The Covid-19 pandemic marked 2020 and its consequences will be felt in the years to come, so it is likely that we will spend the entire next year in the long shadow of the virus. It seems difficult, if not impossible, to predict the ways in which this pandemic will affect our societies. But it seems to me that three mistakes made by the government will return as major consequences as early as 2021.
Spending public funds during the first wave of the epidemic, in the run-up to the election, limited the state’s ability to adequately respond to the even greater challenges that followed. Externally, the strong turn from the European Union towards China and America has isolated us politically at a time when we need cooperation with our neighbors more than ever. At the domestic level, the government, trying to prevent the effects of the boycott, overplayed its hand in the elections and created a problem of legitimacy for itself that will have to be solved by re-elections. These wrong moves are pushing Serbia into a deeper economic and political crisis, towards a more closed and isolated society. If there is even a possibility to get out of this scenario in the coming years, who are the actors we should think about?
Champions of the fall
At the beginning of the pandemic, Serbia fared better than other economies in the region. This was mainly due to low dependence on the most affected industries, such as tourism, which accounts for a significant share of the economies of Croatia, Montenegro, or Albania. Also, weaker integration of Serbia into economic flows meant a less noticeable decline. In these circumstances during the spring, before the elections, the officials strutted about boasting about the “smallest fall” in Europe.
In the first wave, the government not only introduced drastic measures to restrict movement, but also helped the economy with significant funding. However, although these aid packages were assessed as “unexpectedly generous,” targeted support to the most affected sectors was missing. Something similar happened when the government tried to encourage spending through “helicopter money,” thus giving each citizen the same amount of money, while these non-negligible budget funds could and should have been directed to social transfers in accordance with household incomes. They behaved as if the next, sharper wave of the pandemic was not already waiting for us in the fall. Once it arrived, the state changed its approach and prioritized the fight for the “health of the economy,” choosing not to impose more rigorous restrictions on movement. In the spring, the shopping malls were empty so that the cemeteries would not be full, and in the fall, both the shopping malls and the cemeteries were full.
While the government bragged about the smallest economic fall in Europe and bought political support with money from the state budget, in the opinion of the Fiscal Council Serbia ended the year with a record fiscal deficit and a sharp increase in public debt. Our development model is based on foreign direct investments which, along with remittances from abroad and funds from exports, will significantly dry up due to, according to the World Bank, the biggest global recession since the Second World War. It is likely that our economy won’t suffer the most at the beginning of the global crisis, but later, as was the case during the global economic crisis in 2008. The unjustified optimism of the government, embodied in the adopted budget for 2021, could cost us even more as early as next year.
The integration curve
Serbia failed to flatten the pandemic curve, but it certainly flattened the EU accession curve this year. Of all the countries that started membership negotiations after the Cold War, Serbia is the slowest to open new chapters, after Turkey, whose accession has been practically suspended. The ambitious plan to open all chapters by 2018 stumbled on the democratic backsliding in Serbia and the deep resistance in the EU towards the continuation of the expansion process.
For a long time, officials in Serbia have avoided expressing a clear strategic commitment of the state to membership in the European Union. The EU was mostly talked about in a neutral way, while Russia and China were talked about positively. As a result, many were surprised by the explosion of negative messaging about the EU at the beginning of the pandemic, which further strained relations. Therefore, it was not surprising that this year Serbia, turning away from the EU and cooling relations with Russia, chose to bet on their alternatives – China as the main development partner and the United States as the main political partner. Both will prove to be poor bets.
The expiration date of the Washington agreement from September, by which Serbia harmonized its foreign policy with the USA and distanced itself from the EU, will prove to be shorter than the first semester of the College for coaching, which the president enrolled in around the same time. Trump lost the election in November, and the democratic administration will take power in Washington in January. On the other hand, the Constitutional Court of Kosovo overthrew Hoti’s government and ordered early parliamentary elections, in which Kurti, who considers this agreement illegitimate, has the best chance of winning.
