Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.
People commit crimes, and they get away with it. These are usually powerful people, like Iliya Pavlov, the head of Multigroup and Bulgaria’s wealthiest individual until a sniper took him out in 2003. If successful people break the law without paying any penalty, lots of people want to get in on the act.
In the Belgrade office of the Lawyers’ Committee on Human Rights (YUCOM), I found a pamphlet from an organization called Impunity Watch. The Netherlands-based organization has run programs on impunity with local partners in Guatemala, Sri Lanka, and Burundi. And it has partnered with YUCOM and other organizations in Serbia to address the culture of impunity that has made it difficult to establish the rule of law in the post-Milosevic era. In that brief period after the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, the liberal standard bearer who briefly served as Serbian prime minister, the Serbian government cracked down on organized crime. But it was a short-lived commitment.
I talked with Milan Antonijevic, the director of YUCOM about the continuing human rights problems in Serbia, including the issue of impunity. “For example, let’s talk about a trial that is lasting for six years and they have all the evidence,” he told me. “I’m not talking about war crime trials. I’m talking about the burning of a mosque in Belgrade. You have police cameras on the ground; you have all the evidence. But the judiciary is the weakest link in the whole chain of protection, and that’s where the impunity is coming from.”
He continued, “On the other side, you don’t have the political will. I don’t know why we’re still speaking about political will to punish those who committed war crimes or other crimes, but unfortunately this is still happening in Serbia. We didn’t have the climate for arresting Mladic for 10 years, or Karadzic. And it’s something that’s really blocking all the trials, it’s blocking all the evidence collection, it’s blocking the prosecutor’s office. And it’s something that is unfortunately on the political side.”
Antonijevic agrees that civil society organizations have managed to achieve some successes in improving the human rights situation in Serbia. But major problems continue for Roma, sexual minorities, and others. There is still a strong link between political power and organized crime. And judges are still responding to political pressures.
With Belgrade eager to meet the benchmarks established by the European Union, Serbia will soon have to address these human rights problems more seriously. But the pressure is not only coming from Brussels. Watchdog organizations are applying pressure much closer to home. Civil society organizations like YUCOM and its partners are fighting on behalf of the powerless and the disenfranchised. The status of these social groups will ultimately determine the strength of Serbian democracy and whether, substantively rather than formally, it has fully joined Europe or not.
When you think back to what has changed here in Serbia since 1989, on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most disappointed and 10 being least disappointed, how do you feel about the changes?
If I had to quantify it, I would say it’s in the middle. You can pass at the university with a 7, so that’s where Serbia is at the moment. If you compare it with 1989, the year of Milosevic’s rise, Serbia has really changed.
I deal with human rights. If you compare today with what was happening in Kosovo at that time, with the dismantling of Yugoslavia, with all the human rights violations that occurred, Serbia is now completely changed. Serbia changed itself. The people running Serbia also changed it a little bit. So, all parts of society really gave Serbia a push forward. We no longer have Milosevic. Some parts of his political party are now saying they want nothing to do with atrocities, nothing to do with the war crimes that happened, and nothing to do with Milosevic himself – that’s a positive sign.
We still have problems. Here in YUCOM, the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, we are dealing with torture cases. There are incidents here and there in police stations, in prisons. But this was occurring on a daily basis in 1989. Before, ethnic Albanians were in jail for political reasons, and that’s now impossible. I really can’t imagine that Serbia will ever again fall into the kind of human rights that occurred 20 years ago.
Along the same scale, how do you feel about your own life since 1989?
To be honest, I was at that time much more patriotic. I changed at the beginning of the 1990s. As a kid, we were all influenced by this nationalistic wave. At the beginning of the war, when I was a kid, only 15 years old, I drew a map of Serbia just to see where all the Serbs lived and where the borders of Serbia should be: a map of greater Serbia. We were kids, and we were under media pressure constantly to see Serbia as a separate entity. Nobody thought that when you draw a border, there are people on one side and people on the other. This is something I really can’t imagine anyone doing today. So it’s something that personally really changed for me. I’m not ashamed of those things: I was young. But it was really overwhelming for all the kids in my high school and at the beginning of university.
