Standing Up for Democracy: How Serbian Civil Society is Fighting for Survival

May 04, 2023
Antonio Prokscha
6 min read

The political climate in Serbia has deteriorated in recent years, with increasing corruption and a decline in the rule of law. Concerned citizens and watchdog organizations fear that the country is moving away from democratic principles. Seeking to reverse this trend, the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability is making waves by promoting democracy and holding politicians accountable. 

A bulldog greets you at the door of the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (CRTA) in Belgrade. Vukosava Crnjanski, director of the Serbian NGO, says the dog does not guard the office but eases the staff’s stress.  

CRTA is itself a watchdog, committed to developing democratic culture by monitoring state institutions’ work and advocating for public officials’ accountability. Founded in ​​2002, it is now a leading Serbian civil society organization.  

Its newly decorated office is located in the center of Belgrade. “We've been in this office since February. We have to move before every election," explains CRTA Program Director Raša Nedeljkov with a grin. 

Nedeljkov, a tall, brown-haired man with glasses, and Crnjanski, a small woman with short blond hair and a friendly smile, form CRTA’s leadership. Together, and with their 50 employees, they relocated CRTA’s offices twice in the last five years.  

The first move followed an unexpected doubling of their rent, two years of which had to be paid in advance. CRTA could not afford to do so. The second move followed the blocking of office renovations, which left staff working under a leaky roof. 

There is no evidence of state interference in the recent misfortunes, but a pattern is evident. Given CRTA’s experience with the Serbian government, Crnjanski and Nedeljkov are not surprised at what befell them. 

Sounds from the Past 

The climate for Serbian civil society has become increasingly hostile in recent years. As the government tightens its grip on power, organizations and activists working on issues such as human rights, democracy, and the rule of law face mounting challenges and threats.  

The government increasingly uses laws and regulations to stifle critical voices and limit the ability of organizations to operate freely. In 2020, Serbia passed so-called anti-terror legislation that primarily targets civil society organizations and impose strict reporting requirements and financial penalties on organizations that receive funds from abroad. Civil society organizations and activists are also increasingly subject to harassment and intimidation—not least from the authorities. The intimidation includes physical attacks, verbal threats, and legal action aimed at suppressing dissent and damaging organizational credibility.  

In 2021, two members of parliament from the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) verbally attacked CRTA by accusing Crnjanski and Nedeljkov of involvement in an attempted coup d’état and assassination of the president. The two parliamentarians behind the accusation, though patently untrue, have faced no consequences. Quite to the contrary, one became minister of public administration, and the other is now the speaker of parliament. 

The accusation is part of an ongoing smear campaign against Serbia’s leading civil society organizations that discredits them as “foreign mercenaries” and “domestic traitors” working solely for their own enrichment. 

For many Serbs, such terms recall the 1990s propaganda of former Yugoslav and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who was subsequently put on trial for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. “Over the past years, the government has increasingly used the same old, already-embedded narratives or sentiments about those who allegedly work for the ‘evil West’ or the US or NATO,” says Crnjanski, noting that this reinforces continuing resentment of NATO for its 1999 bombings of present-day Serbia. “This wound has been completely open for all these years. Now the salt is being added, and we are being drawn into it.” 

A Downward Trend 

Since the SNS, led by President Aleksandar Vučić, came to power in 2012, Serbia has seen less rule of law and more corruption. The SNS, split off from the far-right Serbian Radical Party, is regularly accused of stifling opposition voices and undermining democratic institutions. “When SNS came to power, they had a strategy of disabling all important mechanisms for democracy,” Nedeljkov says. “They ruined the opposition, arrested some people, accusing them of corruption, and cut their finances so that they became completely irrelevant. And all those who were not in the opposition were sucked into their apparatus.” 

As he tore down his opponents, Vučić began building a media empire, contributing to the ongoing trend of censorship and promoting a cult of personality around himself. With a weak parliament and no independent institutions, such as a media watchdog or an anti-corruption agency, Serbia now faces a lack of checks and balances. 

“All of these institutions became sidelined, irrelevant, captured, bought, controlled, self-controlled, voiceless,” Nedeljkov laments. “Now, the only voice that is present for interpreting the reality is [that of] one man: ​​Aleksandar Vučić. And that's the modus operandi to this day.” 

Fighting Back 

CRTA has been at the forefront of promoting democracy, the rule of law, and human rights despite the challenges. Through a series of programs and initiatives, the organization has become a powerful force for change toward a more democratic society. 

Its efforts include a “watchdog” program through which the organization has exposed corruption and advocates for reforms to combat it. CRTA also monitors elections with the help of thousands of trained civilian observers and works to counter electoral disinformation by assessing media consumption and public opinion on issues such as EU accession and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and on foreign actors such as China or NATO. The results revealed a significant threat. 

“We are overwhelmed with disinformation,” says Crnjanski. Especially with anti-Western narratives that thematize a threat from ‘outside’ and portray the government as a safe and reliable force against it. This is governing by fear and keeps Serbia in the past.” 

CRTA research shows that the main sources of disinformation in Serbia are public officials and state-controlled media. This is all the more striking given that 70 percent of people in Serbia get their information from pro-government media on which the government accounts for the vast majority of airtime: 98 percent of the politicians shown are members of the ruling party; the president alone accounts for two-thirds of that. 

“We look at public opinion and see victims of constant brainwashing with specific political purposes, keeping the current government and political elites in power,” ​​Nedeljkov says. 

“We really believe in democracy” 

CRTA believes it has a responsibility to counteract this sea of disinformation. The organization is a trusted source among the international community in Serbia and one frequently quoted in the international media. Its reports are important tools for raising awareness and promoting change, and their findings serve as decision-making guides for bodies such as the European Parliament and the European Commission. 

Crnjanski believes that there is a growing need for independent groups, especially since Serbia exerts great influence in the Western Balkans. “If you want Serbia to be … stable and if you want us to be committed to the European path, we have to stop the war propaganda and the state-sponsored anti-EU machinery,” she warns. 

Voices from abroad are crucial in this regard, often being the last line of defense for civil society organizations. “We have little appeal to influence from within,” Nedeljkov notes. “The only leverage we have right now is the international community.” 

All these adverse circumstances complicate CRTA’s work but make it all the more necessary for Crnjanski. 

“Sometimes we see ourselves as lunatics, as defenders of democracy in a country that has no experience [in being] a functioning democracy. But we really believe in democracy. We believe in an environment that can protect people and human rights, and build a functioning democracy.”