Justice of the EU and the European Convention on Human Rights, thus consolidating the common values of the EU into a single document. With this attempt to formalize the values of the EU, adherence to the Charter may demonstrate a country’s commitment towards Europeanization and EU accession. As the EU continues to open chapters with Serbia, the actions of Serbian leadership in undermining fundamental democratic values and the rise of Russian influence in the country threaten the country’s commitment to key components of the Charter. These developments are most evident in the areas of freedom of expression, free and fair elections, and the role of civil society organizations (CSOs) in Serbia.
Serbia’s Wavering Commitment to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights
With the creation of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the EU proclaimed that its internal cooperation as an intergovernmental organization ran deeper than economics; the Union came to represent certain shared identity politics and values. As the EU continues to open accession chapters with Serbia, there have been specific developments in the actions of Serbian leadership that illustrate the country’s wavering commitment to these defined European values. For example, the amplified harassment of media and journalism in the country reveals the disregard of Serbian leadership for the protection of freedom of expression, defined in Article 11 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Article 11 consists of two components. Firstly, it states that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, [including the] freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.” Secondly, it states that, “The freedom and pluralism of the media shall be respected.” These growing challenges over freedom of expression not only pose a threat to the country’s commitment to aligning itself with the common values of the EU, but also to the active role of civil society.
One way to measure the change of freedom of expression in Serbia is to assess the protection of press freedom, since the media serves as one means through which citizens can critique and keep the government accountable. The Political Freedom of the Press report, published by Freedom House since 1980, is a useful resource to assess how press freedom has changed in Serbia during its steps towards EU membership. For the report, Freedom House assesses press freedom in each country by using a rating scale from 0 (best) to 100 (worst) and based on these scores, designates the country status as free, partly free, or not free. This analysis is conducted based off 23 methodology questions assessing the legal, political, and economic environment of each country. Serbia’s freedom of press rating improved between 2007 and 2012 from a score of 39 to a score of 36, both considered partly free. However, since being granted EU candidate status in 2012, Serbia’s score has significantly deteriorated, reaching its worst score in the last decade in 2017 of 49, also considered partly free.  Most significantly, since the initiation of EU accession talks in 2014, Freedom House has deemed Serbia as one of the countries with the most significant declines in press freedom scores in the world for three years in a row.  Serbia was not the only country with significant declines in press freedom scores in the region, joined by both Hungary and Poland during this period. However, the continual decline in the country while proceeding towards EU membership blatantly contradicts its commitment to this common value in the EU Charter.
Freedom House reports further identify some common issues affecting press freedom in Serbia, including the threats and harassment against journalists, the poor implementation of legislation affecting the media, and the reliance of media outlets on government subsidies. In looking at these assessments, the environment for press freedom began declining in 2012, during the same time that the Serbian Progressive Party and Alexander Vučić took leadership roles in the country. During this period, there was also a noted increase in harassment of journalists, the use of smear campaigns by pro-government media, and the escalation of soft-power censorship, especially in favor of Russian influence. For example, President Vučić, when serving as prime minister in 2016, accused two prominent newspapers, BIRN and CINS, of being liars, contending that the EU was financing these groups to slander his government. Moreover, certain public media outlets, like the Informer, have continued to use smear campaigns to paint investigative media outlets as working for foreign intelligence agents or mafia groups. In November 2017, The Informer published a front-page article entitled “America and the EU paying liars and racketeers,” which accused certain media organizations, such as BIRN, of acting as Western agents to weaken the country. These emerging challenges of harassment and smear campaigns have strongly contributed to the declines in press freedom in the country.
The growing hostilities towards journalism have led both the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and Human Rights Watch to openly express concerns over the state of press freedom in Serbia. The OSCE 2016 report stated that freedom of expression had not improved in the country and underlined the “need to maintain and foster space for political dialogue, critical discussion and debate and expression of different opinions both in mainstream media and in social networks.” The report also noted concerns over how political influence in media affairs had often led to self-censorship in the country. Furthermore, a 2008 study on media freedom in Central and Eastern Europe in American Economic Association’s Journal of Economic Perspectives concluded that there is a strong association between high levels of government control over media outlets and low levels of political participation and voter turnout.  These are important components to a functional democracy. Thus, these threats to the press freedom and the increase of political influence in the media not only threaten Serbia’s commitment to the values of the EU Charter, but also may hurt the engagement of civil society, a particularly important area in post-communist countries.
