Serbia under the heel of Aleksandar Vučić, but protests are growing
Matteo Tacconi 1 February 2019

This article closes the trilogy on Eastern European countries where the illiberal wind blows. The previous on Hungary and Poland.


For some time now, Saturdays have been a day for protesting in Belgrade. These rallies are aimed at Aleksandar Vučić, Serbia’s president and leader of the Progressive Party (SNS), the conservative political party that had led the country since 2012.
Every Saturday since the first protests were held on December 8th, protesters have marched from the Faculty of Philosophy through the centre of the Serbian capital.

The eighth consecutive protest took place January 26th. These are peaceful protests and the speakers are civil society activists and members of the arts community. They are, in any case, backed by the Alliance for Serbia (SNZ), a formation of left-wing and centre opposition parties recently founded by Dragan Đilas, the former mayor of Belgrade and former leader of the Democratic Party (DS).

The protests were sparked by the violent beating inflicted on Borko Stefanović, leader of the Serbian left (Levica Srbije) and a member of the SZS, during a rally he was leading in the central-southern city of Kruševac. The protesters’ requests were initially concentrated on ending political violence in the country, on guarantees for freedom of the press and fair coverage of the protests by RTS (the state television broadcaster).

However, matters changed over the weeks that followed. Aleksandar Vučić’s power system—considered corrupt, inefficient and with a tendency to authoritarian leanings—is now facing full-throated opposition.

While the marches have been focused in Belgrade, rallies are happening all across the country, with significant—albeit not yet mass—participation. The feeling, however, is that there is significant momentum and that the protests are growing. A wide range of people have been showing up as well: politicians, young people, students, pensioners, and families. In recent days, two hundred professors from the Faculty of Political Science and Philosophy published a letter stating their support for the protests and claiming that Vučić’s regime is destroying Serbia.


The Climb to Power


Vučić, born in 1970, began his political career when he joined the Radical Party (SRS), an ultra-nationalist formation founded by Vojislav Šešelj in 1991. Šešelj organized paramilitary units during the wars of the 1990s and champions the idea of Greater Serbia. He has publicly negated Srebrenica and was found guilty of war crimes by the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. In 1998-2000, when Slobodan Milošević enlarged the government to include the radicals, Vučić was given his first important position when he was appointed Minister of Information.

Those were the years of the war in Kosovo and the NATO bombings. But in 1999 the offensive involving these so-called “humanitarian bombings” was not only coming from the sky. Close to the ground, Milošević’s regime was an increasing threat to anyone opposing him. Vučić was Information Minister throughout this period and the regime’s press launched defamatory campaigns against domestic opposition and non-aligned journalists. On April 11th, 1999—Easter Sunday in the Orthodox Church calendar—Slavko Ćuruvija, perhaps the most famous journalist critical of the regime, was murdered outside his home in the centre of Belgrade.

Vučić remained active within the Radical Party for many years. Then, in 2008, things took a rather sudden and surprising turn. A vote was held in parliament on membership agreements entered into with the European Union, which led to a rift in the radical camp. Tomislav Nikolić, a historian and Šešelj’s deputy, voted in favor of Serbia moving closer to EU candidate status, upsetting party hardliners. He then founded the Progressive Party (SNS) taking many radical MPs with him—including Vučić, who became his deputy.

The founding of the SNS, a political party that describes itself as conservative, but pro-European and modern, totally changed the electoral map in Serbia. Voters were happy with the new option and carried the former radicals to power in 2012. Nikolić won the presidential elections, while the SNS won took the largest seat share in the parliament. To form a government, SNS allied with the Socialist Party (SPS), led by Ivica Dačić, a new leader working to cleanse the party of Milošević’s problematic legacy.

Vučić was appointed Defence Minister, but was already aiming for higher office. Aspiring to be the man at the center of everything—the indispensable politician—Vučić’s grand ambition is to lead Serbia into Europe and bring the country’s long and often painful transition to an end.

Vučić’s moment came in 2014, when he personally forced an early election, won it and imposed himself as prime minister, again allied with the socialists led by Dačić, who became foreign minister. Another general election was held in 2016. Vučić asked the Serbs for a clear mandate to manage the EU accession process (negotiations had started in 2014) and the voters obliged. A year later presidential elections were held. This time Nikolić did not run—Vučić had effectively pensioned him off—and so the latter put himself forward as the SNS candidate. He won easily. With Nikolić out of the picture, Vučić was now the only arbiter in the system—at last, Serbia’s indispensable politician.


