Serbian PM Aleksandar Vucic. Wikimedia. Public domain.
If we take a closer look at the understanding (or lack thereof) by the international community of this year’s parliamentary elections in Serbia (not to mention their political impact) and of Serbia’s current government, there is little to see but a panoply of miscomprehension from policy makers to journalists and analysts. Let us, first of all, take a look at the key players and policy makers in Serbia after and before the spring 2014 elections.
The government that has recently been formed is habitually referred to as the/a ‘new government’. This goes for European and Serbian media alike. But it is by no means ‘new’ if we realize that we are observing the same players as in the former government: the almost absolute rule of the Progressive party (better designated perhaps as the ‘absolute rule of Aleksandar Vučić). How novel can such a government be? It could be classified as ‘new’ only by the fact that the opposition has been left in a shambles and that the Progressives are now in possession of unconditional, unconstrained power, including the power to alter the Constitution. Some ministerial rotations have happened – mostly in order to put more compliant and acquiescent people in high positions. One only needs to take a fleeting look back – just a couple of months.
Vučić has been promising ‘reforms’ to the very core of the social and political system for more than a year. But he has been in power for two years and he could have commenced said reforms numerous times by now. But the choice of two ex-ministers – one in charge of finance, the other of industry, the youngling Lazar Krstić and the more experienced Saša Radulović respectively, tells us more than enough. Both have been selected as a smokescreen, a faux-non-party-members mask, as Vučić has been promising the introduction of non-party related ‘experts’ for a long time in order to create an impression of objectivity and the absence of nepotism. These two, nonetheless, were to be ‘yes men’. How do we know? When Radulović actually tried to create viable reforms within the state's system, he was blocked by none other than Aleksandar Vučić himself. Not only was he blocked, but also ridiculed, mocked, ignored and put through months of media torture before he went to the media. His reforms were misrepresented in order to create a monster in Vučić's main newspaper, Kurir, a daily without the tiniest smidgeon of objectivity and professionalism. On the other hand, Krstić, who has literally done nothing (and then got an order to resign), understood his role as a marionette, an evet-effendi, and kept nodding away to Vučić's daily ramblings. He then ‘quit’ when he proposed severe cutbacks to salaries, allowing the amazing spin of the PM, who will now cut the salaries for ‘only 10 percent’.
And this is just one example.
Many describe Aleksandar Vučić as a ‘reformed man’. He himself keeps claiming that the ‘past is in the past’, and his colleagues often say that one ‘should concentrate on the future, not the past’. (One is reminded of the former skinhead, Tamas Sneider, when he was selected as the vice-president of the Hungarian Parliament, saying that, ‘since everybody knows about his past, we should talk about the future’). Let us, then, take a look at Vučić's recent promises. For instance, he is presently advocating the sale of the national phone operator, Telekom. Yet but a couple of years ago, he was more than vocal in insisting that Telekom should not be sold, no matter what. In 2013, he promised that people would ‘live better’ in 2014, while now he has set the ‘better life’ limes bonavites for two years from now. He promised he would get rid of crime and corruption, yet he arrested a couple of local street drug dealers, ‘small fish’ all. Instead of building a metro, he is building the “Belgrade waterfront”, a huge complex intended exclusively for the rich. Instead of not putting Siniša Mali to the position of Belgrade’s mayor, he did so.
In short, he has done nothing during the almost three years whilst in power.
Understanding that rampant nationalism is a thing of the past, and understanding even better that obdurate support from the international community was more than crucial, he is now presenting himself as ‘pro-EU’ (do let us remember that the same international community supported both Milošević during the early nineties, and Koštunica during the beginning of the century, as well as Tadić – who knows which one of these three has destroyed the country more efficiently).
And it has worked. The ‘pro-EU’ story worked perfectly.
BBC's Guy de Launey wrote how ‘promises of reform and recovery give rise to hope in Serbian polls’. In addition, he wrote how the Progressives are ‘living up to their commitment’. They have promised everything, delivered nothing, but BBC promotes the Progressive party as if they were who they claim to be.
During the reign of Aleksandar Vučić, the unemployment rate has been rocketing, while prices of daily commodities have been gradually rising. At the moment, he is introducing an ‘adjustment’ in public sector salaries that will literally lower the wages of the poor and raise the wages of the rich. A high-school teacher's salary is around 44,500 dinars (390 euro). After the change, the numbers will (approximately) be around 39,000 (350 euro). Do I have to point out that the current paycheck of a high school teacher is not enough to fund a normal life? Pension checks are scheduled to drop from October. Pensions are mostly not higher than 200 euro (in addition, pregnant women will now receive less than half of their state-based financial help). This is where people will literally start to die. With no money for medication, barely enough for food, the elderly will not survive this. The hardly existing middle class – known to be the foundation of democracy – will be utterly ruined, and Vučić will wrap the country in poverty and misery. Youth unemployment is over 50% – Vučić put a stop to all employment in the public sector. Except, of course, for his followers. The retirement age is being raised, which will further increase unemployment or simply prevent people from retiring. People will die before they reach retirement age. The Progressive’s moves, one by one, are annihilating the last sparks of hope for a better future, and ruining the present efficiently. In one fell swoop, they ruined the state and society.
