Thousands of protesters converge upon Belgrade. Photo Credit: Tanja Bažalac
By: Kristina Drye, Columnist
On November 23, 2018, opposition leader Borko Stefanović was attacked at a rally in Kruševac, Serbia.[i] The assault led to a wave of demonstrations that are entering their fifteenth week, with thousands of protesters organizing in cities in Serbia and Northern Kosovo.[ii] The demonstrators are demanding a list of reforms in a country that has curbed liberties for its citizens and created a dangerous environment for opposition candidates. While the protests have sustained over the course of three months, they are unlikely to spark systemic reform unless changes are made.
Borko Stefanović is the leader of the political party Levica Srbije. Demonstrators’ call-to-action is “One of 5 million”, in direct response to a comment made by President Vučić that, even if there were 5 million people in the streets, he would not compromise on their demands.[iii] In the first weeks, demonstrators called for an end to political violence in Serbia, but the demands have expanded to include calls for fair elections. Other requests include appeals for accurate reporting by the Serbian public broadcasting company RTS, as well as media space for opposition voices, media freedom, and an end to political violence.[iv] More specific demands include dismissal of Interior Minister Nebojša Stefanović, and resolution on the issue of Kosovo.[v] The strongest demands include the resignation of President Vučić and Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić.[vi]
The protesters identify as non-affiliated and comprise a group of opposition members and students. Some logistical funding has come from opposition leaders, and in January academics at four prominent Serbian universities voiced their support in an open letter.[vii] Other voices of support include Serbian police, military unions, and lawyers.[viii]
Vučić has either ignored the protests or dismissed them as irrelevant. He has called for elections this spring, but demonstrators have refused.[ix] Meanwhile, President Vučić has been given platforms of international legitimacy contrary to the conditions in Serbia. In January, he was invited by the World Economic Forum to speak on media freedom at Davos, and he hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin in Belgrade on January 17th.[x]
The statistics for Serbia are worrying. Only three municipalities of 170 are independent of control of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SPP), the party of President Vučić.[xi] Reporters Without Borders ranks Serbia 76th on the World Press Freedom Index, a position that was ten spaces higher in 2017.[xii] In the first eight months of 2018 there were 57 attacks on journalists, according to a survey by the European Union Centre in Belgrade.[xiii] Transparency International’s most recent corruption score for Serbia is 39/100, placing it 87th of the 180 countries for which data is available.[xiv] Freedom House ranks Serbia’s Press Freedom Status as “Partly Free”.[xv] They note that in recent years political rights and civil liberties have gradually been eroding.[xvi]
Despite these declining statistics, Serbia is still on accession track to the European Union (EU). The European Council granted Serbia candidate-country status in 2012. The 2018 Commission Staff Working Document by the EU indicates that while voters in Serbia were provided with genuine choices of candidates in the 2017 elections, the transparency and election integrity were questionable.[xvii] They note that transparency, inclusiveness, and quality of law need to be improved while the use of urgent procedures needs to be reduced.[xviii] Constitutional reforms are also needed to fully align with EU standards. The Working Document characterizes Serbia’s public administration reform as “moderately prepared” and its judicial system, the fight against corruption, and the fight against organized crime as possessing “some level of preparation”.[xix] It notes that no progress was made in the pursuit of freedom of expression.[xx]
These dynamics are worrying for a country that is at a geopolitical juncture between the spheres of influence of Russia and the EU. The rights of the citizens are being compromised for the convenience of state security, with hypocritical support of Vučić by the EU. Institutional legitimacy has been provided to Vučić despite evidence that he is consolidating power. The West sees Vučić as a potential ally in the efforts to bring the Western Balkans more securely into the EU sphere of influence. Russia sees Vučić as an actor to be used to spoil Western expansion further into Russia’s sphere of influence both politically and militarily through the EU and NATO. Vučić is also invaluable to Russia for the influence he exerts on Milorad Dodik, leader of Republika Srpska (RS). The spoiler role the RS plays in the development of Bosnia directly impacts the EU and NATO accession prospects of that country, allowing Russia to influence accession prospects of two countries at once. The EU and Russia will continue to fight for Vučić’s alliance by offering concessions, the former very clearly compromising on standards in favor of geopolitical security priorities, the latter fostering tendencies in another country to the anocracy it so blatantly flaunts.
