What the floods reveal: Consequences of a disaster

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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.

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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.

Options without Choice in the Serbian Elections

The upcoming early Serbian parliamentary elections are going to be contested by at least 10 parties and coalitions and likely a few more and the differences have rarely been so hard to detect. The last elections in 2012 where the first elections in which the largest parties did not differ fundamentally about the direction of the country. The consensus on EU integration and a pragmatic approach on Kosovo made the victory of the progressive party possible and removed the main cleavage of politics in Serbia during the 1990s and 2000s (Vreme offers a good timeline of all previous elections with slogans and results). As lines of division became blurred, the political scene in Serbia lacks clear defining markers and only few parties, such as Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) do not share this overall consensus.

If there are increasingly fewer distinguishing characteristics between parties in Serbia, strange bedfellows emerge. When Liberal Democrats (LDP) formed a pre-election coalition with the Bosniak Democratic Community of Sandžak (BDZS), it raised some eyebrows. The BDZS is the outfit of the ambitious Mufi of Sandzak, Muamer ef. Zukorlić (Not to be confused with the BDZ, another wing of the same original party that plans to run jointly with other minority parties). Besides his apparent preference for white BMWs with personalized license plates (‘Mufty‘) he has been a polarizing figure in Sandžak, defending a conservative agenda and being hostile to liberal NGOs, hardly compatible with the platform of the LDP.

In addition, nearly every coalition in the elections has a party claiming to be social democratic or socialist on its list (the fitting slogan of the SPS in 1993: ‘Kad bolje razmislimo, svi smo mi pomalo socijalisti’–we think about it, we are all a bit socialist): LDP included the small Socialdemocatic Union (SDU), the Progressive Party, itself ostensibly a centre-right group, included the Socialdemocratic Party of Rasim Ljajić–the ultimate survivor of Serbian politics and in government uninterrupted since 2000–and the Socialist Movement, a one man show of Aleksandar Vulin, who was  an activist in Mira Markovićs JUL and now combines defending Kosovo with Che Guevara. Then there is the Socialist Party of Serbia, and the New Democratic Party of Boris Tadić, running with the League of Socialdemocrats of Vojvodina (LSV). Finally, the Democratic Party (DS) is a member of the Socialist International.

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Vision for Serbia–The slogan of the New Democratic Party (considering Tadić’s 8 years as president it somewhat rings hollow)

A final way of looking at the jungle of parties running for elections is Democratic Party itself. Since its founding in 1990, it has never been able to change leadership without a split: as a result, four parties running stem from the original DS, including Koštunica’s Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) that split in 1992, the LDP founded in 2005 and the New Democratic Party that former president Tadić established just a few weeks ago (technically it is not  a new party, Tadić took over the small green party to avoid the time consuming and costly process of registering a new party). The New Party (NS) lead by former PM and DS official Zoran Živković ended up in a pre-election coalition with DS rather than taking the risk of running independently.

Another survivor is Vuk Drašković who began his political career with Vojislav Šešelj and later the Serbian Renewal Movement that was a leading opposition group in the 1990s. He managed to hang on through pre-election coalitions with New Serbia in 2003, with the DS in 2008, with the LDP in 2012 and today with the Progressive Party.

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‘I know whom to trust’ Apparently the answer is DSS.

The fragmentation (luckily) also extended to the right of the party spectrum. Despite efforts to form a pre-election coalition between the DSS, the Radical Party and Dveri a more recent extreme right wing outfit, the talks failed and they all run separately, as does another right-wing group called the Third Serbia (TS) and also the movement 1389 announced it would independently. As a result in opinion polls, only DSS is likely to enter parliament among these groupings.

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Dačić. A rather short slogan (the other one for Belgrade elections is ‘Belgrade are people’)

The confusing party landscape is largely facilitated by the election law. With a five percent threshold and no higher threshold for coalitions, larger parties see an interest in linking up with smaller groupings to increase their vote and small parties can enter parliament although their support would certainly be well under five percent. As voters cannot select candidates and the entire country is one electoral unit, there is also a strong bias towards candidates from Belgrade with the rest of the country underrepresented. Furthermore, it leads to oddities, such as Boris Tadić being the main visible poster boy of the New Democratic Party, but not being on the list of candidates.