The man, the party, and the state


So much for Vučić’s meteoric political rise; how has he been governing? And why is he accused of being a dictator? After all, the Serbian president bases his power on a well-established and organized political party that has won successive elections and administers the entire country at all levels, with the exception of a few local pockets of opposition.

The Progressive Party also boasts a vast base of 700,000 party members, practically one Serb out of every ten. Many wonder whether such a large number of members is the sign of real consensus or rather an indication that the SNS has become the font of favors and handouts that are hard to give up, even if one wished to. Serbia remains a poor country, increasingly debilitated by the emigration of its most competent and better-educated citizens.

In addition to party members, there are also the human “bots”—mostly young people employed to scan social media and blogs and post and comment in favor of the government and against anyone opposing it. This army of pro-government “netizens” are paid salaries that range from about 400–800 euros a month, more than the national average. Some time ago, a news report claimed that there are more than 3,000 of these “bots” in Serbia, posting some ten million pro-government comments annually.

Bombarding public opinion and creating consensus, however, is not enough. Serbians still get the bulk of their news from TV and newspapers and so Vučić still needs a press that is at his disposal, willing to support his choices, even those that are the harshest at a social level. This applies to pension cuts implemented following agreements between Serbia and the International Monetary Fund. Vučić is able to rely on good press since he has the mainstream media in his pocket.

In addition to RTS, which openly sides with those in power, the SNS can rely on a series of private television stations, both national and local, controlled by oligarchs close to the party. Then there are those newspapers that have been de facto taken over by the state following the economic crisis of recent years.

Both of Serbia’s big daily newspapers Večernje novosti and Politika fall into this category. The relationship between those in power and the press is based on the distribution of advertising. The state is Serbia’s main buyer of media advertising, but there are no clear rules for this sector, leading the system inevitably towards newpotism. As much has been reported by the Media Ownership Monitor Serbia, research carried out by Reporters without Borders and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.


Control by the government


Control is exercised by the government, by state apparatuses, newspapers and television stations; the SNS and Vučić hold Serbia in the palm of their hand. The problem is that they do not know where to take the country. The objective of European Union membership remains the lodestar and, as mentioned, Vučić dreams of going down in history for having achieved this. However, in order to succeed, Belgrade must both double down on difficult accession reforms and take a step it seems unable to make—letting Kosovo go, once and for all.

This means acknowledging the independence of the country, which has been in effect de facto since 2008. The loss of Kosovo and NATO’s 1999 bombing operations, which triggered the independence of the former Yugoslavian province, are deep wounds for Serbia—a trauma that still conditions the country. It is, however, a situation that must be resolved. Vučić’s preferred solution – partition and incorporation of the Serb-majority part of Kosovo into Serbia – does not seem easily achievable. Europe thus remains both close and distant.

Just like Russia. Belgrade’s close relations with Moscow are reflected bonds of historical kinship rather than economic relations. Russian investment flows to Serbia are a trickle compared to those coming from Europe. But if Europe concentrates the mind, Russia and Putin warm the heart.

Historical relations matter, as does a shared Orthodox Christian faith and the fact that Moscow has never attacked Belgrade. But what also matters at a political level is a shared way of interpreting power, with a strong man in command, centralization, control over state apparatuses and a pliant press.

Putin visited Belgrade on January 17th. The SNS brought over 100,000 people onto the streets to welcome him. The day before his arrival, the opposition had organized a protest march – with many taking part – for the first anniversary of the death of Oliver Ivanović. The deceased Serb-Kosovar leader had been on a collision course with Vučić, who closely controls the Serb-Kosovan community through the Serb List, the SNS’ branch across the border.

Over a 48-hour period, Serbia’s two different faces were on display, as Giorgio Fruscione described them in the Italian geopolitical magazine East Journal. One demands media pluralism and democracy, and the other praises Putin, while looking for a seat in Brussels. The second is by far the strongest at the moment. To resolve the deadlock, Vučić is thinking about springing an early election, to ask the voters for yet another strong mandate to lead Serbia into the future (although at this point his roadmap for that future remains quite unclear). Going to the voters is an attractive option for another reason— Vučić is at heart a populist and his relationship with the narod, the people, is based on a continuous invocation of ritualized elections.


Translation from Italian: Francesca Simmons


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