Did someone say “circus”? A recipe for disaster? Imagine being stuck in the Hans Christian Andersen short tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, in the sequence when he tries on his new “clothes”, without ever moving forward. This is what the current political atmosphere in the Balkan region looks like, and especially in Serbia at the moment as it waits for the upcoming presidential elections.
There’s a saying here in the Balkan region and it goes, “He thinks one thing, says another one and does a third one”. A little less than two months to go until the presidential election takes place, words of wisdom beautifully describe the mentality in a small region called Balkan, and an even smaller country – Serbia.
The history side of things
Speaking of Serbia without mentioning its neighbouring countries is not only ridiculous, but it also without doubt wouldn’t bring a complete picture of what is going on here right before the election. As most people know by now, countries down in south-eastern Europe have for centuries modified their external borders – sometimes in unification and at other times through separation.
Not in one case where Serbia was involved has this happened without turning into a war or an armed conflict, or creating a solid ground for one to come in the nearby future. At the start of the 20th century, king Aleksandar Obrenović and queen Draga Mašin were assassinated in a coup d’etat conducted by the secret military formation Black Hand.
Looking at more recent history, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Bosnia, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was the beginning of a chain reaction, leading to the First World War one month later.
After that, Serbia played a key role in several conflicts up until World War II, in which among other things – hundreds of thousands of Serbs, around 25 000 Jews and over 30 000 Romanis were sent to the Jasenovac concentration camp operated by the Ustaše regime, with estimated death numbers ranging between 300 000 and 700 000.
Fast-forwarding to the fall of Social Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a sequence of wars occurred within a decade, starting off in 1991. Slovenia got out of the madness first, followed by Croatia and Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, then Montenegro and Serbia and now most recently (and not yet recognised by Serbia) Republic of Kosovo.
Regional and international issues
Despite now living in a peaceful state, the Balkan region is a bubble ready to burst. It takes a small effort to create tensions here due to the nationalistic politics every country has subscribed to, most apparent since after the 1990s war. For Serbia, the geopolitical situation has been framed through positioning between former Yugoslavia frenemies to Russia and EU.
Since this country is located on what is seen as the European border, it has been metaphorically described before as the house in the middle of the highway, being a crossroads where political interests meet up and usually get stuck as well. What is the result of this? A history of conflicts along with a scared population, and thus easy to control. There’s a high tolerance among the public for all political rhetoric aimed at protecting and defending, creating and maintaining a perfect place for both ethnic and religious nationalism.
In the upcoming election, Kosovo, or “Serbia’s heart” (check out this fantastic illustration) as it is frequently named here, is a hot topic. This dramatic emotional sensation attached to a geographic location might seem odd to someone not aware of the context. The conversation isn’t even about Kosovo as a location but on the importance of keeping the land where the (since the 20th century called) Serbian orthodox religious monuments are located.
On the other hand, the tensions in regards to the Kosovo question are far from as serious as they were right before and during the Kosovo war in 1998-99 . In a recently published report, BCSP (Belgrade Centre for Security Policy) presented the results from a public opinion poll on Kosovo. As it seems, 73% of the citizens asked would say no to whether it is justified to enter into an armed conflict with Kosovo in order for Kosovo to remain part of Serbia.
Reflecting a changed discourse, these numbers signal ability of the Serbian people to move away from politicised questions, separating emotional stories from reality.
Speaking of reality, Serbia’s recent additional role in international migration is shown through the past years’ number of migrants travelling through the country with the goal of entering the European Union. Serbia is indeed in the process of EU membership itself, but this is a bumpy road and not likely to happen in the near future. Corruption is still a big issue, as is the need to implement Rule of Law in a satisfactory manner and according to the Serbia Report by the European Commission (2016) there is a long way ahead to reach success.
The European Commission for Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection published a fact-sheet estimating that 7550 refugees and migrants are currently stranded in Serbia, whereas “In 2015 and in the first quarter of 2016, more than 920 000 refugees and migrants – primarily from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq – have passed through Serbia on their way to Hungary and Croatia”.
Croatia and Serbia aren’t known for their great relationship, and the recent tensions were on the verge of escalating as refugees and migrants tried to enter Croatia via Serbia. Whatever is possible to turn into a conflict between the two countries, will do just that, and without the assistance from the EU commission things could have turned ugly. The current migrant inflow is expected to increase in the coming year; and it is up to Serbia to show leadership skills and long-term thinking.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is seen by Serbian politicians as a sensitive subject, with the majority not too keen on talking about it. Since the most recent war, and the big Serb nationalist movement initiated by the then Serbian president Slobodan Milošević, the Serb populated part of Bosnia (Republika Srpska) is still very much of interest.
