As in the rest of the world, politics and the state in Serbia were completely reduced from March 2020 and focused on crisis management of the corona pandemic. In relation to its neighboring states in the Western Balkans, this management was characterized by its strongly populist-authoritarian character.
Serbia had its first official corona case on March 6 and was more affected than the neighboring countries in the region from the start. On March 31, 900 people were registered as infected with the COVID-19 pathogen in Serbia, 23 of whom had died.
According to historyaah, the original reaction of Serbian politics until mid-March bore comparable features with populist regimes in all parts of the world, determined by trivialization. For example, at a press conference with President Vucic at the end of February, one of the government’s medical advisors declared Corona the “funniest virus in history” and advised Serbian women to go shopping in Milan because there were big discounts there. Health Minister Zlatibor Lončar said at the same time that the coronavirus was much weaker than normal flu, and after the first case of infection in Serbia became known, President Vučić insisted that “25 times more people die of mosquito bites every day” than of COVID-19. In parallel with the downplaying of the health threat, preparations for the parliamentary and local elections scheduled for April 26th were in full swing.
After the government had already taken initial measures to combat the epidemic in the days before, it made a drastic U-turn with the imposition of a state of emergency on March 15towards radical measures. An extensive lockdown was decided with temporary curfews for the entire population and an almost complete curfew for older people aged 65 and over. All shops with the exception of supermarkets and pharmacies were closed, local and long-distance public transport largely ceased, the borders closed except for the movement of goods. Companies were instructed to send their employees to the home office as far as possible. Massive sentences including prison sentences for violating the conditions were imposed. The elections have been postponed indefinitely.
The declaration of the state of emergency and the measures adopted to restrict the fundamental rights and freedoms of the citizens of Serbia massively damaged the principles of the rule of law and were almost entirely without a constitutional basis. The decision to declare a state of emergency was taken by the president, prime minister and parliamentary speaker instead of parliament with the constitutionally untenable justification that parliament was not able to meet in times of Corona. There was also no subsequent constitutional sanctioning by parliament. In the decision, the absolutely necessary substantive justification such as a time limit for the state of emergency was missing. While the government regulated or changed the provisions of the lockdown in decrees that were amended every six months, the extensive curfews were based on decisions of the Interior Ministry, which has no constitutional authority for this. After all, Serbian lawyers insist that the almost complete curfew for older people is fundamentally unconstitutional because it not only restricts the right to freedom of movement, but virtually completely abolishes it.
At the same time, the government and the Ministry of Justice have violated the rule of law by intervening in the judiciary with regard to the legal prosecution of violations of crisis measures such as exit restrictions. For example, there was pressure to speed up legal proceedings through video sessions, penalties with retrospective application were introduced, multiple convictions were made possible for the same offense and the right to appeal against certain judgments was suspended for the period of the state of emergency.
Corona measures were also used to restrict freedom of the press and freedom of expression. A decree imposing penalties for spreading false news led to the arrest of a journalist in Novi Sad for reporting the lack of protective equipment in the hospital there. The journalist was quickly released after protests by national and international journalists’ associations and local civil society. In addition, after some time journalists were excluded from the government press conferences and could now only submit their questions online. In addition, the obligation of state institutions to provide information to the media, anchored in the Freedom of Information Act, was de facto suspended.
President Vucic made a drastic change in foreign policy during the corona crisis in mid-March. He strongly criticized the decision of the EU Commission – which was later withdrawn for the Western Balkans – to ban the export of medical protective equipment with the words that European solidarity was “non-existent” or a “beautiful fairy tale”, and declared that only rescue can now come from china. Vucic revealed that he wrote a letter to President Xi Jingping, in which he asked China for support and named him as a “friend and brother” of Serbia. On March 21 the President received a plane with relief supplies and Chinese pandemic experts at Belgrade Airport – one time only. The latter should play a leading advisory role in the implementation of the pandemic fight according to the (authoritarian) Chinese model, in fact, however, it remained largely with the media-effective staging. The much more extensive aid from the EU in the amount of 7.5 million euros and a further 93.4 million euros, on the other hand, received much less political and media attention, while the actual amount of Chinese aid deliveries remains unclear.
Just as radically as the Serbian government proceeded in imposing the corona protective measures, the U-turn occurred at the beginning of May: after the number of new infections had fallen to a low level, almost all restrictions were lifted, with the lockdown on May 4th was completely repealed and two days later by parliamentary decision the state of emergency and a new date for the postponed parliamentary elections were set.