Amidst all this confusion, there is likely to be one clear winner, the Progressive Party of Aleksandar Vučić. While opinion polls are often biased, several polls (see here, here and here) suggest that the party and its partners will gain around 45 percent of the vote. The fragmentation of the Democratic Party between the current party led by Dragan Djilas and the New Democratic Party of Tadić help contribute to the strength of the party, but in essence the elections were triggered by the SNS to translate its popularity into seats and to marginalise PM Dačić, who has become a prime target in the pre-election campaign.

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It’s time. It has been the time before (in at least two previous elections this was the main slogan of a party)

At this point, it is not yet clear whether SNS will be able to govern on their own (if they would this would be a first in recent Serbian politics). If opinion polls are correct, Vučić’s party will only need a few more votes to form a government and it currently has a number of options with whom to form a government. Unlike in 2012 when it relied on the socialists, it will be able to choose among multiple partners and thus drive the price down these can extract. Currently, the Liberaldemocrats of Ćeda Jovanović seem like the most attractive partner. The party, if it enters parliament, will be fairly small to extract much influence and help the SNS with a reformist image. It is thus no surprise that candidates from the SNS have been careful not to critizise Jovanović although he used to be the main target of criticism on the right. The other wild card is Boris Tadić. His return to active politics after his electoral defeat in 2012 and losing power in the DS afterwards has polarized. Either way, the elections will seal the dominance of SNS and leave behind a fragmented and weak opposition that is currently shaped by infighting. It thus seems that the SNS will a number of years ahead in which it can govern with a safe majority. The main weakness of the party will come from within, as it continues to lack qualified people to meet Serbia’s challenges.

Frivolous Elections and a Heroic Super First Vice President

Late in 2013 three singers calling themselves the “three piggies and the bad wolf zahar” performed the song “the first vice prime minister” for the ever popular/awful entertainment show grand parada, the Serbian version of the Musikantenstadl. What might sound cryptic to an outsider is clear to anybody following Serbian politics: the Prvi Potpredsednik (or short just PPV, V stands for Vlada , government) is a title that formally does not exist, but the job Aleksandar Vučić currently holds. The composer Milutin Popović Zahar claims it to be a humorous tribute to Vučić and judging by his previous ‘tributes’, he is talented in telling from where the wind blows. Among the 2,500 compositions, there is Živela Jugoslavija (Live Yugoslavia!) from the 1980s and more recently Vidovdan.

The musical tribute is just one of the sillier aspects of the growing personality cult surrounding Vučić, who after a year or so of discussions whether early elections should be held, finally announced parliamentary elections for 16th March (officially called by President Nikolić). Just a few days later, as a snow storm blocked the highway Belgrade-Subotica, the new super hero jumped into action. Together with the other Serbian ‘saint’, tenis player Novak Djoković, he himself went to the blocked highway to savee passengers stuck in the snow. This PR stunt in best Putinesque style, unleashed a flurry of mockery on-line, including the above-pictured photos and a number of videos. However, the message in Serbian tabloids was clear.

kurirVučić and Djoković are heroes, while Tadić and Daćić are secretly meeting in Munich (also signaling that the current PM is fair game). For good measure, Kurir also listed what ten public personalities did instead of saving children (such as drinking, watching TV, featuring Čedomir Jovanović, Saša Radulović who recently resigned as minister for the economy and has since been viciously attacked by the media loyal to the governing SNS and, for good measure, Roger Federer).