The Guardian wrote about a ‘pro-EU’ party winning the elections. A miserable, gloomy article, written from the perspective of EU enlargement as if it were the only important issue with the ‘new’ government. Euractiv wrote similarly, claiming shortly before the elections how ‘Serbia's EU membership talks will certainly feature high among the topics in the election campaign’. They did not. German officials are in the meantime full of nothing but praise for the ‘new’ government, completely disregarding the current political players’ CVs and accomplishments so far.
What is arguably even worse, the official portal of the European Union, europa.eu, claims how the elections were ‘proof of support for an EU orientation’. The Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, Štefan Füle, made the lexeme ‘shallow’ sound like the euphemism of the year: ‘I would like to congratulate Serbia for holding this Sunday early general elections which according to the international electoral observers offered voters a genuine choice and were conducted on a sound legal basis. Election day procedures were conducted in an organised and transparent manner and fundamental freedoms were respected throughout the campaign.’ In short, he either forgot or chose to completely ignore the results of their two-year rule.
There is some semblance of objectivity in some media. The Economist wrote how ‘many fear that, with untrammeled power, Mr Vucic will succumb to the temptations of authoritarianism. Yet the majority of Serbs seem to be more worried about their jobs and the rising cost of living than their democracy. Middle-class Belgraders, whose standard of living rose in the years after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, now say that things have not been so tough for years.’ Yet does it matter at all, if the official EU stance is given by Štefan Füle, who is now desperate to prove that his job position should not be eliminated?
Here is, in addition, some personal info. I am 33 years old, and I live in Serbia. I have studied, taught and conducted research in several European universities (in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Italy). I have won many grants, scholarships and fellowships (Sweden, Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Romania). I have taught for years at several universities, published several books – some of which confront burning issues in society and the academia in Serbia. I speak fluent Serbo-Croatian, English, Swedish and Czech; I am competent in Russian, German; I read Slovak, Norwegian, Danish, Polish, Italian. Learning Romanian now. As a musician, I have also published several albums.
I have never been employed in Serbia. And I never will. Last time I tried to get a job, I was informed that I should wait for the ‘new’ government to be formed and ask the new Minister himself to hire me. This is how Vučić's reforms work. My partner and I are barely surviving, and we owe that to the fact that she is in possession of real estate, so we have a place to live, while renting another flat to students – the money we eat up very quickly. Our parents are helping us financially whenever they can. Once our parents' salaries are cut, we will lose that help as well. I literally have no idea of how we are supposed to survive. Vučić has been promising that he would take special care of professionals who have studied abroad and returned – on many, truly many occasions – and I sent my CV to the designated address.
I never heard from them.
Some of us have, nonetheless, seen through the smokescreen called the Progressive party. We have founded a party – the New Party (Nova stranka) – led by the former Prime Minister, Zoran Živković, and helped by the intellectual elite in the form of prof. Vladimir Pavićević of the Faculty of Political Science and the legal expert, prof. Vesna Rakić-Vodinelić. And many competent, uncorrupted people. We managed to put two members from our ranks in the Parliament, and they are getting cut off on a daily basis – the microphone literally gets cut off. The ad hominem sophism is regularly used against us by the Head of the MEP group of the ‘Progressives’. Since most of our party’s membership and leadership have either never before entered politics (such as yours truly), or simply have no skeletons in the closet (even though they have been members of mostly liberal and democratic parties), the attacks on us simply take the form of interruption, denial of media coverage, denial of speech time in the Parliament, as well as the simple invention of “former misdeeds”, such as the entirely invented and created campaign against Nova’s president, Zoran Živković (Prime Minister after the assassination of Zoran Đinđić, as well as the only one who had the courage to launch operation Saber – yes, the one that put the end on the infamous Zemun clan) in which he is commonly accused of using political power to aid his wine business. If he had done so, where is the evidence, and why are the ‘charges’ not brought against him in a Court of law?
Vučić will continue his rhetoric as if he were the opposition, claiming how there are ‘extremists’ who are set on disallowing him to conduct his ‘reforms’. This was the main means of destroying the opposition – adopting an opposition-like discourse and blaming the opposition for everything that is seen as ‘bad’. And the country keeps rotting away.
The utter miscomprehension that envelops Serbia is closely linked to the similar lack of comprehension of key political players in the EU as well. It is called sciamachy – the invention of enemies. When you either do not want to confront problems, or possess no skill to tackle them, you have to fight imaginary battles. The growing xenophobia of the New Right Wing in Europe is just the latest flight of fancy of such policy makers, from the Swedish Sverigedemokraterna to the Finnish Perussuomalaiset and Marine le Pen in France. In Serbia, Vučić's invented enemies are called ‘extremists’ – calling the venerable Zaharije Trnavčević, an old democrat from the opposition bloc (a nonagenarian) an extremist, or the old, docile pacifist, Dragoljub Mićunović (both from the era of Zoran Đinđić) tells us a lot. Not enough for some, obviously.
And, in the end, what will happen with me, you might wonder? The most important issue is that the ‘new’ government is ‘pro-EU’, and that it is ‘conducting reforms’, in addition to ‘raising hope’. Do wish me luck, I sorely need it, while the ‘new government’ is slowly killing me and my friends and colleagues in a prolonged agony that is nowadays called ‘life’ in Serbia, though a perhaps better designation would be survival. But I will keep fighting. To my last breath.
Thank you, Europe, for making it all even harder.
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