Transparency of the Regulatory System
Serbia is undertaking an extensive legislative amendment process aimed at harmonizing its laws with those of the European Union’s acquis communautaire. Harmonization of Serbian law with the acquis has created a legal and regulatory environment more consistent with international norms.
The government, ministries, and regulatory agencies develop, maintain, and publish a plan online of all anticipated legislation and regulations, as well as deadlines for their enactment. Serbian law requires that the text of proposed legislation and regulations be made available for public comment and debate if the law would significantly affect the legal regime in a specific field, or if the subject matter is an issue of a particular interest to the public. The website of Serbia’s unicameral legislature, called the National Assembly (www.parlament.gov.rs ), provides a list of both proposed and adopted legislation. There is no minimum period of time set by law for the text of proposed legislation or regulations to be publicly available.
In recent years, Serbia’s National Assembly has adopted many laws through an “urgent procedure”. By law, an urgent procedure can be used only “under unforeseeable circumstances,” to protect human life and health, and to harmonize legislation with the EU acquis. Bills proposed under an urgent procedure may be introduced with less than 24 hours’ notice, thus limiting public consideration and parliamentary debate. The European Commission’s 2019 Staff Working Document for Serbia stated that “continued frequent use of the urgent procedure for the adoption of laws limits the effective inclusion of civil society in the law-making process” and that such parliamentary practices have also “led to a deterioration in legislative debate and scrutiny[.]” The Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) echoed concerns regarding the lack of transparency in the legislative process.
International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) are required for publicly listed companies and financial institutions, as well as for the following large legal entities, regardless of whether their securities trade in a public market: insurance companies, financial leasing lessors, voluntary pension funds and their management companies, investment funds and their management companies, stock exchanges, securities brokerages, and factoring companies. Additionally, IFRS standards are required for all foreign companies whose securities trade is in any public market.
Although there are no informal regulatory processes managed by NGOs or the private sector, several Serbian organizations publish recommendations for government action to improve the transparency and efficiency of business regulations. The Foreign Investors Council publishes an annual White Book (http://www.fic.org.rs/projects/white-book/white-book.html ), the National Alliance for Local Economic Development (NALED) publishes a recommendations titled Eliminating Administrative Barriers to Doing Business in Serbia (https://www.slideshare.net/NALED/grey-book-10-recommendations-for-eliminating-administrative-obstacles-to-doing-business-in-serbia ), and the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) publishes similar materials on its website (www.amcham.rs ).
In 2018, Serbia enacted a Law on Ultimate Beneficial Owners Central Registry (“Law”). This Law was adopted to harmonize domestic legislation with international standards and to improve the existing system of detecting and preventing money laundering and the financing of terrorism. The Law on Ultimate Beneficial Owners Central Registry introduced a single, public, online electronic database maintained by the Serbian Business Registers Agency (www.apr.gov.rs), containing information on natural persons which are the ultimate beneficial owners of the companies (“Register”). Companies incorporated before December 31, 2018, are obliged to prepare and keep documentation regarding their ultimate beneficial owners at their offices, while new companies are obliged to register this information with the Register within 15 days of their incorporation. All companies were required to be registered accordingly in 2019.
In February 2018, Serbia joined the OECD Inclusive Framework on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS), which aims to address tax avoidance strategies that exploit gaps and mismatches in tax rules to artificially shift profits to low or no-tax locations. Under the framework, 112 countries and jurisdictions are collaborating to implement measures against BEPS.
Regulatory inspections in Serbia are numerous and decentralized. Nationally, there are 37 different inspectorates, operating within the competence of 12 different ministries. They operate without any significant cooperation or coordination, there is overlapping and duplication of functions among inspectorates, and there is a lack of consistency even within individual inspectorates, which represents a source of additional burdens and difficulties for business operation. Administrative courts are the legal entities that consider appeals from inspection decisions.
Serbia’s public finances are relatively transparent as it regularly publishes draft and adopted budgets, as well as budget revisions. The Serbian government has also published and Parliament adopted all of the end-of-year budgets from 2002 through 2018. The Serbian government regularly publishes information related to public debt on the website www.javnidug.gov.rs . This information is updated daily and is generally considered accurate.
International Regulatory Considerations
Serbia is not a member of the World Trade Organization or the EU. Serbia obtained EU candidate country status in 2012 and opened formal accession negotiations. The WTO accepted Serbia’s application for accession on February 15, 2005, and Serbia currently has observer status. No accession dates have been set for Serbia’s membership in either the EU or WTO.
Legal System and Judicial Independence
Serbia has a civil law system. The National Assembly codifies laws; the courts have sole authority to interpret legislation. Although judicial precedent is not a source of law, written judgments have the non-binding effect of helping to harmonize court practices. Serbia has a written law on contracts and commercial law.
