Serbia – An Autocracy Blessed by EU and Russia

Protesters in Belgrade, 8th April 2017 Source: https://twitter.com/BgDisident

It has been more than a week since thousands of young people took to the streets of major cities to show their dissatisfaction with the results of presidential elections in Serbia, while European Union officials were quick to rejoice and congratulate the winner, Prime Minister turned president, Aleksandar Vučić, hailing him as the “factor of stability in the Balkans” and assurance of pro-European road. Yet there is nothing European about Prime Minister so consumed by the need for power that he simply decided to control and occupy not one, but two most important seats in Serbian politics. There was nothing European about the electoral campaign, which came down to a one man show and a race that was everyone else’s to lose. The post-electoral week started off with 30.000 people in the streets of Belgrade, and thousands of protesters in Novi Sad, Kragujevac and other major cities across Serbia. Their message is clear – we do not accept the election results, because the elections themselves were illegitimate. Most media outlets either ignored these events, or branded protesters’ as “vandals, hooligans, drug addicts and drunk youth”. It seems like a sad deja vu of famous students’ protests that spanned through the cold winter from November 1996. to February 1997. when similar disappointment in rigged election process drew tens of thousands of citizens and students to the streets. But the saddest difference is that in the 1990s, the world looked at these young people in awe. In 2017, they stand alone, while their autocrat is hailed by Western leaders for democracy, progress and stability he brings to the Balkans. What changed and how did Aleksandar Vučić succeed where his former boss Slobodan Milošević had not?

Belgrade is (part of) the world – student protesters in Belgrade, November 1996.

Who is the most powerful man in Serbia?

Murky past. Aleksandar Vučić was born in 1970. in Belgrade. He graduated from the Faculty of Law at the University of Belgrade. For a brief period, he worked as a journalist. His political career took off in the 1990s, where he was a trusted aide and Padawan to Vojislav Šešelj, leader of far-right ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party. Vučić gained notoriety as an outspoken proponent of war in Bosnia, at one point stating that for every killed Serbian soldier, we should kill 100 Muslims”. The height of his 1990s era career was becoming a Minister of Information. Under his lead, the Ministry of Information heavily cracked down on few independent media outlets that opposed the politics of Serbian president Slobodan Milošević’s regime.

Aleksandar Vučić and Vojislav Šešelj, early 1990s

Tranformation. After the Democratic Revolution in October 2000, Serbian Radical Party, alongside Vučić, turned into opposition. In 2003, party leader Vojislav Šešelj voluntarily surrendered and went to the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in Hague, in order to stand trial for ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Croatia. The torch of the leader passed down to Tomislav Nikolić, with Vučić second in power. Understanding that Serbian Radical Party became obsolete in post-2000 political setting, with members frustrated and feeling leaderless with Nikolić who was simply a stand in for Šešelj, whose trial ended up dragging for over a decade, Vučić felt that he needed to modify and modernize his political positions and goals if he was to remain relevant. That is how Serbian Progressive Party was born in 2008. All of a sudden, Vučić was promoting democratic, liberal values, as well as supporting EU membership.

Enemy’s failures and loyalty of old friends. Serbian Progressive Party owed a lot of its popularity to the shortcomings of then ruling Democratic Party, led by Boris Tadić. Shady privatization process of state owned land, corruption, partocracy and nepotism, as well as political compromises with right wing Democratic Party of Serbia and late Slobodan Milošević’s Socialist Party of Serbia, slowly frustrated and alienated growing number of voters and supporters of the democrats. Faced with growing demands of European Union, especially regarding the status of Kosovo, Boris Tadić found himself cornered between what needs to be done and what voters expected. Aleksandar Vučić knew how to capitalize on that, still officially acting from the sidelines, letting mostly Tomislav Nikolić take the spotlight.

