Another unnecessary election in Serbia

 

VUCIC MIHAJOVIC STEFANOVIC GASIC MIROVIC

One man show (source N1)

Serbia has held parliamentary elections in 1990, 1992, 1993, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2012, 2014 and will hold early elections in  2016. This is not to mention the elections of the parliament of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992, 1992/3, 1996 and 2000.

A citizen who turned 18 in 1990 thus could vote 15 times for parliament in two and a half decades, not to mention the ten presidential elections since 1990. If the frequency of elections where a standard of the quality of democracy,  Serbia would be a great democracy–it is not. Of the 11 Serbian parliamentary elections in the 26 years since the introduction of a multiparty system, 7 were early elections. Some where held because the governing coalition broke apart (i.e. 2008), but most were the result of the ruling party trying to secure an advantage by calling early elections.None of these elections is as gratuitous as the one called just now by Prime Minister Vučić. In the 2014 elections the Serbian Progressive Party secured a majority with 48.35%, greater than any party before it, including the Socialist Party under Milošević at its most successful poll in 1990. It could have ruled alone with a majority of 158 seats of 250, but decided to form a coalition with the Socialists. Its grip on power is strong and there is no conceivable reason why early elections would be necessary (I made a similar argument in 2012, sorry for being repetitive, but it ain’t me calling early elections).

Calling early elections is in the toolbox of populist rulers with an authoritarian streak. Tudjman used a similar tactic in 1995 after the military victory over the rebel Serbs and Gruevski has been calling early elections in Macedonia in the past (even the ones in April are forced by him against the oppositions will).

But why hold elections when you hold a majority in parliament? Such a step might seem risky for an incumbent. After all, one might loose power (and indeed this was the case for Milošević in 2000 and Tadić in 2012).

For Vučić, there are first strategic calculations. Using a high level of popularity and a disunited weak opposition is a good opportunity to put some more year in power “in the bank”–who knows what will be when the next regular elections are due? Furthermore, frequent elections campaigns prevent the opposition from recovering from previous defeats and perpetuates a weak opposition.

There are also more systemic reasons for early elections: As a populist incumbent, Vučić can use elections to mobilize voters and rule as a campaigner. A populist in power is always caught between speaking in the name of the people against the elite–whatever it may be–while actually establishing a new elite. This balancing act is facilitated by elections which pit us vs. them and distract from governing. Second, the current government is based on a one-man-show, Vučić. The dominance of one person of the government and country functions in the context of campaigning, but displays its weaknesses in governing, as the cadres of the party are weak and often incompetent and lack the popularity of the party leader.

It is an election year in the Balkans, besides Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia will also go to the polls in the coming months. However, so far these elections promise little progress in terms of democracy or reforms, but threaten to reaffirm semi-authoritarian rule in the region.

 

 

 

 

An ordinary week in Serbia

Serbia had an eventful week: A coup d’état narrowly avoided, a war criminal returning home, a minister of defense dismissed and the minister of interior holding a press conference with masked special police units and a prime minister taking a lie detector test to prove his innocence, followed by a gratuitous attack with the Russian foreign minister of  the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. Oh yes, and of course EU integration and reforms in Serbia are on track.

Headline from Informer

But first things first: The coup d’état that never was, began in November when the popular tabloid Kurir ran the headline “Excuse me, Serbia” written by the owner of the media group that publisher Kurir and numerous other media, Andrija Rodić. In it, he apologized for reporting to uncritically of the Serbian government and thus triggered a major confrontation with the government. Kurir had previously belonged to the loyal media that praised the government uncritically. His very public break with the government appears to be more motivated by business deals gone wrong than by a sincere change of mind. The editor in chief of Informer, the most loyal media, cum junkyard dog of the regime, Dragan Vučicevic began talking about a looming coup against the Prime Minister and pleaded him not to travel to a summit in China. Despite headlines of Informer warning about a coup against Vučić and  [media] snipers  targeting Vučić,  nothing came of it.

Minister Stefanović with decorative policemen (source MUP)

The drama ended when Minister of Interior gave a press conference with a masked special policemen in the background in which he announced that the Prime Minster took a lie detector test and passed it when asked about whether he was putting pressure on the media (An article Psychology Today notes “From a scientific perspective, there is no rationale for administering a polygraph test”–I guess except when you want to prove something that you can’t prove otherwise). Vučić himself ended the speculation by noting in an interview that there was no coup planned and he felt save. The government won the war, the insurgents defeated. Not quite, Vučić showed that the battle wasn’t over when in short press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, only one question was permitted from “Vučić’s own public service broadcaster” Pink about the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović (Honi soit qui mal y pense). Lavrov strongly criticized her work and Vučić took the role of the Prime Minister of a small and helpless country that was subjected to unfair criticism by international actors and was enduring this injustice.

Welcome back. (Source Tanjug)

At the same time, General Lazarevic, chief of staff of Priština Army corps during the Kosovo war returned to Niš after having served two thirds of his 14 year prison sentence to which he was sentenced at the ICTY for aiding and abetting “the crimes of deportation and inhumane acts (forcible transfer)” in Kosovo. He belongs a long list of war criminals who have been released in recent years after having served part of their sentence. They also belong to the increasing number of those who return and receive a heroe’s welcome. While some were welcomed by die-hard fans, some clerics and opposition politicians, like Dario Kordić in 2014 in Zagreb, others such as Biljana Plavšić and Momčilo Krajišnik received an officials welcome reception from Milorad Dodik, president of the RS. Even Macedonia gave Johan Tarčulovski a governmental welcome in 2013. Thus, the fact that Lazarević was picked up by the ministers of Justice and Defense and welcomed in Niš by the minister of Labour and the head of the army is not that exceptional, but just part of a wider pattern of openly defying the judgements of the ICTY (it is arguably qualitatively different to support suspected war criminal than those that have been found guilty and sentenced). Lazarević had continued to make a career in the army after the fall of Milošević and was notoriously praised by Prime Minister Koštunica in 2005 for surrendering voluntarily and given a Škoda by New Serbia, Koštunica’s junior partner for his patriotic act of surrendering.

