Serbia’s Protests Aren’t the Beginning of a Balkan Spring

Demonstrations against Aleksandar Vucic’s authoritarian government won’t achieve anything until the opposition can present a coherent alternative.

A woman sits in front of a riot police cordon after a standoff during a demonstration against Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic outside the presidential building in Belgrade, on March 17, 2019.
A woman sits in front of a riot police cordon after a standoff during a demonstration against Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic outside the presidential building in Belgrade, on March 17, 2019. (VLADIMIR ZIVOJINOVIC/AFP/Getty Images)

BELGRADE, Serbia—Over the past three months, the residents of Belgrade have developed a new weekly ritual: Every Saturday evening, thousands of them gather near Republic Square in the center of the city for a protest march against the political violence, democratic backsliding, and deterioration of media freedoms that have become widespread under the current government and its autocratic president, Aleksandar Vucic.

The protests, which started on Dec. 8 last year, have spread to several dozen cities across Serbia and have even inspired similar protests in Albania and Montenegro, where activists have risen up against their own crooked political classes. Last Saturday, on March 16, the demonstrations reached a new crescendo when protesters and opposition leaders in Belgrade stormed the headquarters of state broadcaster Radio Television Serbia, which led to their forced removal by riot police. That same night in Albania, protesters lobbed stones and clashed with police in front of the parliament building in Tirana. This blossoming of dissent has led some to wonder if this might be the beginning of a “Balkan Spring.”

In Serbia, the protests were triggered by the beating of Borko Stefanovic, an opposition politician and leader of the Serbian Left party, in the southern city of Krusevac on November 23, 2018, where he was left bloodied and hospitalized after being assaulted by a group of assailants wielding blunt objects. The following day, one of Stefanovic’s allies, Dragan Djilas, told reporters that Vucic was “the main culprit” behind the assault. The first demonstration was held in Krusevac a week later under the banner of “Stop the Bloody Shirts” and was organized by the Alliance for Serbia, a coalition of various opposition parties that includes the Serbian Left and spans the entire breadth of the country’s political spectrum.

The inaugural Belgrade protest took place the following weekend and was organized independently of the opposition alliance by a group of students from the University of Political Sciences. The assault on Stefanovic might have been the spark that lit the fuse, but the protesters took aim at a much greater foe than his attackers: Their target was the government in its entirety and Vucic himself, whom they blame for the deteriorating political conditions in the country. The protesters elicited a typically pigheaded response from the president, who claimed that he would not give into their demands, “even if there were 5 million people in the streets.” This was quickly adopted as their slogan: “One in 5 Million”.

Although temperatures in the Balkans are rising, neither budding flowers nor mass protests should be mistaken for the beginning of a Balkan Spring modeled on the revolutions that rocked the Arab world in 2011. Vucic has, lest we forget, seen out mass protests before, following his 2017 presidential election victory, when he finished 38 points ahead of his nearest competitor. For nearly two full months, citizens took to the street on an almost daily basis to protest “against the dictatorship,” as they called it. By the end of May the demonstrations had largely fizzled out.

The protesters opposed Vucic and his hegemonic rule, but they could offer no alternative. Only one opposition figure, the former ombudsman Sasa Jankovic, won more votes than a spoof candidate who promised to build Serbia a coastline. Then, like now, the protesters lacked a serious strategy that would allow them to achieve their aims. They could mobilize a crowd, but they lacked a clearly defined path to victory, and it was inevitable that this aimlessness would eventually cause them to run out of steam.

Today’s protesters have improved on their 2017 predecessors by setting out several concrete demands: They’ve called for the resignations of the interior minister, Nebojsa Stefanovic (a right-hand man Vucic frequently uses as an attack dog in public debates), and the health minister, Zlatibor Loncar (who allowed Vucic to pose for a hospital ward photo-op with critically ill children during a flu epidemic without wearing the appropriate medical attire and, critics allege, putting the children’s health at risk), as well as two senior figures at Radio Television Serbia, which is often accused of being a government mouthpiece. Protesters have also called for convictions in the unsolved 2018 assassination of Oliver Ivanovic, a Kosovo Serb politician and outspoken Vucic critic who had been a thorn in the side of the government, particularly when it came to denouncing organized crime. But it’s still unclear how they plan to extract these concessions.

The protesters’ main problem is that they’re unable to apply any political pressure on the government by rallying around a candidate that might threaten Vucic’s stranglehold on national politics. Although the Alliance for Serbia has tried its hardest to attach itself to the protests, the weekly demonstrations aren’t formally affiliated with any single opposition party or political figure. The entirety of the anti-Vucic ideological spectrum is represented—from student Marxists to Bosko Obradovic, the ultranationalist leader of Dveri, a far-right opposition party of religious conservatives—sometimes causing scuffles among the protesters. This highlights the fragmented and impotent nature of the Serbian opposition, which is united by its opposition to Vucic but unable to agree on much else.

