In the context of the global crisis caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic, free, impartial and professional media reporting has become ever more important. This represents an issue in Serbia, considering its ongoing decline in media freedom as confirmed by independent international reports.
The conditions for practising professional journalism have been degraded for years and the Serbian media sector has faced numerous challenges, including political control over the mainstream media, low financial sustainability of media outlets and related high dependence on state funding, as well as a lack of transparency of that funding. Obscure media ownership and privatisation issues are yet another reason for concern. Additionally, the safety of journalists is problematic as the number of pressures, threats and attacks has grown since 2013, but the impunity phenomenon remains present. All these factors lead to a general state of censorship and self-censorship in the media in Serbia.
This report, developed in cooperation with Clingendael institute, presents the most prominent problems that the media sector in Serbia faces today. It argues that the flawed media landscape is the major factor leading to poor and biased reporting on topics related to the EU, the US and Russia. It observes media bias as a phenomenon in which media coverage presents inaccurate, unbalanced and/or unfair views with an intention to affect reader opinions in a particular direction. The analysis places a special focus on what such reporting means for the EU, given its strategic and communication goals for Serbia and the Western Balkans region.
This policy brief underscores outstanding issues that emerged during the COVID-19 crisis with possible long-term consequences on the functioning of democracy and rule of law in the six countries of the Western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, and Serbia. This paper specifically addresses the impact of the crisis on the functioning of democratic institutions, the judiciary, fundamental rights and freedoms, transparency, civil society, and the media, and continues to assess its impact on the social and political climates in each country of the region. The report identifies country-specific as well as common issues that should be monitored closely going forward.
The ongoing coronavirus crisis has spurred a myriad of measures from governments in the Western Balkans to better inform their citizens and provide services in emergency circumstances. Yet, responses to the pandemic and the institution of unprecedented lockdown measures have introduced various challenges to already fragile standards of transparency, accountability and rule of law, as well as have exposed shortcomings in the functioning of public administrations, in the Western Balkans. The crisis is increasingly being used as an excuse to backslide on previously achieved progress. The way emergency measures were adopted and enforced, and how citizens were informed, require close scrutiny, so as to ensure that the practices developed during this crisis do not become the “new normal”.
This policy brief, developed as part of the regional WeBER initiative, examines the approaches of public administrations in the Western Balkans to the COVID-19 crisis. It looks at the quality of communication and implementation of the measures taken by the governments of the Western Balkans to respond to the pandemic. It argues that simple and streamlined communication and transparency in the implementation of such measures are equally, if not more, important in times of emergencies and crises, when citizens are more vulnerable in their relationship with the government than in normal times. Based on an overview of positive and negative practices exhibited in the region, this brief offers a set of recommendations for governments to consider as soon as possible, in order to ensure maximum learning from this experience. There is a two-fold benefit to considering these recommendations. Firstly, they may prove valuable in the event of a second wave of pandemic (as is projected by epidemiologists), which might require the re-imposition of some measures in the coming months. Secondly, certain precautionary measures are likely to remain in place even after lockdowns and restrictions across the region are ended, with the implementation of these recommendations potentially of benefit to citizens in the near future as well.
Five months later and the continent is overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic – by the German Chancellor dubbed as“the biggest challenge since World War II.” This crisis tests the values, norms and partnerships between countries. As all brace for the impact, Western Balkan countries remain subject to regulatory limitations on purchasing much-needed protective equipment from the EU. These export limitations outside the EU caused a truck loaded with ten thousand protective masks destined for Albania to be stopped and turned around at the border with Greece on March 25th.
These tendering regulations were blasted by Serbia’s President during a speech earlier in the month, where he condemned EU’s lack of solidarity with his country. According to Vučić, he had to turn to Beijing for aid in medical supplies and staff, claiming that “without China and our Chinese brothers”, the country is incapable to defend itself from the virus. The test kits sent by China were received with a grand ceremony and billboards in Belgrade were revamped to thank “Brother Xi”.
European Union’s response was swift. On March 20, four MEPs urged the Commission to include Western Balkan countries in the bloc’s medical device authorisation scheme during the coronavirus crisis. Parliamentary Speakers from the region wrote a letter to the European Commission and the European Parliament Presidents, urging them to include the region into the EU+ export scheme. The topic was also discussed at the last Council meeting.
In the midst of the widespread criticism, a series of positive signals emerged in regard to the European solidarity and the Euro-Atlantic perspective of the Western Balkans. On March 25th, the European Council gave the green light for Albania and North Macedonia to open negotiations talks while the Commission allocated a sizeable financial package to assist each of them to tackle the coronavirus crisis. Some €38 million will go to support the region’s immediate health emergency and an additional €374 million is reallocated to assist with the socio-economic recovery.