The week ends after Minister of Defense Bratislav Gašić is forced to resign by Vučić after he commented during a press conference after a female journalist had to go on her knees to make place for a camera that he “likes [female] journalists who easily go on their knees” While he officially had to resign for these sexist remarks, maybe he was just a bit too close for comfort in his views of the media for the broader government approach?

 This week was a microcosm of Serbia today: Cooperation with the EU and seeming reforms of the government, or rather Vučić (the Serbian comedian Zoran Kesić observed in his 24 minutes that the ministers of the government that are placed behind him during press conferences are like ficus trees, decoration and not be asked questions, as a journalist discovered by annoying Vučić for not asking him but the minister of foreign affairs questions) distract from Serbia becoming a mixture of a telenovela (fast pace, a new scandal and twist all the time, but the plot of last week is forgotten) and reality TV (simulated reality).

P.S. I forgot to mention the ongoing court case on the possible rehabilitation of the head of the collaborationist WW2 head of the Serbian government, Milan Nedić. But that is a different story

Small steps and (not so) great expectations. Notes from the Vienna Summit

This post was first published on the Balkans in Europe Policy Blog

The Viennese Hofburg makes for a grand setting for any summit. When Western Balkan governments met with EU officials and representative from some EU member states, most notably Germany and Austria, but also Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, the planned signal was to show that EU enlargement is alive, as is regional cooperation. In comparison to the first such summit last year in Berlin, the Vienna summit comes after a host of regional meetings that some have joked that the prime ministers of the region see each other more often than their own ministers. Regional cooperation has picked up steam, even if EU enlargement remains no closer for most of the region than a year ago. It is undeniable, however, that there is a slightly renewed dynamism. The refugee crisis might have dominated reporting and the official discussion, it also highlights the absurdity of the Western Balkans being outside the EU. We are witnessing tens of thousands of refugees crossing an EU and Schengen country to escape through two non-EU countries—Macedonia and Serbia—to get to another Schengen country—Hungary—that is building a fence like the one it dismantled at its Western border 26 years ago. The summit was unable to offer more than symbolic support to the countries where thousands of refugees are stranded in their parks and train stations.

The issue of refugees—mislabeled as migrants—overshadowed the summit, but as with any such summit, the key decisions and substances are taken in the weeks and months before. Thus the refugee crisis and the horrific death of some 70 refugees some 50 kilometers from the Hofburg on a highway overshadowed the summit, but did not drown it out.

The governments of the Western Balkans seemed mostly interested in infrastructure and money. The message was mixed as Serbian Prime Minister Vučić said that he did not consider the EU to be an ATM—discoving values to praise Serbia’s treatment of refugees in contrast to some EU members—Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama rather suggested that it is money from the EU he is after. Either way, both Prime Minsiters emphasised the need to support infrastructure.

There is little doubt that regional infrastructure is in need of updrading and joint projects, such as a highway linking Albanian, Kosovo and Serbia, can have a great impact. The risk is that the physical infrastructure overshadows other forms of cooperation. Here, lengthy preparation have yielded two encouraging results at the Vienna summit. The governments signed an agreement to establish a regional youth exchange system based on the German-French youth office. By next year’s summit in Paris there should be a treaty and structure ready for the formal establishment. Whith the involvements of youth ministries, committment for European and government funding, this project holds some promise for enhaning cooperation of citizens. Key will be not to crowd out already existing youth exchanges and cooperation.

Similarly the summit was unusual as civil society was involvement for the first time in such an event. Over 50 representative from regional NGOs, media, trade unions and civic activitsts meet on the eve of the conference and presented recommendations on job creation, mediea freedom and regional cooperation at the summit itself (BiEPAG and I were involved in the preperation of these events which were supported by the Erste Foundation, the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation and the Karl-Renner-Foundation). The involvement of civil society was challenging as politicial leaders in the region are still not used to talking to civil society at eye level and civil society has come under pressure in several countries, such as Montenegro, Serbia or Macedonia. Not a single summit can change this dynamic, but at least the involvement of civil society by the Austrian Foreign ministry sent the signal that they should not be ignored.

Another important signal was the signing of a declaration on biltareral issues (BiEPAG prepared a study on bilateral issues for the Austrian Foreign Ministry and drafted the declaration). In the declaration, the Foreign Ministers committed themselves not to let bilateral issues stop the European initgration process of other countries in the region. This committment echos a similar one in the Brussels agreement between Serbia and Kosovo and a declaration of the Croatian parliament from 2011. However, for the first time, all countries of the Western Balkans signed up and also invited neighboring EU countries to join them (the message is clear, even if they are unlikely to join the committment). Furthermore, they agreed to report back on progress made at next years summit in Paris. This declaration came as Montenegro signed a border agreement with Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina on the eve of the sumit and Serbia and Kosovo agreed on key outstanding issues. The most serious bilateral issues involve EU and non-EU members (especially between Macedonia and Greece, but also the borders between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia remain a potential source of tension) and there is no immedeate perspective of resolving them, but the declaration and the agreements signal that at least some potential sources of tensions can be settled.

The stars of the summit were Serbian and Albanian PMs Vučić and Rama who appeared together at a debate with civil society and the talk show «Okruženje». Demonstrably on a first name basis, Edi and Aleksandar played up their good ties to put pressure on the EU to deliver. This is a great shift from less than year ago when it took German intervention to get the two meet first and the abandonded Serbian-Albanian soccer game led to a war of words. However, now it appears like an elaborate game the two play in which regional cooperation is working as a distraction, especially for Vučić. As long as he delivers on regional cooperation and Kosovo, the EU and also Germany seem to avoid a second, more critcially look at how he is controling and micro-managing Serbia.

