(We are publishing parts of Bulletin number 155 of Helsinki Committee for Human Rights i in Serbia)
During the months-long isolation and state of emergency imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Serbian authorities revealed their true character – from arrogance to the tendency to take absolute control over all segments of life in the country, especially its citizens. Although the imposition of a state of emergency or just emergency situations implies certain restrictions of human rights, the boundary between necessary security measures and their abuse at the expense of rights and freedoms is delicate, so that it can easily be overcome. This was evident in the case of Serbia.
The changes that occurred during the coronavirus disease spread are not new. It is a question of the already ongoing processes that were only catalyzed by the crisis. The new coronavirus pandemic is speeding up the transformation of the world and the trends that are long underway. The Western Balkans are part of that bigger picture.
The new element in that realignment could be a wave of emotional charge – fear and hope – among peoples and state as a consequence of the scourge that ravaged the whole world.
In the analysis of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG), dedicated to the impact of the pandemic on the Western Balkan countries, it is stated that the current crisis represents a “turning point” after which nothing in the Western Balkans will be the same and two scenarios are possible. One of the authors, Professor Florian Bieber, emphasizes that in the worst case scenario this would mean the deep aggravation of democracy, path to autocracy, orientation towards China, economic collapse, worsening of a health and social situation, which we are already witnessing, as well as the government’s distrust in its citizens and vice versa. It is also possible to have a better scenario which implies that all weaknesses coming to light during the crisis are used to improve the relationship between citizens and government, and rectify the problems with democracy.
Serbia was unprepared for the crisis, so that all of its weaknesses, not only those associated with its collapsed health system, but also those associated with the condition of all other institutions, became evident. This is probably the reason why Serbia introduced the most rigorous measures (state of emergency) in Europe. Due to its own incompetence, the current government acted with panic, which resulted in its heightened arrogance in communication with citizens.
As a result, there followed the attacks on independent media and absolute centralization of the information system under the exclusive control of President Aleksandar Vučić. Heightened pressure on the media, including the arrest of jurnalists and press conferences without their presence, and the suspension of parliament proved to be unnecessary, since they had no impact on the efficiency of measures. However, such rigorous restrictions caused uneasiness and the fear that they would be retained after the abolition of the state of emergency among many citizens. […]
Despite being considerably more rigorous, the protective measures implemented by Serbia did not prove to be more efficient than those implemented across Europe. Citizens were put under lockdown, which can have a serious impact on their health. This especially applies to senior citizens, who were almost completely “put under lock and key”. […]
The mutual distrust between a considerable part of the population and the authorities was only further strengthened, thus worsening the social climate as well. The frustration of citizens and the existential problems that will emerge after the crisis can seriously endanger the country’s stability.
THE INTRODUCTION OF ASTATE OF EMERGENCY
[…] In its first “edition”, the state of emergency implied the deployment of soldiers (with long-barrel weapons) in the streets to guard hospitals, as was explained, shutting down of schools, nurseries and all sports activities, including gyms, banning of movement with the penalty of 150,000 dinars for potential coronavirus spreaders (all those for whom the sanitary inspection prescribed self-isolation) and appealing to citizens older than 65 to stay at home.
However, just six days later, on Saturday, 21 March, the state of emergency measures escalated with the imposition of a curfew, first from 8 p.m. until 5 a.m. and then from 5 p.m. until 5 a.m., shutting down of all hospitality establishments and strict home isolation of all senior citizens aged over 65 (in urban environments), that is, over 70 (in rural regions), suspension of intercity and urban transport, closing of airports for international flights, banning foreign nationals from entering the country, postponement of elections for an indefinite time… All this was accompanied by an inappropriate way of addressing citizens, including shouting, threatening and an occasional unconvincing and pathetic outpouring of love and concern for the life of senior citizens. In fact, Serbia turned into a quarantine with its anti-virus measures being constantly supplemented. Thus, on 28 March, the state of emergency was prolonged for another two hours on weekends (from 3 p.m. to 5 a.m.), all markets were closed down and the decision allowing the walking of pets in evenings from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. was brought.
