Last year, the foreign ministers of the European Union voted to make Serbia a candidate for membership into the EU — a step that would confer the “seal of approval” of the democracies that comprise the EU. Recent events in Serbia, however, call into question that country’s commitment to the rule of law, and Congress should be paying attention. If nothing else, the EU should use Serbia’s desire for admission to demand needed reforms so that the rule of law becomes firmly entrenched in its institutions.
Experts are increasingly in agreement that the difference between successful countries and unsuccessful ones is whether the rule of law exists. But what is the rule of law? At its core, the rule of law means an independent judiciary, a legal system that is not subject to political pressure, the presumption of innocence, the right to be notified of the charges against you, and the right to a lawyer. It is the absence of these core elements of the rule of law in Serbia that is so alarming.
Last year, in their Assessment Report on Serbia, the EU and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development concluded that the rule of law in Serbia “remains problematic, as procedures are easily ignored or circumvented.” It noted that power is concentrated in the executive branch, and that “democratic values and the protection of individual rights are at risk.”
More specific concerns about the lack of the rule of law in Serbia were set forth in a December 2011 Report by the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative. This report assessed prosecutorial reform in Serbia, and it identified many reasons to be concerned about the autonomy of the newly-formed State Prosecutorial Council. Most ominously, it concluded that in most high profile cases, “only those associated with the prior government were targets of criminal investigation, and that those with ties to the current government are effectively immune from prosecution.”
Such selective prosecution, in which a government targets political opponents for prosecution, can, unfortunately, impress the outside world and even a country’s own citizens. The catch is that most of these cases are brought against political adversaries or other unpopular people, and the charges are usually based on the flimsiest (or no) evidence. On paper, the increased number of prosecutions looks impressive and people applaud the new aggressiveness. Yet in the process, the rule of law is eviscerated.