We were able to travel. That was one of the assets of Yugoslavia. Until the beginning of the sanctions, everything was really open. So, all kids could get some kind of exchange experience with their fellows around the world. It was common for us to travel to Austria, to Italy, to France, or further abroad. It was something that all my friends did until the age of 18. Now it’s a little bit different, and I really don’t envy kids who have never been to any other European countries because of the lack of money or the lack of visas. A whole generation became more closed, more patriotic in a negative sense. They didn’t understand the real value of being open to surrounding countries, open to all ideas. So this is something that has changed.
At that time, people were absorbing this Serbian nationalist rhetoric that the media were serving up to us. And if you were more politically active, then you would be even more on this side. My parents in the first elections voted for the candidates of the democratic forces, not for Milosevic. But most people were under the influence of this Serbianism, this belief that Serbia can be a country that stands on its own, that we are modern enough, that we can really close ourselves off.
But now, fewer people are willing to talk that way — even in the Serbian Progressive Party, the new party that emerged out of Seselj’s Radical Party. I spoke with some representatives who are now members of the parliament. A few months ago, they said to me before the elections, “There are more and more of us who are normal in our political party.” They were very sincere. Their rhetoric and their ideas don’t reflect common European values, and they know it. But they said that there are more and more people in the party that are open to the ideas of multiculturalism, of an open society, of anything that really links Serbia with its surroundings.
I’d love to hear someone from the Progressive Party say something like that. But I don’t know if they would say the same thing to me that they said to you.
It was, I think, a split second kind of thing, a moment of sincerity that I don’t expect to return. But I like to retell this story because it was a moment when somebody felt secure enough to reveal how he really feels about his political party, and the past of the party. Those are members of the parliament. As for the rest of the party…
For example, we were doing research on gender balance in the parliament, and we spoke with two recently elected MPs from the Progressive Party. But they needed consent of the party to speak with us about gender issues, which are really not a political issue in Serbia. We were not speaking about Kosovo. We were not speaking about gross human rights violations. We were speaking about gender issues with two female MPs. But they had to ask for permission for a month to speak with us. So, the party is still a bit more hierarchical, and I’m not sure that anyone can speak openly.
But where along the spectrum would you say you feel personally about how your life has changed since 1989?
Personally, there is a positive change. But at that time I was able to travel as I can now. My parents brought us everywhere and we were open to everything. During this period we could go to museums around the world, and I could really see things that I wanted to see. So, that didn’t change.
But on the level of ideas, many things improved. When you’re 14 or 15 years old and you’re under attack by the media, you don’t have the strength to question things. That changed, especially after 1989. It didn’t take long for me to really start questioning things. You look at the map you were drawing and you see that some people were really left out, that crimes took place. I’m really personally attached to this human rights work. I became interested during university and started working on these issues. I went from someone with a lawyer’s background to someone interested in protecting human rights. But I don’t know how to quantify that change. My life was at that time pretty good. We were living in pretty secure surroundings. The background of my family was pretty high. So, the quality of life has been the same, measured by context and the possibility to explore and inquire.
Well, it sounds to me, if I had to give you a number, I would say probably an 8. In some sense you’re satisfied in that your opportunities are more or less the same, because you can travel now as you traveled then. But in some sense your intellectual freedom is greater. So I would give you an 8.
Yes, thank you. You’re a professional!
And the final quantitative question: as you look into the near future for Serbia, and again it’s from 1 to 10, how optimistic are you about this situation? 1 being least optimistic and 10 being most optimistic.
Again, I think that there have been steps forward, so it is again around 7. This optimism is, I think, pretty high compared to the current situation and the economic crisis. Serbia will soon have benchmarks to meet and things that we really have to do as a society. I’m speaking about the EU negotiation process. The start of the negotiations will really give us concrete steps where we should improve and in which areas. As you know, the EU process applies to all realms of life. It will really provide opportunities. Serbia missed these opportunities, and this really has to change. And there are young people who will be leading in some of these areas. Maybe I’m a bit too optimistic, but if NGOs and civil society can change the country a little bit, then we can change things even more. I don’t see us going backwards, even though some figures appearing in our political life are bringing back some bad memories. But if they are sincere in what they are saying, then I’m pretty optimistic.
Was there a moment, either when you were in university or starting law, when you had a kind of revelation experience about the importance of human rights?