This is just the beginning of the election campaign for these superfluous parliamentary elections. Serbia has had  more than its fair share of elections over the past 24 years. In addition to three Yugoslav parliamentary elections (1992, 1996, 2000), 10 Serbian presidential elections (1990, 1992, 4 rounds in 1997, 3 failed rounds in 2002, 1 failed round in 2003, 2004, 2008, 2012), Serbia held nine parliamentary elections. Thus, excluding local elections, Serb citizens had the ‘opportunity’ to vote in 22 elections in 24 years. In fact, of all the parliamentary elections since the first ones in 1990 (1990, 1992, 1993, 1997, 2000, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2011) only three were regular elections (1997 and 2007, 2012). The others were called early because governing coalitions broke down (2003, 2008), or because the ruling party hoped to improve its chances (as in 1992 and 1993), as is the case today.As some earlier parliamentary  elections, the forthcoming elections serve no obvious purpose besides consolidating the SNS political dominance. The current governing coalition is not in crisis and the despite the continuous talk of early elections, this had little to do with bad relations between parties in the coalition or some political difference in terms of substance or style. It is only clear that the junior partner, the Socialist Party (SPS) is likely to be pushed aside after new elections. Being the only party able to form a coalition with both large parties (DS and SNS) last time around, Dačić was able to negotiate a disproportionally large share of political power and this is coming to haunt him now, as Vučić apparently no longer wants to be just PPV, but take over the primeministership. Even though it seems unlikely that his Progressive Party will be able to governing without partners, there is no shortage of potential coalition partners. In fact, candidates are lining up. Thus, last time around the SNS had very few potential coalition partners that could drive up the price for forming a coalition, now SNS will be able to drive down the price and bargain hard. In addition to allies such as Rasim Ljajić’s Socialdemocrats, the Liberal-Democrats have signaled their willingness to join a coalition, as have some minority parties in addition to the Socialists and their partners.

To some degree, it seems merely logical that the most popular party should govern and also lead the government. The construction of the current government has been awkward and meant that for crucial decisions, such as negotiations with Kosovo, not only the prime minister, but also the PPV had to be fully included. The popularity of the SNS is compounded by the weakness of the opposition and thus, a resounding victory seems appropriate. However, the attacks by media close to the SNS on the opposition, the populist reflexes of Vučić and calling for elections when there is no other justification than maximizing power, the risk of Serbia moving towards a populist “demokratura” is real. Already in Macedonia and Republika Srpska, the combination of constant campaigning, the instrumental use of early elections (in Macedonia), reducing space for critical media and the social and nationalist populism of the government has seriously eroded the democratic system and its institutions. If Serbia moves this way, it is important for outsider to look more carefully. So far the temptation for the EU and other outsiders has been to ignore such trends over the government’s willingness to compromise over Kosovo.

 

 

 

The good past and the bad past: Two Belgrade exhibits

A family tree

A family tree

Picturing the past

Picturing the past

Belgrade is hosting two very different exhibits these days, just a few meters apart: The exhibition Bogujevci—A Virtual History was opened with much public attention, it was less the few protesters who opposed the exhibit, but rather the visit of Ivica Dačić. Even now, a few policemen in front of the exhibit and out on the street keep a watchful eye. Otherwise, there is a steady trickle of visitors… just down the road another exhibit just opened, called Živeo život, a second exhibition about “what we lost and brought with us from Jugo”. Here, unsurprisingly, a much larger number of visitors listens to Yu-Music, marvels at sports stars of Yugoslavia or looks through the Yugoslav supermarket.

A painful reminder of the past

A nostalgic couch

A nostalgic couch

Both exhibits give a central place to a living room, complete with couches, TV, dark brown wall unit and kitschy decoration. In both, they are reminders of the past. The first represents the home of the Bogujevci family in Podujevo before most family members were killed in 1999, the second is generic living room of Yugoslavia. Both exhibits try to take historic events out of the larger political narrative of grand events and big politics to a personal level–literally into the living rooms. The exhibit about the Bogujevci family is neither pathetic, nor does it provides for a grand narrative of the wars. It simply shows the consequence of a war crime on a family and the very personal efforts of the family to see some of the perpetrators punished. The exhibit is testament to their effort to remind the public of the crimes. The “Live your life” exhibit instead offers an escape from the present. It puts the red Yugoslav passport into a golden frame, and presents the glories of Yugoslav life and consumerism with little irony or critical narrative.