On March 30th, the Commission announced its plan to expand its green lanes within the region which in effect would permit the flow of food and medicine within the region and between it and the EU. On the same day, news came from Washington DC that North Macedonia became the 30th official member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), making it an illustrious month for the region’s euro-Atlantic aspirations.
Skopje’s pathway to opening negotiation talks with the EU have been severely prolonged, which made it ever-more painful to absorb the conclusions of the European Council meeting in October 2019. A candidate country since 2005, North Macedonia had been recommended by the Commission to open negotiation since 2009. The country’s bid to join NATO had also been put on hold since the 2008 Bucharest Summit, where Greece exercised its veto over the name dispute. The country turned inward, and the reform agenda of integration was switched off.
Fast forward to March 2020 and the country made substantial progress on both fronts. On March 25, 2020, the European Council recommended opening negotiation talks. Two days later the country officially became a fully-fledged member of NATO. This is a substantial achievement for a country that has gone through great lengths to achieve this.
Besides the political decisions taken in March, Western partners have also provided important financial support to North Macedonia to help it cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. At the request of regional partners, the European Commission announced €4 million and the United States $1.1 million to help the country alleviate its immediate needs for medical supplies. EU pledged another to €62 million that will be redirected from the Instrument for Pre-Accession Assistance (IPA) to help the country mitigate the socio-economic impact of the coronavirus.
Although relatively overshadowed by the pandemic crisis, both decisions have far-reaching ramifications for the political and security future of the country and the region. Negotiation talks with the EU elevate Skopje’s relationship with Brussels to a new status, opens the way for transformative reforms, and more assistance. NATO membership boosts the country’s peace, security and territorial integrity – effectively making it a net contributor to the security of the region and the alliance. This is a remarkable accomplishment for a country that received three peace support missions in the last two decades.
Tirana’s European perspective was given a boost as well, as it received the backing of the European Council to open negotiation talks. A candidate country since 2014, the country has been recommended to open negotiations by the European Commission since 2016. Unlike North Macedonia, Albania’s recommendation by the Council came attached with additional conditions, to be fulfilled prior to opening chapters. The importance of this outcome should not be overshadowed by the added criteria as Tirana enters into a closer relationship with the EU.
The attached conditions are tangible and non-exhaustive. They include the adoption of the electoral reform in line with OSCE/ODIHR recommendations, making political party and campaign finances transparent and seek the continuation of implementation for the judicial reform. Specifically, Tirana is asked to ensure the functionality of the Constitutional Court and the High Court and establish the anti-corruption and organized crime special structures – both involving procedural appointments.
Moreover, the conditioned reforms are necessary, in particularthe electoral reform. So far, the country’s political parties have shown little desire to adopt the recommendations of OSCE/ODIHR. On several occasions, political parties have used tactics to prolong and even manipulate the outcome of such processes. Similarly, it is argued that attempts have taken place to delay the successful implementation of the judicial reform. Due to the conditions laid out by the Member States, the pressure is on political actors to display maturity and stop obstructing reforms.
Attached conditionalities should be seen an opportunity for the government to prove its reform credibility to hesitant Member States. This is especially a welcome boost to those who want to reform the electoral system, preserve freedom of speech, and ensure the successful implementation of the judicial reform. Through these conditions, their efforts become part of the scrutiny by EU and Member States. Ultimately, this provides an opportunity for the country’s political actors to demonstrate maturity before Albanians and European allies, who have in a matter of five months displayed unmatched solidarity and commitment to the country and its people.
Following the 6.4 magnitude earthquake that struck Albania on 26 November 2019, the European bloc rushed in to assist with search and rescue operations. EU’s Civil Protection Mechanismwas activated on request of Albanian government and 11 experts were dispatched to help coordinate the country’s humanitarian response, damage assessment, and rebuilding efforts. On 17 February 2020, the EU organised donor conference “Together for Albanian” recorded over 100 delegations that pledged €1.15 billion in assistance and loans. The European Commission alone pledged €115 million.
On the same day that the European Council gave Tirana the green light to start negotiation talks, the bloc allocated 4 million euros and to help it cover the immediate needs of the public health system amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As for other Western Balkan countries, the EU has redirected 46.7 million euros from IPA to help support its social and economic recovery. Considering, it should come as no surprise that Tirana has shown solidarity with European countries in return.