Yes, pretty soon, because I had friends who were not Serbs, and I heard their stories. I can’t say there was a revelation moment. But you have people around you, and you have your parents who are traveling to all the ex-Yugoslav countries, and you have friends all around Yugoslavia. And then you see that you will be cut off from some of your friends who are Croats, or Slovenians, or Macedonians. At that time we didn’t speak of Albanians. My father was in Kosovo working as an economist. And he spoke about his experience pretty positively because he was really welcomed in Albanian homes and what they said they would do in economic transactions they did. So when you realize that those borders will really make you distant from people you love, or where you have personal stories….
As a kid, every summer I spent in Croatia, in the city of Rovinj in Istria. This is where you mix with all nations from ex-Yugoslavia, where you mix with people who are coming from European countries, from all around the world, because it’s really a lovely city. When I was drawing that map when I was 14, I didn’t put any of this on that map. But then you are drawing a map that cuts Croatia in half, which means that your friends in Zagreb, they will be in another country. Unfortunately this realization didn’t happen in the heads of our politicians. They didn’t realize that they would lose the possibility to cooperate.
I remember the beginning of sanctions, the Yugoslav sanctions against Slovenia and Croatia, and the rhetoric about not buying Slovenian or Croatian products. By that time I was no longer under that type of influence.
Tell me a little bit about the situation for minorities today in Serbia. Apparently there is still some discrimination going on at schools, in the workplace. So what are some of the most worrisome situations?
We did research a half-year ago with high school kids who will soon be going to universities. According to the data, 85% of them witnessed discrimination against other national minorities, sexual minorities, or others. This really raises alarms that something is really wrong in this part of society and the state has to react. Because of the lack of reaction, I’m not that optimistic about the possibility of really changing the situation.
We were doing research in Vojvodina and also in southern Serbia, where you have different minorities and where Serbia would have to do a lot to overcome the discrimination there. In a multiethnic society, policy has to be done the correct way and nobody is dealing with that. We tried to influence the ministry of education to go deeper into these questions and to set up some kind of process. I know that punishing people who discriminate is not the only way, but the state really has to come up with some kind of procedure to start the process, to be active.
Were there any particular stories that came out of this research that exemplify this kind of discrimination?
Nearly all the high school kids talked about this distance toward ethnic minorities living in Serbia, such as Albanians. A large percentage of them didn’t really see the possibility of cooperating with Albanians: to talk with them, to sit together on a bench, something like that. So this is what struck us most. Only a small number of cases of discrimination are reported.
Is there a process in place in the educational system to deal with discrimination? Can you deal with the problem within the educational system without having to go, for instance, to a lawyer or an NGO?
There is a process. There’s an educational inspector and an educational adviser: they’re the first line of defense when discrimination occurs. But we did trainings with them, and unfortunately they do not understand all the terms or the need to react on every occasion. It’s a nuance for them, but it means a lot for the people who are discriminated against. And there are a lot of other issues in their portfolio. They aren’t dealing only with discrimination. They are dealing with all the problems within the schooling system. They see discrimination as something that either is not occurring or that has to be tolerated because we are a society in transition and it’s not a priority during an economic crisis.
In terms of negotiating with the EU, where do you think the greatest difficulty will be to meet the EU standards on minority questions?
Discrimination will be a major issue. The Bulgarian minority is asking for a different set of rights, and nobody is reacting to that yet. For example, doing research on some of the courts in southern Serbia close to Bulgaria, we spoke about using the Bulgarian national language in court. The head of the court told us, “But nobody is using the Bulgarian language in the court. Why should we give this service?” So, they don’t see the need, even though it’s written in the law. They obey it in a certain sense. They put up signs in the court in the language of the national minority, but they don’t understand why it is needed. They don’t see the need to have translators, to have all the different mechanisms to support the identity of a national minority, so something is wrong within the system.
A lot of things have to be changed. At the level of the laws, some things have changed and there is progress, but at the level implementation, that’s what we are all pushing for. Implementation is really lacking. From that point of view, Serbia will first have to prove that all the mechanisms are in place for the protection of the rights of national minorities: on the ground and not just on paper.
Also, the Constitution should be once again checked to see whether some of the solutions can be improved and not only related to minorities. And to remind you, this is the Constitution from 2006 and yet today, only six years from its enactment, we are thinking about all the gaps in it,.