Lastly, Serbia’s relationship with what is a perceived ally, Russia, is balanced against both the US and EU. Nationalism has a funny way of transforming a geopolitical, strategic, political activity of other countries into a romantic love story between the ones that suit the given story they keep telling themselves the best.
The fact that the current political leadership in Serbia consists of individuals who were active in radical Serbian politics during the war isn’t making things any easier. The upcoming presidential election will show if the Serbian people are ready to move on from this question, and although highly unlikely, let’s hope they do.
The inside story of Serbia
Back to the migrant situation, for Serbia this is mostly a question of management and distribution. People need food, medicine, a place to sleep and transport and this is what the country provides along with the help of several organisations and the EU.
Still, citizens living on a minimum wage (and sometimes not even that much), are getting frustrated over not enjoying the same benefits as refugees and migrants in their own country. The anger is not directed at the people coming into Serbia, but it is most definitely present in many people’s everyday life.
What is a reaction like this great for again? Nationalism. Politicians running the game these past years have taken a huge advantage of labelling themselves as the good guys for helping people – while really staying very aware of the fact that none of them would want to stay in Serbia. This fact pretty much speaks for itself.
But before we get into nationalism, let’s just mention the scepticism towards institutions and politicians. Since socialism died along with the Yugoslav leader Tito, the trust for anything state-related is low. Although the levels of perceived corruption in Serbia have improved, it is once again very important to take into consideration the previously mentioned saying. Mistrust and fear aren’t great starting points for any kind of survey measuring trust in institutions.
It’s no surprise that the general public have their doubts – the lack of structure, no control over private assets, worthless contracts, unpaid work, next to zero rights for women on maternity leave (also called “being fired”), and the list goes on. Chauvinism is ever so present, yet treated like the elephant in the room.
For this upcoming election, 10 presidential candidates have registered so far and this number is expected to increase, although the elections take place on April 9. Naturally, conflicts among them flourish and the juicer the content, the more support is gained.
Therefore, conflicts of interest among politicians in Serbia keeps growing, or suddenly popping out of nowhere. The most recent additions involving the current mayor of Belgrade, Siniša Mali, allegedly being responsible for several cases of financial fraud, adding to that his ex-wife’s accusation of being the man behind the recent demolition of the old Belgrade neighbourhood Savamala.
Serbian citizens have also been aware of the apparently full lack of conflict of interest in the latest news reporting that Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić is to be one of the presidential candidates. To the question of if he will resign from his current post as prime minister in order to be able to run a presidential campaign, he confidently stated, “No, I will take five days off and work on it after my day job,” and also implied that there is no conflict of interest whatsoever. The statement aired on “Upitnik”, an RTS (Radio-Television Serbia) production on February 14th and reactions on social media were immediate, asking the question on how this is even possible.
Nevertheless, the Mr. Vučić controversy covers more than just authoritarian leadership – as it seems, a KRIK investigation has revealed a possible corruption case involving him and his family.
Furthermore, the double-crossing game in which both the current president (since 2012) Tomislav Nikolić and Aleksandar Vučić are involved, both part of the same political party SNS (Serbian Progressive Party), is broadcast in all national media houses ever since the latter officially announced his candidacy.
The two share more history, both having been active members in the Hague International Court of Justice convicted Vojislav Šešelj’s Radical party in the 1990s. As Mr. Šešelj went to Hague, leaving the party leadership to Mr. Nikolić, the latter figured a better strategy for him would be to create his own party – and the rest is SNS history.
To a rookie, these past 3 decades seem to have been run by the mother ship party and her fractioned children. Mr. Nikolić himself has been subject to journalistic investigations throughout the years, most recently in regards to holding meetings with individuals suspected of serious corruption crimes .
But none of that really is important right now – we’ve got an election happening soon. For Serbia, that implies name-calling, propaganda, radicalisation and really pretty words read out very loud.
Even better, the two have now created a divided party, and in the upcoming days one of them will have to either create a new one or use magic to sort this out.
As mentioned, there are currently 10 candidates running for the post, among them Šaša Janković, up until recently being the Ombudsman but resigning as he announced his candidacy. There is also Vuk Jeremić, most known as the 67th president of the UN General Assembly, currently the president of the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development (CIRSD) who also made his decision to run fairly recently.