The Vienna summit could not address the creeping authoritarianism in the region, but when Gruevski scored two goals in the football game of politicians from the Western Balkans against the EU, there is certain irony and maybe symptomatic that somebody who was under strong pressure a few months ago and who clearly appears to have stretched democratic principles and rule of law can be leisurly kick a ball in the goal of the EU team in Vienna.

For a list of the final documents from the summit see here.

With the help of some (expensive) friends

Past foes, future business partners. Blair and Vučić in 2014, Source: inserbia.info

When the former Austrian deputy prime minster Michael Spindelegger was named to head the new Ukrainian “Agency for the Modernisation of the Ukraine“ many in Austria thought it was a bad joke. He had resigned from government and the head of the junior coalition party, the conservative Peoples Party, in 2014 after disputes with his coalition partner over tax reforms. His resignation in Austria was sign of his inability to pursue modernization in Austria. How would he be qualified to advise on it now in Ukraine many in Austrian wondered?

However, becoming an adviser to foreign governments has become a lucrative business for former politicians in Western Europe. In Serbia, a whole line of former (mostly social democratic) politicians have been recruited by the SNS government: Alfred Gusenbauer, former Austrian chancellor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former chief of the IMF, and now Tony Blair (he already visited Vučić in June 2014).  In fact, it is not without irony that Blair is now advising both Albanian PM Edi Rama and Serbian Aleksandar Vučić who famously did not get along recently (also reportedly relations have improved). The irony that it was Blair who was key to advocating the bombing of Serbia in 1999 (when Vučić was minister for information) was already noted by the satirical web portal njuz.net with the headline: “Blair advises Vučić to bomb Serbia.”

Blair and Gusenbauer have displayed a rather pragmatic approach by also advising the authoritarian government of Kazakhstan, together with former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi, former Polish president Aleksander Kwaniewski and others.

Long-time Kazakh president Nasarbajev surely did not seek their advice on improving his rule over Kazakhstan or how to build up Social Democracy in his country. The purpose of these foreign advisers is to open Western doors, to get access to their phone book. As ministers, presidents and prime ministers, these former politicians can help, so the theory goes, with their extensive contacts in the world of business and politics.

Besides the fact that some of these former politicians do not seem to care too much whether they advise dictators or democrats, there are other problems with these arrangements. First, their main job is not about domestic reforms, for this experts which have time are required, not fly-in-fly-out former politicians with a busy schedule and little technical expertise. Instead their advice is about the international contacts, but contacts for what? Is their role to promote the country or the government? The external promotion of Serbia or any other country easily becomes just lobbying for the interests of a government, even if it doesn’t act in the interest of the country. Thus, unsurprisingly, the Kazakh opposition criticized the decision of Blair to lobby for the government. The suggestion by Blair that he would help nudge reformers in the country seems either insincere or naïve.

Second, it is hard to tell whether this engagement is actually effective and provides return on the money a government spends. Vučić claimed that Blair’s advice is free and doesn’t cost Serbia a ‘dinar’, but reports suggest the funding might from other sources, liked to UAE investments in Serbia, doubtlessly with strings attached, not surprising considering Blair’s reported connections to UAE.

Phone books are quickly dated and it is hard to tell how much these former politicians really can or do push for their client. Like the tourism videos of countries promoting themselves on CNN, BBC World and elsewhere, they are part of “nation branding” and “government branding”. However, independent judgment and critical advice are more likely to make a difference in foreign perception and policy than guns for hire. Of course, the irony is even greater considering that Blair is advising the reviewer (he also presented the book at it’s launch in 2006 together with ) of the classic book by Vojislav Šešelj “Engleski pederski isprdak Toni Bler” (The English Faggy Fart Tony Blair), but that is the ultimate sign of pragmatism.

A  shorter version of this text will be published in Serbian in Vreme (19.3.2015)

Arsonists and the EU: A European Commissioner on Serbia and Macedonia

In Fire Raisers (Biedermann und die Brandstifter), a classic play by Swiss writer Max Frisch, Herr Biedermann, a wealth producer of hair tonic, and his wife Babette allow the shady character Schmitz  to settle in their attic through a combination of his charm and threats. This happens while there is an arsonist on the loose, setting houses on fire. Babette is suspicious, but Herr Biedermann rejects any suggestion that Schmitz might be an arsonist. Early on, Biedermann asked Schmitz “Please promise me this: You are not really an arsonist.” Schmitz just laughs.

Babette remains nervous and has doubts to which Biedermann replies “for the last time: He is no arsonist.” Upon which a voice, presumably his wife asks: “How do you know?” Biedermann: “I asked him myself… and anyhow: Isn’t one able to think about anything else in this world? It is madding, you and your arsonists all the time.” Later Schmitz is joined by Eisenring who start moving oil drums and fuses to the attic. Biederman remains indignant about any accusation:

“One should not always assume the worst. Where will this lead! I want to have my quiet and peace, nothing else, and what concerns these two gentlemen–asides from all the other worries I have…”

In the end, Biedermann hands the arsonists the matches to set his house on fire. After all, if they were real arsonists, they surely would have matches…

Johannes Hahn and Aleksandar Vučić (source: SETimes)

In recent days, Johannes Hahn, EU commissioner visited Macedonia (together with Kosovo) and spoke on Serbia, addressing two arsonists, who have been playing with democratic principles and media freedom. When asked about declining media freedom in Serbia, Hahn noted  “I have heard this several times [concerns about media freedom] and I am asking always about proof. I am willing to follow up such reproaches, but I need evidence and not only rumours.”

