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Kosovo’s Council of Europe aspirations spark controversy in Serbia

The Council of Europe has become the latest flashpoint in relations between Serbia and Kosovo. While Pristina has expressed its desire to join the body, Belgrade has threatened to abandon the organization altogether. Such a move would only further challenge the delicate rights regime that exists in the country.

May 2, 2024 - Tea Kljajić - Articles and Commentary

Council of Europe headquarters in Strasbourg. Photo: Senai Aksoy / Shutterstock

“If necessary, I’ll go all the way to Strasbourg.” Serbian citizens struggling to obtain justice domestically often speak these words. Where Serbian legislation falls short, which is sadly often, Serbians know they have an option of last resort by seeking to protect their rights in front of the Council of Europe.

The weakness of key human rights and civil liberties legislation in Serbia is perhaps inevitable given the treatment of the judiciary by President Aleksandar Vučić. Judges and prosecutors regularly face political pressure from the president. This is a direct violation of the constitution of the Republic of Serbia, which explicitly prohibits “any influence on judges in the performance of their judicial function”. On several occasions, the president has flagrantly disregarded this rule, pressuring judges and prosecutors with claims they were “chosen by the previous government”. His hostility towards political pluralism and the independence of the judiciary is plain to see.

When the judiciary cannot operate freely, there are consequences for basic rights. The violation of rights in Serbia primarily affects journalists, especially those the authorities suspect of working against “state interests”. Journalists often cannot turn to domestic courts for help but must seek justice at the international level.

Institutional pressures, such as restricting access to media events, discouraging inquiries, the excessive use of tax authorities, the abuse of power, and a lack of response from institutions to journalists’ questions, are par for the course for Serbian journalists. For them and many other Serbian citizens, maintaining avenues to pursue justice outside the domestic judiciary is essential.

Over the course of the more than twenty years of Serbia’s membership in the Council of Europe, tens of thousands of citizens have used the body to protect their rights. According to data from the Council of Europe, Serbia ranks eighth for the number of cases brought before the European Court of Human Rights. 

That privilege could soon be extended to citizens of Kosovo, as its authorities have been working diligently over the past few months towards securing membership in the Council of Europe. This move would enable citizens of Kosovo to enjoy greater rights and bring them in line with other countries in the Western Balkans. However, Serbia, which still does not recognize Kosovo as an independent country and considers Kosovan territory Serbian, is not best pleased by this development.

Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vučić says that Serbia’s response to Kosovo potentially joining the Council of Europe will be strong. Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić called the move to admit Kosovo to the Council shameful and scandalous. If Belgrade follows through on its threat to quit the Council of Europe in protest against Kosovo’s possible accession, it could have consequences not only for the citizens of Serbia but also for the entire Western Balkans.

Ana Brnabić, a former Serbian prime minister and current speaker of the Serbian parliament, supported Vučić’s statement about leaving the Council of Europe. She has said that the “Admission of Kosovo to the Council of Europe would violate the statute of that institution and jeopardize its role in the protection of human rights and the rule of law”. This decision would further distance Serbia, which already leans towards Russia, from Europe and push it deeper into Moscow’s embrace. The Council of Europe does not have a direct connection with the European Union and its institutions. However, withdrawing from it would mean abandoning the European path that Serbia has been pursuing for years.

The rapporteur of the European Parliament for Kosovo, Viola von Cramon, stated that she believes the Serbian authorities’ bold words are ultimately a bluff. She does not expect Serbia to leave the Council of Europe. In response, Brnabić sharply replied on the social media platform X, stating Serbia does not bluff. She added that ”if the Council of Europe breaches its Statute and its values – truly no need to be part of that hypocrisy and charade.”

Freedom House classified Serbia as partly free this year with a score of 57, down from 60 the previous year and significantly lower than the 2017 score of 76, when Serbia was classified as “free”. Exiting the Council of Europe would make the position of Serbian citizens, whose levels of freedom and basic rights are slipping away more and more with each passing year, worse still.

Serbia finds itself at a crossroads. It is crucial that civil society in the country pushes back against the rhetoric coming from the government. There is a need for education too. Citizens ought to know about the problems which may arise if the Serbian authorities really do leave the Council of Europe.

Citizens of Serbia are especially sensitive to the Serbia-Kosovo situation, providing ample opportunity for the government to manipulate and portray exiting the Council of Europe as a vital piece of geopolitical strategy, rather than an undermining of citizens’ legal rights. The pro-Russian narrative in Serbia is dangerous. It attempts to depict the West and its institutions, such as the Council of Europe, as bad in the eyes of citizens while presenting Russia as Serbia’s only true friend. 

Civil society holds the trump card. It will play the crucial role in advocating for the government to reconsider its decisions and educating citizens on the political consequences of their government’s posturing on the world stage. Serbians deserve a government that fights to protect and expand their rights, not one willing to throw them under the bus to score cheap points against Kosovo.

Tea Kljajić is an activist and author from Bosnia and Herzegovina. She is a prolific policy commentator, a writing fellow with Young Voices Europe, and a volunteer with Students for Liberty.

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