Let me ask specifically about Roma, because that often is the most challenging situation in countries in this region. Has there been any improvement? When I was here before, the discrimination against Roma was pretty severe, but that was a while ago. Has there been any improvement on the economic side, such as access to healthcare or access to housing, or on the political-legal side?
The only improvement happening now is the possibility to be registered. In Serbia, we had a large number of Roma that were out of the system. Without an ID, they have no possibility to access healthcare and other services. Where Roma do get health care, the level of quality is not as high as others are receiving. So, there is still a high level of discrimination in the healthcare system.
In the educational system, measures have been taken to make it more inclusive, to make sure that Roma are going to regular schools. We had a situation two years ago where Roma were mostly going to special schools for people with disabilities. This was being done systematically. They gave these tests to young kids who didn’t know the Serbian language, and when they failed the tests, they ended up in special schools. The law was changed. In practice, though, the Roma kids are enrolled in regular schools—because this is what the ministry of education measures—but then at some point they’re either transferred or not given substantive knowledge in order to go further in their education. There is a big dropout rate for Roma. And it’s hard to collect the data on transfers from regular schools to special schools because the ministry is not interested in doing that. They’re only interested in the numbers of Roma enrolled in first grade. There are supportive measures, such as the placement of personal assistants in the schools specially to deal with Roma. But there’s not enough money in the Serbian budget to meet the need.
Housing rights are at a really poor level. Evictions are happening. There are a large number of NGOs really trying to support people who are being evicted from different parts of Serbia—especially in Belgrade where these big highway and bridge projects are causing a large number of evictions. There is some improvement on this, but the quality of the settlements offered to Roma is very poor if they’re in Belgrade. There are also Roma who don’t have IDs registered in Belgrade. So if they are registered, for example, in Nis and they are evicted from a home in Belgrade, they will be transferred to Nis directly. Nobody is thinking about freedom of movement. Nobody is thinking about the acceptance of Roma families in other parts of Serbia. For example, after the evictions from the Belville section of Belgrade, where I think 700 families were evicted, the majority of them sent to other parts of Serbia. There was no normal housing offered to them in some of the cities. They were just transferred to cities without any further support.
In Belgrade, the last eviction was a little bit more organized. The Roma were given these so-called container settlements. The conditions there are really terrible. The containers don’t have normal heating or anything like that. It’s really not something for decent lives. The city said it wasn’t permanent, that they would offer social housing to the Roma. But the percentage of Roma receiving such housing is very low, below 1%. So, this program is not meant to solve the issue of Roma and housing.
And at the same time, the housing issue is challenging in general in Serbia because there’s been such a huge number of internally displaced and refugees and they also have been living in containers.
But the number of those camps for refugees and IDPs is now smaller. I’d have to look at the data again, but even in 2011-2012, the number is one third what it was. Every year they are closing. Social housing is provided, and it’s heading toward a solution. There are some regional donor initiatives to resolve finally the housing problems for all the people who lost their homes in ex-Yugoslavia. This program could really close the whole chapter. Hopefully the issue of the property of Serbian refugees from Croatia will also be solved.
They’ve been promising that money for a really long time.
Yes, I know. But as far as I know, the EU is willing to invest a little bit in the region. But the number of refugees and IDPs is smaller and smaller. The number in urgent need is now in the thousands in Serbia, not the hundreds of thousands as in the 1990s.
What about cases of violence against Roma, have those continued?
Yes. We have before the courts some cases concerning police torture of Roma. There’s a case in one police station where a Roma was beaten, and the reporting system completely failed. Even the structures on the municipal level that were supposed to be on the side of the victim were completely opposite. The people dealing with Roma on the municipal level wanted to persuade the victim not to report the abuse. Hopefully better contact with the police will solve some of the problems, but we will see.
And are there advocacy organizations formed by Roma, with Roma emerging as their own advocates, both in the informal sense, as in an NGO, but also in the formal sense, such as Roma lawyers and professionals?
It is emerging, but unfortunately it’s still slow. It’s the task of civil society to support smaller NGOs who would like to deal with Roma rights and are coming from Roma background. There are some active NGOs but on a really small scale. They are in Kragujevac and elsewhere around Serbia. But the strong advocates on Roma issues are not unfortunately there. For example, we had a Roma lawyer who wanted to volunteer, to dedicate some time to human rights. We tried to boost his energy to start this work and to form some kind of legal clinic for Roma rights. But it didn’t end well.
