As thousands of young people are flooding the streets of major cities to show their dissatisfaction with the results of presidential elections in Serbia, 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 the assurance of a pro-European road. Yet there is nothing European about a 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 déjà vu of famous students’ protests that spanned through the cold winter from November 1996 to February 1997 when similar disappointments in the 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 the 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?
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 when he was a trusted aide and Padawan to Vojislav Šešelj, leader of the far-right ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party. Vučić gained notoriety as an outspoken proponent of the 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 a few independent media sources that opposed the politics of Serbian president Slobodan Milošević’s regime.
Transformation. After the Democratic Revolution in October 2000, the 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 the 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 the Serbian Radical Party became obsolete in the 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 the 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. The growing popularity of the Serbian Progressive Party owes a lot to the shortcomings of the then-ruling Democratic Party, at that point led by Boris Tadić. The murky privatization process of state-owned land, corruption, partocracy, and nepotism, as well as political compromises with the right-wing Democratic Party of Serbia and the late Slobodan Milošević’s Socialist Party of Serbia, slowly frustrated and alienated a growing number of voters and supporters of the Democrats. Faced with the growing demands of the 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.
By the time 2012 parliamentary elections kicked in, Democratic Party leader Boris Tadić felt self-confident and wanted to consolidate his power. The Serbian Progressive Party won a majority of votes, which was to be expected. The Serbian Socialist Party, another example of a 1990s ghost successfully refurnished for the post-2000 era, had the power to enter the coalition with Democrats and basically ensure the survival of the existing government—and the Democrats were positively assured this was going to happen. However, after Tomislav Nikolić won the presidential race with Boris Tadić, Socialists turned to Progressives, and the deal was done—the 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 the law, but the way they govern shows little difference compared to the dark 1990s.
The Circle is Full
Following the 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, and bloated public service sectors 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 the lottery—it is known to happen, but it rarely does. On the other hand, membership in the ruling coalition party, loyalty to its leader, and a mouth shut is what gets people work, promotions, and a semi-decent salary. Of course, over the years, with the public sector overflowing with invented work-positions meant to satisfy loyal minions’ hunger, even the most miserably paid job (such as a doorman) 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 the number of medical professionals going to Germany represented a special dose of bitter irony—given that the Serbian medical system has a problem with a deficit of nurses, doctors, and specialists, who work for salaries of 300–600 euro monthly. 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 who 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.
Cheap workforce. 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 the previous governments and the current one seemed so eager to host foreign investors that they rarely negotiated the conditions under which they are going to develop their business. The final result is Serbian citizens being a cheap workforce stripped of basic work rights. The plight of workers in the 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 nor processed. After the story found its way to the 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, a 57-year-old man who worked in the factory “Goša” in Smederevska Palanka, committed suicide at his 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 labor laws weren’t noted or sanctioned in any way by the authorities in charge, and the government is yet to take any concrete step toward settling this crisis. The factory was owned by the Slovakian company “ŽOS Trnava,” but in a matter of days changed its owner—at the moment, the official registry states that it is “Lisnart Holdings Limited” from Cyprus.
And while events like these may sound like something that would force the government into early resignation, in Serbia, people prove to be desensitized by the scandals that seem to pile on top of each other.
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 a red alert being issued as early as May 12, the Kolubara River level grew by an astounding 7 meters in the following two days. Other rivers in the vicinity flooded the fields and roads. The citizens of Obrenovac were in their beds when a massive wave hit their town in the morning hours of May 16. Thirty-seven people died and more than 500 homes were destroyed. The investigation conducted by the journalists of the 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 a better organization of municipal defense systems and a timely evacuation. Miroslav Čučković, the mayor of Obrenovac from the ranks of the Progressive Party, remains in this position to this day. Then-president Tomislav Nikolić, at the dawn of the 21st century, concluded that Serbia was attacked by an “unpredictable water serpent.”
The helicopter. On March 14, 2015, a military helicopter carrying seven people, including a newborn baby who needed immediate medical treatment, crashed due to thick fog at the Nikola Tesla airport in Belgrade. This tragedy took place after a few pro-government 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. This news was quickly deleted, leaving the 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 in this position until another scandal broke out, when he made a tasteless joke in front of dozens of journalists and recording cameras, saying that “he likes the (female) reporters who drop on their knees so easily,” referring to a journalist who crouched in order to position her microphone.
