For the establishment of the rule of law, by which we mean the legal and political system in which all citizens must act in accordance with positive law, the mechanisms that ensure the responsibility of members of the political elite are especially important. That responsibility can be political, legal, and a responsibility to civil society.
The institutions of the political system and the opposition enable the vertical responsibility of the politicians in power, i.e. the possibility of replacing them through elections. In this regard, the period after the October 5 changes until the SNS and SPS came to power in 2012 was marked by citizens’ dissatisfaction with low living standards and corruption, but also the “normalization” of political and media pluralism. This enabled political competition which further led to the opposition gaining power. After change of government in 2012, the foundations of political and media pluralism collapsed. Serbia welcomed the end of 2020 without parliamentary opposition and independent national media, and thus without circumstances necessary for the current government to be held politically accountable for its actions.
Judicial institutions and independent regulatory and supervisory bodies are key to establishing the horizontal accountability of the political elite. In Serbia, the judiciary is constantly controlled by the executive. Through judicial reforms implemented in different periods, the executive has only strengthened that control. The public prosecutor’s office also underwent organizational and personnel reforms to further establish lasting political influence, ensuring a lack of reaction in the event of numerous political and economic scandals. In recent years, the executive has gone beyond the pressures and institutional redesign. It has resorted to invalidation through public defamatory campaigns aimed at judges and general criticism of the work of the judiciary, as well as criticism of specific verdicts.
The work of judges and prosecutors is marked by daily pressure from representatives of the executive branch. Research shows that as many as 41% of judges have experienced direct pressure in their work and decision-making process (from court presidents, colleagues, politicians, the media, etc.). If the answer “yes, because there is systemic pressure” is taken into account, then as many as 58% of judges state that they were subject to pressure.
(Data obtained from the research Lawyers and Legal Professions in Serbia and Croatia which was conducted within the Center for Socio-Legal Research of the Faculty of Law in Belgrade.)
Independent institutions, especially the Protector of Citizens and the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection, were quickly met with resistance by the governing majority formed after the elections in 2012. The scale of these conflicts ranged from silent ignoring (in the period from 2015 to 2018, the National Assembly of Serbia did not discuss the reports of these institutions), obstruction (the Government refuses to enforce the Commissioner’s decision, while the prosecution ignores criminal charges), to brutal media campaigns and personal attacks on former holders of these functions.
At the beginning of the decade, the Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection recorded about 10% of unsuccessful interventions, while mid-decade, in 2016, the percentage of unexecuted decisions soared to 26.4%. In the last year of work (2018) of Rodoljub Šabić, the first Commissioner, the share of unexecuted decisions reached 30%. Even after the appointment of the new Commissioner, things have not changed. According to the 2019 annual report: resistance and obstruction by the authorities have continued in the same form and scope, except that the language of the report is more moderate and adapted to new circumstances.
In case the previous two mechanisms fail, the civil society and the public represent the last line of defense for the rule of law and democracy. So, the independent media in Serbia pointed out numerous scandals and abuses of power, which the public would not otherwise find out about. The work of non-governmental organizations was more focused on raising the awareness of citizens than on their mobilization. Citizens have also repeatedly shown interest in activism and gathered around various topics – from the construction of small hydropower plants to protests against irregular elections and political violence. However, the media’s findings did not result in legal liability. The democracy and the rule of law in Serbia are jeopardized, and while resistance exists, it is significantly affected by the relative lack of interest in politics and the poorly developed political and legal culture of Serbian citizens.
Bearing in mind the aforementioned, it is not surprising that the rankings of international institutions indicate that, during the last decade, the rule of law in Serbia has mostly stagnated or decreased. At the same time, corruption, clientelism and partocracy are holding the existing political and economic system captive. In such a social context, together with the events of the last decade of the 20th century marked by wars, poverty and political instability, a specific and widespread perception of Serbian society and politics as “abnormal” and “immoral” emerged.