For President Vučić, this is very convenient. He began as an ultranationalist in the 1990s during the dissolution of Yugoslavia, serving as secretary-general of the Serbian Radical Party in 1995, at the end of the Balkan Wars, and information minister to President Slobodan Milošević from 1998-2000, during the Kosovo crisis. In the years since, he has remade his image as a moderate politician that offers a voice of reason in a region slowly recovering from crisis. He, like most opportunistic landed elites, is a chameleon, becoming the character he needs to gain the most security at any given time. This fits the profile of “elastic authoritarianism”, a concept proffered by Balkan academic Jasmin Mujanović.[xxi] In short, local elites will be who they need to be for whatever party can offer them the most security, often regardless of constituent welfare.
The demonstrations have shown a strong level of persistence and many hope that they will result in actionable progress. Unless changes are made, however, they are unlikely to do so. The protests currently only convene on Saturdays, and once-a-week predictable demonstrations are not strong enough to entice the government to act upon demands. Leadership of the protests is weak, while institutional control in the country is strong. While the demonstrations and social media have provided constituents an outlet for expression denied them by their formal institutions, individual participants cannot affect change independently. So far, no party has the capacity to transform the dissatisfaction into policy options. With little-to-no response to the protests from outside parties, including the EU, there is minimal chance that the citizens will be able to maintain or increase participation in voicing dissatisfaction while concurrently proposing actionable policy in a vehicle of influence against Serbia’s extractive institutions.
[i] Bacigalupo , Luke. “Serbia Protests Escalate Beyond ‘Stop the Bloody Shirts’ – Is This Time Different?” Frontera, 28 Jan. 2019, frontera.net/political-risk/serbia-protests-escalate-beyond-stop-the-bloody-shirts-is-this-time-different/.
[ii] Banovic, Rebecca. “Serbia Protests: How Social Media Facilitates Political Protest.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 20 Feb. 2019, http://www.forbes.com/sites/rebeccabanovic/2019/02/19/serbia-protests-how-social-media-facilitates-political-protest/#41d02de31ccf.
[iii] “Anti-Vucic Protests Expand across Serbia, Northern Kosovo.” Bne IntelliNews, 4 Feb. 2019, http://www.intellinews.com/anti-vucic-protests-expand-across-serbia-northern-kosovo-155806/.
[iv] Bjelos, Maja. “Two Months of Protests in Serbia – What’s next?” USAPP, London School of Economics, 22 Feb. 2019, blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2019/02/15/two-months-of-protests-in-serbia-whats-next/.
[vii] “Univerzitetska Podrška #1 Od 5 Miliona – Univerziteti Srbije.” Peščanik, 1 Feb. 2019, pescanik.net/univerzitetska-podrska-1-od-5-miliona/.
[viii] Bjelos, Maja. “Two Months of Protests in Serbia – What’s next?” USAPP, London School of Economics, 22 Feb. 2019, blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2019/02/15/two-months-of-protests-in-serbia-whats-next/.
[ix] Zivanovic, Maja. “Serbia’s Wave of Protests – Key Facts.” Balkan Insight, 9 Feb. 2019, balkaninsight.com/2019/02/01/serbia-s-wave-of-protests-key-facts-01-31-2019/.
[x] Zivanovic, Maja. “Serbian President Accused of Hypocrisy for Media Freedom Speech.” Balkan Insight, 27 Jan. 2019, balkaninsight.com/2019/01/22/serbian-president-accused-of-hypocrisy-for-media-freedom-speech-01-22-2019/. ; “Putin Warns West on Balkans as Serbia Provides Lavish Welcome.” BBC News, BBC, 17 Jan. 2019, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-46892363.
[xi] Zelenovic, Nebojsa. “35th Session of the Congress, 6-8 November 2018, Strasbourg.” 6 Nov. 2018, https://rm.coe.int/speech-by-nebojsa-zelenovic-mayor-of-sabac/16808eee02.
[xii] “Serbia : European Still Distant | Reporters without Borders.” RSF, rsf.org/en/serbia.
[xiii] “In Eight Months, 57 Journalists Attacked in Serbia, Pressure on Media Growing.” N1 Srbija, rs.n1info.com/English/NEWS/a443499/Media-freedom-in-Serbia-deteriorating-57-journalists-attcked-in-eight-months-of-2018.html.
[xv] “Serbia.” Freedom House, 29 May 2018, freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2018/serbia.
[xvii] Commission Staff Working Document Serbia 2018 Report. European Commission, 2018, ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/sites/near/files/20180417-serbia-report.pdf.
[xxi] Mujanović, Jasmin. Hunger and Fury: the Crisis of Democracy in the Balkans. Hurst & Company, 2018. Pg. 2