For visitors, this is the opportunity to put on the pioneers’ cap and scarf, step on a vespa and listen to Yu-music. There is no mention of the inflation, the shortages, poverty, or the absurdities of the political system. Where the House of Terror in Budapest and similar exhibits  try to paint a picture of Communism as a period of pure horror, this exhibit does the opposite by mixing personal nostalgia with the memories of a country gone by. These two exhibits shed two very different perspectives on the past and how large events effected everyday life.

Red passport--golden frame

Protests from Maribor to Istanbul: Looking back at a year of demonstrations

graz 2014 protest FINAL

Here are some answers for an interview on the protests I gave to the Macedonian daily Dnevnik on the occassion of the conference “Rebellion and Protest from Maribor to Taksim. Social Movements in the Balkans” that will be organised this Thursday through Saturday by the Centre for Southeast European Studies in Graz.

What signal are the Balkans sending through these social movements: are they waking up, finally?

The protests accross the region, from Maribor to Istanbul show, that civil society is alive and well in many countries. Citizens care about public spaces, are concerned about corruption and austerity and resent the close links between business and politics. Of course, there is great variation in the size of the protests, their duration and their success. I would see the protests in Sofia as the most impressive display of public discontent this year. Their duration is spectacular and their participants are sceptical of the entire political elite, both government and opposition. When the target of the protests is so broad, unlike for example the building a shopping centre in a park as in Istanbul, it is often hard to sustain momentum. There are two clear messages that the protests send. First, citizens do not trust elites, they are seen as not representing the citizens, but private interests. Thus, the message is a call for more democracy and rule of law. Second, in some protests, the economic crisis and the difficult situation many citizens have found themselves in was either a central theme, or a trigger, like high electricity prices in Bulgaria. Overall, citizens in the region have endured much greater economic hardship than elsewhere in Europe without protesting. Economic hardship becomes a key trigger is when the difficult situation is combined with a sense of lack of fairness.

What do all this protests, as you described: from Maribor to Taksim, have in common?

Every protest is individual and has different causes and triggers. Yet, there is a larger pattern, that extends of course beyond Maribor and Istanbul: we have probably seen the largest wave of protests over the last two-three years around the world since 1989. These protests have taken place in democracies like Spain or Greece and in dictatorships like Libya and Syria. Most protests have taken place in the European borderlands of the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe (see the current protests in Ukraine). The protests share a sense of frustration with being badly governed and having unresponsive elites. The promise of prosperity and better rule of Europe is close and thus seems possible. This has motivated many protests: the comparison of one’s own government with the possibilities close by. The economic crisis might not always be central to the protests, but the crisis has shed light on corruption and patronage—if there is less money to go around in times of crisis, bad governance becomes more obvious.

 Do you, as an expert, think that this is the right way for the Balkans to make their “dreams come true”?

Protests can achieve their own goal and still fail. Individual demands can be met, governments can resign—as was the case in Bulgaria in February—and yet fundamental change might not happen. Thus not addressing the roots of the problem that brought about the situation in the first place. The key is for protests to lead to institutional forms of civic engagement. I don’t just mean NGOs, but rather movements , political parties and also media that will carry the demands along. This is always a tricky moment, as those working through institutions might be accused of  “selling out” and some indeed might become regular politicians and abandon their original goals. On the other hand, the demands or the underlying grievances of the protests are often  too  large to be addressed right away. When change takes time, it cannot be achieved through protests alone and then invariable the question arises of how to pursue change and reform. A protest can have two functions: it can empower citizens, giving them the feeling that they can achieve change , in the words of banner from protests in Banja Luka to save Picin park, “You are not a slave of the system, you are change”

 What if their problems are not solved as they want and insist?