In general, contract enforcement is weak, and the courts responsible for enforcing property rights remain overburdened. When negotiating contracts, the parties may agree on the manner in which to resolve disputes. Most often for domestic entities, contract dispute resolution is left to the courts and can be pursued through civil litigation. Under Serbian commercial law, the Law on Obligations regulates contractual relations (also known as the Law on Contracts and Torts). Civil Procedure Law, which details the procedure in commercial disputes, governs contract-related disputes. Parties to a contract are free to decide which substantive law will govern the contract. The law of Serbia need not be the governing law of a contract entered into in Serbia. Foreign courts’ judgments are enforceable in Serbia only if Serbian courts recognize them. Jurisdiction over recognition of foreign judgments rests with the Commercial Courts and Higher Courts. The Law on Resolution of Disputes with the Regulations of Other Countries, as well as by bilateral agreements, regulates the procedures for recognition of foreign court decisions.
The organization of the court system and jurisdiction of courts in Serbia are regulated by statute. The court system consists of the Constitutional Court, courts of general jurisdiction, and courts of special jurisdiction. Basic courts are courts of first instance and cover one or more municipalities. Higher courts cover the territory of one or more basic courts and are also courts of first instance, while acting as courts of second instance over basic courts. Commercial courts adjudicate commercial matters, with the Commercial Appeal Court being the second-instance court for such matters. Appellate courts are second instance courts to both basic and higher courts, except when higher courts act as second instance courts to basic courts. The Constitutional Court decides on the constitutionality and legality of laws and bylaws, and protects human and minority rights and freedoms. The Supreme Cassation Court is the highest court in Serbia and is competent to decide on extraordinary judiciary remedies and conflicts of jurisdiction. Regulations and regulatory enforcement actions are appealable within the national court system.
There is a distinction in Serbia between Commercial Courts and courts of general jurisdiction. Commercial Courts have original jurisdiction over disputes arising from commercial activities, including disputes involving business organizations, business contracts, foreign investment, foreign trade, maritime law, aeronautical law, bankruptcy, civil economic offenses, intellectual property rights, and misdemeanors committed by commercial legal entities. Their jurisdiction extends to both legal and natural persons engaged in commercial activities, in cases where both parties are economic operators. When only one of the parties is an economic operator and the other is not, such disputes are decided by courts of general civil jurisdiction and not by Commercial Courts. As an exception, in bankruptcy and reorganization proceedings, Commercial Courts have jurisdiction over all disputes where an economic operator is in bankruptcy in relation to other economic or non-economic operators.
Jurisdiction over civil commercial disputes is organized on two levels: Commercial Courts hear first instance cases; and the Appellate Commercial Court decides on appeals against lower court decisions. Commercial courts have broad jurisdiction. There are 16 trial-level Commercial Courts in Serbia. They handle disputes between legal entities, those between domestic and foreign companies; disputes concerning intellectual property and related rights; those arising under the application of Serbia’s Company Law and its regulation; and those relating to privatization and securities; relating to foreign investments, ships and aircraft, navigation at sea and on inland waters, and involving maritime and aviation law. Commercial courts also conduct bankruptcy and reorganization proceedings.
Congestion rates in the Commercial Courts are high. The time to case disposition in commercial litigation is in line with EU averages. However, there is inconsistent application of the law across Serbia, including in Commercial Courts.
According to the Constitution, Serbia’s judicial system is legally independent of the executive branch; but in practice, significant obstacles remain to true judicial independence. The European Commission’s 2019 Staff Working Document for Serbia observes that the current constitutional and legislative framework leaves room for undue political influence over the judiciary, and that political pressure on the judiciary remains high. Serbia has proposed draft constitutional amendments aimed at strengthening the independence of the judiciary, but those amendments have not yet been adopted or ratified.
Laws and Regulations on Foreign Direct Investment
Significant laws for investment, business activities, and foreign companies in Serbia include the Law on Investments, the Law on Foreign Trade, the Law on Foreign Exchange Operations, the Law on Markets of Securities and other Financial Instruments, the Company Law, the Law on Registration of Commercial Entities, the Law on Banks and Other Financial Institutions, Regulations on Conditions for Establishing and Operation of Foreign Representative Offices in Serbia, the Law on Construction and Planning, the Law on Financial Leasing, the Law on Concessions, the Customs Law, and the Law on Privatization. These statutes set out the basic rules foreign companies must follow if they wish to establish subsidiaries in Serbia, invest in local companies, open representative offices in Serbia, enter into agency agreements for representation by local companies, acquire concessions, or participate in a privatization process in Serbia. Other relevant laws include:
- The Law on Value Added Tax, Law on Income Tax, Law on Corporate Profit Tax, Law on Real Estate Tax, and the Law on Mandatory Social Contributions. .