Boris Tadić (Source: Getty images)

By the time 2012. parliamentary elections kicked in, Democratic Party leader Boris Tadić felt self confident and wanted to consolidate his power. Serbian Progressive Party won majority of votes, which was to be expected. Serbian Socialist Party, another example of 1990s ghost successfully refurnished for post-2000 era, had the power to form a coalition with Democrats and basically ensure survival of the existing government – and Democrats were positively assured this was going to happen. However, after Tomislav Nikolić won presidential race with Boris Tadić, Socialists turned to the Progressives and the deal was done – 1990s could happen all over again. This time, the lessons were learned, some attitudes were adjusted, everyone’s hands are clean in the eyes of law, but the way they rule shows little difference compared to the dark 1990s.

The Circle is Full

Following Progressives’ rise to power, they effectively finished what the Democrats started. The Progressive party is everywhere – in parliament, government, governmental offices, institutions, universities, medical institutions, bloated public service sector suffocating under the weight of decades of hiring loyal party members. For an average Serbian citizen, earning a job through educational references and hard work is like winning a lottery – it is known to happen, but it happens rarely. On the other hand, membership in the ruling coalition party and loyalty to its leader is what gets people work, promotion and semi-decent salary. Of course, over the years, with public sector overflowing with invented bureaucratic positions meant to satisfy loyal minions’ hunger, even the most miserably paid job (such as a doorman) allegedly requires a membership card.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Serbia was declared a world leader in brain drain. During the last several years, the spark in number of medical professionals going to Germany represented a special dose of bitter irony – given that Serbian medical system has a problem with a deficit of nurses, doctors and specialists, who work for 300-600 euro monthly salaries. Serbian Finance Minister Dušan Vujević offered a solution – find another country if you are not satisfied with this one”. Those who are too old, unqualified or want to stay – have to either work it out on their own, or play by the rules and try to save the little they have. This turns out to be a growingly impossible task.

Workers in shoe factory “Geox” welcoming Vučić. The factory is subsidized by the government. (Source: TANJUG/Oksana Toskić)

One of the most famous electoral promises for the past 17 years in Serbia has been “foreign investments”, which by extension means “more jobs”. Fair enough, yet former governments and the current one seemed so eager to host foreign investors that they rarely negotiated the conditions, resulting in dubious agreements which saw Serbian taxpayers heavily subsidizing private owned businesses. In many of those companies and factories, Serbian citizens ended up being cheap workforce stripped of basic labour rights. The plight of the workers in South Korean factory “Yura” in the town of Leskovac surfaced in the media last year. The workers allegedly had to work 12 hour shifts with diapers on, without toilet or lunch breaks. They accused management of mobbing, physical abuse and sexual harassment, but the official complaints they filed to the authorities were neither addressed or processed. After the story found its way to N1 TV station, the Ministry of Labour swiftly dismissed these claims, citing inspectors who found only “minor irregularities”.

During the electoral campaign, a few weeks ago, 57 year old man, worker in the factory “Goša” in Smederevska Palanka, committed a suicide at workplace. As his friends and colleagues said, he explained in his farewell letter that the motive was depression and desperation caused by extreme poverty. The management of the factory owes the workers between 15 and 20 monthly salaries, and hasn’t paid taxes for their health insurance and pension funds for three years. As the workers, who are currently on strike, stated, they are not sure how much money they are owed, as they are occasionally given 15-20 euros in “varying intervals”. These clear violations of labour laws weren’t noted or sanctioned in any way by the authorities in charge. The factory was owned by Slovakian company “ŽOS Trnava”, but in a matter of days changed the owner. At the moment, the official registry states that it isLisnart Holdings Limited” from Cyprus.
And while events like these may sound like something that should force the entire government into early resignation, in Serbia, people proved to be desensitized by the scandals that seem to pile on top of each other.