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 the ‘Savamala’ neighbourhood on the night between April 24 and 25, and allegedly beating up local residents.” The neighborhood in question is part of the greater area planned to be turned into the “Belgrade Waterfront,” with a new opera house, shopping center, and luxury hotels and apartments—under a rather shady deal, which, for the most part remains classified. Nothing screams “failed state” like a demolition in the middle of an urban district near the city center, with a gang of masked men holding witnesses hostage and beating them, and the police and the judiciary doing nothing about it. After voicing these allegations, Saša Janković, well-known for being critical toward many government policies (or lack of them), found himself once again a target of a massive smear campaign conducted by the pro-government tabloid Informer, an online army of Progressives’ supporters who are allegedly employed as living “Internet bots.” This form of bullying is now a well-established part of the 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 tends to drag on for decades. After the parliamentary elections in 2016, where Progressives won a majority in parliament in Vojvodina province, in a matter of days, the Public Broadcasting Service TV station of Vojvodina, RTV, saw a swift change of its entire management, as well as reassignment of the editors, journalists, and anchors who were known to hold views critical of the government. People were handed down “reassignment orders” in the hallways. In this atmosphere of misery, fear, and struggle, Serbia walked into the presidential election campaign.
After 2012, the opposition in Serbia was virtually non-existent. The Democratic Party lost most of its supporters over their refusal to be held accountable for failure to cut ties with the 1990s legacy and guide Serbia through transitional years, the condescending attitude toward voters who stopped trusting them, and discredited figures who refused to step down from leadership positions. The rise of the Progressives was built on a foundation of their autocratic tendencies. One can argue that presidential candidate Saša Janković’s reluctant acceptance of support from the Democrats might have dragged him down a few points, but what matters is that the viable oppositional option was born during these elections.
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,” which to a certain extent shows how low the bar is set at this point, given that Serbia is still discussing and negotiating the basics.
Another unlikely candidate surfaced out of nowhere, addressing another group of young, disillusioned people. Luka Maksimović campaigned under his alter ego, a satirized grotesque of the average Serbian politician, “Ljubiša Preletačević Beli,” with his “surname” roughly translating to “fly over,” being tongue-in-cheek to the well-established practice of Serbian politicians switching 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).
How is this possible, and why are most people not surprised? The Serbian Progressive Party takes elections very seriously, and the race itself went with the opposition candidates’ hands and legs tied. With a few notable exceptions with limited reach, the media in Serbia comes down to being more or less an 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 the majority of overall presidential race coverage in daily newspapers. He was portrayed in a 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 a negative context, Saša Janković received negative coverage 40 times, followed by 31 times for Vuk Jeremić. Jeremić’s wife Nataša Jeremić (a well-known former news anchor at Radio-television Serbia) was openly slandered by the Progressive Party’s lawmaker Milenko Jovanov, who accused her of being “a boss of Serbian narco-cartel.” Three quarters of the overall TV coverage was also dedicated to Vučić, who capitalized on his prime minister function. Similar minute/headline ratios are part of the media’s regular offerings.
Winning hearts and minds is not a difficult job in Serbia, where the overall political culture remains at an arguably low level, roughly stuck somewhere at the beginning of the 20th century. Let alone 500 years of being colonized by the Ottoman Empire, most of Serbian modern history was plagued by wars, political instability, identity crises, and the infamous Cult of the Leader. The Serbian people had little time to build a viable democratic system and trust in institutions, thus remaining rather vulnerable to the Syren song of autocrats. Whether it was lifelong president Josip Broz Tito, nationalist-turned-renegade Slobodan Milošević, democratic revolutionary Zoran Đinđić, or slick centrist Boris Tadić—the Serbian people love their leaders. Even the Serbian word for government, “vlada,” shows a 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.”
Where Progressives fail to win hearts and minds, either because people are not satisfied with their living standard or are among the minority population with a developed political culture, blackmail and bullying prove to be successful strategies. People who get jobs, privileges, and perks thanks to their party membership need to prove their loyalty—the higher their position, the higher the price. 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 this system are eager to maintain their privilege and position, in 2017, when the swamp of the 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 a 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 the European Union equally pleased. He knows how to do what needs to be done, and he 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 the Serbian people, Donald Trump’s condescending attitude and attacks on the media seem like the recipe coming straight out of Vučić’s cookbook. Speaking of the media, Vučić refused to engage in something that is supposed to be the fundamental part of the democratic electoral process in the media—a public presidential debate. In the end, Vučić is well-versed in being verbally abusive toward those he perceives inferior, such as female TV show hosts and minor public figures. He is smart enough to let tabloids, his 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.
