The question remains, what after the elections

Sonja Licht

23. May 2020

The question remains, what after the elections

BFPE President in conversation with “Danas” daily newspapers

Jelena Dikovic; photo Užice Media

* Parliamentary and local elections are coming.

Of course, parliamentary elections are the most important moment in the life of any parliamentary democracy, and local ones are key to the normal and sustainable life of local communities. Unfortunately, the upcoming elections will be held in a political situation that was bad even before the pandemic, and now it is even worse: the approach “whoever is not with us is against us” has evolved into “whoever is not with us is a traitor”. Very few realistic plans of where we will be in six months, a year or two after the pandemic, how we shall restore confidence in very weak institutions, how we will face the global recession, what our comparative advantages are and how to strengthen, for example, cooperation with our exceptional experts from the diaspora in all areas, and primarily those who can help us better prepare for the impending second wave of COVID-19? These are urgent issues, primarily for the government but also for the opposition. Of course, new problems arise next to existing ones: cooperation in our region, including the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo, when is that cooperation more important to us than ever? And that from the economy to the fight against epidemics. How not only to continue but to speed up and make our everyday life much better and our European perspective more certain – Sonja Licht, president of the Belgrade Fund for Political Excellence (BFPE), points out in an interview for Danas.

A boycott is a legitimate, desperate means of struggle when the opposition is forced into a very unequal position, but the question remains what to do after the elections and how to avoid the worst form of politics, which is violence on the streets.

* BFPE is among the organizations that demand that the Government of Serbia open a social dialogue on the state of democracy in our country. What happened to democracy and the rule of law in Serbia?

Let me immediately emphasize that first, there is no once and for all secure democracy because all societies face the attacks of those who threaten it, so, even in much more developed democracies than ours, it must be defended and built; secondly, from ancient times until today it has been repeated countless times that democracy is not perfect either, only nothing better than it has been invented; third, without an open, free debate on all important issues in society, without a strict division of power into legislative, judicial and executive, the very foundations of modern democracy are undermined. I have repeatedly suggested that at the beginning of each new convocation of the National Assembly, Montesquieu’s “Spirit of the Law” be distributed to the MPs, at least in an abbreviated version. Unfortunately, there are no real debates or dialogues in our country, the necessity of separation of powers is not understood or practiced, institutions are not respected or preserved. Finding a ‘hole in the law’ is often considered a desirable skill, and injustice only hurts us if we are its target.

*According to Freedom House, Serbia fell into “hybrid regimes”, and instead of taking these findings seriously, the Government of Serbia sent its analysis of their report to this organization. How do you see that move?

I have nothing against the Government, as well as other interested parties, commenting on this and other reports of international organizations. I see a problem when criticism and reports from domestic NGOs, research, and even independent institutions are ignored, or worse – serious, well-founded criticism is perceived as a hostile act. Such a reaction makes dialogue impossible and meaningless, weakens social cohesion. If the criticism of domestic actors were taken seriously, then international actors would have less reason to express negative criticism. And it is precisely these reactions that “hurt”, and it is they that contribute to the negative image of Serbia.

*On the list of the Reporters Without Borders Media Freedom Index, Serbia has fallen by 39 places since 2014. Why is the government suffocating free media so much, considering that the vast majority of media in Serbia are owned by them?

Professional and free media are a precondition for a free and developed society. Citizens being informed is a precondition for a serious and quality debate. I am convinced that these media have another, amidst the reign of the cacophony of half-truths and lies on social networks and tabloids, a very important role: that objective, knowledgeable reporting is a necessary corrective to the manipulation and ‘idiotization’ of public space. The collapse of professional and truthful reporting leads to the destruction of the health of every society.

*The EU seems to be turning a blind eye to the weakening of the rule of law in Serbia. Do you agree with that assessment and how is it at all possible for Serbia to become member of the EU without free media, rule of law and fundamental freedoms?

I do not agree that the EU closes its eyes to anything that is of key importance for the development of our society. Anyone who has really read the reports of the European Commission on Serbia, especially in recent years, and above all on the state of democracy and the rule of law, could be convinced otherwise. Has the EU helped and is helping Serbia? The answer is that we should only look at investments in our health capacities and ask ourselves what would have happened to us in the past two months without those grants and favorable loans? Who helped us the most in 2014 to overcome the consequences of the catastrophic floods? Would that help have been much greater if we had qualified for the EU structural funds if we had used if not our advantage from the 80s, then the fact that we have been candidates for membership since 2010? We have overcome the obstacles to EU membership too slowly, too often meeting European standards in building a democratic and legal state, but we also see the fight against corruption, institution building, and human rights protection, harmonization of our foreign and security policy with the EU as imposed obligations, not as own need. And from the Eurosceptics, we should finally get an answer to what is that they are offering us an alternative instead of European integration.

I supported Vučić because of the refugees, the dialogue with Kosovo…

*You haven’t been appearing in the media for a long time. Part of the public claims that you sided with the regime of Aleksandar Vučić?

I did not compare Tomislav Nikolić and Aleksandar Vučić with Churchill and de Gaulle, but I did publicly support Vučić’s reaction to the refugee wave of 2015. I still think that thanks to that reaction, Serbia acted more humanely than many other countries. I am very concerned that such an approach is being called into question these days, and right-wing extremists are spreading hatred towards migrants. I also supported the call for an internal dialogue on relations with Kosovo. The conversation between the representatives of the civil society and the president in the organization of the Convention for European Integration was a serious step forward, which unfortunately did not continue. I supported the initiative for economic cooperation in the region, the so-called small Schengen, which was done at the EU Summit in Zagreb. And whether all this is contrary to the black-and-white optics of the work of the critical public – it probably is. But, for more than 50 years of my engagement on the public scene, I have never seen myself as “righteous” and I have no intention of becoming one in these years. But precisely because of that engagement, love for my country and the desire for the enviable democratic potential of Serbia to be reflected in its political representatives, I remind you of the wise words of Desimir Tosic that there is no place in politics for love and hate, but only for rational, responsible judgment and behavior.

First published in the daily “Danas” on Saturday, May 23, 2020