What will happen after Vučić leaves?

By Davor Džalto

Professor at the University College in Stockholm

“The mass murders that rocked Serbia in May 2023 were the trigger for the latest series of protests in Belgrade. The response of the authorities (i.e. representatives of the government, their propaganda machine and intellectuals that support them) to the massacres and protests was as inappropriate as it was harmful to the government itself. The aggressiveness and accusations coming from the mainstream media led to the escalation of protests and the apparent decline in the popularity of the ruling party in Serbia.

Looking for a pragmatic way out of the unexpected situation, the authorities decided on a manoeuvre with which it intended to separate supposedly “non-political” protests, where mostly cool citizens gather, from non-cool citizens and opposition political parties, which are only trying to profit from justified civil rebellion. In this way, coupled with a myriad of wrong moves made in the past, the government is trying to, on the one hand, “take over” the protests, thereby eliminating their potential to turn into a more serious political threat and, on the other hand, to dull their edge, counting on fatigue and summer as factors that will contribute to quieting down the protests. To make the situation even more difficult for the government, it seems that the influential media and political circles in the USA and in Western Europe, which for more than ten years showed tacit support for the regime and a high degree of tolerance towards all the savagery that came from the government, are starting to slowly change their position – certainly not because they have the welfare of Serbia and its citizens at their heart.

CUMULATIVE EFFECT

Protests under the motto “Serbia against Violence” can be viewed as the response of a large number of Serbian citizens to years and decades of violence, humiliation, blackmail, impoverishment, and hopelessness that they have been facing. The protests, therefore, are certainly political in the deepest sense, although they were not originally initiated by political parties. How to translate such protests into a more structured political action and more complex political processes that can lead to real changes?

That’s where some of the opposition parties and movements entered the stage, coordinating the protests and formulating the goals of the protests, such as the demand for the removal of members of the Electronic Media Monitoring Council (REM), taking away national broadcasting frequencies for TV stations that promote violence, and the removal of ministers Bratislav Gašić and Aleksandar Vulin.

Some opposition representatives (where, in addition to the opposition political parties, I also include the media and intellectuals who oppose the current regime and government policies) also present other, reasonable and justified demands, such as the revision of electoral lists (in order to prevent election manipulation, freer media reporting (which includes Serbian Broadcasting Corporation (RTS) being open to opposition representatives and being critical of the government), ensuring fair and free elections… All this is required in order to lead the country out of the permanent state of emergency in which it currently finds itself.

Since the current government is based on media manipulations and corrupts the entire society with a clientelistic system, the probability that they will agree to these conditions is minute, unless they come to the conclusion that there is no other way out, which would almost certainly lead to the collapse of the current government system.

The opposition currently does not appear to be capable of overthrowing the regime either in terms of personnel or organization, unless it receives significant support from abroad, which will happen when the Western superpowers assess that Vučić has become either indefensible or unusable when it comes to implementing their interests. The cumulative effect of mass protests, better organization and coordination among opposition parties, better personnel policy, clear programme goals, connections with structures disloyal to Vučić within the current government and side support (political, financial and media structures), may result in in the overthrow of the current regime.

Then what?

BUT…

New people would probably come to power, unless many of the old ones would have spilt over into the new ruling group, as is the custom in the Serbian multi-party system, which is almost inevitable if a pact with them will be formed for tactical reasons, i.e. to overthrow the existing regime. If, however, we assume that the primary role in the new government would be played by new faces, who did not develop in the cesspool of the tabloid media, who do not come from a criminal milieu and who are able to say a few simple sentences that do not contain banalities, insults or obvious contradictions, there is a strong probability that the new ones would clean up the public discourse and have some scruples at least when it comes to public performances. If the public sphere would be more decent and the political processes somewhat more democratic under this new system, it would certainly be a step forward and something worth fighting for.