Thereafter, on 2 April, one more restrictive measure was introduced: the duration of curfews on weekends was extended – from 1 p.m. on Saturday to 5 a.m. on Monday (senior citizens were allowed to shop for groceries for three hours, from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m.), while gatherings of more than two people at one place were banned. Only pets were happy because they regained the right to evening walk from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. On 10 April, however, everything turned into a curfew “weekend” – movement was banned from 3 p.m. on Friday to 5 a.m. on Monday. […] The curfew “weekend” was prolonged for one day, thus lasting from 5 p.m. on Friday to 5 a.m. on Tuesday. […]
THE TOTALITARIAN POTENTIAL OF THE PANDEMIC
“We are at war”! This was the first sentence of President Vučić’s address to the nation announcing the introduction of a state of emergency on Sunday, 15 March. To tell the truth, the leaders of other countries also used the war vocabulary during pandemic such as “enemy”, with the attribute “invisible”, against which we are “fighting”, underway is the “defence of the people and the state” and the like. However, there are less of those for whose political character and authoritarian ruling style such rhetoric is better suited than for Aleksandar Vučić.
This could be seen, for example, not only because he immediately opted for a “state of emergency” instead of an “emergency situation” which was considered to be more appropriate by some experts, but also because of the way in which it was conducted and the tempo with which it was implemented. Also, the state of emergency introduced in Serbia due to the coronavirus epidemic implied the extreme measures that resembled a state of war in many respects. […]
The most drastic measure was the one prescribed only for some categories of citizens – the population aged 65 and over. It was without precedent, even in comparison with the previous post-totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. Moreover, soldiers with face masks and long-barrel weapons were present not only in the vicinity of hospital compounds, but also in the centre of Belgrade; at the beginning, the curfew lasted from 8 p.m. until 5 a.m., but was very soon prolonged for another seven hours (from 5 p.m. until 5 a.m.). Moreover, it was threatened that, should it be necessaey, the curfew could last 24 hours! Contrary to the opinion of the relevant experts, it was also announced thst whole towns might be put under lockdown. The penalties for violations of restrictive measures exceed Serbian citizens’ income (this especially refers to retired people).
Both in theory and practice (in particular), the state of emergency poses a temptation for every society, regardless of whether it has democratic tradition, or is inclined to be ruled with a “firm hand” and its citizens mostly give priority to “security” over “freedom”. It is difficult to determine a subtle dividing line between the introduction of the measures needed to protect society, on the one side, and the limitation of fundamental human rights, on the other side, but is easy to erase it. […]
Yuval Noah Harari, a well-known Israeli writer and essayist, as well as the author of several best-selling books worldwide, also pointed to the traps of a state of emergency, which tends to be of long duration (even when the reasons for its introduction cease to exist). He reminded us that in Israel the state of emergency was introduced in 1948, during the War of Independence, which implied a number of measures ranging from press censorship and land sequestration to special regulations for making pudding! Israel has never officially proclaimed the end of a state of emergency and abolished many of “temporary measures” adopted in 1948; the regulations for making pudding were erased in 2011.
The famous Stanford Professor Francis Fukuyama has pointed out that most democratic societies prescribe the conditions under which the executive branch of government is granted extraordinary powers (in the event of a national crisis): “The real test is whether those repositories of power will regain their power after the crisis ends”.
European officials are also concerned over the dangerous potential of a state of emergency. In her interview with Danas daily, Tanja Fajon, a member of the European Parliament (EP), said that the “coronavirus must not be an excuse for locking democracy”. She also said that “a great problem is posed by shutting down the borders completely”. […]
In this context, it is especially disturbing that Serbia’s society, practically without democratic tradition, is very inclined toward authoritarianism. However, this also applies to other countries in the region, as was warned last year by Florian Bieber, the connoisseur of the situation in the region, in his book dealing with the return of authoritarianism to the Western Balkans. As was commented by Dejan Jović, a political scientist from Zagreb, “considered from a liberal viewpoint, it is disturbing that citizens call for an even stricter system and the suspension of even more rights…”
In North Macedonia, this tendency to call for the imposition of a curfew, “in accordance with Serbia’s horrible model of transferring the responsibility for the coronavirus disease to citizens (you are to blame for its spread, so that we will lock you into your houses like in a zoo garden) also raised concern by the well-known author Rumena Bužarovska: “All of a sudden, my fellow fighters for human rights have confidence in the police and ask them to protect us. Some of them call for complete lockdown…”
 Dominik Moisi, “Geopolitika emocija” (strah, nada i poniženje),.Belgrade: Clio, 2009.
 Biber: Vlast Srbije šalje lošu poruku EU, moguće trajne negativne posledice.
 Interview with Nedeljnik, 9 April 2020.
 26 March 2020.
 Interview with Vreme, 2 April 2020.
 Author’s text for Vreme, 2 April 2020.