Let me ask about Vojvodina, the question of decentralization. Help me understand the issue, because I know that on the one hand accession to the EU requires acceding to certain EU rules of decentralization. The EU promotes the giving of greater authority to municipalities and regional structures. So that’s coming from the EU. Then Vojvodina itself has asked for greater authority. It wants to have its office represented in Brussels for instance. My understanding is that the EU itself has seen Vojvodina as more developed in some sense and therefore can access EU funds more quickly than other parts of Serbia. So is that something that your organization has worked on?
Where we are active now is the question of the Constitution, which I already mentioned. We see presently, after the decision of the constitutional court, that the Constitution is blocking the authorities of Vojvodina rather than opening up chances for regional structures to have some influence. It’s a bit ambitious to open the debate on the Constitution, but it is something that’s needed as soon as possible. So we opened this debate. And it’s not just a question of Vojvodina. The Constitution is blocking the progress of Serbia in other ways too
So, for instance, the Constitution would have to be changed simply for EU accession to take place.
Yes, there must be a provision allowing Serbia to enter a structure such as the EU. At the moment we don’t have such a normal procedure or an article allowing Serbia to join the EU. So, some things in this area have to be changed. Also the supremacy of international law is not defined well. Many scholars are giving a lot of examples why this constitution is far from perfect and preventing Serbian progress.
How willing is the parliament and the ruling party to reform the constitution?
The parliament is still new, elected in 2012, so we really have to open the debate again. We’ve gotten negative responses from all the political parties, even in the previous period. But it is not impossible. There must be strong advocacy for changing the constitution. And if the politicians now ruling Serbia really want to deal with the issues that they’re talking about, they will have to change the constitution.
Will a change in the constitution require a referendum?
By what percentage? A majority?
Majority. Our constitution is a really strong one. It’s meant to last a long time, so it’s very hard to change. It would require a vast campaign on a national level – first by all the politicians in the parliament and then by referendum. Even changes to the sections on human rights need to be put to referendum. From our point, as human rights advocates, it’s really amazing that improving the standard of human rights needs a referendum.
Do you have any concerns that if there is the discussion of changing the constitution, there might be some parties or political formations that want to change it in a different direction?
I do not see it as a concern. At the moment only a few percent of Serbian parliament are speaking about lowering the level of human rights or lowering the level of democracy. So it’s not something that can change overnight without major turbulence on the political scene.
I noticed that Impunity Watch had a program here in Serbia as it did in Guatemala. What do you think are the major questions that have to be resolved before Impunity International no longer needs a program here in Serbia?
For example, let’s talk about a trial that is lasting for six years and they have all the evidence. I’m not talking about war crime trials. I’m talking about the burning of a mosque in Belgrade. You have police cameras on the ground; you have all the evidence. But the judiciary is the weakest link in the whole chain of protection, and that’s where the impunity is coming from.
On the other side, you don’t have the political will. I don’t know why we’re still speaking about political will to punish those who committed war crimes or other crimes, but unfortunately this is still happening in Serbia. We didn’t have the climate for arresting Mladic for 10 years, or Karadzic. And it’s something that’s really blocking all the trials, it’s blocking all the evidence collection, it’s blocking the prosecutor’s office. And it’s something that is unfortunately on the political side.
And this is because you still have a judicial system that’s a carryover from the previous period? You have judges that are old-fashioned in their political thinking? Are judges the problem?
The problem starts with the prosecution. A judge cannot accomplish something without decent work from the prosecutor’s office. You can’t get a sentence without all the necessary elements. So, the reason lies on both sides. It’s not just the old-fashioned judges. But judges are unfortunately listening to the politicians more than they should. It’s not just direct pressure but it’s also sensing what the political moment is. It’s very hard to prove. But if no trial emerges during a long period of time, and for several years a case that should be a priority goes nowhere, then what else can you think? It’s some kind of auto-censorship by the judges.
Judges are appointed?
Yes, by the Serbian parliament. The High Judicial Council, as an independent body, recommends a group of candidates, and parliament chooses and appoints them.
Is there a problem with political influence through this process?
