Home / Europe / Stability at the expense of democracy? Serbia’s renewed fight against dictatorship

Stability at the expense of democracy? Serbia’s renewed fight against dictatorship

April 30th, 2017

By Irena Baboi – Junior Fellow

On April 2nd, Serbia’s presidential elections had an expected outcome – current Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic won 55% of the vote, a comfortable majority that put him significantly ahead of his main opponents, former human rights advocate Sasa Junkovic, who won only 16% of the vote, and satirical candidate Luka Maksimovic, who won 9%. This means that Vucic will assume office at the end of May without the need of a second round. What was unexpected, however, were the protests that his win sparked across the country. Vucic has been accused of winning the election largely through media manipulation, voter intimidation, and bribes – and from Belgrade to Nis, people are demonstrating against what appears to be his quest to turn his country into a dictatorship.

The story is an all too familiar one in the region. Voter apathy, along with campaign and voting irregularities, led to a landslide win for a candidate from the political elite who made sure he had no real opposition. Vucic was already effectively running things in Serbia as Prime Minister, as the role of the president is known to be largely ceremonial. Also, as the leader of the Serbian Progressive Party, Vucic has had majority in parliament since 2014 – and as it is the President who proposes the Prime Minister, he will soon have control over the entire legislative and governing process. His win means he can rule the country in an autocratic manner, and continue to favour a tight grip on decision-making at the expense of democratic rights and freedoms for his people.

Aleksandar Vucic is a former ultranationalist turned Western supporter, who gained praise from the United States and the European Union for his commitment to lead Serbia towards European accession and resolve the country’s ongoing dispute with Kosovo. He has also ensured that Serbia maintains close ties with Russia, thus achieving a relatively successful balancing act between the West and the East for his country. His external openness is, however, matched by his internal desire for complete control over Serbia – his statement on “allowing” the protests to continue instead of intervening to stop them speaks volumes about both the way in which he plans on ruling and how he sees himself as a leader.

The post-election protests in Serbia are, above all, a reaction to Vucic’s Serbian Progressive Party’s rule since 2014. The Progressives are accused of corruption, eroding of media freedom, running campaigns against government critics and the opposition, introducing laws that affect workers’ and young people’s rights, and generally maintaining monopoly over all decision-making in the country. With Vucic at their lead, they have ensured that information is controlled and manipulated, that voting is not entirely fair and free, and that political allegiance continues to matter when it comes to well-paid jobs and promotions. As such, the party has gradually brought Serbia back to the social and political situation the country found itself in seventeen years before. The parallels drawn by the media to protests in the 1990s against Slobodan Milosevic’s decade of dictatorship are particularly illustrative of this point – almost two decades later, in a European Union candidate country, the people need to again voice their opposition to autocracy and demand rights and freedoms that should have been theirs for years.

It is the daily realities of life in Serbia that feature prominently on the protest banners and in the protesters’ chants; and it is their daily struggles and hopes for a better future that have kept them out on the streets since the beginning of April. The majority of protesters are students who increasingly see their future in Serbia as non-existent, as high unemployment rates and low salaries mean they cannot build the life they want in their own country. These young protesters have also been joined by workers who see the best jobs still going to politically-affiliated people, and Serbs of all ages who are seeing history repeat itself after seventeen years of so-called democratic transition.

Despite all this, however, Western media has been notably quiet on the topic, particularly in comparison with coverage of recent protests in Romania and Macedonia. This is not so much due to a lack of interest as it is due to support for Vucic from both the United States and the European Union. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel called the protests “normal” for a democracy, and praised both them for remaining peaceful and Vucic for maintaining the peace. Support for Vucic, moreover, comes from both the West and the East, with most major leaders congratulating him immediately after his win. This is most likely due to the lack of a feasible alternative for Serbia from their point of view, and a belief that they can count on him to maintain stability and support progress in both Serbia and the wider Balkan region.

Vucic’s promises of democracy, stability and progress, however, mean little to his people who have, if nothing else, just witnessed his recent political campaign, particularly in the last month prior to the elections. What led to this landslide win was a campaign characterised by Vucic’s near complete domination of all media, attacks in the pro-government press on opposition candidates and people close to them, and votes which were bought, fabricated or stolen. Among the protesters’ demands are mass resignations and changes in the media, electoral commission and political elite, as well as a re-evaluation of the electoral rolls, which are said to contain a significant number of ineligible votes. The demands highlight the everyday difficulties that many Serbian people continue to experience; more worryingly, however, they also paint the picture of a state and society that seems to have moved backwards instead of forward since the disintegration of Yugoslavia.

The protesters’ demands, unfortunately, are likely to go on ignored. Vucic has won the election by a large margin and has the backing of both the West and Russia. Provided the protests do not turn violent, which is unlikely, he can afford to let them run their course. Vucic does not see the protesters as a threat, nor does he fear the outcome of potential snap elections if he cannot avoid them. His position is, from all points of view, a secure one. As a consequence, the protests are unlikely to achieve any degree of change in the short-term; in the long-term, however, they could represent the first step towards a more active and vocal Serbian people – one that is willing to stand up for its freedoms and rights more often.

The protests are also yet another important signal for the European Union – the organisation cannot continue sacrificing democratic development in favour of stability in the region, and it should not continue supporting leaders who make sure all opposition and criticism to their rule is supressed. Serbia edging closer to autocracy goes against the European Union’s core values and principles – and it is a dangerous example in a region where leaders need little else but opportunity to assume complete control of their countries.

The Serbian people are not out in the streets because this was not the election result they expected – they are out in the streets because they know what the result means for their future in the next five years. As in most countries of the region, it is the mere fact that people still need to fight for basic human and democratic rights that causes anger and dissatisfaction – and as in most countries of the region, these protests come after years of hoping the situation will improve. As things stand, Vucic’s win is a gain for stability but a loss for democracy – and it is high time that the two started being treated as equals again.

Image: Aleksandar Vucic and Russian President Vladimir Putin (Source: www.Kremlin.ru)

About Irena Baboi

Irena Baboi is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow, researching the future of European Union involvement in the Western Balkans. She also obtained both of her previous degrees from the same university, having completed an MA in Politics and Central and East European Studies and an MSc in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies. Irena’s previous work experience includes internships with AKE Intelligence Group in London, as well as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and United Nations Information Centre in her hometown of Bucharest, Romania, fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support, freelance writing and editing for Oxford University Press. She has also been a volunteer with the British Red Cross since 2013. Irena’s research interests include human rights, peacebuilding and statebuilding, conflict prevention, management and resolution, transitional justice, and post-conflict development.