Disappointment is nearly inevitable: Firstly, protests movements include citizens with many different expectations. In fact, to be succesful a protest movement usually has to draw from different social groups with varying hopes and grievances. Observers noted that the protests in Istanbul brought together gays and lesbians, Kurdish activists, environmentalists and citizens who had not been previously active. They will all have different expectations of the protests and some will find their demands not met. The success or failure of protests is thus not only a function of whether the immediate demands are met, but rather whether the political environment changes—if those who went to the streets realise that they can achieve change and that institutions are responsive. This dynamic sometimes takes time to be visible. The protests in Belgrade in the winter of 1996-7 first seemed like a failure—Milosevic met the formal demands, but continued to rule like before. However, the revolution of 2000 was unimaginable without these earlier protests. Similarly, the protests in Taksim have been repressed with force by the Turkish government and at the moment it does not seem like they were successful. However, as a banner in Istanbul read, “This is just the beginning!”, “From now on, nothing will be the same again!” We do not know what the next form of protest will look like in Turkey, but it clear that many citizens are dissatisfied with the status quo and demand not just a different government, but a different style of governing—and this is a common feature across the region.

What the Belgrade-Prishtina Agreement means for Bosnia

The agreement between Belgrade and Prishtina, even if its implementation will surely hit some snags has repercussions beyond the two countries themselves. In particular Bosnia is going to be affected, being the other country in a continuous major political crisis.

First, the ability of the Serbian and the Kosovo government to find a compromise should put the current political elite of Bosnia to shame for not agreeing on some basic reforms, ranging from the implementation of Sejdić-Finci verdict to ensuring that Bosnian farmers can continue to export their dairy products to Croatia after it joins the EU on 1st July.

The second major consequence of the agreement will be for Republika Srpska and Milorad Dodik. Lately, he and his associates from the SNSD seem out of step with reality.When Tomislav Nikolić apologized the other day for Serbian war crimes, Dodik only commented that the interview (for BHT) was aggressive and that because he wants “good relations with Serbia and its leadership, there is no sense nor need to go into public comments and polemics“–hardly an endorsement for Nikolićs apology. Relations with Serbia have deteriorated after Dodik placed all his bets on Boris Tadić during the elections last year and thus is clearly not in favor with the current government, especially Aleksandar Vučić. The corruption investigations in Serbia that involve good “friends” of Dodik also did not help to improve relations.

Now with the deal between Serbia and Kosovo, Dodik has also lost his ability to evoke a credible alternative to Bosnia. His continuous suggestions that Republika Srpska might eventually become independent  has received a serious blow. While he never talked about the RS joining Serbia, it is clear that the RS could only leave Bosnia with Serbian support. The RS is too small and isolated to achieve this without a supportive neighbor, especially as few other countries in the region and in Europe are likely to take a favorable view. It never seemed particularly plausible that Serbia would support the RS in independence (instead of supporting it as an at least formal part of Bosnia) at the price of EU accession and worsening relations with its neighbors, but it has now become even less credible. The Serbian government has shown a degree of pragmatism and willingness to not pursue the idea of partition in Kosovo. So why would a government of Serbia “give up” on Kosovo, despite it being still part of Serbia according to its constitution and turn around and support the RS. As Dodik’s ally in Serbia, the DS also supports the agreement, Dodik seems rather isolted with his more critical view of the agreement. In fact, he is now closer to Koštunica and thus without strong allies in Serbia. Even if the DS were to return to power in Serbia (unlikely any time soon), it would be without Tadić as a friend and without the same ambiguity he displayed over the RS and Kosovo. Just a few days ago, Nebojša Radmanović, the Serbian member of the Bosnian presidency, evoked  in an interview the RS assembly resolution from 2008 that claimed if half of the UN members recognized Kosovo, the RS would also have the right to declare independence. Now, the count is over half with 98 (of 193) UN members recognizing Kosovo and a referendum on independence of the RS seems increasingly unlikely and evoking its might just start sounding a lot holler in next year’s electoral campaign.

Kosovo Lies and Dacic’s good cop/bad cop Routine

May the real Dačić please stand up?