Know your allies. Vučić knows that Kosovo is his ticket toward the 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 Germany’s 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 the obligation of Serbian officials to ask for permission before they organize a 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 the Serbian public and Kosovo Serbs in the dark.
Military and strategic co-operation with Russia, whether it’s getting free hand-me-down airplanes that, actually need to be paid for after all, may not be good for the Serbian people and their interests, but it surely keeps Vladimir Putin content and Vučić in power. In a similar manner, during the ruling days of Boris Tadić, Serbian oil giant “Oil Industry of Serbia” was sold for an arguably low price to Russian “Gazprom neft.” It was a dubious gamble by Boris Tadić, partly motivated by the need of Russian political support for the (already lost) cause of Kosovo. As Tadić was becoming growingly defiant regarding the disputed territory, Vučić knew better and also managed to keep Russian interests safe, thus securing their good graces.
Don’t tread 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 this 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 crime and paid for it with his life. Not only did his successors never dare to come near that nest again, they have never even dared to investigate the political background of this 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 the EU is self-confident and ready 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 consumption of daily politics, the situation in the Balkans has been stable. With Brexit, the refugee crisis, and conflicts in the Middle East as top priorities, EU leaders have little interest in involving themselves in the internal affairs of Serbia. Back in the 1990s, the 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 the EU admission offices, the 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. The EU has proved to be willing to turn a blind eye to the shortcomings and misgivings of the Serbian government in exchange for other compromises and provisions. The scandalous case of the Savamala demolitions and the subsequent protests of citizens somehow ceased to be the part of a yearly progress report by the European Commission, despite the fact that the rule of law was its focal point. These flagrant abuses, in absolute contradiction with laudable remarks about the Serbian legal system, were addressed in one of 325 amendments (a record number so far) filed by different lawmakers of the European Parliament. The fact that a yearly report needs more than 300 amendments shows that the EU has little interest in a substantial approach toward Serbia’s EU candidacy.
This shabby approach stems both from EU’s lack of interest in admitting new members and need to assure support. In the end, the Bulgarian, Romanian, or Croatian society and democracy are, to a less extent, plagued by many of the same problems, yet they earned their ticket to the EU, though much to the chagrin of many long-standing EU member states. Behind closed doors, as the Deutsche Welle reports, the EU is slightly more critical of the Serbian government, but its primary concern ahead of the General Affairs Council meeting in Belgrade at the end of April remains the “negative image of European integrations in Serbia.” It is true that this negative image stems from the lack of Serbia’s own government’s transparency regarding less-pleasant sides of this process. It is also true that euro-skepticism is a staple of far-right politics and the pro-Russian lobby in the country. But it would be very wise for Brussels officials to think twice about how their gushing support for Vučić reflects on their image among people on the left side of the 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) also implies that the EU does not see Serbia as its member anytime soon. It knows that Vučić cannot keep his balancing act forever—but it can live with a status quo for quite some time, while the Serbian people, on the other hand, feel like their entire youth is withering away.
EU’s identity crisis. But this ordeal reveals one more, much deeper problem of the 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 the 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 the EU project is giving and taking from people is present in the example of Serbia. The EU unequivocally put the EU project ahead of the well-being of the Serbian people. This may prove to be a good short-term strategy for keeping the Balkans in control, in the middle of the world where everything else seems be hitting the fan. But in the long term, Brussels is losing trust and a valuable supporter of its traditional allies among the Serbian people, thus creating fertile ground for the continuation of its own crisis even before Serbia becomes a member of the EU.
Protests of Serbian people are continuing this Saturday in Belgrade, with a large gathering of protesters from all over Serbia, joined by labor unions of police and the military. Tens of thousands of 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 while he was self-confidently swooping in to the premises of the aforementioned factory “Goša,” where a worker took his own life, defeated by poverty, misery, and injustice. The “Saviour” was followed by dozens of cameras, sternly promising to punish the management, immediately give workers 500 euros, and pay for their health insurance. The dead worker’s colleagues applauded. Vučić blamed the Democrats’ government for the bad situation, which unraveled under his government’s mandate, lamenting that now “he” has to solve these problems. Once more he confirmed that Serbian people asking for a better life should not rely on institutions, law, or some distant support from Brussels—their entire lives are the subject of will and at the 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, might they be the ones to break the wheel?