Media – Bias, Fear and Freedom
In order for presidential candidates to be elected, they have to be seen. In Serbian media, the absurdity that is everyday reporting through the largest media houses does reach its peak during election times.
Two main circumstances have recently reflected this – the first one is in regards to the recent, frequent and continuous demonstrations in the city centre organised by the initiative “Ne da(vi)mo Beograd” (Don’t let Belgrade d(r)own). While concerned with corruption issues connected to Belgrade, this initiative has spread to other cities in the country, supporting local causes with their presence.
Media coverage of demonstrations have been virtually non-existent unless their mission complies with whatever suits the present elected politicians, or their strongest candidates. Reporting does occur here and there, but highly biased and subjective.
The second aspect in which there is next to no coverage is in regards to opposing parties. This one is tricky since individuals indeed do get their five minutes on TV, but that’s about it. The relative time given to Mr. Vučić, as opposed to anyone else, along with the choice of questions asked respectively shines a light that something isn’t right.
Mr. Nikolić has his fair share of publicity as well, whereas the other candidates are minimally exposed. As for Mr. Janković, his campaign is ran through few media appearances and more real-life meetings, along with good social media presence. On the other hand, Mr. Jeremić has implemented social media marketing strategies in his campaign leading to his presence being very high online. Luckily, for free speech, the internet has provided a safe spot for both candidates and the public to share information.
While mainstream media looks more like political advertising through filtered reports and sensationalism than news, there are organisations actively researching these issues in Serbia. According to a recent study by NUNS, the independent association of journalists of Serbia, it was revealed that journalists feel threatened, and that despite laws for protection and media freedom exist, there’s a lack of implementation.
In the same study, the gap between theory and practice is seen in the increasing insecurity for economic and physical safety among journalists all over Balkan. The World Press Freedom Index ranked Serbia as number 59 out of 180 countries in 2016, placing it relatively high on the list of freedom.
A possible explanation to this could be the growing number of local and regional NGOs enjoying more freedom in reporting and investigating issues. They actively work to bring critical thinking to the table, among them Tačno.net, Peščanik, both of which emphasise critical thinking and reporting as the very foundation for their existence.
Satire and humour are huge (huuuuuuuge) parts of the Serbian society and culture, with comedy talk show host Zoran Kesić and website Njuz.net delivering weekly and daily reports. For this, the former has been temporarily silenced, his show cut off several times after what was seen as politically sensitive sketches on his show “24 Minuta”.
Njuz.net on the other hand, publish online satiric news, but also books. It turns out that criticism on TV and through books are highly important channels for communication in Serbia, since, as of 2016, a study revealed that only 54% actively use the internet. While we’re at it, the same study revealed that even a smaller amount of people, only 41%, use social media actively.
Which brings us back to the election and covering candidates. While some of them turned to the internet as TV wouldn’t report objectively, how effective this strategy will be is going to be revealed in April after the election.
Politics, Identity Politics and then some more Politics
Last but not least, to understand what is going on in Serbia, you have to understand the politics, and especially the segment focused on identity politics. Identity politics have been successful in separating citizens from each other in their own country, for decades, and since the early 20th century when the idea of fusing religion with ideology was born in Serbia. The discourse characterising the identity of Serbia in particular as Christian enabled an identity of European protectors, or how it was described “the guardians at the gate” (p.88, Hansen, 2006).
This emphasis on radicalisation of Serbs went back and forth, never really gaining a foothold among Serbian people. However, in the identity politics initiated with Slobodan Milošević during the 1980s, the process of othering involved people of other religious beliefs more than anything else (p.103, Hansen, 2006). Religion and ethnicity were portrayed as though reflecting the same thing with no room for flexibility. From that, ethnic and religious nationalism was born among Serbian people, manipulating them into a discourse of hate and aggression (p94, Hansen, 2006).
Unfortunately, this ethnic and nationalist political influence has become such a normal way of thinking, fully leaving out the self-criticism among people of all ages in Serbia. Since identity politics provide an advanced approach, the argumentation for defending one’s own identity is solid, unified, mechanic. Any argument seeking to challenge parts of the Serbian identity are met with the very same arguments – a confirmation of completed separatist political mission.
Right before and during the most recent Balkan wars, the Serbian identity was shaped through “them” wanting to hurt “us” badly. “They” want to take our lands and erase “us”. After succeeding in constructing a sense of separation between people, the next step was securitizing – make the situation serious enough to act upon. After which the Balkan wars started.
