The address held by the president of the republic on Saturday (March 17) has been echoing through the public for three days. The reasons are usual and all due to the main actor – Vucic managed to talk about something he knows very little about, and say something he shouldn’t have. Speaking about the demographics of Serbia, he placed the birth of children in Serbia in the context of regional conflicts and the achievement of foreign policy goals – in particular, resolving the Kosovo problem. The president managed to talk about born and unborn children as something that belongs to him (“we have no children – that is our key problem”) and to conclude that it will not be enough for the wars we intend to wage (“we will not have a new Iron Regiment”1). We’ve already heard a lot of reactions from associations and groups that consider this kind of speech unacceptable.
Then came the part about the funds meant to support parents in expanding their families. The president, at least in this one section, seemingly understood the public debates on parenting. The only common point of all thoughts and ideological trends in resolving demographic problems is that, in today’s material conditions, parents will find it hard to decide to have three or more children without additional financial support.
Precisely by using this common point, Vucic started „throwing money around“ – a woman who has her first child will get RSD 100,000 as a one-time payment; for the second child – RSD 10,000 each month for two years, and for the third and fourth – 12,000 and 18,000 respectively each month for ten years.
The parents (especially mothers) who didn’t pay any attention (perhaps due to existential worries) to the reasons as to why the president needs children, began to argue: what about us who had children before these extraordinary measures; are we supposed to have children for money and not love; we don’t want to have them if they are going to leave the country when they grow up. However, all these concerns are unnecessary and completely miss the mark. The parents may breathe easily and continue making their life plans without relying on Vucic’s pro-natality measures. And here are some of the most important reasons as to why.
First of all, the president doesn’t have the authority to pass a single act to secure implementation of the measures he talked about. Natality, birth, and babies are nowhere near his jurisdiction. To be fair, his predecessor tried engaging in gynaecology (which he defined as „knowledge about women“) and fertility (Tomislav Nikolic mistook conception with the safekeeping of stem cells), but this outing into demographics ended without tangible results. But you may feel obliged to correct me and say that the government, its president, and the ministers are all in Vucic’s pocket and that he will use his authority and mentorship to make sure that the measures get implemented. After all, what can be more representative of the president’s relations with the government and its ministers than the fact that the minister in charge of population policy stayed completely silent during Vucic’s tirade? This brings us to the next reason why we should remain calm.
In December 2017, the Serbian parliament adopted a new law on financial support for families with children by urgent procedure and without debate. This law is, as we know, the central place for regulating parental allowance entitlements, parental leave, and other forms of material support to parents. With this law, whose implementation will begin on July 1, 2018, the ruling majority made the strategic decision not to spend a single additional dinar on material support for families with children. Instead of listening to the president, parents planning a family should read this law.
At first glance, the new law has widened the scope of women who will be able to claim salary compensation during parental leave – from those who are employed, to those who have any kind of work engagement (based on copyright contracts, part-time jobs, etc.). However, the scale for all women has been significantly elevated – instead of 12 months, they will now have to be employed for at least 18 months, while this threshold is raised to 24 months for farmers, completely discriminatory and without any explanation. While the old law permitted “holes” in the 12 month minimum, the new law does not allow this. It does not allow women to combine two bases of engagement (full-time employment and part-time job) to exercise their rights, and reduces the maximum salary compensation that can be paid from the budget (to 3 average salaries compared to 5 average salaries before). With this new law, parents of children with disabilities are put in a position to choose between receiving a special childcare allowance fee (which belongs to the parents) or a compensation for care and assistance (which belongs to children due to special living expenses caused by disabilities). With this, the decision not to invest additional public money in families with children, but also to save a little, whenever possible, was made. This reduces the attained level of rights – first and foremost when it comes to the time and conditions for taking maternity leave.
Furthermore, the national strategy for the promotion of natality, mentioned by Vucic and allegedly adopted by the Serbian government, does not exist. The only strategy to encourage natality is the one that was signed in 2008 by Bozidar Djelic (Democratic party). Of course, it is difficult to admit that some other, previous government adopted this strategy, and it is even more difficult to admit that very little was done in the last 6 years to implement it. The goals of this strategy – to mitigate the economic cost of raising a child; improve coordination between work and parenting; promote of reproductive health of adolescents and fight against infertility; ensure population education and healthy maternity – remained on the political margins of Serbian politics.
Even if we imagine for a moment that Vucic will influence the fact that the law on financial support for families with children gets changed again because he believes that it should be so, we shouldn’t forget that the moves of the president and his party so far have shown that that doesn’t really mean anything. Laws change quickly and easily, and what you are guaranteed today does not have to be valid in a few months. Let’s just take the manner in which pensions were cut, or the fact that for the past 6 years, the law on organization of courts was changed 6 times, criminal code 4 times, and the law on civil procedure 3 times. And these are the laws which are the foundation of any legal system. If they get changed once or twice every year, what can we expect when it comes to the law on financial support for families with children? A much bigger problem than the unborn children is the shattered trust of the citizens in elementary legal security and good intentions of the officials.
To all this should be added the fact that the president recently spoke about pregnant women and mothers as a criminal group “clawing” for parental benefits and child allowance. It was this argument that was crucial for reducing the rights guaranteed by the law on financial support to families with children. Although they don’t work and don’t make money, mothers receive it “per child,” the president said. Back then he thought this was a grave injustice for the country, but, since last Saturday, he believes that this is actually the best way to tackle low birth rates.
One should not forget the other related legal and political decisions made in the last few years – the government’s decree on the forced labour of beneficiaries of material social support, which was covered in detail by Pescanik, and the policies of local termination of maternity benefits – no matter whether their purpose is social or demographic. So, if we read (and not only listen) and follow everything that is happening around us, it’s clear that everything that was said at this press conference is pure illusion. It is worth noting only to the extent of pointing out that it shouldn’t be taken into account as relevant when making life decisions. Especially not serious ones, like how many children a person should have.
After the president’s conference we can expect that nothing will happen and that these announcements will only serve as preparation for the new national election. Another possibility is that something will happen, and that these benefits will be regulated by government decrees and one-time actions. They’re here today and gone tomorrow. Serbian pensioners know this all too well.
In fact, what the president wanted to say on Saturday is that parental rights and the special constitutional protection of the rights of families, mothers, and children will be the subject of the president’s good will. It will be the president’s grace that he shares in accordance with mood, personal ability, and affinities. His wife already demonstrated this by recently explaining not only how wonderful it is to be a mother, but also by showing an enviable level of compassion when she shared the Christmas grace with disadvantaged children. I am sure that none of us would like to expose the financial security of our already born, or future, children to such a “support” system. We say to the president: we want only our guaranteed rights – otherwise there is no need to talk to us again.
Translated by Marijana Simic