Scandals

Floods. During late Spring in 2014, massive floods hit Southeastern Europe, including Serbia. One of the towns that sustained the heaviest damage was a small suburban municipality of the capital Belgrade – Obrenovac. Despite red alert issued as early as May 12, Kolubara river level growing by astounding seven meters in the following two days, other rivers in vicinity flooding the fields and roads, the citizens of Obrenovac were in their beds when massive wave hit their town in the morning hours of May 16. 37 people died and more than 500 homes were destroyed. The investigation conducted by the journalists of Center for Investigative Journalism in Serbia, to this day, remains the only investigation conducted about the disaster. One painful, striking conclusion supported by the documents, scientists and the accounts of local survivors is that destruction and casualties could have been prevented with better organization of municipal defense systems and timely evacuation. Miroslav Čučković, the mayor of Obrenovac from the ranks of Progressive Party, remains at this position to this day. At the dawn of 21st century, president Tomislav Nikolić concluded that Serbia was attacked by an “unpredictable water serpent”.

Floods in Obrenovac, 2014. (Source: N1)

The Helicopter. On 14th of March 2015, a military helicopter carrying seven people, including a newborn baby who needed immediate medical treatment, crashed due to thick fog at the airport Nikola Tesla in Belgrade. This tragedy took place after a few media outlets published a news snippet stating that Defense Minister Bratislav Gašić and a few other officials welcomed the military and medical crew landing at this very location – even before it happened. These news were quickly deleted, leaving public to wonder whether the lives of people were lost due to a failed publicity stunt. Military experts, the public and the media have raised numerous questions about the accident, including why the helicopter was ordered to fly in poor weather and why the crew was directed to land at the civil Nikola Tesla airport in Belgrade amid the fog. None of these questions were ever answered. Defense Minister, Bratislav Gašić, remained on that position until another scandal broke out. He made a tasteless joke in front of dozens of journalists and recording cameras, saying that “he liked the (female) reporters who drop on their knees easily”, referring to a journalist who crouched in order to position her microphone.

Crashed helicopter at the airport Nikola Tesla in Belgrade (Source: Telegraf.rs)

The Phantom of Savamala. Last year, Serbian Ombudsman (and this year presidential candidate) Saša Janković, issued a report concluding that Belgrade police deliberately refused to respond to calls from people who saw around 30 masked men armed with baseball bats and equipped with diggers, tearing down buildings on the riverbank of “Savamala” neighbourhood on the night between April 24 and 25, and allegedly beating up local residents.” The neighbourhood in question is part of the greater area due to be turned into “Belgrade Waterfront”, with new opera house, shopping centre and luxury hotels and apartments. The “Belgrade Waterfront” project is veiled under a shady deal, which, for the most part, remains classified. Nothing screams “failed state”, like a demolition in the middle of urban district near the city center, with the gang of masked men holding witnesses hostage and beating them, and police and judiciary doing nothing about it. After voicing these allegations, Saša Janković, well known for being critical towards many of the government policies (or lack of them), found himself once again as a target of massive smear campaign, conducted by pro-government tabloid “Informer” and an online army of Progressives’ supporters who are allegedly “employed” as living “Internet bots”. This form of bullying is now well established part of political public discourse in Serbia, meant to make journalists and public figures think twice before they criticize the work of the government. Those who don’t think twice, like weekly magazine “NIN”, end up being fined in warp-speed trials in the judicial system where even the simplest of cases tend to drag for decades. After the parliamentary elections in 2016, where Progressives won majority in parliament of Vojvodina province, in a matter of days, the TV station of Public Broadcasting Service of Vojvodina, RTV, saw a swift change of the entire management, as well as reassignment of the editors, journalists and anchors who were known to hold and express views critical of government. In this atmosphere of misery, fear and struggle, Serbia walked into presidential elections campaign.

Savamala after demolitions (Source: Krik.rs/B. Jovanović)

The Elections

Since 2012, the opposition in Serbia has been virtually non-existent. Democratic Party lost most of its support over refusal to be held accountable for failure to cut ties with 1990s legacy and inability to guide Serbia through transitional years. They effectively finished digging their own grave with discredited leadership and persistently condescending attitude towards disillusioned (ex) voters. The rise of Progressives, after all, was built on foundation of their autocratic tendencies.