Yes, but it’s really hard to prove. Judges should be elected to full appointments. But there is still a probation period for newly appointed judges. That’s where the judges can be influenced because they fear what might happen during this probation period. There is still no solid ground for the evaluation of their work, and the criteria for their reelection is completely unclear.
Tell me about the mosque case. The mosque here in Belgrade was burned six years ago, and you said all the evidence was collected. The culprits were…?
We were monitoring this trial for a while. There was a police officer stating that the entire burning of the mosque was filmed by police camera. But then he says that he doesn’t remember anything, because so many years have passed, everything has become blurry. He says maybe something happened, maybe not, he is not certain. So, the police are not giving substantive evidence for the trial. Many circumstances have blocked the process, and that’s why the trials have produced so little.
We also have the trial for burning the American embassy, which ended just few days ago. The sentence was one year of jail for just stealing a few things from the embassy. Even if the punishment had been more severe, I don’t think that it would change anything, because it’s only a few people from a larger number who were responsible. Those who really gave the orders, they were not caught and not brought to trial. We have simply found a victim to sacrifice and lifted the responsibility from higher authorities.
Just prior to his assassination, Djindic launched a very big anti-corruption campaign. After his assassination, that campaign continued and there was some political will behind this anti-corruption effort because of his assassination. How do you feel about that process today? Was that generally successful, in terms of breaking the power of organized crime? Have they recovered their power to a certain extent?
Those links between government and organized crime are still strong. Only a small number of cases end with a verdict. This is also one of the areas where we can speak about impunity. We’re monitoring some of the trials before the court and trying to distinguish between the indictments of major political figures and just petty corruption. We have indictments and verdicts in media, and people are judged by the general public as guilty. But it’s not proven in court. And nobody is really paying attention to this process and how it really damages the whole fight against corruption.
It’s good to have a shift in political power because it can really bring some of these things to light. I don’t like political revanchism, but if it provokes a real fight against corruption then it’s unstoppable. You can’t say it’s limited to only one political party, but it must go through all the political spheres and deal with corruption at all levels.
I’m interested in the rise of the right wing populism, and I’m curious how you evaluate the situation here in Serbia.
Where this right wing is really strong is against minorities, especially against LGBT minority. Their support is not vast, but it still is enough to spread violence on the streets of Serbia. If they really can collect a few thousand people to be violent on the streets of the Gay Pride Parade or any other incident, then this needs to be addressed with special care.
They’re now in the Vojvodina parliament. They’re sitting in municipality assemblies around Serbia, such as Arandjelovac, Mladenovac, and so on. They’re now emerging in regular political life. It’s hard to link them with crimes. They can be linked to the church in certain cases. For example, there were some organizations using church premises in Novi Sad without paying. So, some parts of society are supporting these groups. In the 1990s, the state was always using, and misusing, these groups to spread violence. So, again, we can see that the system did not change in all respects. And this is something that is very worrisome.
Let me ask about LGBT issues, because I just saw that the Gay Pride parade has been canceled.
In 2011, the government was speaking about having the data on the groups that were planning violence during the Pride march. If you, as a state with all the powers you have, say that there are groups that are planning atrocities and violence in the street, then you have to act. You can’t just sit there with no process, no prosecutor’s office working on these issues. The only proof for us that there is such violence is the arrest of the people who planned it. Whether they committed the violence or not, it’s enough reason to start the process. If they’ve collected weapons or they have bigger plans, it’s something that the state must address. The state can use this as an excuse to cancel the event, year after year. But to demonstrate that it has the will to deal with these issues, the state has to put pressure on the groups that are planning violence and really make arrests.
Do you think that the LGBT community will go ahead with the parade anyway?
Pride Week will happen. As far as I know the whole week is not canceled: the conferences, the events all around Belgrade.
Do you see in terms of society more generally a greater acceptance of LGBT issues, even if the parade itself is canceled?
There is, I think, a certain level of softening on this topic, so the overall pressure is having an effect on society. But you will always have a small percentage of people who want to be violent on various issues, including LGBT issues. It’s not something that can be stopped completely – in any country – but the question is how organized the violence is and whether it receives support from the state. That’s what distinguishes a country developing in the right way and a country developing in the wrong way.
Belgrade, September 24, 2012