Dragan Popović: “This kind of government cannot be reformed, only overthrown“

At a time when the coalition formed in Novi Sad was highlighted as the opposition’s greatest success in the recent election, Dragan Popović, director of the Center for Practical Politics, expressed concern that the coalition was too broad.

When asked if this was the reason for the opposition’s poor results, he said he was not sure, but he was convinced that it was partly the case, adding: “If a coalition consists of everybody and anybody – from conservative nationalists to the left – what message are you sending to your voters? Moreover, this particular coalition included the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina and POKS, who had long been part of the Novi Sad government, together with SNS. Wherever a group of citizens ran separately and offered solutions to local issues, they did well, but in Novi Sad, all the groups of citizens were the opposition’s candidates and yet they failed to produce good results”, says Popović in an interview for Radar.

Before the election, you said that it doesn’t matter whether the opposition participates or boycotts the election, as long as they can articulate their decision. We had both options, how do you evaluate them now?

Neither articulated their decision. They got tangled up in the boycott versus non-boycott debate and turned a methodological question into an essential one. Then, some public figures, which is very dangerous, framed it as a moral issue. This should not be done because it’s merely a choice of one method of fight over another, with the same goal – to overthrow the authoritarian system. Not every method will work the same at every moment.

When the elections were called, the next step should have been to articulate the message and take responsibility for the decision, but in the end, we got an opposition that was preoccupied with itself. I participated in the elections, but my results are not the responsibility of some mythical figure like Đilas, but solely of the opposition that participated in the elections and for whom I voted. This is important to say because we need to teach politicians that they alone are responsible for their decisions.

Does this mean that for you, the conditions under which the election takes place are not a fundamental issue?

I think the biggest problem when talking about election conditions is that one party and one man have privatized all public resources and created media inequality. Every election here since 2014 has been more or less irregular, only the techniques of “cheating” differ, and it is up to the opposition and public opinion whether they focus on this or something else. In December, there was a huge emphasis on election conditions, which is logical and good on one hand, but a bit dangerous on the other because it distracts from the core issue – how this country is governed. The opposition must offer a credible alternative and show that things can be done differently and better.

We will never get better election conditions from an authoritarian government because otherwise, it wouldn’t be authoritarian. And if the opposition places all the emphasis on buses bringing voters from the Republic of Srpska and SNS-run call centers, I’m afraid that won’t be enough for the citizens to recognize them as a serious alternative. There is constant talk about injustice rather than alternative policies that could attract a broader circle of people.

What would be a good alternative policy at this moment?

In the last two or three years, I talked about consumer prices with anyone I spoke to, because that’s something that affects us on a daily basis. When was the last time you heard the opposition talk about prices in stores? How is it possible that inflation wasn’t even a topic for the opposition during the election campaign, and instead, they mostly talked about themselves? You need to show the citizens that when you come to power, you will do something about their living standard; that’s the key part that’s missing.

And what programme does the SNS offer? In the last elections, they mocked the opposition for promising new sewage systems, but I personally didn’t understand what they offered that was better than that.

Of course, there are SNS voters who are coerced into voting for that party. And there are quite a few of them, but I’m not inclined to condemn them. A system of privatizing public power has been established and they believe that it is this system that puts food on their table. To gain their votes, we must dismantle that system first.

On the other hand, what the SNS offers is the experience of governance, which has always been important in this country. I still remember that anecdotal story when a farmer told Vuk Drašković, “I’ll vote for you when you’re in power.” It’s not a servile mentality; I don’t believe such a thing exists at all, but there is a belief among people that performing public duties requires seriousness. Experienced politicians in suits from the SPS seemed more convincing to them than the unkempt Vuk Drašković. Also, we have long lived with the belief that things can always get worse, and unfortunately, this has proven to be true. Now, when they look at Vučić, they see a leader who constantly rules with a firm hand, but it’s the case of better the devil you know. How could they know anything different when the opposition is nowhere to be seen in local parliaments, when parties change their names in every election, when there isn’t a single brand except for the Democratic Party, and when nothing lasts longer than 10 years?

If a brand and stability are needed, why do we constantly hear: give us new faces?

We can’t lump everything together: some people want new faces, some don’t, and these two things are not incompatible. One thing is that they want young people with new ideas, and another is that they want a recognizable organization that these people fit into. We have many groups of citizens that have emerged, shone briefly, and disappeared, with only a small number managing to build a brand like the Local Front from Kraljevo, which has lasted for three election cycles. New people are refreshing, but politics is a process, and nothing can be achieved overnight, especially not toppling an authoritarian regime. I was fascinated that some people genuinely believed that Vučić was about to fall, yet we are talking about a regime that controls absolutely everything.

