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Vladimír Bilčík, European Parliament Rapporteur For Relations With Serbia

Compromise Is Possible

I do believe that there is enough space and time to continue this dialogue and to reach a meaningful agreement that would lead to free and fair elections in Serbia. I hope that we will have a clearer picture, in terms what should and can be done, in September. I hope all political actors will continue their constructive engagement ~ Vladimir Bilčik

The European Parliament will spend the summer in a working atmosphere, because by September it should have prepared the document intended to serve as the basis for the continuation of Serbia’s interparty dialogue on election conditions, confirms Vladimir Bilčik, a member of the European Parliament delegation tasked with moderating this process, speaking in this interview for CorD Magazine.

Bilčik is of the opinion that the resumption of this dialogue should focus on issues that are able to be resolved, rather than expectations of revolutionary change. He says that he still doesn’t understand proposals to boycott elections in the case that a compromise cannot be reached.

This is the agreement that we reached during a meeting in Belgrade earlier this summer. We proposed to move forward and prepare for our meeting in Belgrade on 17th and 18th September. We will have collected all possible feedback from the participants in this dialogue by the end of July, and on the basis of that we will draft a paper that we will present during discussions in early September. This should serve as the basis for that dialogue in Belgrade.

That paper is not intended to come up with solutions, rather it is meant to identify the key issues and the key stakes, and key possible ways of moving forward. But, as we’ve always said, our role as facilitators is to create space for Serbian politicians to have a genuine dialogue on difficult, divisive issues that have to be discussed regardless of whatever we believe. Dialogue is the only way we can address these issues and find solutions for these numerous questions, especially in the run up to the next elections. So, indeed, we have been working and will continue to work throughout the summer, and we will be ready to have an engaging debate in early September, which I hope can bring us to a constructive meeting on 17th and 18th September.

Last month, when the interparty political dialogue finally resumed, you said the session was fruitful and constructive. Do you believe there is enough time and willingness to improve the political situation and create the atmosphere required for free and fair elections by next spring?

Due to the pandemic, the mission to Belgrade was actually the first mission that the European Parliament authorised as an external mission, beyond the borders of the EU. I think this only underlines how important this interparty dialogue is to us at the European Parliament and EU institutions. We have previously been very engaged online, because we launched the second phase of the dialogue in the March online meeting with Ivica Dačić. We had more than 20 different meetings with interlocutors and bilateral meetings in the run up to our session in Belgrade.

We are here to really help create space for a genuine discussion, genuine debate, and this is our interest. We are certainly not taking part in any domestic political games

So, I think that our session was wellprepared, while the most promising news for me was that everyone was willing and able to sit around the same table; to sit in the same room for two days and discuss some of these difficult issues. When I say ‘everyone’ I mean the major political parties with representatives in the Parliament, as well as political forces that decided not to participate in the last parliamentary elections. For us, as mediators, this very fact was an important indication that there is a serious engagement and serious willingness to take part in this interparty dialogue. I do believe that there is enough space and time to continue this dialogue and to reach a meaningful agreement that would lead to free and fair elections in Serbia. I hope that we will have a clearer picture in September, in terms of what should and could be done. I hope that all the political actors will continue their constructive engagement in this process.

In that respect, what do you think should be on a “must do” list for securing free and fair elections?

The “must do list” is in the hands of Serbian politicians. We just create space for the dialogue. A “must” would be that everyone must be willing to participate in the next elections. It is important for these elections to be as representative as they can possibly be. It is also clear that there are a number of issues that weren’t resolved to the satisfaction of everyone in the first phase of the interparty dialogue and that we need to address in this phase.

They concern the situation in the media, particularly with regard to the public broadcaster and access to the media for political acters. I think this is important. It is also important to look at ways to enable good-quality political competition. And, of course, it is important that voting on election day is itself free and fair. I also hope we can have international observers on the ground, including the mission from the European Parliament, to help create an atmosphere of greater trust in the process. At our next meeting, we will be discussing the implementation of a number of electoral regulations – both those that already exist and those waiting to be adopted – in order to elevate general trust in the institutions of public life among all political actors.

