"... we need a dialogue. And after that, we need even more dialogue"

Raša Nedeljkov - CRTA

Interview with Raša Nedeljkov, CRTA.

For Raša Nedeljkov, Program Director of CRTA, Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability, the parliamentary elections in Serbia in a few days' time will be the focus of all activities. This NGO will again play a central role in observing the elections in the country. Since there is little doubt about the outcome of the election, FNF wanted to know how Nedeljkov generally assesses the political situation in the country: How democracy and the rule of law stand, whether the separation of powers in the country worked during the state of emergency, what expectations are still being placed on the European Union and what the decline in media pluralism in the country means.

Nedeljkov gives clear and pointed answers to all questions. He also does not spare the political opposition any criticism. They are engaged in mutual quarrels and endless debates about election boycotts, but lack clear, articulated programmes and mobilising ideas: " ... simply being against Vučić on all issues is not enough to gain the trust of citizens." What the country also obviously lacks are people with personal and professional integrity.

Interviewer: Michael Roick and Dušan Dinić, FNF

  1. The circumstances and procedure of the introduction of the state of emergency have demonstrated once again a domination of the executive branch of power over the National Assembly. CRTA has documented and criticized that. Which ones of the measures carried in March do you consider as problematic and where is – in your view – their danger for the future?

The Constitution allows for the proclamation of the state of emergency due to a peril that endangers the very existence of the country or of the citizens. Covid-19 epidemics was one of such perils, yet the way in which the decision to introduce the state of emergency was made has been dubious. It was not the National Assembly that was deciding, but it was done on 15 March by the President of Serbia, the Prime Minister and the Speaker of Parliament, justifying that by the lack of conditions to convene the parliament sitting, taken that it would mean gathering of too many people in one place contrary to the measures of desease prevention, themselves (obviously) having had to be put into effect instantly.

From the standpoint of political accountability one should remember that the state president - just eleven days prior to it - called for elections, which, as is well known, required numerous physical contacts and mass gatherings. On that day, 4 March, when we were told that we would get out to the polling booths on 26 April, in not-that-distant Italy 3089 people were registered as infected and 107 of those had died. Corona virus, as a threat, did not emerge overnight. That is why we might ask ourselves if it was really necessary to circumvent the highest representative body. The astonishment shown by the PM Brnabić when asked that question was thereby indicative. To paraphrase her answer during the first parliament sitting after the lockdown – she wondered why would it be necessary to endanger the health of so many people when „there was a clear majority“ for the government, whereby the result of such parliament gathering would anyway around be a proclamation of the state of emergency. This statement clearly illustrates a substantial misunderstanding of the principles of checks and balances between various branches of power, but also the existing current disbalance between them.

The executive branch of power did not hesitate to „suggest“ to the legislative one  how to shape the agenda of the gathering, neither to advice the judiciary on how to process those who had disobeyed the self-isolation rules. Other examples of controversial acts were those carried by the Ministry of Interior - instead of by decrees of the Government - themselves limiting civil liberties (such as the freedom of movement). Or, when it was hinted to media that cell phones and movement of citizens were tracked in a way which was not envisaged by the Criminal Code. In a nutshell, the epidemics and the adjacent state of emergency have shown us that the rule of law was more fragile than we had intially believed. We have to find ways to mobilize civil society to defend it.

  1. Accountability of public spending is yet another important theme for CRTA. Were there any improvements regarding this during the last couple of years? Or setbacks? What are the main CRTA`s demands/suggestions?

Just a detail might be enough to answer your question – the state president told the public that no one should ask him how he managed to purchase ventilators. It is a fine illustration of how much the transparency in public spending is valued in our political culture. If we got back to a broader picture, CRTA has for years now used its own Open Parliament initiative to put pressure onto the National Assembly to start discussing the Budget Oversight Report, which showed how budget funds, i.e. the financial means provided by the citizens, were spent. Namely, MPs did not discuss budget oversight reports between 2001 and 2019. There after we had a bizzare situation wherein 17 oversight reports from all the previous years were discussed in a single, cognate debate. But even that was a step forward towards strengthening of the supervisory role of the parliament, at least formally speaking.

  1. During the last couple of years, media pluralism had drastically shrunk – at least it was what the Reporters without Borders and the Freedom House claimed on the basis of their analyses. In your view, what strategies and measures need be taken so as to improve the state of affairs in media and provide for more diversity in opinion? How would tradional and social media thereby divide their roles?            

