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Interview 20 May 16

EU Chapters 'Will Improve Serbia's Rule of Law'

Director of body monitoring Serbia’s EU integration process says opening Chapters 23 and 24 will help resolve important problems over the rule of law in the country.

Sasa Dragojlo
 Europe Day 2016 in Strasbourg | Photo: European Parliament/ Flickr

Sonja Stojanovic Gajic, head of the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy - one of seven civil society organizations that are monitoring Serbia's EU accession talks - told BIRN that problems over the rule of law will be solved more easily once Serbia opens chapters 23 and 24.

The Center is part of the PrEUgovor coalition, which is specifically dealing with Chapters 23, on the judiciary and fundamental rights, and Chapter 24, on freedom and security. Both are deemed crucial for Serbia's path to EU membership.

Gajic says that while Serbia made progress on adopting needed legislation, the results have been disappointing because of political interests.

“Laws and strategies that are crucial for reforms in the rule of law, security and protection of the freedom are being adopted but not applied consistently, or at all, because of political interference,” Gajic said.

She stressed the example of “Savamala Case” when, during the night between April 24 and 25, masked people with bulldozers razed private objects in the Savamala area of Belgrade, where the state-backed Belgrade Waterfront complex is to be built.

During the incident, police refused to answer citizens’ complaints and the authorities later ignored the incident altogether.

Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic, after reviewing documents, audio recordings and witness and police officers hearings, concluded that this was not a mistake but was the result of a previously prepared plan.

The report assessed that it was “an organized violation of citizens’ rights, coordinated on multiple levels and between more state and non-state actors”.

“This case highlighted that some groups are above the law because police failed to react to their violent operations even after citizens’ calls,” Gajic said.

“It showed that these phantom masked people are under the powerful protection of some state structures,” she added.

She said that in Serbia there were “parallel realities”, since while the government was making progress in terms of formal reforms and legislation, in practice it is undermining those same laws.

“State officials with the help of civil society are working on the preparation of reforms crucial for the rule of law and improving the protection of the rights of the population,” she noted.

“However, in the other parallel reality, decisions are made outside institutions or implemented selectively against those... who criticize the government,” Gajic explained.

However, once chapters 23 and 24 are opened, Serbia’s progress will be monitored far more carefully by the EU, she noted.

The European Council granted Serbia membership candidate status on March 1, 2012.

The first intergovernmental conference between Serbia and the EU was in January 2014 in Brussels, marking the start of accession negotiations at a political level.

So far, only two chapters have been opened, 32, on Financial Control, and 35, on "Other Issues", which in Serbia’s case, refers to Kosovo.

Regarding 23 and 24, Gajic says the government has made greatest progress in the development of new laws and strategies. The practice of consulting civil society has also been improved.

But real public debate is still not the rule while recommendations of interested NGOs are adopted inconsistently. Feedback to proposals is still the exception.

Gajic emphasized the Law on Police as the one law that was significantly improved following the intervention of civil society organizations.

However, in the adopted version, the provisions that should provide for professional and independent operational work of the police have been consistently incorporated.

“The Interior Minister still has the right to decide between candidates who apply for managerial positions in the police and to keep under control the department of police internal control,” Gajic noted.

Similar examples of “legislative loopholes” that allow discretionary decisions and regulations are in advertising, which allow for political influence on the media through financing.

Beside these internal problems, the opening of chapters 23 and 24 remains in question because of objections from EU member Croatia.

Last month, Croatia blocked blocked Serbia from opening negotiations with Brussels, citing concerns about Belgrade’s record on war crimes.

As well as accusing Belgrade of not cooperating fully with the Hague tribunal, the ICTY, Zagreb wants Belgrade to change a law which gives Serbian courts the jurisdiction to prosecute war crimes committed anywhere in the former Yugoslavia during the wars of the 1990s.

Gajic said Serbia has to find allies in order to solve the Croatian problem.

“The problem of the Croatian blockade will be resolved with the direct agreement of the Croats by offering some counter-favour, or with the help from the larger EU member states,” she predicted.

Despite all the problems in and out the country, Gajic thinks that Serbia has adopted significantly improved action plans for the two chapters.

Several EU officials said that Serbia could open the two chapters by the end of June.

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