- Laws and regulations related to business operations can be found on the Economy Ministry’s website at .
- Laws and regulations on portfolio investments are on the Securities Commission’s website at .
- Laws and regulations related to payment operations can be found on the National Bank of Serbia’s website at
In 2019, Serbia undertook major anti-money laundering and counter-financing of terrorism regime (AML/CFT) legislative reforms, following the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) February 2018 finding that Serbia had strategic deficiencies in its AML/CFT regime. To respond to the deficiencies, twelve new laws and over 60 regulations came into force. The new legislation includes a new AML/CFT Law, as well as amendments to the Criminal Code with regard to the further criminalization of money laundering. Among other AML/CFT reforms, Serbia introduced a Law on Ultimate Beneficial Owners Central Registry. The Serbian Business Registers Agency maintains a single, public, online electronic database containing information on natural persons who are the ultimate beneficial owners of legal entities. FATF removed Serbia from its monitoring process in June 2019, but Serbia remains subject to enhanced follow-up procedures by the Committee of Experts on the Evaluation of Anti-Money Laundering Measures and the Financing of Terrorism, known as MONEYVAL.
There is no primary or “one-stop-shop” website for investment that provides relevant laws, rules, procedures, and reporting requirements for investors. However, numerous Serbian firms that provide legal and other professional services publish comprehensive information for foreign investors, including PricewaterhouseCoopers, https://www.pwc.rs/en/publications/assets/Doing-Business-Guide-Serbia-2019.pdf .
Competition and Anti-Trust Laws
The Law on Protection of Competition was enacted in 2009 and amended in 2013. The Commission for the Protection of Competition is responsible for competition-related concerns and in principle implements the law as an independent agency reporting directly to the National Assembly. In some cases, companies have reported perceptions that political factors have influenced the Commission’s decision-making. In 2018, the Commission completed seven proceedings for violations of competition rules, approved 158 mergers (and rejected six), and issued 15 opinions about potential breaches of competition rules. Annual reports of the Commission’s actions are published online at http://www.kzk.gov.rs/izvestaji . Laws and regulations related to market competition are available at http://www.kzk.gov.rs/en/zakon-2 .
Expropriation and Compensation
A foreign investor is guaranteed national treatment, which means that any legal entity or natural person investing in Serbia enjoys full legal security and protection equal to those of local entities. A stake held by a foreign investor or a company with a foreign investment cannot be the subject of expropriation. The contribution of a foreign investor may be in the form of convertible foreign currency, contribution in kind, intellectual property rights, and securities.
Serbia’s Law on Expropriation authorizes expropriation (including eminent domain) for the following reasons: education, public health, social welfare, culture, water management, sports, transport, public utility infrastructure, national defense, local/national government needs, environmental protection, protection from weather-related damage, mineral exploration or exploitation, resettlement of persons holding mineral-rich lands, property required for certain joint ventures, and housing construction for the socially disadvantaged.
In the event of an expropriation, Serbian law requires compensation in the form of similar property or cash approximating the current market value of the expropriated property. The law sets forth various criteria for arriving at the amount of compensation applicable to different types of land (e.g. agricultural, vineyards or forests), or easements that affect land value. The local municipal court is authorized to intervene and decide the level of compensation if there is no mutually agreed resolution within two months of the expropriation order.
The Law on Investment provides safeguards against arbitrary government expropriation of investments. There have been no cases of expropriation of foreign investments in Serbia since the dissolution of the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 2003. There are, however, outstanding claims against Serbia related to property nationalized under the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which was dissolved in 1992.
The 2014 Law on Restitution of Property and Compensation applies to property seized by the government since the end of World War II (March 9, 1945), and includes special coverage for victims of the Holocaust, who are authorized to reclaim property confiscated by Nazi occupation forces. Under the law, restitution should be in kind when possible, and otherwise in the form of state bonds. Many properties are exempt from in-kind restitution, including property previously owned by corporations. Heirless property left by victims of the Holocaust is subject to a separate law, which was approved in February 2016.
Serbia committed itself under its restitution law to allocate EUR 2 billion, plus interest, for financial compensation to citizens in bonds and in cash. The restitution law caps the amount of compensation that any single claimant may receive at EUR 500,000 (approximately USD 565,000). With amendments to the Law on Restitution and Compensation adopted in December 2018, the government postponed for the third time issuance of these bonds until December 2021, pending approval of necessary by-laws that would regulate bond issuance. The Law mandates that by-laws be adopted by Government of Serbia by June 2020. The bonds will be denominated in euros, carry a two-percent annual interest rate, have a maturity period of 12 years, and be tradable on securities markets. The deadline for filing restitution applications was March 1, 2014. The Agency for Restitution received 75,414 property claims, and the adjudication process is still ongoing. Information about the Agency for Restitution and the status of cases is available on its website at www.restitucija.gov.rs/eng/index.php .