Some opposition leaders disagree with your views on the current political situation in Serbia calling it too positive vis-à-vis the government. What forms the basis of your assessment that there is “good faith” to implement the necessary political reforms within the ruling coalition?

Parliament Speaker Ivica Dačić played a good, constructive role in the run up to the July meeting, and also during the two days of the meeting. He was very heavily engaged and very much present. I think this also sent important signals and signs that the dialogue is being taken seriously by everyone in Serbia. It also became very clear that this dialogue is an important aspect of overall progress when it comes to Serbia’s European path. We made that very clear in the last EP report, which was adopted with a majority of our 538 MEPs. It is also an important aspect of the documents issued by the European Commission, including its regular report. It is also something that member states see as an important part of progress when it comes to assessing Serbia’s readiness to open more clusters in negotiations. So, I think it is being taken seriously. I also want to underline that we, as mediators, are here to really help create space for a genuine discussion, genuine debate, and this is our interest. We are certainly not taking part in any domestic political games and fights when it comes to Serbian politics, especially when it comes to free elections.

Some others believe that you shouldn’t refrain from increasing political pressure on the Serbian Government if it fails to implement the necessary reforms and change its often-hostile attitude towards the opposition. Are you ready for such steps?

At the moment, I think space exists to achieve these results, so let’s concentrate on that. Let’s take it step by step, and not discuss what might happen, because that’s not very helpful and only diverts our attention away from the immediate focus. The immediate focus is on what we have asked parties to do: to send us their contributions in order for us to prepare a document that I hope can move us forward towards a meaningful meeting on 17th and 18th September. Once we get that meeting, let’s then discuss the next steps, or let’s discuss ideal, good and meaningful conclusions. Also, let’s not divert attention away from the core of the exercise, and that’s the focus on the next immediate steps. This is what we will stick to and continue to do, while also stating that we are willing to engage for as long as it takes.

The immediate focus is on what we have asked parties to do: to send us their contributions in order for us to prepare a document that I hope can move us forward towards a meaningful meeting on 17th and 18th September

The last session of the political dialogue in Serbia was about the importance of professional and free media in the election process. What followed were the appointments of new members of the managerial structures of RTS and RTV. The opposition sees the selection of candidates as evidence that the ruling coalition intends to keep two public broadcasters under its control. Did you respond to the complaints detailed in the letter sent to you?

We, of course, received a number of statements and a number of letters, but we also made it clear that we are currently busy preparing our assessment and our framework for September. We are very much aware of the situation when it comes to public broadcasters, which is one of the key issues when it comes to the interparty dialogue. We spent much of the time in July discussing that. We hope to spend a lot of a time discussing possible ways forward in September. I always said that this was as important as a general statement when it comes to Serbia. A well-functioning democracy needs a well-functioning public, independent media, which serves the public interest. Media companies that don’t have any other agenda than to protect the wider public interest. I think this is how we can help improve political and public institutions in Serbia, which I do hope will have a much longer life than any of us sitting around the table. Politicians come and go, but institutions stay.

This is something that I hope all of us who will be sitting around the table during the interparty dialogue will have in mind: how we can work to improve those institutions so that politicians, whether they are in power or in opposition, feel comfortable with the state of public institutions, and especially with the state of public media broadcasters. This is important. This is an essential task and I hope that we can help Serbian politicians to take those important steps.

If you were to compare the atmosphere surrounding political dialogue this year with the one from 2019, when would you say the situation was less favourable to achieving a positive outcome?

There are couple of issues here. One is clearly the situation in terms of the governing majority and the opposition being more asymmetric. This is also a result of the fact that the opposition decided to boycott the last elections. As a result, they are not represented in the institutions of public life and the parliament. This makes the whole exercise in which we are engaged more challenging, in some respect, because a number of the issues we are now tackling are issues that we were tackling back in 2019. So, the context is not easy. At the same time, what I feel is promising is the willingness of all political actors to make this dialogue successful; to see results and ensure that next National Assembly of Serbia has better representation. And that means that the opposition will participate in elections. That also means that the government will be willing and able to engage, not only in a dialogue, but also in some important steps to improve the environment of political competition in the run up to the next elections.

