Photo: Istinomer/Zoran Drekalovic

Active bewildering of citizens

“I can vouch that there are certain centres within the state that designed “micro” action in Borca in order to divert the attention from key issues. The proposal for civil patrols within the police was an attempt to create a parallel security system and it must not be allowed or upheld. The lack of dialogue is a problem of Serbia and not of the EU, wherefore civil society, which can talk to both sides, offers its help in order to restitute such dialogue.”

Milan Antonijevic, Executive Director of the Open Society Foundation, estimates in his interview to Istinomer that we are “living at the age of climate changes, which are not linked to ecology, but rather to the changes in the rule of law”. This was his response to the question whether he understood what was happening, considering a series of events and statements, from Vucic’s failed demarcation plan, through Vulin’s insults against citizens of Albanian nationality, to the “raid” on bakery in Borca, assaults on citizens in Novi Sad, through posters with Ljotic’s face in Belgrade. Antonijevic deems that all of these should be “dealt with by the institutions, from the Kosovo plan to the incident in Borca”.


Photo: Istinomer/Zoran Drekalovic

But we are constantly addressed by certain representatives of institutions. Vucic, as President, talks about the “plan” for Kosovo; Vulin, as Defence Minister, insulted Albanians and then he stated “if the European Union does not want us, someone else will”?


Seemingly, there is no system but rather certain ministries that do not cooperate and yet they address the citizens asking from them to solve the problem.


Is there a way we can establish who is responsible for the situation the country is currently in, for this schizophrenic state?


If you read the Constitution, you will find three branches of power and all three branches have equal share of responsibility. At a time when you have no clear division of power, when it is fully or largely in the hands of the executive power, then all that we talk about can be “burdened” upon the executive power.  


Executive power equals Ana Brnabic or executive power equals Aleksandar Vucic?


Here you reopen the Constitution and read about the authorities of the Prime Minister. If they match the state of play, then you can shift responsibility to that side; since they do not match the state of play then, if you assume the running of state from one centre, you must bear such responsibility. The burden of responsibility can be somehow observed in President’s speeches, the responsibility is excessive and all decisions are up to him, but then we can…


… But didn’t he personally grasp such…


… It is usually like this and that situation…


It seems appropriate to use a quote from an analysis released recently for the needs of the European Parliament, where the research service of the European Parliament noted that Serbia’s diversion towards authoritarianism can become its key obstacle for the European Union accession. They also note the alarmingly long trends and setbacks in the freedom of media and concentration of political power. The analysis “Is Serbia at risk of authoritarianism” indicates that the freedom of media has been declining, notably since 2014 when Vucic became Prime Minister.


These are alarming voices from the European Parliament. Let me remind you that the new composition of the European Parliament will get these documents once they take their seats at the Parliament and such starting position is not good for us. I fear that we have missed to do a lot over the past years. This is a clear signal that a society where you have one political party that indeed assumes the role of the state needs to be reformed.


How does that change?


There has to be internal will to restitute the state that is defined by the Constitution.


Let me remind you of your statement given in an interview to “Remarker” in 2018. You said, I paraphrase, “we need to take a U-turn and get back into the system” both when it comes to dialogue and the rule of law. However, do you have the impression that such U-turn and restoration is impossible today?


I think it is still possible.


Where do you see that capacity?


I see it in the National Assembly. This means that you need to make a decision that the National Assembly assumes its authorities and that the dialogue is indeed restored in the National Assembly. There is however one precondition – that the opposition also has any reason whatsoever to return to the National Assembly and to take part in such discussion. Meaning not to simulate a dialogue but to indeed establish it.


Do you believe that these deputies in the National Assembly could turn a new leaf as of tomorrow and start respecting their constitutional and legal authorities to control the executive power, the president, prime minister and to perform all of their duties?


There are some other indicators regarding media. I know that the situation is bad and that tabloids in particular are running personal campaigns against individuals, they are destroying lives; however at the moment of the assault in Grocka and the attempt at, I believe, the life of a journalist, you indeed had a clear reaction for the first time against those responsible. The President, who politically supports his political party, said – this is inadmissible. At that point, he did not exceed his authority, which would be the case if he had addressed such information to the prosecution and if the President had demanded that a particular person be arrested etc. However, if you say to your own party that such behaviour is inadmissible, then you are indeed sending the signal.