But… Let’s remember that the authoritarian regime of Slobodan Milošević was overthrown on October 5, 2000, as a result of a huge effort, many years of protests, very serious opposition work “on the ground” and financial and logistical help from abroad. At the same time, the opposition was backed by a lot of serious people who gave them moral strength and instilled confidence in the citizens since they had knowledge, personal integrity, years of dissident experience, and previous work results…

The overthrow of Milošević’s regime was the proclaimed goal of the united opposition. Apart from the overthrow of the regime, the party programmes mostly proposed different versions of the establishment of the imagined liberal-democratic paradise, once Milošević’s regime is overthrown, but even then it was clear that these programmes, however useful as an antidote to autocracy, were not based on any serious reflection, the principles of liberalism (especially economic), the application of abstract dogmas in a concrete social context, and real-political internal and external pressures in order to make political decisions in a certain direction. With generous “help” from the outside, and hordes of domestic independent intellectuals and media, typical (neo)liberal-capitalist policies were introduced, adapted to the needs of corrupt domestic elites and foreign actors, affirming mediocrity as the highest intellectual reach, as long as the mediocrity is used by to “the correct” party lines.

Serbia was ushered into the post-Milošević period, which, of course, generated a number of positive results, but it was also a period of unregulated privatizations, sharp stratification, the destruction of the domestic banking sector, accumulation of debt, the collapse of the healthcare and education system… All this is a result of a combination of factors, including the incompetence and absence of deeper knowledge about the processes taking place (which are not only of a local character), ideological blindness, the absence of serious strategies for the development of society, the enormous pressure of the western corporate-political centres to implement certain policies, as well as the proverbial corruption of domestic politicians and intellectuals, whose lack of knowledge and free thought, as a rule, is compensated by excess superficiality, careerism and a tendency towards clannish and “brotherly” solutions. Most of this has been perpetuated, even boosted under the current regime.

For a large number of citizens, the result of more than ten years of “transition” was a feeling of hopelessness, alienation of the political elites and the media from the everyday life of citizens, impoverishment, the collapse of key social institutions… These factors, with generous “outside” support, when it was estimated that the narcissistic and the vain Tadić regime is no longer “constructive” enough on the issue of Kosovo, brought former Radicals to power. When some kind of democracy fails, then the democratic potential of the citizens often spills over into an autocratic system (seen many times throughout history) in which a quick and easy way out of the problem is used.

WISHFUL THINKING

The question for those who want to articulate civil discontent today is how not only to overthrow the existing regime but also to devise long-term and realistic strategies for tackling enormous social problems, in order to avoid the risk that again, in ten years or so, a new Milošević or Vučić will come to power, who will be able to balance obedience to external political centres with the expansion of his own power within the country (as long as that power does not harm the interests of empires)? How to mobilize all existing potential in order to think carefully about what are all the problems, what are the goals, what are the strategies and what are the tactics, and who are the people who can be counted on in order not only to change the political regime but also seriously prepare for real, not fake policies that will once again redistribute political and economic power among the elite? If you really want to do something good, then it would be a fatal mistake to mix marketing phrases and cheap effects with the real content of concrete policies.

It seems that some of the opposition political parties are at least on some level aware of this problem and have the desire to start a quality discussion on the basis of which the future direction and the answer to the biggest challenges would be formulated. Thus, the document titled “The Political System Reform”, written by the Free Citizens Movement, states that “if we are satisfied with the democracy we had prior to 2012, it will most certainly collapse very quickly under the onslaught of new populism and dissatisfaction.” However, most of the publicly available opposition programmes and principles sound like wishful thinking and a bunch of simplified phrases (perhaps because they believe that anything with more substance would be incomprehensible to the average citizen/voter). From the character of those wishful thinking lists, one can sense that the principles and values that these programmes contain are based on well-known (neo)liberal-capitalist stories, which are not a solution to accumulated social problems, but a problem in itself.

The majority of the opposition media is mostly fanatically dedicated to the liberal-capitalist story, with not only incorrect but also banal contrasting of the “democratic” and “free West” with the “authoritarian East”, which sends a subtle message to the citizens – it is better to be a Western colony, that is your maximum and if you are not that, you will be living in a backward eastern despotism. Most of those media outlets and hordes of intellectuals who participate in the creation of this propaganda discourse (rightly) see autocracy in Russia or Serbia, but are completely blind to the very real absence of freedom and democracy in, e.g. the United States, as well as to the rapid collapse of democratic principles and human rights throughout the so-called of the Western world, which is achieved precisely by the further implementation of the same (neo)liberal-capitalist principles at the expense of democracy and better living conditions of the poorer layers of society.