Slobodan Milošević never had as much power as Vučić does now. The opposition doesn’t even have a local community council; they have none of the resources, and when they don’t overthrow the regime in one election cycle, everyone gets disappointed – half give up, and the other half look for a magical solution. No, let’s stop to see what we’ve achieved, what we’ve gained, and what foundation exists to build upon. We shouldn’t form new coalitions again and regroup again. . I think that this chaos contributes to what we have now.

The opposition needs to stop complaining, accept the results, and see what they have gained. And they do have something – after many years, in all major cities, there are serious opposition groups in the parliament. This is something valuable because it brings infrastructure, visibility, and the impression of seriousness that we just talked about. They are now councilors, part of the system, not just activists running around the streets. This is a base that can be built upon to more seriously shake the regime in four years’ time.

Is there any country with the prefix “democratic” where only one party has to control everything, down to the last local community?

No, there isn’t and that’s the best proof of the nature of this regime. When I talk to people from abroad and they ask me about the nature of the Serbian government, I just tell them this. There is no country in Europe, and very few outside of Europe, where someone has such a concentration of power in their hands. This wasn’t even seen during Milošević’s time, and that’s not by accident; it’s intentional. The SNS lost the majority of votes in the Novi Sad neighbourhood of Liman, and it was such a tragedy for them that they immediately started threatening people, and now they want to forcibly build a church there to perhaps bless them a bit. Vučić aspires to greater power than the Communist Party ever had, and that’s very dangerous. That’s why he crushes every pocket of resistance, which sometimes seems even comical to us from the outside, but in reality, it’s not normal.

When Milošević established control similar to today’s in the late 1990s, he quickly lost power. Why we don’t have the same resistance now?

It’s not true that there is no resistance at all. When there is such a powerful and monolithic government, and when everyone armed in this country is connected to it, from the editors of Informer to the BIA, yet they still lose election in the third largest city in the country, it means that there is resistance. It means that society has not agreed to it, but the circumstances back then were very different – the 1990s were a different century in every way. When Milošević fell, there was almost no Internet in this country. I remember trying to get some information by climbing onto the roof and adjusting the antenna to catch Radio Pančevo. That’s why the resistance now is different in both form and substance.

Also, Vučić has learned a lot from the 1990s because he was in power then too. That radical-socialist mindset is very similar. Additionally, international circumstances are different now too. In the 1990s, you had a world generally moving in a good direction and Serbia falling out of line. Now you have a world moving in a very strange direction, and there aren’t many global officials who define themselves by categories like democracy and the rule of law. And almost none of them say that Aleksandar Vučić is an authoritarian ruler.

What is often forgotten is that an authoritarian government cannot reformed, but should be overthrown. With the kind of government we have, we cannot reform or improve anything. You journalists have seen best on your own example -Vučić’s goal is to kill freedom of information.

The EU reacted after the December elections, but not now. What has changed in such a short time?

The current report from the observer mission is very similar to the previous one; what differs is the intensity of the pressure from Serbia. Back then, we put all our cards on the election conditions; that was the main topic, which, as I’ve already said, has its advantages and disadvantages. In December, the opposition was strong enough to launch such an offensive, primarily because of institutional ties with European parliamentary groups, which is very important and something we’ve only had for the past year. After that, there were the European Parliament elections, and they had a different focus; many people who were involved with Serbia either dropped out or had their positions threatened, so the EU’s influence was no longer strong enough. But even if it had been, it wouldn’t have changed much. We must overthrow the government ourselves. And when the West helps us, it helps because the internal resistance is strong enough.

What will happen to us while the opposition builds its base over the next four years? Even though the SNS has again won nearly absolute power, the pressure became even worse the very next day instead of easing up.

We certainly can’t just wait for improvement to happen on its own. Vučić won’t ease up because he sees that the numbers in his favour are constantly declining. He received fewer votes now than in December, and the downward trend has been going since 2016. It’s clear to him that despite all the pressures, voter buying, and misuse of public resources, he cannot retain voters. He will continue to apply even more pressure because once he started down this path, he can’t afford to stop. If he stops, everything could collapse for him. I don’t have a smart answer to what will happen to us if the situation radicalizes even further, but I know that we all must fight together to prevent radicalization. Civil society, the media, and political parties must stick together and insist on solidarity as a fundamental social value. We may have lost the state, but we are still fighting for society.

(Radar, 28.06.2024)


This post is also available in: Italiano

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