In Skopje, the press release following the visit of Commissioner Hahn noted “the EU’s serious concern at the current political situation and urged political actors to engage in constructive dialogue, within the parliament, focusing on the strategic priorities of the country and all its citizens. All leaders must cooperate in good faith to overcome the current impasse which is not beneficial to the country’s reform efforts.” Of course, the claim of Prime Minister Gruevski that the head of the largest opposition party is guilty of treason and planing a coup d’etat (backed up by two arrests and a criminal investigation of the prosecutor) are hardly the type of confrontation addressed by ‘constructive dialogue’. In addition, the charge by the opposition of massive wire-tapping by the government of 20,000 citizens and the evidence contained therein also would provide little basis for a ‘constructive dialogue’. Of course, the note also outlines the need for a an investigation of the claims and rule of law. Considering the explosive nature of the case and suggestion of recently released recordings that the government party exerts considerable control the judiciary, such a call sounds like a pious wish.

The concept that the crisis in Macedonia is a result of insufficient dialogue between government and opposition downplays the increasingly authoritarian government and engages in suggesting equal responsibility for the political crisis. This is not to suggest that the opposition is without flaws, but “dialogue” reverses the burden from the stronger to the weaker.

In Serbia as well, the suggestion that additional evidence is required to identify a decline in the media environment and press freedom in Serbia flies in the face of reality. Both independent journalists (see also here, here), as well as a number of international observers (here, here, here, here, here)   have pointed out the considerable evidence on the declining press freedom. The head of the EU delegation, Michael Davenport can also provide some evidence of pressure on the media, when PM Vučić called BIRN liars and accused them of being sponsored by “Davenport”, i.e. the EU.

 

stampano_60_naslovna-informer-18-02

Generously providing evidence of the declining media and the degree to which media are used is the Serbian daily Informer, a mouthpiece of the government also contributed to clarifying the issue. In its Wednesday 18 February issue, it headlines with “Perversion. The EU hires a Šešelj man to prove censorship” and “Attack on Vučić from Paris. Legion of Honor this year for Olja Bećković [journalist and talk show host whose show was cancelled after criticism by Vučić] and Saša Janković [the Serbian Ombudsman].” (next to headlines such as ‘Nele Karaljic fears balija [a derogatory term for Bosniaks” and “Šiptars [derogatory term for Albanians] lynch Serb”).

While the EU seems far away from inviting the arsonists in to the EU (there is already Orban), the weak statements are reminiscent of Biedermann seeking to avoid conflict until it is too late. However, when Vučić called Johannes Hahn an honorable man (“častan covek”) for his demand for evidence, it might be time to get worried.

 

 

German original of above excerpts:

BIEDERMANN: Sie versprechen es mir aber: Sie sind aber wirklich kein Brandstifter

BIEDERMANN:—zum letzten Mal: Er ist kein Brandstifter.

STIMME: Woher weißt du das?

BIEDERMANN: Ich habe ihn ja selbst gefragt…Und überhaupt: Kann man eigentlich nichts anderes mehr denken in dieser Welt? Das ist ja zum Verrücktwerden, ihr mit euren Brandstiftern die ganze Zeit.

BIEDERMANN: Man soll nicht immer das Schlimmste denken. Wo führt
das hin! Ich will meine Ruhe und meinen Frieden haben,
nichts weiter, und was die beiden Herren betrifft—ganz
abgesehen davon, daß ich zur Zeit andere Sorgen habe…

Excerpts taken from Max Frisch, Biedermann und die Brandstifter. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1981. All translation by myself.

 

[an earlier version stated that Hahn visited Serbia, but he visited Kosovo and Macedonia, his statement on Serbia was made in Brussels].

10 Things I learned on the Balkans in 2014

1. The revolution is not dead

Even though the protests in Bosnia in February did not last and few (if any) of the demands were met, smaller protests have continued and recent large student protests in Macedonia demonstrate that even the regime in Macedonia is not immune from popular discontent after years of small-scale protests. The protests show that representative democracy in recent years has not served citizens in the Western Balkans very well. Strong control by incumbents has made change difficult.

2. A one man show remains the best show in town


Aleksandar Vučić saved children from snow storms, commanded thousands of volunteers to save Šabac and other heroic deeds, like not sleeping and work while other slack. This brought his party an unprecedented victory for any party in post-1990 Serbian politics. However, any regime relying so much on one person will be fragile. A recent poll (not sure how reliable, but surely indicative) suggests that 80 percent of potential voters for SNS for the party because of Vučić.

3. The crisis is not over


After more than six years of economic crisis, the situation is become more dire as there are no immediate prospects of improvement and governments in the regions have not been able to set a clear path for economic development after the crisis. Nowhere is this more visible than in Croatia, where the current government seems to  have hoped on EU membership to solve the economic ills, with few effects.

4. A good press is a bad press

A free press has not fared well this year. Instead, slander and insulation are doing well. Informer and others like it are good to find out whom the governments want to target, but make for bad news. Reading between the lines is getting to be more important again, as the main news are not written in the lines.

5. Silly incidents matter, because political elites make them matter

While the flag carrying drone added a new dimension to provocations in football stadiums, but it could have been managed and calmed by political elites. However, neither in Serbia and Albania did governments manage the incident well. The result became a crisis of relations that had been rather marked by their absence.

6. Anniversaries are great moments for posturing and nationalist rediscovery

 

World War One did not figure prominently in national narratives in recent year. World War Two, wars of Independence or the most recent wars overshadowed the “Great War” in terms of public interest. However, this did not stop for a lot of nationalist posturing during this year. This functioned in symbiotic relationship with the generally strongly national commemorations across Europe and rather patronizing efforts to commemorate the war in Sarajevo this year.

7. Do not discount new friends from faraway places


Businessmen from China, sheiks from the Emirates have become more visible in the Balkans. These are promising new rail links, new urban developments and air links. Much of what has failed to come from Western assistance seems like it could be accomplished from elsewhere. On what terms and whether the wild dreams will materialize remains to be seen.

8. Some old friends are not really such good friends


Russia began as a good friend to Serbia (and the RS) 2014, but after (surely not because) Putin got rained on his parade, he dropped South Stream, notifying his friends via the media.

