In his latest book Ivan Krastev reminds us that we can learn one important thing from the best thriller writers: if we want to see the obvious, we need to understand the illogical. To me is seems like a good instruction to understand political situation in Serbia. Political scenery seems to have changed significantly, but what we have now still hasn’t become obvious. A more precise diagnosis is covered with countless illogicalities, riddles and incomprehensible psycho-excursions into the personal; those that shouldn’t be neither a content nor a way of public communication. According to some non-written obligation, countless rebuses are being dragged all over the media, wreaking confusion, as if that was somebody’s goal: since we don’t understand anything, it’s best we all gave up. One day the subject of the debate is whether Serbia is moving towards Thatcherism (Vucic thought of this and the media elaborated) and tomorrow we are wondering which “reform model” will we follow: Baltic or Irish, or some other kind. One “important issue” follows another; today it’s important, tomorrow it’s completely gone.
All these mystical layers and illogicalities that dim the situation in Serbia make me wonder what is being dimmed and what is actually going on. If everything and anything is being dimmed, just like everything is the subject of endless discussion, I would say that two things are important. The first is about the reforms the government plans to implement and the second is about Serbia’s foreign policy which is still unclear.
Let’s look at the government’s reforms first.
Painful reforms – for whom?
Previous government (actually this one), prepared the ground for “painful reforms” by fighting tycoons, i.e. corruption and crime; that fight raised Aleksandar Vucic’s rating through the roof and enabled him to seize all the power. Strengthening of authoritarianism and inflating the new leader’s charisma was done at the expense of weakening of all institutions, justice system, democratic rights, opposition, media freedoms, including the economy and the chaotic state of public finances. Besides the strengthening of one man’s personal power, party employment significantly increased. SPP members, their friend and relatives seem to have stampeded the public sector. However, the activities that placed Vucic’s, Nikolic’s and Dacic’s people to the most profitable positions in the business structures controlled by the government were covered up; the fight between the three of them was about control over the police and BIA. The whole state was shaking when they had to appoint the police director and the head of BIA. Compromises were made in these battles when there was no other solution, and now, after Vucic’s man had been appointed police minister, it is clear that prime minister Vucic has won.
It is now completely obvious that during one year and eight months of the last government, the greatest efforts were put into consolidation of SPP power and promotion of their leader into the new leader of the people in order to secure support of the voters in the elections. And he got 50% of the votes. To achieve this, it was necessary to destroy the competition, first of all DP, but also other parties. This foreplay doesn’t promise that Serbia will implement the real changes that are long overdue. This is confirmed by Vucic’s long expose that stressed the importance of the economy, but still left many uncertainties and ambiguities. You don’t have to be an economic expert to notice that the main question is missing, the one all reforms in any area of the society depend upon. That question is: what is stopping the people in our society to practice entrepreneurship, i.e. to produce goods or services in order to provide for themselves? If this question was answered, we would know what the plan is and what actions are needed in order to implement it. This plan was supposed to be approved by the citizens, which is exactly what elections are for. And that didn’t happen.
This objection is not nagging. It is just that for any human activity, including economy, the people need to be motivated and directed to choose those activities. This goes both for citizens of Serbia and foreign investors, whose arrival we dream of. But, just like the citizens, good foreign businessmen also avoid economic activity. And it is evident that the government should consolidate public finances, which would eliminate the danger of further deepening of fiscal crisis (which is not only ours). Certain austerity measures are inevitable, but they have to be well thought out and part of a bigger plan, in order to produce desired effects. And what did we really get? Without any vision or plan to start the economy in Serbia and which consolidation measures are the best – we learned from Vucic’s expose that the government will mainly mend the budget in a way that those measures will hurt only the ordinary citizens. Many things were listed, but it turned out that the main austerity measure will be a linear reduction of salaries of all public employees by 10% and similar reductions will eventually happen to the pensioners. A lot was already said about those measures, how they are neither fair, nor will they patch huge holes in the budget. They were chosen in order to protect the privileges of the political cast and its party clientele that supports its power. Instead of firing this clientele, before-mentioned stampede to public sector will be paid by all public employees. This way, those “that don’t do anything” will be built into regulatory public work and those that are needed and good at their jobs will be hurt.
