International influence on Democracy in Serbia

Tijana Rečević

The international influence on the process of democratization of Serbia, although changed, is still as strong as it was two decades ago. Almost all actors who fostered the momentum of democratization in Serbia in the early 2000s – from the EU and the US, through individual Western countries, to their development agencies and party foundations – continued their engagement, making an external “supply and demand” for democracy in Serbia an important engine of its progress. On the other hand, the relative rise of actors who, at the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, still “licked their wounds” caused by the end of the Cold War, such as Russia and China, led to an increase in their previously negligible influence on democratization in Serbia.

The largest donor of grants to the budget of the Republic of Serbia is the EU. During the observed period, the EU had (through the pre-accession funds IPA I (2007-2013) and IPA II (2014-2020)) financed numerous projects aimed at improving the rule of law and institution building, democratic reforms in key sectors, and the strengthening of civil society and the media. This is all in line with the priorities set by the national strategic documents on the needs and objectives of the reforms, as well as the recommendations of the European Commission from the annual progress reports on Serbia.

A certain change in the patterns of external influences on democracy in Serbia – primarily reflected in the weakening of the normative and transformative power of the EU, on the one hand, and a stronger influence of forces from the East, on the other – became clearer in the second half of the 21st century. Although it would be wrong to draw strong cause-and-effect links between the two processes, the fact that this period saw a more intense collapse of democracy in Serbia shows that the changed dynamics in the international environment have undoubtedly contributed to this negative trend. However, despite this (still) limited change in the balance of power and patterns in the international environment, it seems that the entire observed period from 2008 to 2020 was marked by three relatively stable trends.

First of all, the state of democracy in Serbia still heavily depends on external incentives. Whether and to what extent international actors will put pressure on the authorities in Serbia is often crucial for progress in democratization, since the adherence to democratic norms is still not strong enough among political elites or citizens.

In this regard, although over time there has been less international funding, almost all international actors have continued to fund a variety of projects in the second decade of democratic reforms in Serbia aimed at strengthening the democratic capacity of the executive, legislature and judiciary, political parties and civil society, and educating citizens for constructive participation in the democratic process. However, despite its significant and continuous influx, international assistance for democratization in Serbia has been only partially successful.

Analyses of two decades of foreign aid to Serbia increasingly (unanimously) warn that the progress of democratization has remained permanently trapped between the daily political interests of the ruling elites, anti-democratic “veto players” and the interests of key external actors, and that domestic actors have not grown into their role of carriers of democratic development.

Another trend in the observed period shows that, although necessary for the continuation of democratization, positive external incentives over the past decade have not automatically spilled over into the quality of the democratic process. Domestic political elites have become skilled in adapting pro-democracy incentives from the EU and other international actors to their own interests, while citizens have increasingly equated Europeanization and democratization.

Finally, insufficient resilience to intentional and unintentional negative external influences over the past decade has further exposed the weakness of democracy in Serbia. Political elites did not hesitate to enter into international arrangements that violate the rule of law and democratic order in Serbia, while the majority of citizens not only tolerated it but often even approved of undemocratic ways of governing in some partner countries.

If all three trends are taken into account, it can be said that the international influence on democracy in Serbia during the observed period remained a strong and important factor in the quality of democracy in Serbia, that positive influences were not enough to consolidate it, and that growing negative influences question its certainty.

Political elites and citizens of Serbia still view liberal democracy through the prism of failed expectations created by the narrative of “return to Europe” at the beginning of the 21st century. They do not see it as the most appropriate system for them to actually be involved in fulfilling those expectations. The current degree and nature of “local ownership” of democracy in relation to international influences warn not only that democracy in Serbia cannot be considered consolidated, but also that it will probably remain burdened with unflattering prefixes and adjectives for a long time to come.


View all


View all