9. Engagement continues, wedding postponed

 

While Germany recommitted itself to the Balkan enlargement, the EU approach is lukewarm. With mixed signals, enlargement is being pushed down the agenda in the EU and the region. Yes, the process continues, but whether it will remain on track remains uncertain.

10. Borders change, war in Europe

The latest war in Europe is not in the Balkans. The newest border changes are neither. They both draw attention away, yet also cast a shadow. What the repercussions might be for the region is uncertain, but is hard to imagine that it will pass it by.

What the floods reveal: Consequences of a disaster

Floods_in_Bosnia_12

The floods in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and, to a lesser degree, in Croatia brought destruction and death to large areas. Thousands of homes were destroyed, some had been painstakingly rebuilt after the war, thousands of landmines swept away to new locations, livestock killed, mass graves from the war unearthed and roads ruined. Beyond the destruction, the floods also revealed the weakness and the strengths of the countries. It is a cliché to say that moments of crisis and disaster brings out the best and the worst in people. In Bosnia and Serbia, it mostly brought out the best in people, and the worst in states.

Natural disasters test states whether they are weak or strong and their response (or lack thereof) often shatters citizens trust. When the earthquake in Haiti struck in 2010 killing a quarter of million people, it destroyed the state itself, which been weakened by decades of crisis. In New Orleans hurricane Katerina brought misery and scenes nobody would imagine could occur in the United States. The response appeared to be of a state that did not care about its poor and ready to tolerate great misery among its citizens.

The floods in Bosnia and Serbia showed that two very different states were utterly unprepared for the disaster. Both states and their local (entity, etc.) authorities responded late, with limited means and inaptly. What is important here is the similarity between the two countries. Serbia is often considered more functional than Bosnia, with a centralized state, clear lines of authority and without complicated and competing authorities as in Bosnia. Yet, both did badly. This suggests that despite all justified critique of Bosnia’s complicated institutions, the cause of the incompetence lies elsewhere. Some of it lies with political leaders who did not take the problem seriously and in politicized, hierarchical systems: if the leader does not take it seriously,neither does the state. In fact, the state and political elites sometimes blamed citizens rather than shouldering responsibility.

Informer 23 May: The hellish plan of tycoons and the Democratic Party

Informer 23 May: The hellish plan of tycoons and the Democratic Party

In Serbia, the response to the floods also shed light on the authoritarian and populist tendencies of the current government. The disaster-management populist hubris, was reflected by multiple live transmissions of government sessions in its function as emergency committee (15 May, 23 May). The sessions had little calming effect, but rather gave the message “the situation is horrible, but we will take care of it”. It fit the image of the new prime minister as the serious, always concerned leader, taking the suffering of his citizens serious indeed. The personification of the disaster response fits the emerging character of the current government, dominated by the over-towering Vučić. The government spreads panic and then offers Vučić as the savior. Whether this strategy will succeed will depend on the ability of the government to either deal effectively with the aftermath of the floods or its ability to effectively deflect criticism.

The authoritarian side of the government became visible through the censorship the government appears to have engaged in. Websites and blogs critical of the government and Vučić were taken down (see here, here). In addition, a tabloid close to the government suggested that the floods were the pretext of a plot of businessmen and the opposition to take down Vučić.

The floods have also provide for a template on which to project different ideological visions and hopes. Srećko Horvat, for example, argues that it is the neo-liberal transformation that hollowed out the state to be unresponsive and inept. Such an observation is obviously implausible as the lack of investment into public infrastructure in Serbia and Bosnia over the past twenty years is not the result of neo-liberalism or the privatization of public utilities. Little has been privatized and certainly much less than elsewhere in Europe which copes better with natural calamities and the causes are very different. The state and the local authorities in Bosnia and Serbia have been ill-prepared to deal with the floods. Thus, the failure lies with the state, not private utility companies. Now, I would not argue that this necessarily means that the state should privatize public utilities and infrastructure, but the critique of neo-liberalism misses the point. The lack of investment and maintenance of the public infrastructure that became visible through the floods has several causes: a) neglect and destruction during the 1990s that takes a long time to address the consequences; b) party appointments and favoritism has undermined the public administration and reduced professionalism; c) hierarchical power-structures contribute to slow responses in times of crisis. Altogether, this would rather suggest that the problems are not with the private sector, but with the state. This does not mean that privatization would be the solution. As the far-reaching privatization of public utilities in some countries, such as the UK, demonstrated, this in itself it can also lead to underinvestment and convoluted lines of responsibility. The central question thus how to make the state more responsive. Besides the obvious need to reduce party appointments and focus on the re-professionalization of the public administration, it would also be good to think about ways in which state-owned companies and utilities can be better sheltered from political pressure and influence to be able to act independently.

The other theme that flood revealed is that of solidarity. The failure of the states to take of their citizens brought about a great degree of solidarity between citizens. In Bosnia the plena that had emerged as a result of the February protests organized assistance where the state failed and there are many reports of citizens helping others across lines of division, be they entity or state boundaries or ethnic borders. However, it might be once more overinterpreting the solidarity as a renewed “Yugoslav community” as for example Andrej Nikolaidis does. Support and assistance comes from others well beyond the Yugoslav space, thus reducing solidarity to the people of Yugoslavia is being unfair to those assisting beyond. The key question will be how to transform the solidarity of the floods into a more lasting form of rapprochement. Here, it merits to look south, to Greece and Turkey, who experienced a breakthrough in relations as a result of “earthquake diplomacy” following devastating earthquakes in both countries in 1999. James Ker-Lindsay noted at the time in an article that the earthquake in both countries did not bring about the rapprochement by itself, yet it helped  by providing it with a momentum that brought both citizens and political elites closer together. The floods, for all their horror thus provide an opportunity, whether it will be seized and become transformative remains to be seen.