WHY SHOULD WE BELIEVE YOU?

There is a lesson to be learned here! Even once the existing regime and its clientelistic system are overthrown and providing it is possible to reduce the enormous level of corruption that currently exists in Serbia, big questions will arise to which most of the existing political programmes and opposition mascots do not offer an answer, nor do I see any awareness that it is necessary to ponder over them at all.

What is the plan to change the existing economic system, based on foreign investments (subsidized by Serbian citizens) and borrowing? How is this change going to take place, bearing in mind the economic and political pressures from the West that will be exerted on any government that tries to fundamentally change something in this matter?

What is the plan to improve the position of workers (including farmers) without significant amendments of the labour legislation in the direction of far greater protection of workers, as well as in the direction of the protection of domestic production and its subsidization?

How can the citizens believe the new political elite will not agree to everything that is in the best interests of influential countries and corporations, regardless of the negative effects on the state and citizens, in exchange for the sake of a pat on the back, lunch in a posh restaurant and media coverage in a primetime slot of the influential American or Western European mainstream media or being paid a few million dollars if we are talking about bigger issues?

How can the citizens be confident that the new government will not succumb to corruption or blackmail and that it will turn to the embassies of influential countries for an opinion (especially if the new elite comes to power with the help of those same influential countries and corporations)? Do they have a proven track of personal and intellectual credibility, achieved results, great knowledge and experience?

Can the opposition gather a sufficient number of serious, non-corrupt, dedicated and smart people, who possess personal and intellectual credibility and who have their own opinion that is not formed on the dogmatism of a certain political party, or on a couple of superficial (and wrong) theses taken from a blog or even from a textbook?

What is the plan for rebuilding a meaningful and quality education and health system that will serve citizens and society as a whole?

What is the plan for rebuilding a meaningful justice system?

What kind of policy towards China and Russia will be pursued, which will take into account Serbia’s long-term interests, as well as the need for tactical moves that would not provoke retaliation from the Western power centres?

The answers to these and many other questions require much more than empty phrases and repetition of learned mantras. Those who see in this line of questioning “purely theoretical” (ergo “unimportant”) questions, usually affirm some abstract “action” vs “theory”and short-term (quasi) gains at the expense of long-term results, thus revealing their own hostility towards critical thinking and the dissemination of one’s knowledge.

It is important to think, and to think freely, which means to think in a non-instrumentalist way, which pre-defines the framework and (desired) outcome of thinking, in accordance with the set dogmas and goals of either the leader, the party, the profit or one’s own career interests. Those who are in a position of power and privilege have the privilege not to think if they don’t want to. The system works for them and they will be faced with the need to (re)figure something out when they are left without the levers of power and privileges, under the pressure of the oppressed. That is why “the first duty of a revolutionary is to be educated“, to quote Che Guevara.

If one does not think about the deep processes and causes of the problem, if one does not dig deeper, much deeper than one has the opportunity to hear or read in the public space of Serbia, the diagnosis of the problem will be either wrong or superficial, and in both cases, the therapy will be inadequate.

Yes, it is necessary to cross paths with the regime of Aleksandar Vučić. But that is not enough. As much as it is the source of many problems, the Vučić regime is above all a symptom of the the current state in the society. The problem for Serbia and its citizens is not only the existing regime, nor only the clientelistic-criminal structures that have been established internally, but problems also come from outside, from the imperial policies of the most powerful countries in both the East and the West, from the pressures and interests of large corporations, from the enormous space for corruption and blackmail of those who accept to be in power and media manipulations to which they may be exposed. If these problems are not articulated, and their solution is not designed, one symptom will replace another, and society will remain hopelessly spinning in a bad infinity. Thus, even those who currently want positive changes will, at first unconsciously and unintentionally, become part of the problem.”

(Vreme, 26.06.2023)

https://www.vreme.com/vreme/sta-kad-vucic-jednom-ode/

This post is also available in: Italiano

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