This Serbian self-victimisation is still present in their identity today. Everywhere around them, even among them, are traitors who want the Serbs to suffer. Unless you subscribe to these common perceptions of the world, your feedback is seen as personal offence, followed by an outbreak of passive-aggressive arguments.
As mentioned before, most politicians in Serbia have been active since before or during the war, thus themselves affected by this identity construction. Even more so, many of them use this methodology to keep manipulating people into perceiving all criticism as an attack on Serbs because they are Serbs.
Instead of moving on to creating a functioning country, the political scene is used to the opposite. There is absolutely zero consideration taken to spatial, temporal and situational aspects of anything in the rhetoric. History is spoken by running presidents and prime ministers in accordance with the most suiting ideology of today, and very much depending on who the speaker is and what he wants. To call it ridiculous would be to underestimate the power of words in creating reality.
Suddenly, Derrida’s thoughts on the impossible possibility of saying the event makes perfect sense. What comes out of the mouths of Serbian politicians today is just that, a self-righteous, authoritarian, insulting, embarrassing and frightening continuing of the 1990s politics, re-creating the same situation over and over again.
Ethnic and religious nationalism is repetitively emphasised, of which chauvinism is a by-product, turning this whole country into a bizarre game. Populist views are tolerated, refreshing an identity of fear and anger. It’s institutionalised. Inferiority/superiority dichotomy within the Serbian collective identity is ever so present, and any subject laid out for conversation is an invitation for positioning, radically defending this identity ad absurdum.
Expecting a presidential candidate to challenge these identity issues is about as likely as expecting the Serbian population to suddenly become good political scientists to be able to understand what’s going on. The former rolling in the pile of benefits of self-victimisation and narcissism combined, and the latter as a stand-by, confused, used population.
As for the power distribution in this country, it’s as you’d expect it to be. Centralising power is especially apparent, with Belgrade controlling every other city in the country, limiting local institutional power both operatively and financially to the benefit of capital city interests. As a result, the northern region Vojvodina and cities like Niš in the South are isolated, creating a detectable centre/periphery gap.
Nationalism isn’t helping out here either. Discrimination on the base of linguistic dialectics is common not only in the Balkan region, but within Serbia itself. There’s the correct way of speaking, centralised Belgrade accent yet again, and then there’s the lower class peripheral way of expressing yourself. Suddenly, your dialect determines your attributes, leaving next to no room for individuality and reality. Then there’s the fact that Serbian citizens consist of not only ethnic Serbs but also Hungarians, Slovak, Romanian, Croatian, Rusyn, Romani, Bosniak and others, and that not only Serbian Orthodox Christians exist but also Catholics, Muslims, Protestants, Jews, atheists and others.
Thinking is a highly political question, more specifically controlled through secularisation. If citizens of your country aren’t invited to think critically, through education, media and interaction in general, most of them won’t. Especially not self-criticise. The law of conformity works magic in this respect – there is indeed something called critical thinking here but covers only the superficial matters, harmless to the identity as a whole. Thus, the narrative is kept safe while the public is happy enough to be allowed to “speak out” as it is called. With all of this, the identity politics seem to be the only thing holding this country together – because what better holds a people in line than collective blame? How contradictory is this, having all the facts laid out?
So what is going on here?
Does this look like a circus? Is it a recipe for disaster? Being quite familiar with Balkan politics, this is just another day, another year of the same lack of trust by the public. Democracy isn’t just about nice words put on paper, and voters aren’t stupid, albeit slightly shocked and constantly confused.
The candidates running for the presidential post this year unfortunately have the same concerns as those 20 years ago, thanks to identity politics and corruption. Serbian history could be a source of insight on how not to run a country and how not to do international relations. However, it looks like it is used as a manual.
If citizens aren’t given some room to breathe, the Serbian politics are likely to draw everyone out of the country, leaving it a political dumpster. In 2016, 40 975 Serbian citizens emigrated, and the population growth rate has been negative since 1996. This should indicate something, politically speaking.
It’s in nobody’s interest to create a public shit storm, watching all hell break loose. Thus, if nothing changes the vicious circle will persist, people will most likely continue to move, while media will keep being directed, and with serious tensions continuing in the region.
A new beginning is possible, but it takes people who can point out the Emperor’s clothes and state that he’s naked. The moment of truth is within a little less than two months reach. There are louder critical voices out there, for the first time. Should this be interpreted as a move forward or potential hit back, maybe even a confirmation of the old saying – we’ll see op April 9th.
Lene Hansen (2006), Security as Practice: Discourse Analysis and the Bosnian War (1st edition), Routledge
I write about all things Security Studies. Often passionately.