 

Drinking Coffee with the Father of the Nation. Dobrica Cosic and the Mediocrity of Evil

A few years ago, a sophisticated hoax suggest that Dobrica Ćosić won the Literature Nobel Prize. While a group of usual suspects of the Serbian did propose him for the prize,  the idea was luckily absurd. He wrote an number of novels, but they are far from the novels by better Yugoslav writers of his time. His first novels were in the dominant socialist realist style. His later novels were epic in tracing the Serbian people and their suffering in the creation of Yugoslavia. Some translations where published, his works rightful drew little interested outside Yugoslavia. When I talked to him for my research in 1998, it was less his literature I was interested in, but rather his politics.

When I stepped into the house of the friendly elderly man in his crumbling, yet still impressive villa in the Belgrade suburb of Dedinje, I thought I was meeting a man whose life and political influence was waning. Little did I know that he would live another 16 years and through his books, statements and close contacts to nearly the entire political elite maintain the aura of a national sage.

Dobrica_Cosic

The opportunity to meet him in May 1998 was unique, he had been reluctant to speak to Western researchers or journalists, skeptical of their intentions (rightfully so) and busy writing his own memoirs. I guess my topic–his engagement with human rights activists in the 1980s–was sufficiently innocuous, to not make him reject the conversation outright, as was the help of a friend of a friend in arranging the interview. When I went to visit him in his villa I was aware of his historical role and responsibility. He had come into conflict with Tito and the Yugoslav leadership in the late 1960s over the increasing decentralization, became a ‘dissident’ who remained in his villa close to the center of power. As a writer, he moved from socialist realism to nationalism as he endlessly described Serb suffering and began challenging the wisdom of Yugoslavia altogether. He helped bring together a group of intellectuals, some loyal to the Communist rule, other critical, to formulate Serb grievances. He became a supporter of Milošević and his President for the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992. However, he also fell out with Milošević and was toppled by the Radical Party in the following year and was thus able to remain credible to the opposition and also the shrinking number of nationalist supports of Milošević. When I met him, he had settled into his new role, the “Father of the Nation”, an intellectual above party politics who would turn his allegiances with the wind like so many other Serbian institutions (i.e. the daily Politika). He regularly dispensed his wisdom, published his successful political pamphlets and became the mediocre sage to whom politicians of all stripes went to seek “advice.”

There was nothing striking about him. He was a friendly old man who invited us for coffee and we could discuss his role during the 1980s. There was some vanity in which he remembered the centrality of his own person during the Yugoslav period and his own role as a dissident. In fact, it became clear that he continued to see himself as a dissident, outside of the mainstream back in 1998. Although he had lost his office as president in 1993, his ideas had become mainstream, and, as fellow traveler Vojislav Koštunica noted, “Dobrica Ćosić had always connections to people who were active in the political life, although Ćosić was practically expelled from the party. He had influence and connections, which protected us.”

The significance of Ćosić arose not from any radical nationalism. Rather, he represented the quintessential path from an eager socialist Yugoslav to a Serb nationalist, a journey in which he was not alone but which few others experienced as publicly and promoted as effectively. In our conversation he claimed that he foresaw the disintegration of Yugoslavia already in 1956-7 when he realized in conversations with Edvard Kardelj , the leading Slovene member of Tito’s inner circle, working on the party program that he was a nationalist who only saw Yugoslavia a transitional construct. It seems hard to view Kardelj as a Slovene nationalist, but the gradual alienation from the Yugoslav project took hold with the fall of Aleksandar Ranković, whom he placed together with other dissidents such as Milovan Djilas. For him, and many other Serb intellectuals, the 1974 and the decentralization of Yugoslavia that preceeding it promoted nationalism of the others and oppressed Serbia. His engagement in a democratic and national critique was thus no inherent contradiction. He was eager to note that the Committee for the Freedom of Thought and Expression he helped found in 1984 defended all Yugoslavs, Slovenes, authors of the Muslim declaration, including Izetbegović and in his words also “Šiptari”, using the derogatory term Albanians. In 1983 he published a non-literary bestseller Stvarno i moguće (The Real and The Possible) which was banned after selling some 10,000 copies.  The weekly NIN called (not meant as a compliment) it for having all ingredients of a bible for Serb nationalists.

When the Serbian academy began drafting a memorandum of the state of Serbia and the Serbian nation in 1985, Ćosić was close to many members involved in its writing, but rejected the suggesting of being the initiator or main author of the text.  As we talked in his living room, he both defended and criticized the text: “It is an unfinished study, a critique of Titoism and the extraordinary hard economic, moral, political state in the 1980s. But it was critique from the socialist and Yugoslav perspective.” Despite its critique, Ćosić was eager to defend in arguing that it was neither a blueprint for ethnic cleansing (which is correct), nor that it deserved to be suppressed. However, the memorandum reflect many themes of Ćosić’s writing during this period, as well as other Serbian intellectuals. It considered not only Serbs threatened in Kosovo, but elsewhere and argued that Yugoslavia would either need to be centralized or that otherwise Yugoslavia would cease to be the best state solution for Serbs. Thus for the first time, the idea of rejecting the Yugoslav project became a (implicit) possibility.  Although Ćosić argued that his biggest mistake was to argue for Yugoslavia when others began pursuing nationalist agendas, his claim was insincere. His Yugoslavia would not have been accepted by others and the dividing line between national equality and dominance of one over others is often in the eye of the beholder .

