October 5, 2000, is a Serbian metaphor for a dream of democracy. Like many dreams, it encouraged and mobilized those who shared it, while it was unrealistic about the scope and pace of changes after the defeat of Milosevic’s regime and naïve about the ways to move from traumatic experiences into a future free from fear.
An important part of the dream behind the peaceful revolution of 5 October was that the security institutions would no longer protect a regime, but the people. The Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS), the coalition of 18 political parties and movements, campaigned for the elections of September 2000 promising that one of their top priorities would be security sector reform and lustration for the crimes and corruption committed by the Milosevic regime. If elected, they vowed that opening secret files and introducing parliamentary oversight of surveillance would be on their agenda the first day in parliament. They also pledged that they would adopt new legislation on the military and police in their first 100 days in government. Intelligence services were not explicitly mentioned as they were still a part of the Ministry of Defense (military intelligence) and the Ministry of the Interior (civilian intelligence). The vision behind new legislation in the Program for Democratic Serbia was “to prevent a political instrumentalization of armed forces and the police and the misuse of [security institutions] as the tool for repression and restriction of citizens’ rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.“ The same legislation was also envisaged to introduce guarantees to “prevent and strictly punish the creation of any kind of paramilitary and parapolice forces”. Twenty years after 5 October 2000, the dream has been enshrined in the constitution, key legislation and the institutions established after the democratic change, but it has not yet become a reality for most citizens in Serbia. So, what went wrong?
The nightmare of negotiated transition
In the days before the major strike and massive demonstrations scheduled for 5 October, future Serbian PM Zoran Djindjic was in contact with the commander of the Special Operations Unit, Zoran Ulemek Legija, while the future president, Vojislav Kostunica, had talks with the military leadership. Both of them promised that the leaders of these security organisations would remain in their posts and be exempt from prosecution after regime change in return for abstaining from the use of violence against the protestors. The negotiated transition is the reason why the day of expected lustration – popularly referred to in the Serbian collective imagination as 6 October, never came.
The intelligence services had a back-up plan and made sure that the new political leadership did not have the time or resources to deal with their wrongdoings. A month after the new interim government took office, the armed uprising of ethnic Albanians started in three municipalities in southern Serbia, and mutinies were “spontaneously” organized in all prisons in Serbia. This made the interim government in charge of preparing free elections dependent on the services of the old guard. More importantly, the intelligence services managed to hide the list of informants during Milosevic’s regime and to blackmail different political leaders for their contacts with the previous regime. They used existing ideological divisions within the DOS regarding cooperation with the International War Crime Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to play two major parties within the coalition against each other by offering exclusive services of surveillance of their political opponents. This made the governance of intelligence a reserved domain in which political elites did not have enough control.
The decision to confront organized crime within the ranks of security institutions cost the life of the first democratically elected PM – Zoran Djindjic. He was assassinated by the conspiracy that involved elements of the security apparatus (Deputy Commander of the Special Operations Unit - JSO) and organized crime. The first generation of security reforms started only after this tragic event and it were sped up after the dissolution of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro and adoption of a new constitution. However, the trading of secrets collected through surveillance remained the backbone of a clientelist relationship between intelligence services and all post-Milosevic governments.
There are two lessons here that could be important also for other countries in transition. The first one is that the politics of the security sector matter and that reforms should start with national dialogue on how best to translate a vision of democracy into practice. National consensus on key questions on who should be protected from which threats and at what cost builds the resilience of both political leadership and society. In parallel, the key sources of informal power within the security sector should be put under control and no reserved domain left. This is easier said than done, especially since it is difficult to find an alternative security professionals’ elite, but it is not totally impossible if there is political unity and accountability within pro-democracy elites.
The nightmare of state capture
Twenty years later, the new laws have put security institutions under democratic civilian control by elected representatives of citizens, judicial scrutiny and oversight by independent institutions (e.g. Ombudsperson, Anti-corruption Agency etc.) and civil society. All post-Milosevic governments tried to concentrate power by taking control of security institutions, especially the intelligence services. However, the regimes before the current Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) tried to align the narrative of democracy with their practice of governing and accepted as “a necessary evil” the scrutiny of the work of security institutions by the most active overseers. In the case of Serbia, these champions were two independent oversight institutions (Ombudsperson and the Commissioner for Freedom of Information and Protection of Private Data) and civil society. This is why we lived under the impression that, despite challenges, the new democratic rules introduced as a part of transition had become ”the only game in town” and that through incremental consolidation and constant demand by civil society the principles of democratic security governance would get internalized in management practices, organizational culture and everyday practice by security professionals.