But this was an incident, rather than an event, right? On the other hand, is it necessary to have a murder attempt or for a woman to die on hunger strike, metaphorically speaking? 


We’ll see how the hunger strike situation will be resolved today. I hope that talks with the Prime Minister will give certain signals for change. But, let us get back to the main problem. If we manage to make the case of burning down journalist Jovanovic’s house a true turning point, so that it never again occurs to anyone in the ruling party to organise their fight against independent journalism in that way, we will have accomplished something. Whether this will be an isolated case because it was at the focus of attention of the Reporters without borders, of all of us, of the overall society, all media and colleagues, or it will be something that will still spread, we cannot know at the moment.

Photo: Istinomer/Zoran Drekalovic

And what is your impression, considering the atmosphere we live in, considering also the bakery in Borca?


The bakery is a litmus paper for many others.


The lives of individuals are endangered in this country, you cannot say that this man’s life is not endangered.


Not only his life, but also the lives of people supporting him there are endangered. Yesterday we have seen a campaign against a girl who works for BIRN, I think, who is a neighbour and who appeared at the protests there. There is a targeted campaign against here. These are all indicators that the state is not adequately addressing the security of its citizens and it allows for these campaigns to be run from certain power centres.


When you say state, who do you mean exactly? What is the “state” that should tell Vulin not to label the citizens of Albanian nationality as “Shiptar”, since by that you announce the right-wingers’ visit to the bakery. What is the actual “state” that should address these issues?


The Government is run by the Prime Minister, that’s one thing. I wouldn’t want the President to send a signal for discontinuing such discourse, because that would again show that the system is not in place and you have to intervene from a wrong position thus having an obedient Vulin indeed.


Would it be alright if the President, Prime Minister, all ministers and the entire Government condemned the events from the bakery? Everyone was silent and the Minister of Police relativized the case stating that “no glass was broken”.


Probably alluding to RTS, but enough about that.


Regardless of what he alluded to, they basically did not condemn the rampage because the man…


It’s a major oversight, I believe that the entire case has to be analysed and to lead to those responsible. We were talking about the accountability of the state. The statements that you mentioned, given by people at leading positions in certain ministries, that’s one thing and there is one sequence there. Such questions need to be posed at the Government sessions. If they are not posed, the public needs to ask why a particular question was not raised, since there are specific consequences.


You are posing that question now, non-government organisations stood up for the baker, media repeat that question, but there is absolutely no reaction whatsoever. The public is not so silent about the events as much as the government when it needs to condemn such behaviour, or not to allow Seselj in Hrtkovci, at the same spot where he had officially started the official persecution of Croats…


He continues that practice today.


… not to mention that half of the government was also in that party at the time.


I think that it also needs to be clarified to the citizens that this country is indeed run on basis of public opinion polls. As soon as Borca appears, as something that entails 52 percent of the citizens’ interest, you will get a clear reaction by the state. The essential problem lies in the manner of state governance, as policy is virtually created as a “river without a basin” running wherever a public opinion poll emerges. This indicates that the state has no clear vision of how indeed to regulate these issues. Otherwise, you will either have house burning or attack on a girl in Borca who appeared in front of the bakery. I indeed fear for the safety of anyone against whom such parties i.e. such a system runs a campaign and makes a video from her Facebook photos dating from who knows when, and all that at a time when the first judgment in a discrimination case is passed. If you recall the “qeleshe” case from seven years ago, when a city official was persecuted at the National Assembly by SNS deputies, when wearing of queleshe was equalised with treason, in a country with national minorities, where a recognised national minority wears such national costume.


Do you have the impression that all these events – from the bakery in Borca, through assault against the inhabitants of Novi Sad districts where minority communities live, posters with Ljotic’s statements, Hrtkovci – are linked or ad hoc incidents?


I believe that the word which also marks your intro for today’s broadcast is bewilderment. I think we are in a period called the bewilderment of your own citizens by numerous issues that somehow miss the key issues.


And what is the key issue and why do they bewilder us?


One of the key issues is economic and social instability, economic and social rights of the citizens, the way you live your everyday life. Is there any progress in your household budget and is your life through the year simpler or not?


A few days ago, auditors also found the misspending of two billion…


That’s another issue, we are completely missing the corruption topic. It appears nowhere. It is quite obvious, if you read a public opinion poll you will see that corruption is intentionally pushed back by the topics that bewilder the citizens.


