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Following is the speech of Nebojsa Zelenovic, president of the Together for Serbia and mayor of Sabac, given at the opening part of the high-level event at the European Parlament on December 11th, 2019. This event was organized by Socialist and Democratic Parliamentary Group to give the representatives of the Serbian opposition a chance to explain the difficult situation they are facing in Serbia ahead of the parliamentary elections that are due to be held in the spring of next year. Serbian opposition was represented, besides Zelenovic, by the president of the Freedom and Justice Pary Dragan Djilas, and the vice-president of the Democratic party, Dejan Nikolic. 

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"Ladies and gentlemen,

It is an honor to stand before you today to shed light on the worsening political crisis in my country, Serbia. The last few years have seen serious regression in Serbia’s democratic reforms, which has led to the complete state and media capture* by the regime. In the meantime, Serbia opened another chapter in the accession process just yesterday. This is an incredible situation.

Let me stress that my strategic priority as President of Together for Serbia is - and will remain - Serbia’s accession to the European Union.

There can be no doubt that Russian, Chinese, and other external influences are growing in Serbia. However, when you ask Serbians where they want their children to grow up, they will name the European Union without question. While EU membership might be an abstract concept for many Serbians, they all want to live in a country modeled after EU member states. Namely, where you can receive a quality education, where there is a robust healthcare system, where the rule of law is a reality rather than a term in the newspapers. Most of all, Serbs want a country where our children will want to stay and build towards a better future together. The only way to achieve these basic human needs is through EU membership. I count on your support as we navigate this difficult, but necessary, process of structural change.

My experience as Mayor of the City of Šabac tells me that the quickest way to a democratic society is to include citizens in decision-making processes. In Šabac, we have the largest participatory budgeting program in Serbia. Just last Sunday, 100.000 people in Šabac got the chance to vote what 2 million euros of their tax money would be spent on. All proposals were submitted by citizens themselves to improve their communities. In general, Serbia struggles to ensure that people pay their taxes. Through this program, the tax revenue in Šabac has increased threefold. This shows that citizen inclusion leads to the most important pillar of democracy: Trust.

We also recognize that Serbia cannot move forward alone. Our success is dependent on the success of our neighbors. For this reason, Šabac has extensive cross-border cooperation with cities in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Albania, to name a few. Personally, I am most proud of our project with the municipality of Peć in Kosovo where we used our expertise in Šabac to teach 7 Serbian and 7 Albanian families to grow strawberries together. We look forward to seeing the literal fruit of their cooperation in springtime. Let me stress here that I am fully committed to normalizing relations with Kosovo. We cannot run away from this issue any longer and I want to be included in its solution. I am clearly saying to you today: without normalization, neither our citizens nor our country can advance.

We have implemented many other successful programs. Currently, we are working on a Financial Management and Control system to create more transparency and prevent corruption. In my view, a democratic administration with nothing to hide can have no problem with this system. Nevertheless, my city is the first to implement it, although it has been a legal requirement in Serbia for the last 10 years. All of these examples can easily be replicated in the rest of Serbia, which is something I promote as President of Together for Serbia.

Despite these positive examples, I stand here today in an extremely difficult time in Serbia, where both the state and the media are captured.

This year, the first high-profile whistleblower in Serbia, Mr. Aleksandar Obradović, uncovered a major corruption scandal showing the entanglement of the Interior Minister’s father in shady weapons trade deals. Instead of protecting Mr. Obradović, the public prosecutor responded by placing him in custody. This is indicative of the state capture of all key institutions in Serbia, including the judiciary.

This situation is worsened by the complete capture of the media space in Serbia, in which no dissenting voice can be heard in the mainstream news. All those who criticize the government are mercilessly attacked by the media apparatus, be they journalists, professors, judges, or even actors. The dramatic regression of media freedom in Serbia has been determined by every independent monitor. This year, Serbia dropped 14 ranks in the World Press Freedom Index. Since 2014, we have dropped 36 ranks. The government’s capture of the media was also cited as the main reason for Freedom House’s demotion of Serbia from a ‘free’ to a ‘partly free’ country. We, therefore, demand the replacement of all members of the Regulatory Body for Electronic Media, which is supposed to oversee the media space.

There can be no free and fair elections in Serbia until we liberate the media and our institutions. In addition to the fact that no dissenting voice can be heard in the mainstream media, pressures on the Serbian electorate are currently astronomical. For example, almost a quarter of a million people in the public sector work on short-term contracts that expire just before the elections. These contracts will only be renewed if employees provide evidence that they voted for the ruling party. When the families of employees are taking into account, this amounts to more than 20% of the electorate.

We have come here to show you that the opposition is united in its commitment to a democratic Serbia based on the rule of law. However, the current capture of the state and media has forced most opposition parties to announce a boycott of the upcoming spring elections. The announced boycott is not our goal. It is a means to create basic circumstances in which we can finally start discussing the way forward in our nation.

I have been asking for a mediated dialogue with the government for two years to improve electoral circumstances. However, the government only agreed to this dialogue last August when they knew it was too late to make any meaningful changes ahead of the spring elections. Nevertheless, I want to thank Tanja Fajon for her commitment to the EU-mediated dialogue over the past few months. Your efforts are greatly appreciated.

I now ask you all to re-engage with the Western Balkans, and Serbia in particular, to prevent further escalation of this crisis. We need your help to spread the word about the situation in Serbia to put pressure on the government to make meaningful reforms that benefit both Serbia and the EU. We are in this together.

In the spirit of social democracy, I want to thank you for your show of solidarity by being here today. I now look forward to working together to help Serbia join the European family, where it rightfully belongs."

 

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*state capture -  "state capture is defined as a situation in which decisions are made to appease specific interests, maybe even through illicit and nontransparent private payments to public officials, rather than to suit the national interest aggregated and mediated through a democratic process. State capture takes place when the basic rules of the game are shaped by particularistic interests rather than by the aggregated national interest." - definition provided by Encyclopedia Britannica.

Photo: Screenshot

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