Former Ombudsman Saša Janković has never been too specific about his ideological standpoint, with most of his campaign revolving around opposition to Vučić and what was of primary concern to disillusioned citizens – “decency, order, rules, and principles”. This shows how low the bar is set at this point, with Serbian voters still discussing and negotiating the basics with politicians. An unlikely candidate surfaced out of nowhere during this electoral campaign, addressing another group of young people who lost their trust in political process. Luka Maksimović campaigned under his alter ego, a satirized grotesque of average Serbian politician, “Ljubiša Preletačević Beli”. His “surname”, roughly translating as “fly over”, is tongue in cheek to the well established practice of Serbian politicians to switch from one to another ideologically opposed political party – in accordance with said party’s electoral success. Yet the elections were theirs to lose – Vučić won 54.9 percent of votes, second was Saša Janković with 16.2 percent of votes, followed by Luka Maksimović with 9.4 percent, according to the Belgrade based election watchdog Citizens at Watch (CRTA).

Saša Janković (Source: Fonet)

How is this possible, and why are most people not surprised? Serbian Progressive Party takes elections very seriously, and the race went with the opposition candidates’ hands and legs tied. With a few notable exceptions of limited reach, media in Serbia comes down to being more or less open mouthpiece for the government, so the electoral campaign that went against any fair, legal and democratic principle wasn’t exactly, well, news. The research conducted by NGO “Transparency Serbia” showed that Aleksandar Vučić received majority of overall presidential race coverage in daily newspapers. He was portrayed in positive light 98 times, compared to 27 times for Luka Maksimović, 18 times for Saša Janković and 10 times for Vuk Jeremić. The remaining candidates earned less than 20 positive stories. Regarding stories in negative context, Saša Janković received negative coverage 40 times, followed by 31 time for Vuk Jeremić. Jeremić’s wife Nataša Jeremić (well known former news anchor at Radio-television Serbia) was openly slandered by Progressive party’s lawmaker Milenko Jovanov, who accused her of being “a boss of Serbian narco-cartel”. Three quarters of overall TV coverage was also dedicated to Vučić, who capitalized on his Prime Minister function. Similar minute/headline ratio is part of media’s regular offer.

Winning hearts and minds is not a difficult job in Serbia, where the overall political culture remains at arguably low level, roughly stuck somewhere at the beginning of 20th century. Let alone 500 years of being colonized by Ottoman Empire, most of Serbian modern history was plagued by wars, political instability, identity crisis and the infamous Cult of the Leader. Serbian people had little time to build viable democratic system and trust in institutions, thus remaining rather vulnerable to the Syren’s song of autocrats. Whether it was a lifelong president Josip Broz Tito, nationalist turned renegade Slobodan Milošević, democratic revolutionary Zoran Đinđić or slick centrist Boris Tadić – Serbian people love their leaders. Even the Serbian word for government, “vlada” shows deeply ingrained lack of society’s capacity to view politicians as public, replaceable servants, governors or administrators – its literal meaning actually corresponds to the English world “rule”.

Aleksandar Vučić and Tomislav Nikolić (Source: Srđan Ilić/PIXSELL)

Where Progressives fail to win hearts and minds, either because people are not satisfied with their living standard or among minority population with developed political culture, blackmail and bullying proved to be a successful strategy. People who get jobs, privileges and perks thanks to their party membership allegedly need to prove their loyalty. According to the reports, their tasks fall down to tireless phone calls to potential voters, campaigning on the field, gathering lists of “safe votes”, slandering and smearing political opponents in media and online, as well as taking the blame for the ensuing chaos. When the entire institutional system is embedded in partocracy (a persistent legacy of the Communist Party in former Yugoslavia), everyone who takes part in it has a big interest in keeping it alive and running, which is why this form of corruption is so deeply entrenched in Serbian society to this day. And while some people within that system are eager to maintain their privilege and power, in 2017, when the swamp of public budget is almost dried up, most people just fight for scraps, exchanging their vote for assurance that they won’t lose a job that pays 200 euros a month and probably feeds their entire family.

What made Vučić so successful?

Aleksandar Vučić cannot govern – but he knows how to gain and maintain power, which is why his way of governing is perpetuum mobile of campaigning and snap elections.