After I ended the interview with Ćosić, I felt  uneasy. There was much I disagreed with him, yet his demeanor made him hard not to find a pleasant conversation partner. My friend who helped with the interview noted at the time that he seem like a friendly grandpa (and she was very critical and aware of his role in promoting nationalism in the 1980s and 1990s). At the time, I came to understand that dangerous ideas do not originate form raving madman, but from mild-mannered intellectuals who are harder to ignore or dismiss. It is now, with greater retrospect that I also understand that the success of Ćosić was his mediocrity. He was neither a great writer, nor a brilliant thinker. His success came from reflect opinions that were widely held by others. Being both an insider of the Communist regime and later in the Milošević era, as well as an outsider gave him access and credibility more than most others. His criticism of Titoism and Yugoslavia was more radical than many intellectuals that suffered no or fewer consequence, yet he was no Djilas. His challenge was a paradox, a return to the pre-1966 more dogmatic era, while demanding greater freedom of speech. Calling for freedom of speech, but supporting later one the repression of Albanians in Kosovo when exercising this right. His inconsistencies reflected the times and made the moderate and mediocre face of nationalism. His support for Milošević and break with him later made him respectable for the regime and for the opposition. And thus it was less his ideas as such, than his position that provided him with legitimacy. As he cultivated his image of the “father of the nation”, he tried to synthesize the different ideologies and ideas that competed over the nation and nationalism. After his death, I can only hope that he will be irreplaceable, as the area of “fathers of a nation” should better be over in Serbia and elsewhere.

 

 

 

I have written in greater detail about Ćosić in my monograph about Serbian nationalism from the death of Tito to the Fall of Milošević.

 

What the elections mean for Serbian democracy

I am re-blogging my analysis of the Serbian elections written for the new Balkans in Europe Policy Blog.

When Aleksandar Vučić gave his victory speech on Sunday, after the resounding victory of his Progressive Party, his seriousness seemed in no proportion to his success. For the first time, since the second multi-party elections in 1992, can a single party govern the country alone. With 48.34% of the vote and 156 (of 250) seats in parliament, the party does not require a coalition partner, unless it wants a majority to the change the constitution.  There are dangers in this victory, both for the victor and for the Serbian democracy. First, Vučić and his party might have won a Pyrrhic victory. The elections were triggered by Vučić to diminish the rule of the prime minister Dačić and his socialist party. While he achieved this (although the SPS remains as strong as before in terms of votes), he cannot blame bad decisions on a coalition partner if he is to govern alone. It is thus unsurprising that despite the large majority, SNS seems to want to include some other parties in government. However, even if this were to be the case, the SNS will have a hard time bringing about early elections, as it did this time around. This technique, a favorite among incumbents in the region, (esp. in Macedonia and Montenegro) of getting re-elected when opinion polls are favorable, will not be easily available to the new government. Finally, the weaknesses of the party will become even more apparent. It failed to run a visible candidate for the mayor of Belgrade, as it lacked convincing and popular politicians, besides Vučić. If the party is to govern effectively, it will quickly need to increase its capacity, since cloning Vučić, as some satirical photomontages suggest, is not an option.

The risks for the Serbian democracy are equally apparent. A large majority, in a political system that is used to coalitions, bears its risks in the best of circumstances. However, Serbia lacks checks and balances to hold their governments under control. To some degree, coalition governments have been (flawed) alternatives to checks and balances. With few independent institutions, many loyal media outlets and two of the three opposition parties more eager to work with the Progressives than to criticize them, there is a risk that there will be too few critical voices in these institutions. The focus of outsiders on the Serbian government delivering on Kosovo has also muted external scrutiny of un-democratic practices. Not least, the elections themselves are a reflection of a problematic understanding of democratic processes. As a result, the elections do raise serious questions about the future of democracy in Serbia. It seems unlikely that the new government will become authoritarian, or step back into Miloševićs shoes, but Serbia might move away from democratic consolidation and towards a hybrid system that we can observe in other countries of the region.

In addition to this development, the elections have also highlighted the decline of the right and a general decrease of ideological differentiation in the party landscape.

The decline of the extreme right

A key feature is the continued decline of the extreme right and conservative parties in Serbia. For the first time since 2000, Vojislav Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia is no longer represented in parliament. After being mocked as a “kombi party” for its ability to fit all members into a van in the 1990s, it is back at its beginnings. The opposition to EU integration and focus on Kosovo has not paid off.  Similarly, other parties, on the nationalist end of the spectrum, fared badly. The Serbian Radical Party continued its decline from 4.62% to 2% and Dveri, a more recent extreme right wing group, dropped from 4.34% to  3.57%. In addition, even smaller right-wing groups split less than one percent. This overall decline of the extreme and conservative right is an important, and easily overlooked, development in Serbian elections. It can be attributed to three factors: First, the populism of the Progressive Party itself, constituted by former radicals, has been able to absorb some of the vote. Second, the fragmentation of these parties—various talks of pre-election coalitions among Radicals, DSS, and Dveri failed—discouraged voters to choose any of them. Thirdly, the trend is part of a regional development. In Croatia, but also in Romania, the extreme right has declined in the context of EU accession. As the EU effectively rejects such parties, they become less attractive as most citizens are (skeptic) supporters of EU accession. Kosovo, and other national issues, also no longer figure into the agenda that voters care about.

Lack of Alternatives

The elections were fought among parties that all formally share the same goals and have no discernable ideological differences. All parliamentary parties want to join the EU, talk of “reforms” and oppose corruption. As a consequence, there is no reason that the incumbent would not win, when there is no alternative that is different. Besides the ideological similarities, most parties also demonstrated a willingness to form pre-election coalitions with parties whom they have few commonalities, and display, even for Serbian standards, a surprising lack of respect for democratic principles. When Boris Tadić made his comeback, after breaking with Djilas and the Democratic Party, he did not form his own party, but the Greens of Serbia were taken over by him (or offered). They changed their name to add «New Democratic Party» and voila, a green party became the election vehicle for Tadić.  The Liberal-democrats of Čedomir Jovanović used to offer a more radical reform program than the Democratic Party. However, its unprincipled coalition with a conservative Bosniak party, close to the mufti of Sandžak Zukorlić, and its continuous flirting with the Progressives discredited this claim. In effect, the only two programmatically consistent electoral lists where those of the Democratic Party of Serbia, which failed to enter parliament ,and the list of the former Minister of the Economy, Saša Radulović, „Dosta je bilo“ (Enough of this), which radically criticised the influence of political parties and the economic policies of Serbian governments in the past decade. While the consistency of the DSS is likely to lead them further into political oblivion, the list of Radulović might become more significant in Serbia. Having led a shoe-string campaign, barely managing the register of the list two weeks before the elections and facing strong attacks in the media, the 2.08 % the list achieved is no small feat.