 

In my home country Luxembourg, there is a traditional hopping procession (Sprangprëssioun) in the town of Echternach Tuesdays after Pentecost. It involves more than 10,000 people in a slow procession with  that takes two steps forward and one back.
Ivica Dačić’s statements in recent weeks about about Kosovo remind a lot of this dance–Two steps forward, one back. Last week, Dačić stated that “[f]or 10 years, Kosovo was taboo. No one could officially tell the truth…  Tales were told; lies were told that Kosovo is ours…the Serbian president cannot go to Kosovo, nor the prime minister, nor ministers, nor the police or army. Serbs can only leave Kosovo. That’s how much Kosovo is ours and what our constitution and laws mean there.” Just later the same day he noted that Serbia would not give up Kosovo for a date to begin EU accession talks: “Serbia showed the will for a compromise in the talks with Priština authorities. We don`t have anything else to propose except the Kosovo independence and we will never do it. Everyone must know one thing: we won`t give up on our legitimate interests just to get a date for the start of EU membership. Don`t count on it”  Of course, such contradictory statements did evoke some comments and questions about what Dačić really meant.

It mostly means that Dačić seems to be well in tune with public opinion or at least is following them closely. Just as he made is flip-flopping statements, B92 published a new survey that suggest that his position is a good reflection of popular opinion. Not only does a majority consider him to be the best negotiator (61% approve and only 26% think a different negotiator would do a better job. Among the alternatives only Vučić is able to have some support), they also seem to share his views. A clear majority of 63% think Kosovo is independent, mirroring Dačić first statement. At the same time, most (65%) would be willing to forgo EU membership if a return of Kosovo to Serbian rule were possible (28% take the opposite view), reflecting Dačić’s second position.

Of course, the latter options seems like a misleading choice: While EU membership is realistic, if far off, a return of Kosovo under Serbian rule sounds completely impossible. Thus, the choice given is between a far off goal and an impossibility. So does this mean that Serbs prefer Kosovo over the EU? Not exactly, there is a different meaning to this number. First, EU and Kosovo have been discussed as a pair for the past six years: first as parallel tracks and more recently increasingly as alternatives. The numbers suggest that citizens do not like to be forced to make a choice or if they do, they might choose Kosovo.  Second, if the alternative is between material benefits (the primary association with EU membership) and “patriotic duty”, Kosovo wins as a hypothetical patriotic-political correct answer. It would be hard to opt for the EU, as long as it is framed as a ‘selfish’ economic choice over the self-sacrifice choice of Kosovo. This is even more so  as choosing Kosovo in an opinion poll has no practical costs or consequences. As a consequence, I would consider the poll as a reflection of pragmaticism backed up with a bit of hypothetical nationalist self-sacrifice. Citizens can live with Kosovo as an independent country, but appear not willing to give up the symbol of the possible return of Kosovo to Serbia, i.e. full recognition.

So what does this mean for Serbian government policy? Dačić’s contradictory statements suggest that he understands public opinion better than any of his predecessors. Opinion polls over the past decade in Serbia have often pointed to similar conclusion as the latest poll. However, his predecessors were unwilling or unable to pick up on the pragmaticism and emphasized the desired and unrealist goal of keeping Kosovo part of Serbia. When Dačić called the Serbian government policies a lie, he also clearly shifted the blame for loosing Kosovo to his predecessors. The opportunity for making such an argument was missed first by Djindjić and then his successors. Of course it take a considerable Chutzpah to make this statement, considering that Dačić has not only been in government since 2008, but also supported Koštunica’s minority government 2004-7, but Dačić has managed to steer clear of Kosovo to have sufficient credibility in making such a statement.

This leaves Serbia in a more pragmatic and realistic position than any time in the last decade. Dačić’s good cop/bad cop routine is clearly intended to satisfy public opinion, but also to move Serbia towards living with this new reality. This does not mean that he will not bargain hard and that finding a modus vivendi for Serbia and Kosovo will be difficult, but his statements suggest that the optimism of EU diplomats over the Serbia-Kosovo negotiations might be justified.

 

 

 

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