A few days ago, on the 30th anniversary of the 8th Plenary Session (of the Central Committee of the Serbian communist party), we recalled that the years of denouement began with the dismissal of Dragisa Pavlovic, the head of the Belgrade communists. In the party state we had in those days, this position corresponds to today’s Mayor of Belgrade. On that occasion, somebody said that we were chasing a fox and caught a wolf. The real target and victim of the 8th Plenary Session was Ivan Stambolic. After he was removed, Slobodan Milosevic took over the role unquestioned head of Serbia and held it for 13 years.
Today, the Belgrade elections are ahead of us, and the opposition-oriented public expects them to be an introduction to the fall of the regime of Aleksandar Vucic. Although the divided and weakened opposition is the target of justifiable criticism and its chances for success are questionable, our recent history, which began with the 8th Plenary Session, may offer some encouragement.
The hectic construction works on the streets of Belgrade take us back to another time, the time of reconstruction after the NATO bombing, prior to October the 5th and the fall of Milosevic. The Belgrade Waterfront, our current government’s key project, is clinically dead. There are no more Arab investors, if ever there were any. Goran Vesic is trying to compensate the decline of this grandiose project with a series of minor reconstructions and, thus, enable his boss to win the key elections, just like, back then, Milutin Mrkonjic was trying to compensate Milosevic’s lost wars by building roads and bridges.
Until the summer of 2000, Milosevic seemed invincible and at the height of his power, while his authoritarian rule was sliding into an open dictatorship. The opposition was divided, and its key leaders, Vuk Draskovic and Zoran Djindjic, were mutually ensnared and knocked down – both were politically neutralized, Draskovic by successive assassination attempts, and Djindjic by charges of treason. Nevertheless, the opposition magically rose from the ashes, and, within a month or two, went from being a complete outsider to electoral triumph.
Today’s democratic scene is desperately missing a persona of Djindjic’s capacity. On the other hand, there’s a historic experience offering valuable guidelines to even those less gifted.
If the impression that history is setting the stage for Aleksandar Vucic’s electoral defeat and a comeback of democracy is true, this U-turn can only happen if the opposition wins. Hence, we need to identify the processes within the opposition which could lead to such a Copernican shift.
The SNS government is exposed to challenges on two fronts. On the one hand, there’s internal tension from the citizens. Its cause is the very nature of the SNS and its government, which is based on the rule of force. A government that promotes violence in communication, in the electoral process, in economic relations, which builds a corrupt system, hinders critically-minded media and makes the parliament and democratic debate obsolete – inevitably induces growing pressure among the citizens, which could easily explode.
On the other hand, there’s pressure from the outside. Vucic and his government are exposed to complex external influences – pressures, expectations and conditions – in an increasingly complicated international environment characterized by an ever more open conflict of great powers, whose interests clash over Serbia. So far, Vucic has been handling these challenges with incredible skill and luck, to the extent that he has become the paradigm of a new political expression – stabilocracy.
For the longest time, it seemed that the climax of his reign, and its demise, would come as a result of the escalating conflict between the efforts of the Serbian authorities to keep the nationalist project of the Serbian state alive and the efforts of the international community to finally extinguish it.
In current international circumstances, however, Serbia is not a priority for anyone, as long as it remains constructive regarding Kosovo and B&H, cooperative towards international financial institutions, and reliable in the implementation of Western governments’ policies regarding problems such as the refugee crisis.
Since he has secured relative safety from external pressures, the opposition could prove a much greater danger for Vucic’s government. More precisely, the democratic public, the citizens of Serbia, represented by the opposition. Vucic uses the same stabilocratic skill to stay in power, both externally and internally. Namely, he gives the citizens a sense of security from internal conflict, which many of them value more than democracy, rule of law, freedom of the media, or economic well-being.
Democracy in Serbia is a quiet civil war. I guess this is the same everywhere, and here it is even more so because of all of the geographical and historical specificities. In Serbia, through a long process of civilization, this civil war has been transformed into a parliamentary struggle. After October 5th and the establishment of democracy, a conflict resembling a low-intensity civil war broke out. It did not claim thousands of victims, but it did claim one, symbolically no less important – Zoran Djindjic.
The atmosphere of social conflict on the brink of an armed clash is intolerable for most citizens and they are willing to sacrifice a lot to avoid it. This is, among other things, the secret of Vucic’s success among Serbian voters. He makes citizens feel like he’s the only one able to protect them from a civil war, by threatening them constantly through the tabloids.
In order to persuade the citizens to vote for them, the first thing the opposition has to do is free them from the justified fear that, once democratic order in Serbia is renewed, it will inevitably be transformed into civil war again.
Since gaining independence and the first peacetime parliaments established during the 1880s, the political conflict in Serbia was basically a conflict between modernization and nationalism. Modernization was argued for from the position of European liberalism and, later, Marxism and communist internationalism; nationalism was always argued for from the positions of Russophile populism and radicalism – but the key social conflict could always be reduced to this basic polarity.
Once democracy is restored in Serbia, the dilemma between modernization and nationalism will not be resolved and representatives of both tendencies will be in parliament. The last time this was the case, a tragic conflict between two authentic representatives of the two tendencies – Zoran Djindjic and Vojislav Kostunica – flared up. Today’s opposition must primarily convince the citizens that history will not repeat itself, this time through a conflict between, for example, Dragan Djilas and Sasa Jankovic.
The force aiming to defeat Vucic’s regime, first at the local and, then, all subsequent elections, should not be an ideological coalition represented by advocates of modernization or advocates of nationalism, but precisely a model of the parliament of a future state in which all these factions would operate in the spirit of democracy.
Therefore, for the city elections, the opposition should form one front which includes several – not all, because that is never possible – relevant political actors of democratic orientation. This coalition should offer citizens a program for establishing a democratic state with everything that implies – the rule of law and freedom of the media. Although the agreement between the parties can easily remain on paper, demonstrating the ability to achieve a common goal in a democratic spirit would increase the credibility of the opposition.
The role of Dveri is a significant challenge for cooperation among the opposition. For some, they are unacceptable, but for others they are a desirable partner. However, it is clear they have great potential in the fight against Vucic’s authority. This time, the debate over the key issue of Serbian politics, the national issue, which separates the nationalists and modernists, must not be set aside and declared non-existent, like it was in 2000, just to return with devastating power and completely crush the fragile democratic order. It is necessary for the parties to clearly state their readiness to discuss the national issue in a democratic debate.
Finally, the program of democratic parties should start with the establishment of a free and independent judiciary as the cornerstone of a democratic state. Such a judiciary should be established through a clear political decision on the first day of the new government. Such a judiciary would then take care of the freedom of the media, the inviolability of property and contracts as the basis for economic healing, decontamination of the security system which is now being used for political purposes, and the healing of the public arena in which the security forces engage in a dirty tabloid war.
If today’s opposition succeeds in its mission of establishing a sustainable democratic order and manages to deal with the internal contradictions that burdened Serbia in the 2000s, a civil state will be established based on that order, with clear borders and a genuinely constructive role in solving complicated relations in former Yugoslavia.
Translated by Marijana Simic