Antipolitics?

Another way of rejecting the ideological and ethical homogenisation of Serbian party politics was a repeat of the „invalid vote“ campaign of 2012. Several activists called on citizens to go and vote, and then to reject any candidate by invalidating the ballot (see here from some examples). Altogether, some 3.17% of citizens did exactly that. While not all may have invalidated their ballot for the same reason, the high number suggests that most, probably, deliberately invalidated their ballot in protest. These numbers are lower than in 2012, when they were 4.39%, but remain remarkable. Finally, the easiest and most common manner of rejecting the current political offerings has been to simply not vote. Turnout was only 53.12%, or four percent less than 2 years ago, and the lowest for Serbian elections since the introduction of the multiparty system in 1990.

Thus, the Progressives have been able to capture the largest share of the electorate of any party since 1992, but their success is not built on energizing the electorate or changing the perception of politics, but rather as a result of citizens either resigning to the inevitable, or the irrelevant. The broader dissatisfaction with party politics will not be remedied by SNS, and thus some broader opposition, reflected in social movements or new parties, remains a distinct possibility, even as the pluralist political space might be decreasing.

The Authoritarian Temptation

Untitled

Here is the English version of a comment I wrote for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung called “The Authorititarian Temptation in the Balkans”. It draws on an article (co-authored with Irena Ristić) and a book chapter published in 2012.

The Serbian elections 16th March end a year of political speculation. These are already the seventh early parliamentary elections since 1990, they are unnecessary as there was no government crisis ahead of them being called. The coalition government consisting of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS ) of Aleksandar Vučić and the Socialist Party (SPS ) of Ivica Dačić was stable and had a solid majority . However, SNS wanted elections to translate their popularity into a large parliamentary majority. In 2012 SPS could still bargain hard to obtain the post of prime minister. Today, this is hardly imaginable. Although the SNS is unlikely to be able to govern on its own after the election, it can determine the shape of the government.  The early elections are an example of the authoritarian temptation of governing parties in the Balkans, weaken the rule of law to secure their own dominance.

The “semi- democracies” of Southeast Europe

Regular studies of the Bertelsmann Foundation and by Freedom House show, that a particular type of democracy has taken hold in South Eastern Europe: elections are democratic, the political landscape is diverse, but populist and corrupt governments hinder the consolidation of democratic structures. Most post-communist countries in Central Europe developed into consolidated democracies. In the  South Eastern Europe, however, was intermediate form dominants, the democratic formalities be observed, but at the same time, populist parties control the state through patronage structures. This is particularly evident through the dominance of political parties over the media, the state and the weak rule of law.  The election campaign had not yet begun in Serbia, as the Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Vučić saved a child stuck with its family in a snowstorm on the highway from Belgrade to Budapest. Conveniently,  the state television on hand to film it. While this ‘performance’ was quickly mocked in social networks, the message got through : Vučić rescues children, while others go campaigning.

Not only in Serbia have governing parties used their dominance to engage in a continuous election campaign.  Even when elections are not upcoming [this was written before early elections were called in Macedonia], the ruling party of Macedonia, VMRO-DPMNE constantly advertise their successes on billboards and in advertisements. Due to this non-stop campaign by governments, it is difficult for the opposition to formulate alternatives. In early elections governing parties already have a decisive edge.  A second aspect of the authoritarian temptation is reflected through control of the media. Only a few critical media of the nineties have survived the past decade. The economic crisis and the state as the most important advertiser to have resulted in a media landscape in the region in which critical voices hardly find a place. This is particularly pronounced in Montenegro, Macedonia and Bosnia. In Macedonia all important critical media, such as the private channel A1 have been forced to close done and only few journalists dare to openly criticize the government. In Montenegro, there is often to attacks by “unknown” perpetrators against independent media. In Bosnia is the businessman and media tycoon Radoncic to became security minister [he was dismissed the day the article was published], despite persistent rumors of his contacts to the underworld. In the Republika Srpska the media is local President Dodik, criticism is only aimed at against the opposition, “Sarajevo” and foreign powers. In Serbia, only few media nowadays dare to openly criticize Vucic.
Media loyal to the government, however, weaken the opposition. Allegations of corruption, often without evidence, are part of the strategy here. The tabloids in Serbia regularly accuse members of the DS government that was in power until 2012 of corruption. Even if these allegations are certainly partly justified, they are used to discredit political opponents.  In addition to accusations of corruption, government media also regularly challenging the loyalty of the opposition and suggest that it is committing treason of the state or nation, particular in Macedonia or the Republika Srpska.
A final aspect is the dominance of political parties over the state. Careers in the public administration and in government-controlled companies are usually only possible with party membership. Thus,
parties acts as employment agencies and can thus secure the loyalty of its voters. This reduces the potential for protest as public criticism may result in loss of employment.

Political, not cultural causes
the danger of populism with authoritarian tendencies is not limited to the Western Balkans. EU member states such as Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria show that with EU accession the danger is not over. The temptation is great to attribute this development to “Balkan political culture,” but it has more to do with weak states and social and economic crisis that predates the global economic crisis. Often the EU overlooks the authoritarian temptation too readily, as long as the governments
cooperate. Thus, the willingness of the Serbian government to compromise in dialogue with Kosovo helped to distract from domestic political populism. However, if the rule of law cannot take hold, this will either lead to social protests, as recently in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or to illiberal governments, which seek to preserve their power with populist means, as in Macedonia and, probably soon, Serbia.

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