This kind of criticism doesn’t seem salutary to me, because it doesn’t answer the main question we started from. Anyone who thinks about producing something would first like to know about the conditions for business and possibilities for profit, and the next question would be about the society. If the society doesn’t function, any normal person will avoid doing business in such an environment. Even those measures that will evidently hurt us wouldn’t be so vehemently disputed, if we knew that institutions would function and party-state privileges and pinpricks would be eliminated. This way, it turned out that the reforms won’t hurt the political mafia, but only ordinary citizens. Vucic had a good reason for shouting twice, inside and outside the Parliament, that they (i.e. SPP) “heard no evil, saw no evil, as innocent as lamb”, but still they have to sacrifice themselves for unpopular reforms and possibly lose the next elections because of it. Why should they suffer if they are completely innocent? If anyone should suffer, it should be their predecessors (“from DOS”) “who ruined everything”.
This way of thinking shows that the reforms won’t change the way of reproduction of a dysfunctional and corrupt political class, which is recruited from the parties in power, i.e. those that managed to come into power at any level. In order to stop the reproduction of this detrimental class, Serbia needs the reforms that would completely deprive this class of all its privileges that break the laws and institutions, equality of citizens and freedom of the media. Does anyone in their right mind believe that such reforms will happen? Probably no one, including those who propose them.
Since the reforms are already swimming in the shallow waters (of official cars), the question is how come that this government, and the one before it with the same leaders, receives such loud applauses from the EU and USA and such heavy criticism at home? Is it possible that they don’t know what’s happening within Serbia? According to the applauses, it seems that Vucic has “the whole world in his hands”. Catherine Ashton came to Serbia one day after the appointment of the new government, to say that she believes in Aleksandar Vucic’s capacities to implement the reforms and that we should believe it, too, and that Serbia’s agreement with Pristina should be a model for all other countries in the region. The American ambassador, Michael Kirby, came to SPP headquarters on the night of the elections to congratulate on the grand victory. Angela Merkel also sent a congratulations card, telling Vucic to be persistent with the reforms, that they will be an impulse for pushing Serbia closer to EU and to keep up with the successes about Kosovo. Stefan File has just arrived and gave numerous compliments, stressing that we have a strong government with great ambitions regarding EU accession.
Regardless of these applauses and support, something seems off to me. It’s like EU representatives are patting us on the back, hiding some bad news, and then end up applauding harder than they should.
Co-opted government and retreat of EU
Almost two years ago the Dacic-Vucic team was building its foreign policy position based on normalization of relations with Kosovo, which was the main condition for setting the date for opening the EU negotiations. Brussels agreement was signed and the date was set. EU integration experts assured us that start of negotiations is the point of no return. It seemed that Serbian ship was headed towards the EU, via Kosovo, although some “Serbian annoyances” were left in the back. Congratulations came from the EU and USA for Kosovo, while the internal situation was worsening and nobody from abroad paid any attention to it, or criticized it even mildly.
Let’s see how this discrepancy between foreign policy successes and worsening of the internal situation came about.
In order to answer this question, we need to remember two things: one is a general trend that has put safety issues above all else (democracy, freedom and rights, economic development, etc.) and another is the recession and severe crisis of the EU itself. Euro skepticism has significantly increased within the EU itself, so much that EU enlargement is not a popular issue, neither during national elections, nor now, because elections for the EU parliament will be held at the end of May. In other words, enlargement fatigue is so overwhelming that there will be no quick EU accession for Serbia. Because of the EU itself. There are even talks about canceling the position of enlargement commissary, currently held by Stefan File, and putting the issue of enlargement under the jurisdiction of the European foreign policy office. When you add up these two things – safety first and European enlargement fatigue – it turns out that the EU and the USA are interested only in finding a solution for Kosovo’s status and not in consolidation of democracy and other issues that are important to us. Any government that delivers in foreign policy gets applauses, regardless of what it does internally. Any government that doesn’t deliver – doesn’t stand a chance.
This is why Kosovo has become an external screen for the strengthening of internal authoritarianism. That is what we call co-opted government. It is the situation when the government delivers on the outside, and nobody cares what it does on the inside. The previous government did exactly that and the applauses rolled in. That alliance – on the outside we are headed for the EU and on the inside we do whatever we want – lasted until normalization of relations with Kosovo was delivered, i.e. de facto recognition of Kosovo. The Dacic-Vucic government managed to stay in the spotlight of the EU and the USA. But, the situation has changed, because there is no new delivery for the time being. It all points to the fact that we are left alone with our problems. In a situation of long-term recession, new war zones, EU fatigue and self-involvement, the Balkans and Serbia are no longer in the spotlight. Our backyard is left to our care. And that is the news. However we manage to clean it, or neglect it even more, that it how it will be for us. It is obvious that we have no one to write to anymore.