After years of labor pains and through a sort of inclusive process, new Media Strategy was adopted earlier this year. With it, a new glimpse of hope arose that it would be possible to have had a more sound media environment. But, one single document, as such, cannot resolve anything. CRTA conducts its monitoring of the most influential media thoroughly, according to the highest international standards, and not just during election campaigns. Thereupon, it is clear that political pluralism in media is existing only in the findings of the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media (REM). That body, itself technically independent, has for years now been, to a considerable degree, a part of the problem rather than a part of the solution for numerous shortcomings at the media scene. 

While we have lost years in dealing with the same old issues, new times have brought new – themselves huge – challenges, for which, as I would dare to estimate, we were not ready, especially taken our media offer and the state of affairs of media literacy of the citizens. Globally speaking, democracy is exposed to a powerful offensive of disinformation, fake news and various conspiracy theories. Disinformation and half-baked information about alleged harmful effects of vaccination – for instance – directly endanger public health. Social networks undeniably possess certain power, but the question is for what purpose this power may be used. Global scandals, such as the Cambridge Analitica affair, have demonstrated the degree to which fundamental democratic values have been jeopardized in a digital environment. Countries that have got professional and responsible media outlets, strong public broadcasting services and lively public criticism might better fight the above mentioned dangerous developments. In Serbia, we simply do not have all these.

Still, some encouragement was felt during the Corona crisis, whereby it turned out that in such dramatic circumstances the consumption of media contents disseminated by (not so numerous) credible media was rising considerably. Under the auspices of CRTA, the first fact-checking online media in the region – Istinomer - has been operating for a decade now. Its outreach increased threefold at the peak of the epidemics.

  1. In your view, how independent are government institutions? Did EU accession negotiations bring about any improvements in the field?

Institutions are at the root of the problem. I could estimate that it would be easier to change anything bad in the legislative framework than to turn on the institutions (starting from the „crown“ ones up to those less visible) so as to have them done their job, thus giving life to the laws. Since elections have been in the focus of CRTA`s activities, our criticism is most often targeted at those institutions from whose functioning the quality of the election process depended the most, such as prosecutors, anti-corruption agency and REM.

True, not all cause of impotence and inertia rests on us. The problem of migration of real power outside its legal and institutional boundaries is far more complex. It is to do with a long-duration process of the erosion of the system. Still, experience tells us how important the role of personality factor is, within independent institutions. For example, the institution of the Ombudsperson for Access to Information was, when led by Rodoljub Šabić, ready to stand up against various power lobbies and to defend the public interest. If we had more people of professional and personal integrity, perhaps we would have stronger institutions.

By looking back a few years from now, accession negotiations with the EU have certainly contributed, directly, to the establishment and development of independent institutions. As compared to the early 2000s, when EU had focused on the development of democratic institutions, during the most recent years EU has paid more attention to normalization of the relations between Serbia and Kosovo, as well as to the management of migrations. Executive power took advantage of these circumstances to concentrate its power, degrade the independence of judiciary and relativize the role of parliament. We expect the EU to defend, by using its accession process instruments, the principles and values on which EU is based in a more determined way in the coming period of time, such as it was demonstrated in the Serbia Progress Report as of 2019.

  1. The analyses of the political setting in Serbia have been critical towards the executive. How is it with the opposition? Could we attribute the weakness of the Parliament, at least partially, to the divisions and the lack of unity in the opposition ranks? Why is that so?

Right now we are witnessing the situation whereby the opposition is wasting enormous energy to mutual skirmishes and Bartholomew-Day type search for „renegates“, or to debates on whether to boycott elections or not, without an honest talk about the likely expectations from one or another option. The fact is that the opposition has got quite a narrow space for action, especially in media, but it has also been obvious that simply being against Vučić on all issues is not enough to gain the trust of citizens. It is worrisome that one part of the opposition finds potential solutions outside the institutional means of political struggle.

Among citizens, there still lies some democratic potential, as our surveys have shown. But, articulated political programs and mobilizing ideas are lacking. There is no clear value-profiling within the opposition block. People who use to send incompatible messages to the public connect themselves in political alliances. After the coming elections, we might face the situation in which we would live our lives without an opposition of any kind whatsoever. The question has been: would it take that much for the ruling structures as well, to have understood the inherent danger of such a situation?

  1. To wrap up: in your view, what should be done to decrease the polarization in society, or to at least mitigate its most extreme manifestations?

To start with, we need a dialogue. And after that, we need even more dialogue. That is, a dialogue based on facts, itself started, ultimately, by those media who desire to serve the citizens and the public interest. I could understand people who were taken over by apathy, who retreated amid disillusionment, but pure reason demands from us to talk, to look for compromise, not to give up, to connect and network, to demand our rights, to pressurize institutions, to strive to obtain a balanced information, to try to understand realities … In a word, to come closer to the place from where we would have a clearer view to the future of society we live in.