As freedom of expression has declined in Serbia, Russia has worked to capitalize on this weakness by increasing its soft-power initiatives in the country. Two state-owned Russian news sources, RT and Sputnik, began broadcasting in Serbia in 2015 and received an extensive welcome from the parties in power. Since that time, many state-sponsored media outlets in the country have matched their reporting to the discourse of Sputnik. These Russian efforts in the Serbian media may also have influenced the irregularities the following year, during the 2016 parliamentary election in the country. The 2016 European Commission Staff Working Document expressed concerns over how political influence in media outlets had led to self-censorship during the election; this may demonstrate the success of Russian initiatives to undermine Serbia’s commitment to EU democratic values. Furthermore, Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press 2017 report notes that with the EU preoccupied with internal issues, Russia has increasingly utilized Balkan and Serbian media outlets to promote a shared Slavic history and culture and develop anti-EU and anti-NATO sentiments. The increase of anti-EU sentiments will further hinder the country’s steps towards EU accession and maintain its conflicting balancing act between its Western aspirations and historical ties with Russia.
Additionally, the events of the 2016 election demonstrate the lack of commitment of Serbian leadership to another important right in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Charter states that the EU is based on the “the principles of democracy and the rule of law,” protecting the rights of citizens to vote in free and fair elections. The reelection of Prime Minister Vučić in 2016 led to questionable aspects of the free and fair nature of elections, which was emphasized in the reports of multiple international observers monitoring the election. Freedom Barometer, a project that assesses free and fair elections in measuring political freedom around the world, noted the abuse of state resources for campaigning and the prevalence of voter intimidation and distorted media coverage in the election. Furthermore, the 2016 European Commission Staff Working Document stressed the need for Serbia to follow up on the concerns noted by the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. This report indicated concerns over the election’s biased media coverage and the inappropriate use of funding sources of the incumbent, Prime Minister Vučić. These reports paired with Freedom House’s Freedom in the World report illustrate the decline of free and fair elections in the country. The Freedom in the World report measures political liberties by assessing free and fair elections, political pluralism, and the functionality of government. Each country receives a score between 1 (best) and 7 (worst). Since 2009, Serbia’s rating in political liberties was 2. However, the 2017 report explicitly stated that the worsening of Serbia’s rating from a 2 to a 3 was directly due to the irregularities of the parliamentary elections in 2016. This decline in free and fair elections and democratic processes illustrates Serbia’s wavering commitment to this aspect of the EU Charter.
The Role of Civil Society Organizations in Serbia
Apart from the growing divergence from aspects of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the further weakening role of CSOs in the country may further compromise Serbia’s commitment to joining the EU. USAID’s CSO Sustainability Index is a useful resource in assessing the environment for CSOs in Serbia in comparison to other countries in the region. The study measures different dimensions affecting CSO sustainability including the legal environment, organizational capacity, financial viability, advocacy, and service provision, infrastructure, and public image. The study provides a score for each dimension, ranging from 1 (most developed) to 7 (most challenged) and then averages these scores for an overall country analysis. As of 2016, Serbia, along with neighboring Montenegro, continues to have the poorest scores for CSO sustainability compared to others in Southeastern Europe. Serbia’s CSO sustainability score improved from 4.5 in 2007 to 4.1 in 2013. Although its overall score stayed the same between 2014 and 2016, the report notes deteriorating scores in CSO advocacy and public image during this period. CSO advocacy involves the ability of CSOs to communicate to the public through the media and to monitor activities of government for accountability. The dimension of the public image involves the government’s willingness to work with CSOs and the public’s perception of their role in society.
It is evident that CSOs in Serbia have yet to reach their full potential in promoting civil engagement in the country. A major factor that influences the role of CSOs in Serbia includes the lack of public trust. A recent USAID report assessing the country between 2013 and 2017 underlined the widespread lack of trust among the population towards non-governmental organizations (NGOs), another term often used synonymously with CSOs. It highlighted the prominent results of a 2009 survey, which revealed that almost half of the Serbian population had no or little confidence in NGOs, while 29% held no opinion on the matter. This lack of trust is a prominent challenge in enabling the role of CSOs to check government power and offer solutions to societal issues.
Furthermore, prominent leaders in Serbian NGOs have continued to express since 2007 that many politicians fail to understand their role in society. The French political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville argued that associations are important for society since they bring individuals together to solve common issues without relying on extensive government policies. This role of minimizing government power is particularly important in post-communist countries, where easing public ownership and control has often led to corruption, cronyism, and other transitional challenges. Thus, finding more ways to empower CSOs in Serbia would strengthen civil participation and democracy.