Pick your battles. And while he repeats so many patterns of his predecessors and gurus from the 1990s, he also learned from their mistakes and vowed never to make them. Aleksandar Vučić knows how to keep Russians and European Union equally pleased. He knows how to do what needs to be done, and knows how to talk his way out of it – circular what-aboutery, emotional appeals and ad-hominem attacks are the staple of his public discourse. To Serbian people, Donald Trump’s condescending attitude and attacks on media, seem like the recipe coming straight out of Vučić’s cookbook. Speaking of media, Vučić refused to engage in something that is supposed to be the fundamental part of democratic electoral process in media – a public presidential debate. In the end, Vučić is well versed in being verbally abusive towards those he perceives inferior, such as female TV show hosts and minor public figures. He is smart enough to let tabloids, online army or party officials smear any respectable, powerful, well-spoken individuals he deems a serious threat, keeping his hands clean and getting to step in as the savior to condemn these attacks.

Vučić with High Representative of EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini (Source: N1)

Know your allies. Vučić knows that Kosovo is his ticket towards good graces of Brussels. He consented to a number of compromises and concessions when he signed a Brussels agreement, but as director of the Forum for Ethnical Relations in Serbia, Dušan Janjić, pointed out in his interview with Deutsche Welle, “the lack of transparency in the international community” regarding this agreement leaves a lot of space for “speculation and different versions of truth”. Vučić knows how to make use of this situation, spinning every new hard concession as an audacious and unexpected unilateral request from Kosovo. The fact is, Kosovo has its own parliament, government, judiciary and law enforcement institutions, as well as an international dial number and obligation of Serbian officials to ask for permission before they organize gathering on the premises under the jurisdiction of Priština. Cooperation with Kosovo isn’t really a choice, so one cannot blame Vučić for sitting at the negotiating table, but one can blame him for hypocrisy and flammable rhetoric which keeps him in power and both Serbian public and Kosovo Serbs in the dark.

Military and strategic co-operation with Russia, such as getting free hand-me-down airplanes that, actually, need to be paid for after all, may not be good for Serbian people and their interests, but it surely keeps Vladimir Putin content. In a similar manner, during the ruling days of Boris Tadić, Serbian oil giant “Oil Industry of Serbia” was sold for arguably low price to Russian “Gazprom neft”. It was a dubious gamble of Boris Tadić, partly motivated by need of Russian political support for the (already lost) cause of Kosovo. As Tadić was becoming increasingly defiant regarding disputed territory, Vučić knew better, and also managed to keep Russian interests safe, thus securing their good graces.

Vučić and Putin (Source: Tanjug/AP)

Don’t thread the water. Vučić likes to compare himself to the late Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić. Pro-government tabloids even published a few conspiracy theory reports, stating that Vučić is at risk of assassination. Of course, there is nothing that he ever did that would qualify him for such flattering risk, which greatly differs him from charismatic, decisive liberal democrat Zoran Đinđić who dared to stir up the hornet’s nest of Serbian organized criminal and paid with his life for it. Not only did his successors never dare to come near that nest again, they have never even dared to investigate the political background of the assassination, which to this day remains unresolved.

Can this go on forever?

Times gone by. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, her former republics used to be a focal battlefield of Western and Russian influence in Europe. In 2017, Slovenia and Croatia are EU members, Serbia, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina are candidates for membership. Montenegro is currently seeking to join NATO. Western influence prevailed in most of the Balkans, and EU is confident enough to put up with a limited amount of Russian interference. Save for a few minor flare ups and the usual tensions induced for the purposes of domestic political consumption, the situation in the Balkans has been stable. With Brexit, refugee crisis and conflicts in the Middle East as top priorities, EU leaders have little interest in involving themselves in internal affairs of Serbia. Back in the 1990s, opposition and NGO’s critical of Milošević’s regime received generous financial and moral support from the West – in 2017, those wells are dry.