What you want to say is that these are the intentionally designed topics and that someone has purposefully instructed the right-wingers to go there so that we would be dealing with the bakery for three days?


For sure. I can vouch that there are certain centres within the state, whether within state security of elsewhere, which designed such a “micro” action that resulted in all effects imaginable. However, it can produce some good effects because you have a really clear response from the citizens saying that it’s a nonsense, these are the positive effects, which was certainly not the intention.


Who is to avail of that spinning – distraction of attention – Vucic or the structures linked or not linked with him?


I would rather say the structures. This country was not much better led before. Take a look at the functioning of Milosevic’s regime. There used to be an illusion of accountability as well, but there was also a much wider circle that should have borne such accountability and yet it didn’t. It did take it in case of Slavko Curuvija and somewhere else, but the entire system still functions in a completely identical manner as it used to. This is what concern us who deal with human rights. All of our partners and organisations that we support are faced with many problems at the moment, considering that some new organisations are being established in a quite an aggressive manner…

Photo: Istinomer/Zoran Drekalovic

You are talking about the parallel network of NGOs, the so-called Gongo?


Parallel network. Take a look at their video clips, they are currently released in a very similar pattern. You have explicit labelling of individuals, video clips are designed against organisations or individuals, like the event in Borca. This is a sort of campaign.


But the general impression is that, what you are talking about, is actually created by the ruling party.


If you do not react at these things like someone who has been completely running the state, you actually create such a situation, therefore the accountability can be clearly attributed to the ruling party. It is bound to react and not relativize, since any relativisation is dangerous.


It was never officially confirmed, but there are unofficial rumours, since the first mention of demarcation for Kosovo, that Aleksandar Soros has pushed that demarcation together with some local NGOs and international organisations, however that story seems to have failed…


Viewed from the office where I work, I can tell you that’s not my impression.


You know very well that there had been writings even before you became director, that Aleksandar Soros was interested in that option.


There was a meeting and I believe it’s good that everyone who can somehow raise the issue of resolution of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, to do that somehow. The international community is striving to do that. We see the multiplicity of issues there and I think that any assistance and any support is welcome and I believe that the entire demarcation story put all possible issues on the table, which is why it is positive.


In what sense?


Positive because you widened the topics and from the two existing options – recognition and non-recognition, you reached the point where you discuss concrete problems of citizens in Kosovo, the functioning of the country, the form of the security structure.


You really have the impression that this is talked about?


I have the impression that it is talked about. I hope that these citizens are talked about and that the entire demarcation story and generally the final status that is mentioned, that it leads to a simple and normal life for the citizens, after so many years and decades living in a limbo where no safety is guaranteed or any other element of a normal life, the rule of law, freedom of movement, freedom of association, let alone economic and social rights.


Having in mind the Berlin summit and the position of Germany, it appears that the demarcation is ad acta and we even heard it from the President a couple of days ago. How did you interpret his story, since this was not the first time that he said “my policy has failed, my plan has failed” and yet we did not even know the plan? Do you understand what demarcation plan was it and what failed?


We can only guess. I think there was nothing definite on the paper. The citizens should be said that the process of resolution of relations between Belgrade and Pristina, let’s use this euphemism, starts with certain signatures, however it will last for many years. On the other hand, there are also other processes in the European Union, such as “Brexit”, which will also not be finalised by mere signature, but through a long-lasting process of normalization of relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union and it should be thus observed, without expectation that one signature will resolve anything.


Do you have the impression that something is being resolved now; do these appearances of the President after Berlin reflect his personal frustration or perhaps announce possible resolution?


As I have said at the beginning, what is good is the fact that many issues have been put on the table. We have indeed not discussed any resolution of these issues before. Brussels agreements were small steps forward, which normalized the lives of citizens in Kosovo, they were not tectonic movements that could bring a long-lasting solution, however there are talks in public now that there is a possibility to put a signature on certain documents.


And for Serbia to recognize Kosovo.


To somehow normalize the relations between Belgrade and Pristina.


You really think that things are going in that direction, given the bewildering statements we keep hearing?