The weak role of CSOs in Serbia has paved the way for another method of Russian soft power. Russian influence in Serbian associations and organizations not only threatens to undermine the strength of civil society, but also has been detrimental to public support for EU accession. Starting in 2015 and 2016, over 100 new organizations appeared in Serbia that promoted Russian-Serbian relations and pressured Serbians to stop pursing aspirations of joining NATO and the EU. These organizations have obtained an unusual amount of media attention and significantly increased their activities in 2015, when it was apparent that Serbia would in fact begin formal negotiations to join the EU and start discussions with NATO.
These Russian initiatives in civil society have likely been successful in influencing the negative perceptions within the country towards EU membership. Highlighted in a recent policy paper by the Directorate-General for External Policies in the European Parliament, polls conducted by the Belgrade Center for Security Policy revealed a decrease in Serbian support for EU membership from 67% in 2009 to 43% in 2017. Further investigating this support, a 2015 study conducted by the Center for Insights for Survey Research asked Serbian citizens, “If a referendum on Serbia’s membership in the European Union were held this Sunday, how would you vote?” The study looked at results between 2009 and 2015. In April 2011, 64% of those surveyed answered they would vote for membership, yet only 44% answered the same in November 2015. Most significant was the decrease between February 2014 and July 2015 of those who claimed they would vote for membership – a drop from 60% to 46%. Although other factors surely affected this change of perception for EU membership, Russian soft power initiatives in the media and in CSOs increased during the 2015 period and most likely affected the wavering support for EU membership. Two major developments have influenced Serbia’s commitment to EU common values, defined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, and thus have weakened its commitment to EU accession. These include the increasing disregard of Serbian leadership to some of the fundamental EU values in the Charter and the rise of Russian soft power initiatives in internal affairs in the country. These developments have been evident in the areas of freedom of expression, free and fair elections, and the weakening role of CSOs within the country. Most concerning, the increase of Russian involvement in civil society may continue to weaken the role of CSOs to hold the government accountable and to solve societal problems without the need of increasing government policies.
Serbian Resistance to a Shared European Identity
Apart from concerns over adherence to the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, Serbia seems particularly resistant to accepting a shared European identity, threatening its commitment towards EU accession. The research of Jelena Subotic on the initiatives of Serbia towards EU membership in 2011 concluded that this resistance, which she calls identity divergence, was Serbia’s main obstacle to Europeanization. A contemporary understanding of Europeanization constitutes membership in the EU and respecting European common values, laid out in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Subotic identifies three factors that lead to Serbia’s identity divergence. Although written in 2011, the factors identified are still present as Serbia continues to face similar hindrances in joining the EU.
The first factor of identity divergence is evident when the idea of Europeanization is not universally shared throughout the country. The wavering support for EU membership in Serbia exemplifies the presence of this first factor. As previously mentioned, support for EU membership has decreased to less than 50% according to polls conducted by the Belgrade Center for Security Policy. This poll illustrates the growing divide in support for EU membership within the country and reveals this first factor of identity divergence.
The second factor of identity divergence is the existence of another compromising identity narrative competing with Europeanization. In the case of Serbia, this alternative narrative is its historical connection with Russia. The increase of Russian soft power initiatives in the country through media outlets and civil society has helped to strengthen this identity association as an alternative narrative competing with Europeanization. The results of a 2015 survey by the International Republic Institute (IRI) demonstrate how perceptions in Serbia towards Russia have become increasingly positive. In the 2015 survey, 94% of respondents concluded that Serbian interests would best be served by maintaining strong relations with Russia. This was a significant increase from the 81% of respondents who selected Russia in the same survey just one year earlier. In the same 2015 survey, 71% of respondents concluded that Serbian interests would best be served by maintaining strong relations with EU, revealing a decrease from the 2009 survey whose results totaled 82%. These results present substantial challenges to the EU, given the extensive amount of financial assistance it has and continues to provide to Serbia.
The third factor leading to identity divergence occurs when a country has had a negative experience with the alleged group in the past, which in turn leads to low projections of success. Serbia has had a tumultuous history with European powers and NATO, which seems to have led it to internalize a strong sense of victimhood and a strong objection to foreign influence. Specifically, political elites have expressed resentment over the perception of ICTY actions that seem to target Serbia as the primary perpetrators of war crimes during the Yugoslavia wars. Although all countries prioritize their sovereignty, Serbia’s recent history under foreign powers and tumultuous history with Western organizations, such as NATO, exacerbate the negative perceptions towards joining the Union. Serbia was under direct rule of the Ottoman Empire until the middle of the 19th century. The extended influence of the Austro-Hungarian Empire over the country led to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, sparking World War I. Most recently, NATO’s bombing of Belgrade during the Yugoslav Wars further hurt the perception of the West and strengthened feelings of victimhood and injustice in the country. This tumultuous history with other actors in the region may further strengthen this third factor of identity divergence, since the expectations of success and benefits of EU membership may be low. Subotic concludes that although the explicit intent of Serbia is to join the EU, these factors of identity divergence show the internal lack of commitment towards Europeanization. In these ways, identity divergence in Serbia has and may continue to influence its steps towards Europeanization and its commitment to EU accession.