Imagining linear progress for democratization has failed us. This is why we were unprepared for the nightmare of state capture. It was difficult to imagine that control over regulatory and institutional systems could be obtained in a legal manner by private interests (political parties, tycoons, criminal networks) through a change and enforcement of rules that allow for their maximization of profit from public resources, decrease checks and balances and create impunity. Meddling in the operations of security institutions is a must in a such system to ensure the selective enforcement of rules and the avoidance of investigations and prosecution of those in clientelistic networks.
The most famous example of this is the case of Savamala. This is the name of an area in downtown Belgrade, where in the night between the 24 and 25 April elections in 2016, a group of men in balaclavas demolished private property in Hercegovacka Street with a bulldozer and detained a number of citizens who were witnesses to this act of organized violence. Later, the Ombudsperson’s inquiry discovered that the electricity in these streets had been turned off by city authorities and that the police were ordered not to assist citizens who asked for help. The outcome of the event was that the new construction project of Belgrade Waterfront backed by top political leadership is being implemented in a speedier way, while the prosecutorial investigation of the incident is still in the pre-investigative phase. The parliament controlled by the ruling party had rejected 35 proposals by the opposition for the formation of an inquiry committee to investigate this incident. This and many subsequent incidents revealed that the security institutions and oversight bodies (parliament, judiciary, independent oversight bodies) have been captured by the ruling Serbian Progressive Party and their network, leaving little space for the institutions to offer all citizens the freedom to belong to the political community and enjoy the protection of the state.
New imagination and action
Paradoxically, the narrative of alignment with EU standards in regard to the fight against corruption, organized crime and terrorism is used to legitimize taking control of the security and justice sectors. The formula is simple: improve one thing in legislation in line with the EU acquis and decrease two existing democratic safeguards at the same time. One of the enabling factors for this situation is EU and member states’ lack of interest in examining misuse of Security Sector Reform (SSR) as a part of the accession process. First, although democratic oversight of security institutions is part of the Copenhagen political criteria for EU accession, it is rarely and shallowly scrutinized by the EU. Second, the EU has not yet translated the holistic understanding of SSR introduced in its new Strategic Framework for the support of SSR in 2016 into the practice of Enlargement Policy. Currently, the SSR is covered in a piecemeal way during a country’s accession negotiations through the Copenhagen Political Criteria (parliamentary oversight of armed forces), as well as through negotiation chapters 23 (Justice and Fundamental Rights), 24 (Justice, Freedom and Security) and 31 (Foreign, Security and Defence Policy). The EU seems not ”to connect the dots” between the lack of scrutiny of key security institutions and the ineffectiveness of reforms in key rule-of-law areas (Chapters 23 and 24). The EU’s monitoring of accession progress has a blind spot concerning key issues of security governance, such as intelligence, surveillance, defence and blooming private security due to the lack of common standards in this area of governance within the EU. Many of these neglected security institutions had been used for armed conflicts in the Western Balkans, and therefore still enjoy privileged access to resources and are being used by populists in securitization moves aimed at justifying extraordinary measures in response to external and internal ”enemies”. Third and most important, most of the EU’s Enlargement Policy and SSR toolbox is focused on building formal capacities for the rule of law and security governance through change and enforcement of new regulatory and institutional systems. Such an approach fails to foresee the intentional misuse of formal legislative and oversight processes for particularistic gains, instead of the public good.
Before addressing the presence of weaknesses in security sector governance, a proper diagnosis of the broader context of state capture should be made so as to understand linkages between the dysfunctionalities of democracy, including pathologies of security governance, and the rule of law. Therefore, a number of civil society organisations from the Western Balkans have called upon the EU to more effectively monitor Rule of Law reforms in the countries undergoing the accession process by commissioning an independent analysis of the mechanisms that endanger democracy and lead to the capturing of public institutions for political and corruptive purposes, following the successful model of the so-called Pribe Report from North Macedonia. Instead of waiting for new crises to escalate, the EU should use this new reporting tool proactively throughout the region to contribute to a more comprehensive, clear and public understanding of the burning problems faced by democratic institutions and the rule of law in all Western Balkan countries, and as effective pressure to resolve them before they explode into a full blown crisis or close the circle of state capture.
If such resolution is not achieved within these institutions, the dream of security institutions at the service of citizens might be resolved through a new October 5.
 Democratic Opposition of Serbia, Program for Democratic Serbia, Vreme, No. 502, 19 August 2000. https://www.vreme.com/arhiva_html/502/10.html