Another bad piece of news – Serbia is becoming more important to Russia?
While the West slowly leaves Serbia to itself, the news is that Russia is becoming more and more interested. Due to their socialist – radical tradition, this government and president Nikolic are close to the Russians, mostly along the tangent line of Serbian and Russian orthodox heart and common hatred for the West. In the last few days, many Russian officials have come to thank Serbia for its support in the Ukrainian crisis. Many were blushing because of this, but it is what it is. The official Serbian policy is “both the EU and Russia”, or, as president Nikolic said: Serbia is a house with two doors, one is European and another Russian. As the EU is retreating and the membership is being moved further into the future, the fear that Russia will prevail grows.
That possibility is not impossible with the current leadership. Russia is interested in Serbia because of its energy plans which are becoming more urgent due to the Ukrainian crisis. The visit of Leonid Reshetnikov was especially unpleasant (see his interview in Politika), whose biography and understanding of Russia’s imperial role can be seen here. In numerous interviews, he explained that Serbia will have to choose between Russia and the EU. When asked what Russia offers Serbia instead of the EU, he said – new energy agreements that will provide jobs. And we have already seen those agreements; they were all bad for us and everything was done because Russia was saving “our Kosovo”. He told us that Moscow decided about the distribution of the main ministries in this government, which was already more than obvious. Besides Vucic’s vehement denial that anybody ever dared to approach him with suggestions for ministers, it still happened. After the elections, Vucic was not the only one who went to Moscow “to see a doctor”, Dacic went, too. Without the Russian influence, we couldn’t understand the renewed Vucic-Dacic team. The current one was made under the direct influence from Moscow, which couldn’t be said about the last one, made after the 2012 elections. As for the Russian decision and in the middle of the Ukrainian crisis, Dacic became the new “first deputy prime minister” and minister of foreign affairs and his man from SSP, Aleksandar Antic, became minister of energy instead of Zorana Mihajlovic, who Russians didn’t want. Regarding Srbijagas, the government won’t touch it, but Bajatovic will probably remain the manager, or the company will be sold to the Russians.
As the conflict of Russia and the West sharpens, Serbia’s position will become more complicated. In order to continue its EU accession, even in a slower pace until the EU crisis ends, it must choose the West. If it doesn’t, that road will be practically frozen, since it is a question of choosing between two value systems. Only after this value system is decided it will become a point of no return. That is why this nonaligned policy – “both the EU and Russia” only hurts Serbia. Cues from Tito’s Yugoslavia won’t help. Times have changed. The real solution is to thoroughly solve the issue of Kosovo. And all other “Serbian issues”. With this burden on its back, Serbia will forever wander. And remain a marginal and underdeveloped country.
Translated by Marijana Simic
- Ivan Krastev, With faith in mistrust (Clio: Beograd), 2013, page 46. ↑
Vesna Pešić, političarka, borkinja za ljudska prava i antiratna aktivistkinja, sociološkinja. Diplomirala na Filozofskom fakultetu u Beogradu, doktorirala na Pravnom, radila u Institutu za društvene nauke i Institutu za filozofiju i društvenu teoriju, bila profesorka sociologije. Od 70-ih pripada peticionaškom pokretu, 1982. bila zatvarana sa grupom disidenata. 1985. osnivačica Jugoslovenskog helsinškog komiteta. 1989. članica Udruženja za jugoslovensku demokratsku inicijativu. 1991. članica Evropskog pokreta u Jugoslaviji. 1991. osniva Centar za antiratnu akciju, prvu mirovnu organizaciju u Srbiji. 1992-1999. osnivačica i predsednica Građanskog saveza Srbije (GSS), nastalog ujedinjenjem Republikanskog kluba i Reformske stranke, sukcesora Saveza reformskih snaga Jugoslavije Ante Markovića. 1993-1997. jedna od vođa Koalicije Zajedno (sa Zoranom Đinđićem i Vukom Draškovićem). 2001-2005. ambasadorka SR Jugoslavije, pa SCG u Meksiku. Posle gašenja GSS 2007, njegovim prelaskom u Liberalno-demokratsku partiju (LDP), do 2011. predsednica Političkog saveta LDP-a, kada napušta ovu partiju. Narodna poslanica (1993-1997, 2007-2012).