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Serbian Reform Stalls Again

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The reformist zeal displayed by the Serbian government following the 12 March 2003 assassination of Premier Zoran Djindjic appears to have dissipated. A number of important and positive steps were taken while the shock of that political murder was still fresh. Increasingly, however, their impact is being counterbalanced by actions that bring into question the government’s ability to press decisive political and economic reforms home so as to achieve the goal of integration with wider European institutions.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, public commitments to cooperate with The Hague Tribunal were made; the army began to be put under civilian control; the highest-profile organised crime gang and parts of the Milosevic-era parallel security structures were dismantled; several dozen prominent murders, many dating back to the old dictator’s time, were solved; and the new union of Serbia and Montenegro was admitted to the Council of Europe. All this should have happened quickly after Milosevic’s fall in October 2000, but the reform agenda had been blocked by nationalist forces around former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica until February 2003.

As welcome as that burst of activity was, however, new troubling signs have appeared. Those who openly criticise the government on ties to organised crime risk arrest, and officials have launched legal actions to silence the media and respected human rights organisations. Serious human rights violations, including torture, have occurred in the prisons to which those rounded up in the post-assassination crackdown have been sent. The government has almost completely destroyed the independence of Serbia’s already dysfunctional judiciary, is imposing media censorship and has given the police sweeping powers of extra-judicial detention. This all clearly violates Council of Europe standards. The government has yet to reveal who ordered a number of high profile political assassinations widely considered to have been associated with State Security. The newly appointed chief of military intelligence has been implicated by testimony at The Hague Tribunal in a massacre of 129 civilians during the 1999 Kosovo crisis, and the new-found commitment to cooperate with The Hague appears dependent on continued strong international pressure.

Under the state of emergency declared in response to the Djindjic killing, the Serbian government did strike a blow against part of the Milosevic-era parallel security structures. Yet this appears increasingly to have been a one-off reaction. The government still appears unable to pursue reforms energetically since it remains excessively dependent on a Milosevic-era financial oligarchy and faces strong obstruction from a largely unreformed state security (BIA) and army sector. The BIA remains a bastion of individuals tainted by war crimes and connected to organised crime. Both it and the financial oligarchy are actively, and largely successfully, obstructing military reform, democratisation, the rule of law, institution building, cooperation with The Hague, and the fight against organised crime and corruption. Indeed, it increasingly appears that the Democratic Party (DS), the power in the ruling DOS coalition, may have used the assassination and state of emergency not to set Serbia on a fast course forward but to settle political scores.

The DS and the new premier, Zoran Zivkovic, received a significant post-assassination boost in their popularity, largely because of their attacks against organised crime. Those ratings have since dropped, due in large part to the public perception that the government is covering up its association with criminal elements and Djindjic’s assassins. Public quarrels have erupted between members of the DOS coalition over how far the crackdown on organised and economic crime should go, and some key politicians appear to be blocking investigations out of self-interest. Without a reliable parliamentary majority, the DS is turning increasingly to Milosevic’s old allies, his Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and its break-away SNS wing, and defectors from other right-wing nationalist parties, a development that bodes poorly for reforms, but it shows reluctance to call elections that might produce a mandate for change before autumn 2004.

Without strong and consistent international pressure, the opportunity that Djindjic’s death appeared to offer to mobilise a shocked public behind the reforms Serbia needs will be lost.


To the international community:

  1. Condition all financial assistance to Serbia and Montenegro on the meeting of specific annual benchmarks, including but not limited to:
  1.     compliance with Council of Europe human rights standards, especially freedom of the media and human treatment of prisoners;
  1.     cooperation with The Hague War Crimes Tribunal;
  1.     progress in reforming the judiciary and the battle against organised crime and corruption;
  1.     disbanding the Security-Information Agency (BIA) and replacing it with a new organisation subject to parliamentary control;
  1.     significant progress on bringing the military under civilian control; and
  1.     removal from top ranks in the army, police and BIA of individuals who are closely associated with war crimes and human rights abuse in the Milosevic era.
  1. Do not permit Serbia and Montenegro to enter NATO’s Partnership for Peace until war criminals have been removed from top positions in the army and all Hague indictees have been arrested.
  1. Increase technical assistance to the Defence Ministry to assist with reform, subject to progress on the benchmarks listed above.
  1. Increase technical assistance to reform and supervision of the judiciary, with particular emphasis on the Commercial Court, subject to progress on the benchmarks listed above.
  1. Give the Serbian government technical assistance with disbanding the BIA and forming a new security agency.

To the Serbian government:

  1. Restart the fight against organised crime and economic crime.
  1. Disband the Security-Information Bureau (BIA) and create a new state security agency that is subject to parliamentary control.
  1. Publicly and fully disclose the role the BIA and KOS played in facilitating Djindjic’s assassination.
  1. Begin serious police reforms by year’s end.
  1. Place the Zandarmerija and Special Anti-terrorist Unit (SAJ) under parliamentary control.
  1. Remove from posts in the security forces individuals who are closely associated with war crimes and human rights abuse in the Milosevic era, including Vladimir Lazarevic, Momir Stojanovic, Sreten Lukic, and Goran Radosavljevic.
  1. Permit Human Rights Watch, Humanitarian Law Centre, and the Helsinki Committee free access to Serbia’s prisons.
  1. Repeal or amend the law on Public Information and immediately draft and pass legislation that guarantees freedom of the media in keeping with Council of Europe and EU standards, including a new law on access to information.
  1. Immediately draft and pass legislation to reform the judicial system in keeping with Council of Europe and EU standards, repealing or amending in so doing the Law on the Battle Against Organised Crime and the Law on the Public Prosecutor.
  1. Arrest all sixteen Hague indictees believed to be on Serbian soil – including Ratko Mladic.
  1. Turn over documents pertaining to the Milosevic trial to the ICTY prosecutors.
  1. Disband the Radio Diffusion Council and select new members, this time following legal procedures.
  1. Purge the Commercial Court of Milosevic-era hacks.
  1. Do not tamper with the independence of the National Bank, whether by passing draft legislation presently before the parliament or by taking other measures to assert political control.
  1. Reappoint Aleksandar Radovic as director of the Republic Directorate of Public Revenues and permit him to carry out his duties.

Belgrade/Brussels, 17 July 2003


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