Serbia will not benefit much from these foreign policy twists; in fact, it will be harmed by them. The new US administration will not implement the exact same foreign policy as the previous democratic administration, but it will keep its contours and harmonize its regional policy with the European Union. Serbia has relied heavily on China in a year when China’s investment in foreign markets is slowing down, while the new concept of “dual circulation” is coming into force. Turning towards Beijing and Washington will eventually lead again to Brussels and most likely to Moscow, and Serbia will make a full foreign policy circle, in which we will end up as a less credible actor in relations with all parties.
In order to be accepted in the West, the government must maintain the semblance of a functional democracy, but this year it became increasingly difficult for it to do so. In order to reduce the effects of the boycott, pre-election engineering encouraged the participation of as many actors as possible, while the risk of infection was actively downplayed before the elections, so that as many people as possible would go to the polls. However, due to the boycott and the coronavirus, the turnout was lower than planned and the few votes were scattered on many lists that did not cross even the reduced election threshold.
The unnecessarily painful process of forming the government, which lasted for months, during which the society had to prepare for a new wave of the pandemic, eventually led to multiple absurdities. The parliament without opposition formed a government which includes the opposition. The elected government was dissolved before it was appointed. MPs who no longer have political opponents in front of them also no longer have any restrictions on their behavior. Most of them, elected from three-digit positions on the electoral list, know that this is their opportunity to “shine.” This creates a spiral of competition in sucking up to the “boss” and turns the National Assembly into a platform for intensifying toxic tabloid campaigns against all critics of the government.
When institutions block the resolution of political conflicts, the institutional crisis deepens. There is no way to de-escalate this political polarization, which peaked during the July riots and is expected to intensify next year. Some parties may participate in another round of dialogue, which European parliamentarians will do just for the sake of appearances, but the first opportunity to resolve political tensions will have to wait for the next elections in 2022, and until then we will all be in a permanent campaign, burned out and exhausted.
Number 1 in Europe
Not all actions of the government were wrong: some things were done at the right time and in the right way. At the beginning of the pandemic, a clear signal was sent that rigorous measures apply to everyone, when vehicles were stopped on the highway and everyone who violated the movement restrictions was punished. The summer period was cleverly used to build Covid hospitals and prepare for the autumn wave of the pandemic. However, the same police indiscriminately beat citizens in July, and selectively let the “Covid elite” organize parties in December, while the spending of public funds on medical equipment has been unjustifiably kept secret for months.
The cumulative effect of these mistakes, which aren’t the only ones, will make the next year difficult for everyone. On top of them, there are global and regional challenges, to which we will have to find answers in the coming years: migration of work, trade and services to the Internet, the tendency to close European borders, and the undermining of trust in scientific authority at the moment when it is most needed. Not only are we not ready for these challenges, but they are covered up by shameless boasting. The government continuously represents Serbia as number one in Europe in terms of economic growth, as a leader in EU integration and vaccination. This expression of superiority is increasingly at odds with reality.
But is this sequence of events inevitable? It seems to me that, from the perspective of the party in power, it was not, and still is not, rational. As the economic situation worsens due to the pandemic, co-operation with the main economic partners and the European Union is becoming increasingly necessary, but this rapprochement will be conditioned by the state of democracy and the rule of law. When I look back on 2020, it seems to me like a missed opportunity for the ruling party to, in a time of crisis, deal more with governing the country and getting out of trouble, and less with the opposition. All it had to do was let the opposition do the job it does in every democracy. This could have been done with substantial concessions that would have made the election more competitive, the assembly more representative, and this government more legitimate. But the person on whom everything depends did not make a good assessment here either and ended up pushing Serbia towards the deep end. That is why the important question here is how the leadership of the ruling party sees its political future over the next year: in one sequence of events, or the other?
Translated by Marijana Simic