ICSID Convention and New York Convention
Serbia is a signatory to the Convention on the Settlement of Investment Disputes between States and Nationals of Other States (ICSID Convention, also known as the Washington Convention), and the New York Convention of 1958 on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards. The Law on Arbitration and the Law on Management of Courts regulate proceedings and jurisdiction over the recognition of foreign arbitral awards.
Investor-State Dispute Settlement
Although Serbia is a signatory to many international treaties regarding international arbitration, enforcement of an arbitration award can be a slow and difficult process. Serbia’s Privatization Agency refused for five years (2007-2012) to recognize an International Chamber of Commerce/International Court of Arbitration award in favor of a U.S. investor. The dispute caused the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), which had insured a portion of the investment, to severely restrict its activities in Serbia. The U.S. Embassy facilitated a settlement agreement between the Serbian government and the investor, and OPIC reinstated its programs for Serbia in February 2012, but in 2015 and early 2016 both a first instance and appellate Serbian court dismissed OPIC’s request for enforcement action to collect damages awarded to it by an international arbitration board in the same case. Serbia has no Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) with the United States. In the past 10 years, three publicly-known investment disputes have involved U.S. citizens. There is no history of extrajudicial action against foreign investors.
International Commercial Arbitration and Foreign Courts
The Law on Arbitration authorizes the use of institutional and ad hoc arbitration in all disputes, and regulates the enforcement of arbitration awards. The law is modeled after the United Nations Commission on International Trade Law (UNICTRAL Model Law).
Commercial contracts, in which at least one contracting party is a foreign legal or natural person, may incorporate arbitration clauses, invoking the jurisdiction of the Foreign Trade Court of Arbitration of the Serbian Chamber of Commerce, or any other foreign institutional arbitration body, including ad hoc arbitration bodies. International arbitration is an accepted means for settling disputes between foreign investors and the state.
Serbia is a signatory to the following international conventions regulating the mutual acceptance and enforcement of foreign arbitration:
- 1923 Geneva Protocol on Arbitration Clauses
- 1927 Geneva Convention on the Execution of Foreign Arbitration Decisions
- 1958 Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards (New York Convention)
- 1961 European Convention on International Business Arbitration
- 1965 International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID)
Serbia allows for mediation to resolve disputes between private parties. Mediation is a voluntary process and is conducted only when both parties agree. The Law on Mediation regulates mediation procedures in disputes in the following areas of law: property, commercial, family, labor, civil, administrative and in criminal procedures where the parties act freely, unless the law stipulates exclusive authority of a court or other relevant authority.
Mediators can be chosen from the list of the Serbian National Association of Mediators, or from an official registry within the Ministry of Justice. There are two types of mediation: court-annexed and private mediation. A person can also be referred to mediation by a court, advocate, local ombudsman, employees of municipal or state authorities, an employer, or the other party to the conflict.
Serbia’s bankruptcy law is in line with international standards. According to the bankruptcy law, the goal is to provide compensation to creditors via the sale of the assets of a debtor company. The law stipulates automatic bankruptcy for legal entities whose accounts have been blocked for more than three years, and allows debtors and creditors to initiate bankruptcy proceedings. The law ensures a faster and more equitable settlement of creditors’ claims, lowers costs, and clarifies rules regarding the role of bankruptcy trustees and creditors’ councils. Parliament adopted new amendments to the Bankruptcy Law in December 2017. These amendments enable better collection and reduced costs for creditors; provide shorter deadlines for action by bankruptcy trustees and judges; improve the position of secured creditors; anticipate new ways of assessing debtors’ assets by licensed appraisers; and introduce a special rule to lift bans on the execution of debtor assets that are under mortgage, giving rights to the secured creditor to sell such assets under rules that apply to mortgage sales.
Foreign creditors have the same rights as Serbian creditors with respect to initiating or participating in bankruptcy proceedings. Claims in foreign currency are calculated in dinars at the dinar exchange rate on the date the bankruptcy proceeding commenced. Serbia’s Criminal Code criminalizes intentionally causing bankruptcy, and fraud in relation to a bankruptcy proceeding. The 2020 World Bank Doing Business Index ranked Serbia 41 out of 190 economies with regards to resolving insolvency, with an average time of two years needed to resolve insolvency and average cost of 20 percent of the estate. The recovery rate was estimated at 34.5 cents on the dollar (https://www.doingbusiness.org/content/dam/doingBusiness/country/s/serbia/SRB.pdf ).