A number of the difficulties that we faced back in 2019 remain. I believe there is an understanding in Serbia that there is a need, for the sake of democracy and Serbia’s European path and perspective, to achieve a better outcome in the next elections and in the process leading up to the next elections, based on a number of recommendations published by OSCE following the 2020 elections. Again, the outcome here, the very details of any agreement and any measures taken as a result of the interparty dialogue, is in the hands of Serbian politicians. As long as we feel that they want this dialogue to succeed, we are encouraged, I am encouraged.

Some participants in the interparty dialogue are again talking of boycotts and mass protests as the only solution to the current political situation. Have you changed your views on that?

I’ve always said that boycotts are bad, boycotts of institutions and elections are bad, and I say this in Serbia and also say it openly and loudly in Montenegro, where I serve as chair of the European Parliament delegation. Boycotting across the Western Balkans is always bad news. It is bad news for democracy and bad news for people who I think deserve representation in public institutions. It is bad as a tool of political conflict. I think that all conflicts in a parliamentary democracy should be resolved through parliamentary institutions and through the parliament. I hope that, through this dialogue, we can help foster a culture, a political culture, that will be less keen on using boycotts as a tool. What has the boycott brought to Serbia in the aftermath of the 2020 elections? I don’t think it has brought good news to Serbia as a country; I don’t think it has brought good news for the opposition, as a credible and meaningful political force. So, I don’t think it is a way forward. One of our key goals is to create great conditions in which boycotts will not take place during the next elections.

A well-functioning democracy needs a well-functioning public, independent media, which serves the public interest. Media companies that don’t have any other agenda than to protect the wider public interest

When it comes to protests, they are a common part of democratic societies. We protest on different issues across Europe. It is an important tool that can be used by political forces, but again it should be used responsibly and in line with laws and constitutions. It should be used as part of the democratic rules of the game. So, this will be my response in the interparty dialogue. We are also concentrating on creating space for dialogue among those who are interested and keen on making important institutional changes in the run up to the next elections.

This is something that we will continue to do, and I also know that we can create space through our exercise. There is certainly less reason to use means and ways of political engagement that we don’t believe are in line with good democratic practice and standards that represent values across the EU. A boycott certainly isn’t something you’ll see in just about any democracy in the EU. And as long as it continues to be an important part of politics in Serbia, then of course it will continue to raise questions marks about the readiness of the country’s democratic institutions to really engage as partners in a wider partnership with democratic institutions in the EU. That’s why we are engaging in this interparty dialogue and I hope that we can make the difference in a positive direction here.

How do you see the ongoing, parallel political dialogue without the EP mediators?

Dialogue is important, as we’ve said, but we also feel and believe that the dialogue being led by the mediators doesn’t only have wide support among EU institutions – like the European Parliament, European Commission, member states and the Council – but has also become an important part of Serbia’s European path and perspectives. We also believe it is the only meaningful and crucial dialogue when it comes to making a key difference in the run up to the next elections. And that’s particularly in line with Serbia’s future goal of joining the EU. This is why we are engaging in this dialogue. We will, of course, look closely at the results of any other parallel dialogues, but it is important that these dialogues don’t undermine our efforts in any way.

I think this is really the key message. I know that the dialogue with radical parties that didn’t opt to engage with us should have closure, and we will look at the numerous issues that should be tackled. We should ideally look at ways to improve political conditions for everyone in Serbia in the run up to the next elections. Our dialogue really aims to reinforce not only what we see as essential principles that are key to functioning European democracies in Serbian politics, but also to reinforce the space for all those political forces that must seriously engage in work on Serbia’s European perspective. We do hope that these political forces can benefit fully and engage in the results of our dialogue. My statement is very simple: our dialogue is the dialogue that I believe can make an important change when it comes to the next elections and also when it comes to progress on Serbia’s European path.

DIALOGUE

The most promising news for me was that everyone was willing and able to sit around the same table; to sit in the same room for two days and discuss some of these difficult issues

ELECTIONS

The “must do list” is in the hands of Serbian politicians. We just create space for the dialogue. A “must” would be that everyone must be willing to participate in the next elections

KEY ISSUES

We are very much aware of the situation when it comes to public broadcasters, which is one of the key issues when it comes to the interparty dialogue

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