Steps Moving Forward
Three main factors threaten Serbia’s commitment to EU accession: the wavering commitment of Serbian leadership to the values in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the increased use of Russian soft-power initiatives, and an internal resistance to the shared European identity. The weakening internal support for membership is concerning given the significant efforts and investment of the EU to progress Serbian’s accession towards membership. The EU has allocated 1.5 billion Euros of financial assistance to the country for the period between 2014 and 2020, prioritizing various sectors including “democracy and governance” and “rule of law and fundamental rights.” The EU should not simply admit Serbia into the Union because it seems the next logical stop for EU expansion, filling the perceived hole in the middle of Europe that doesn’t form part of the Union. The EU must address these developments in the country that are inconsistent with EU values in order to protect its investment in the country and to uphold its values and expectations for membership criteria.
Firstly, the EU should more publicly put pressure on the Serbian government to respect freedom of the press in the country. One way the EU could do this would be to vocalize support for media groups and journalists, who have acted in solidarity to emphasize the importance of the freedom of the press in society. For example, in September 2017, over a 100 Serbian NGOs and media groups blacked out their websites to illustrate the significance of media freedom to the population and protest the increasing hostility of the Serbian leadership. EU support for these internal initiatives may further pressure the Serbian leadership to respect freedom of expression, a crucial component of a functioning democracy. Furthermore, this action could possibly expose or weaken Russian initiatives at infiltrating the media to influence perceptions of EU and NATO.
Secondly, the EU should further train CSOs in the country in public relations and local fundraising, in order to strengthen the importance of their role in society. This focus on public relations would slowly help facilitate more trust for CSOs, as trust remains a major hurdle to the success of these initiatives. Reflecting the observations of Tocqueville, the strengthening of the role of CSOs will encourage individuals to come together to solve common issues, minimizing the ratcheting effect of government policies. Moreover, increasing the public presence of CSOs would help strengthen civil involvement and democracy in Serbia, which provides the best opportunity to increase the country’s internal commitment to the EU Charter. Because of the sensitivity of foreign influence, it would behoove the EU to empower CSOs to be proactive members in society and in doing so minimize its encroachment on the country’s sovereignty.
Lastly, the EU needs to maintain its standards of membership and values by explicitly addressing Serbia’s wavering commitment and pivot towards Russia. A report by the Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies from Serbia and the National Endowment for Democracy noted that, “the more the official Belgrade government flirts with the Kremlin, the more the political West lowers its standards in the hopes of attracting Serbia into its orbit.” The report shows how Serbia’s abuse of playing both sides of the East and West has left the door open to Russian soft power in the region. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary Hoyt Brian Yee recently vocalized this concern over Serbia’s commitment, stating that “countries that want to enter the EU have to show this decision clearly. [Serbia] cannot sit on two chairs, especially if they are so far apart.” 
Despite its initiation as an economic union, the EU has developed into an international organization that promotes and upholds certain values. These values are outlined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. The EU must take active steps to uphold its values in membership criteria, if it will continue to expand. In the 2015 IRI survey, 35% of those surveyed in Serbia associated the EU with promoting the wrong values, while 23% of respondents associated it with promoting the right values. As accession steps continue, the EU must assess if Serbia is ready to accept, at least at a basic level, the common values in the EU Charter. This is especially important for those values that affect civil society and the functionality of democracy. As EU attention is diverted to financial debt crises, internal elections, and Brexit, it needs to remain committed to upholding its claimed values in accepting new members.
Kelly Zug is currently pursuing a Master’s in strategic intelligence studies at The Institute of World Politics. Kelly earned a bachelor’s in international studies from Elon University in 2012. After completing her undergraduate degree, Kelly taught English in Bulgaria on a Fulbright Scholarship and worked in the non-profit sector throughout the Balkans and Eastern Europe.
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 Ibid, 15-16.
 Freedom House, “Freedom of the press 2008.”
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 Ibid, 47-48.
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 Subotic, 323.
 Ibid, 320.
 Ibid, 311.
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