Something is Rotten in the State of Serbia

Paraphrasing the famous quote (used to describe a corroding, decaying, unhealthy state of affairs, and originally “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”) from Shakespeare’s Hamlet in its title, this blog aims to concisely explain the current “rotten” situation in Serbia today.

”Rottenness” is ever-present in Hamlet, from the beginning to the end of this memorable tragedy. Its characters are desperate and unable to address their deep problems, and the story becomes more and more tragic as it progresses, especially as the protagonist becomes trapped in a spiral of corruption. Serbia today seems to be in a sort of spiral as well, as tensions continue to rise, yet the country remains a hybrid regime with elements of state capture.

The bloody scenes in Hamlet (no spoilers) have already had their reflection in the bloody streets of Belgrade during July 2020’s protests. Although the immediate explanation for the protests was the Government’s (mis)management of the COVID-19 crisis in Serbia and the threat of continued lockdowns, protesters were drawn out to the streets due to their wider concerns about the state of democracy in their country, especially in light of the recent parliamentary elections characterised by a number of irregularities and a boycott campaign by the largest opposition block. What made these protests so bloody was the unprecedented use of force by the police, which marked these protests as the most violent in Serbia’s recent history. The actions taken by the police included firing tear gas and stun grenades indiscriminately into crowds, charges by mounted police, and the beating of protestors by police in riot gear. To make matters worse, this brutality was not only targeted against those in the frontlines trying to storm into the National Assembly, but also against civilians posing no apparent threat to police, including journalists.

The key difference, however, between Hamlet and the state of play in Serbia is that the former ends in applause while the latter has ended with widespread criticism and little progress. Serbian civil society organisations warned about excessive use of force, describing it as “brutal and disproportional”, and noted that that “the current crisis could deepen, and Serbia’s EU path could be jeopardised in years to come” if nothing is done to improve the state of democracy in Serbia. On a wider scale, photographs of the violent scenes in Belgrade have been seen around the world, drawing harsh reactions from international watchdogs such as Amnesty International.

Although it is primarily up to domestic audiences to fight for substantial change on the ground in Serbia and reverse negative trends, the EU’s voice nevertheless counts, especially considering its substantial economic and political leverage. When it comes to the recent protests, the EU took a rather reserved stance. Although the spokesperson of the European Commission did warn that the use of force should always be “moderate and proportional”, adding that the EU was watching ongoing developments with grave concern, this reaction seems mild at best. Nevertheless, the fact that the EU has decided not to open any negotiating chapters with Serbia (even prior to the eruption of protests), for the first time since 2014, when accession talks began, is an indication that some EU member states will be more willing to condemn the Hamlet-like situation in Serbia going forward. Another chance for the EU to seriously address this issue will be in its Annual Report on Serbia expected to be published this fall. Furthermore, considering that Serbia’s President recently voiced his support for the revised enlargement methodology, one of the key elements of which is a greater focus on fundamentals and the functioning of democratic institutions (subject to stronger political steering by EU member states), there is hope that the EU’s capacity to criticise will be sharper than it used to be. Finally, the most recent attempt to change the status quo in Serbia was an initiative of three members of the European Parliament (respectively from Socialist, Liberal, and Green political affiliations), as an affirmative response to a call from the largest opposition block in Serbia, for the creation of a European Commission expert group on state and media capture in Serbia. The EU therefore has the room (and responsibility) to act as deus ex machina in the case of Serbia, with the potential to assist in bringing the ongoing tragic play in Serbia to an end.

Considering the existential threats to democracy and rule of law that have recently been displayed in Serbia, there is no better way to end this blog than with another Hamlet quote – “to be, or not to be, that is the question.”