Bewildering can also end up with certain sobering up and solutions that can surprise us all. I hope that this is what we are witnessing and that the support given in Berlin to the return of Belgrade and Pristina to discussion should be embraced. I believe that more particulars will happen in Paris on 1 July and that Kosovo will not refuse to resume the dialogue on further normalization of relations.


I am interested in just one more thing to that end. When you talk about the course of solution, is it based on your impression or the information that you have?


Based on the information.


Considering the information arising from the global influence of the Fund?


Not only the Fund. A year ago, the civil society had an internal dialogue with the President and indeed put on the table certain issues and solutions.


What solutions have been acknowledged?


Some of these issues are happening and it appears somehow that this was one of the things that’s accepted as policy. A frozen conflict was an option since I don’t know exactly what year, but this was an option on the table. However, the opening of certain topics means that the public, as well as our political establishment, will stop being lulled into thinking that it is possible to preserve status quo and not to the detriment of the citizens of Serbia.


Let’s return to the beginning of our conversation. I mentioned Vulin’s statement – “if the European Union does not want us, someone else will”. Considering other statements and events, do you think that Serbia can easily be or it already is diverted from the so-called European path?


I think that there is indeed a rationality and reality in observing the situation where a country is actually within the European Union, although it is physically not a member. We are more-less bordering EU members on all sides and I don’t see how any other alliance can be made except for that. This is simply the reality. It is somewhere reflected in certain European integration processes, which are currently a bit slower, however we address the critique therefore both to Brussels and to Belgrade, as well as ourselves in terms of sufficient results for the citizens to see what the European integration means, but I think we are doing a lot as well.


At the Berlin summit, the key word relating to the region was stability. Macron says stability before enlargement.


If you observe the statements from the European Union, they are all issued before the European parliamentary elections and should be thus observed. Only after the closing of ballots and releasing of voting results will we be able to see the actual Union policy regarding enlargement. The letters we kept sending both for the opening of negotiations with Albania and Macedonia and the echoes of such civil society actions, tell us that we will have a way to influence the Brussels policy after the elections and that we will have a much more sincere relation. What Macron is addressing to his voters who will be voting at the end of May, he is not addressing to the Balkans.

Photo: Istinomer/Zoran Drekalovic

He was nevertheless very clear several months ago when he said that he did not want another Hungary in Europe.


I would sign that statement, as someone with remote yet Hungarian origin, I would sign it. When you go to that country, you witness indeed the restriction of freedoms and apathy and not what you expect to see in a country that is a European Union member state.


Same as in Serbia?


Very much.


You have probably seen it on social networks and media also wrote about it, that a Centre for security and defence proposed civil patrols that would be somehow integrated in the Ministry of Interior, composed of civilians who would be dealing, through the Ministry, with youth delinquency, dealers… How do you see it, primarily as a lawyer?


When you delve deeper into that news and see that it talks about the former members of the Ministry of Interior, people who are fully trained, it exceeds the limits that a modern state should have and it also indicates that a parallel defence system will be created, which must in no way be allowed or upheld to that matter by anyone leading the Ministry of Interior or the Ministry of Defence. I hope that this is not being supported, although it was proposed by an organization incorporated during this wave of creation of parallel civil society where the “handwriting” of certain government members can be recognised.


You have announced for the upcoming two years that the Open Society Foundation will be dealing, among other, with social dialogue and possibility for renewing such dialogue on various levels. My question is whether this task is doomed from the very beginning?


I hope, you have known me for 20 years and you know that persistence always yields results. We would not embark on something that we deem to be doomed from the outset. Since we started that activity, social dialogue is more often mentioned. The next step is to have certain indicators of change within the two fully enrooted options and that it is possible to demonstrate through tiny examples the effects of such dialogue, which would subsequently grow into a rule through the National Assembly, European integration…


Have you considered the NGO sector might become a kind of mediator between the government and the opposition, instead of the mentioned international mediation?


I do not believe that the international mediation can resolve anything here. I think these are Serbia’s internal issues. The lack of dialogue is not the European Union’s problem but Serbia’s and that is why civil society is volunteering as someone who can discuss with both sides and who can be a fully silent partner to both options so that the dialogue would be restored.


Are you working on that?


Yes, we are. And I believe that we will talk with a large number of organisations, with everyone who wish for normalization. Bewilderment is in nobody’s interest on the long run. You can bewilder your citizens for a short period, but on the long run there will indeed be sobering up that may be in nobody’s interest.