These are testing times that severely test institutions, leaders and partnerships resilience. The good thing is that crises have a beginning and an end. While the current focus is to respond to the immediate needs, politicians in Western Balkans, Brussels, Member States and beyond must be mindful of what the future cooperation will look like. Turning on each other will hardly aid immediate solutions, nor will it create a strong basis for the future.
It seems obscure and counterintuitive to emphasize cooperation at a time when social distancing has become mandatory public policy and travel between countries has been shut down. But solidarity is the only way through which this crisis can be overcome. The EU has throughout transcended to be a worthy partner to rely on for the Western Balkans. In spite of the financial assistance, by April 1st, four of the six Western Balkan countries had adopted the proposal on green lanes, effectively lifting the regulations that prevented the flow of medicines to the region.
Western Balkan countries must be mindful who they put their trust into. Even if Vučić’ criticism of the tendering regulations was justified, that is not a worthy language and tone to be used among allies. Lest we forget that the tendering regulations are put in place in part to prevent faulty medical equipment that put the life of citizens and professional medical staff in danger, as Spain, Czech Republic and Turkey have found out the hard way.
*This blog was originally published on ResPublica on 3 April 2020.
This report explores the challenges and position of human rights defenders (HRDs) in the region and offers abroad range of recommendations to national authorities, the international community, media and HRDs themselves. Having interviewed 100 HRDs for the purpose of this report, it represents one of the most prolific and detailed on-the-ground studies of their position in the Western Balkans, on a country-by-country basis.
Five TEN members gave contributions in writing this report: European Policy Institute (EPI), Skopje, European Policy Centre (CEP), Belgrade, Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), Sarajevo, Group for Legal and Political Studies (GLPS), Pristina, Institute for Democracy and Mediation (IDM), Tirana.
Almost two decades have passed since the countries of the Western Balkans (WB) began their way on the European integration process. From today’s perspective, however, the region’s prospects of achieving EU membership in the foreseeable future appear rather grim.
This policy brief zooms precisely on this “executive bias” – the focus of the region’s EU integration process based largely on dialogue between elected governments, with insufficient involvement of parliaments and wider society. It contends that meeting membership criteria and securing the irreversibility of reforms post-accession is only possible if the ownership of reforms in aspirant countries is extended beyond the executive branch of power. It also offers recommendations towards building more substantive involvement of national parliaments and civil society in the EU integration process.
Policy brief is available for download here (English) and here (French).
At the outset of a new political and institutional cycle of the EU, 2019 has been a year of many unknowns. For the countries of the Western Balkans, the direction of the future development of EU enlargement policy has been a key concern. During the mandate of the previous European Commission (EC) it has been clear for some time that there is discontent on the side of EU member states concerning the on-the ground effects of the enlargement methodology.
The discussions on the effects of the enlargement methodology gained new impetus following the European Parliamentary (EP) elections over the summer and related to the October 2019 European Council session at which the much-awaited decisions on the start of accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania were on the agenda. The EU debate on enlargement has recently been accompanied by formal requests from EU member states to revise the methodology of enlargement, primarily in view of the progress as related to monitoring rule of law. Such demands have surfaced in various places, including coming directly from French President Macron, as well as appearing in September 2019 decisions of the Bundestag and Dutch Parliament. In short, EU member states demand that the enlargement methodology includes modes of strictly ensuring the monitoring and implementation of reforms, especially in relation to rule of law, as well as responding to reversibility in the accession process.
In this brief, we focus on the lessons learned from rule of law benchmarking in the Western Balkans so far in order to provide input for ongoing discussions on revising the accession methodology. The brief first provides an overview of rule of law benchmarking and provides key recommendations that need to be taken into consideration when revising rule of law instruments in the accession process. It then proceeds to summarise the key findings of a comparative research project on the effectiveness of benchmarking in the EU accession process in the Western Balkans. The findings presented here reflect on the debates at the October 2019 summit, at which EU member states did not reach a decision despite the recommendations of the European Commission to the start the accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania.
Are tasks characteristic for civil service performed outside merit-based based regime? How open, transparent and fair is the recruitment into the civil service? How effective is the protection of senior civil servants’ position from unwanted political interference? Find out in this WeBER infographic.
How transparent and accessible are budgetary documents? How do governments communicate and cooperate with public about public internal financial control (PIFC)? How do supreme audit institution’s (SAI) communicate and cooperate with the public pertaining to its work?
What is the public opinion – is the administration is citizen-oriented or not? Can citizens give feedback on the quality of administrative services and is the feedback is publicly available? What do CSOs think about accessibility of administrative services? Do (and how) service providers publish information about offered services?
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