The Balancing Act. Judging by the whispers in the hallways of EU admission offices, EU won’t be receiving new members anytime soon, so there is no need to pressure Serbia into progress at anything faster than a glacial pace. EU has proved to be willing to turn a blind eye to the shortcomings and misgivings of Serbian government in exchange for other compromises and provisions. The scandalous case of Savamala demolitions and subsequent protests of citizens somehow ceased to be the part of a yearly progress report by European Commission, in spite of the fact that rule of law was its focal point. These flagrant abuses, in absolute contradiction with laudable remarks about Serbian legal system, were addressed in one of 325 amendments (a record number so far) filed by different lawmakers of European Parliament. The fact that a yearly report needs more than three hundred amendments shows that EU has little interest in substantial approach towards Serbia’s EU candidacy.

The revolution that ousted Slobodan Milošević on 5th October in 2000. was supported by Western countries

This shabby approach stems both from EU’s lack of interest in admitting new members and need to assure support. In the end, Bulgarian, Romanian or Croatian society and democracy are, to less extent, plagued by many of the similar problems, yet they earned their ticket to EU. Behind the closed doors, as Deutsche Welle reports, EU is slightly more critical of the Serbian government, but their primary concern ahead of General Affairs Council meeting in Belgrade at the end of April remains “negative image of European integrations in Serbia”. It is true that this negative image stems from lack of Serbia’s own government’s transparency regarding less pleasant sides of this process. It is also true that euroscepticism is a staple of far-right politics and pro-Russian lobby in the country. But it would be very wise for Brussels officials to think twice how their gushing support for Vučić reflects on their image among people of the left side of spectrum, who are supposed to be their primary allies. EU enlargement prospects not being part of the aforementioned protocol and little mention of synchronizing foreign policy with that of Brussels (as a prerequisite for admitting new members), further imply that EU does not see Serbia as its member anytime soon. They know that Vučić cannot keep his balancing act forever – but they can live with a status quo for quite some time, while Serbian people, on the other hand, feel like their entire youth is withering away.

EU’s Identity Crisis. This ordeal reveals one more, much deeper problem of EU – its own identity crisis, mutually exclusive realities of being a champion of human rights and democracy and being a political entity in need of securing its influence, relevance and survival. It is one of the things that is eating EU from the inside out – a growing distance between Brussels and people who are starting to feel that they are serving hundreds of bureaucrats who do not work in their best interest. The growing disparity between what EU project is giving and taking from people is present in the example of Serbia. EU unequivocally put EU project ahead of well being of Serbian people. This may prove to be a good short-term strategy for keeping Balkans in control, in the middle of the world where everything else seems be hitting the fen. But long term, Brussels is losing trust and a valuable support of its traditional allies among the Serbian people, thus creating a fertile ground for continuation of its own crisis even before (if ever) Serbia becomes a member of EU.

Source: Milan Ilić/Noizz.rs

Protests of Serbian people continued this weekend in Belgrade, with a large gathering of protesters from all over Serbia, joined by labour unions of police and military. Tens of thousands people in the streets, every day of the week, failed to reach headlines on government-controlled major TV stations and in newspapers. Prime Minister/President Vučić, on the other hand, was all the rage when he confidently swooped in to the premises of previously mentioned factory “Goša”, where a worker took his own life, defeated by poverty, misery and injustice. The Saviour was followed by a dozen of cameras, as he was sternly promising to punish the management, immediately give workers 500 euros and pay for their health insurance. Dead worker’s colleagues applauded. In a speech outlined within his regular template, Vučić’s opening remarks were directed at the democrats’ government, which was long gone when the crisis in the factory started unraveling. He went on with a mandatory mention of the unspecified “they” who think ill him, finishing with a rhetorical pirouette – a lament over himself, who now has to solve all these problems, wisely hiding that the government is, truth be told, bailing out a private owned, law-breaking business with Serbian taxpayers’ money.  Once more, he confirmed that Serbian people asking for better life or justice should not rely on institutions, law or some distant support from Brussels – their entire lives are the subject of will and mercy of one man. Now that all hands are on deck, the question remains – are Serbian people willing to play the game, or this April, they might be the ones to break the wheel?

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