The anti-Vucic movement is also hamstrung by the fact that all the opposition alternatives are deeply divisive and unpopular. The aforementioned Obradovic is a homophobe whose party opposes EU membership and wants to orientate the country towards Russia. In the 2017 election, Obradovic took 2.28 percent of the vote—four times less than the spoof candidate, Ljubisa “Beli” Preletacevic (a pseudonym for Luka Maksimovic who campaigned in character as Beli).

Dveri currently holds the presidency of the Alliance for Serbia. The coalition was founded by Djilas, Belgrade’s former mayor and a key figure in the discredited Democratic Party that dominated Serbian politics between the overthrow of Milosevic and Vucic’s breakthrough 12 years later. Djilas, like other Democratic Party top brass, is widely perceived to have used his time in office to enrich himself by advancing his private business interests. Borko Stefanovic, whose beating triggered the protests, is also a Democratic Party alumnus. He served as chief negotiator in the 2008 sale of state petroleum company, Naftna Industrija Srbije (NIS), to Russia’s Gazprom Neft.

The deal caused outrage for its closed tendering process and a final sale price that came out to only a fifth of NIS’s market value at the time. Many see it as a prime example of the crooked privatizations that followed Yugoslavia’s disintegration—and Vucic’s government launched an investigation into the sale in 2014. It’s deeply ironic and profoundly cynical that someone involved in the hawking of state assets now leads a party that bills itself as “Left.” Borko Stefanovic and his sometime Democratic Party colleagues need to shoulder some of the blame for the country’s current political malaise, because it was their failures in office that drove a disillusioned electorate into the arms of Vucic’s party.

This considered, it should come as little surprise that the Serbian electorate remains unconvinced by the alternatives. My own grandfather is a reluctant Vucic voter who frequently complains about cuts to his pension. When I ask him why he continues to back the ruling Progressive Party, he responds with a shrug: “Who else am I going to vote for? Djilas? As if the opposition is any better.”

This cuts to the heart of Serbia’s political malaise: It’s not that Vucic and his party are widely adored but, unlike the opposition, they have yet to experience a self-inflicted fall from grace. In contrast to their opponents, they still have political capital to spend. Until this changes, protesters will struggle to rally the sort of mass mobilization that finally pushed Milosevic out of power in 2000.

At the moment, no one is able to present a radically different vision for the country. The Alliance for Serbia published a “30-point” political program, but two-thirds of these points are just single-line slogans. There is no Serbian Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders who can convincingly pledge to transform the country’s politics. Centrists can promise a freer media and less political violence, but for most people these are relatively minor tweaks to the status quo. Their main selling point is that they’re not Vucic.

No candidate can realistically offer substantially better living standards because Serbia’s problems—an aging population, brain drain, poverty, corruption, a stagnant and left-behind economy that’s ill-equipped for the 21st century—predate the current government. Serbia’s neighbors, even ones that hold EU membership, like Croatia and Bulgaria, all face similar challenges. This would remain constant even if Vucic were to be deposed, and most voters understand that, which dents the opposition’s draw.

The president’s domination over political life in Serbia also distracts from a much deeper rot in the country’s political system. Serbian politicians frequently switch parties. There have been more than 500 defections since the 2016 local elections, and some 45 percent of these have crossed over to Vucic’s Progressive Party. Smaller parties, like the Socialist Party of Serbia, repeatedly act as kingmakers in coalition talks, an arrangement that allows their politicians to remain in government in perpetuity.

Ivica Dacic, the current foreign minister, is a prime example: a key figure in the Socialist party since the early 1990s, his closeness to Slobodan Milosevic earned him the nickname “Little Sloba.” Before taking up his current position, he served as both interior minister and prime minister in just the last decade alone. Dacic is hardly an isolated example: Zorana Mihajlovic, Maja Gojkovic, and Aleksandar Vulin are just three prominent government figures with similar resumes. This creates a malign sort of continuity in which each new government contains remnants of the one that preceded it, such that nothing ever seems to change. Even if Vucic were to step down, many of his cronies would remain in some capacity, ready to build upon his troubling political blueprint.

This is why any talk of a Balkan Spring should be taken with a pinch of salt. There is no panacea that will end the country’s malaise, and meaningful, lasting change will only be achieved through a complete and total overhaul of Serbia’s institutions and political culture. Deposing Vucic might be the first step toward achieving this aim, but the challenges that follow would be much greater. The protesters should bear that in mind, otherwise this latest wave of demonstrations will amount to nothing more than a brief gust of warm wind in Serbia’s long post-Yugoslav freeze.

Aleks Eror is a Belgrade-born journalist whose work has been published by the Guardian, the New Republic, Vice, Slate, the Telegraph, and others. Twitter: @slandr

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