Whither Serbia’s Future When Its Citizens Elect “The Undertaker” President?

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

The Serbian elections in May 2012 shocked many liberals in the country. They assumed that the electoral coalition that coalesced around former President Boris Tadic – the Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Christian Democratic Party, the Green Party, the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina – would handily win the election. Instead, Tomislav Nikolic, a former ultra-nationalist known widely as “The Undertaker,” squeaked out a victory in the presidential poll while his party coalition beat out the Democratic Party in the parliamentary elections as well.

Many of the people I interviewed in Serbia in October expressed dismay at the return to power of many of the same people who had been prominent in the Milosevic era. “The middle management people, who helped the Milosevic apparatus do all those terrible things, are now back,” a prominent civil society activist told me. “The current prime minister used to be the president of the youth wing of the Serbian Socialist Party and then the spokesperson of the party. First Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic was the minister of media and propaganda for Milosevic during the late 1990s.”

Even more dismaying perhaps to liberals has been the enduring popularity of the new government. The Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), a more moderate offshoot of the far-right-wing Radical Party, can now count on the support of around 40 percent of the population, compared to only 16 percent for the Democratic Party (DS). The SNS has increased its support by 11 percent since the beginning of 2012, while the DS has lost 7 percent.

One reason for this polarization, the activist continues, has been the deep vein of disenchantment with the Democratic Party that can be found among Serbian liberals as well. “During the DS period, the government didn’t resolve the political conflict with Kosovo, and they could have done this: they controlled parliament, government, all the significant positions,” he says. “They never solved the killings of the journalists of the 1990s, like Slavko Ćuruvija. We know it was done by the secret police on the order of Milosevic or his wife. But these people are still somewhere in the structure. This is how the assassination of Djindjic happened, because these people were still in the structure. Not deconstructing the Milosevic regime — that was the biggest problem.”

The Progressive Party continues to maintain a pro-EU accession policy, to negotiate with Kosovo authorities over freedom of movement and other bilateral issues, and to placate Serbs in Kosovo with a “platform” that preserves their autonomy. It’s quite a balancing act. Somehow Serbia is trying to move closer to Europe without quite giving up its claims over Kosovo.

Meanwhile, Serbian civil society continues to push forward on its efforts to make government transparent, support grassroots initiatives, and promote people-to-people exchanges between Serbia and its neighbors. Working at a humanitarian organization with offices around the world including Belgrade, the activist works hard on all the incremental changes that take place across the election cycles. On the condition of anonymity, he spoke with me about the disturbing political continuities with the Milosevic era, the people known as the “losers of the transition,” and the achievements of civil society organizations in Serbia.

The Interview

When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed until today, how would you evaluate that on a scale of one to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?

On a scale from 1 to 10, I’d say 2-3. It’s easy for citizens to forget what they had and to forget what has changed for the better. I don’t remember much from 1989. But I remember from the late 1990s. Since then we have achieved some kind of stability: of the dinar, of the system. These structures are devastated, obviously, but we’re building them up. We have more trust in banks, for instance, and we now have savings. In those terms, things are better.

Unfortunately, during the mandate of the Democratic Party (DS) in 2006-7, former President Boris Tadic made an agreement with the Serbian Socialist Party to reconcile with the Milosevic regime and to forget everything that happened during the 1990s. That was one of the biggest mistakes ever made. The middle management people, who helped the Milosevic apparatus do all those terrible things, are now back. The current prime minister used to be the president of the youth wing of the Serbian Socialist Party and then the spokesperson of the party. First Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic was the minister of media and propaganda for Milosevic during the late 1990s. The historical momentum is different now and they can’t do the same things, but the kind of hegemonic policy is still in place: toward Kosovo, toward Republika Srpska. That’s why I give such a low mark of 2-3.

The biggest problem is that the Serbian people never actually faced the past, never faced the role their representatives played during the wars of the 1990s. Even in 2012, if you go out on the streets and ask people about Srebrenica, a significant number of people will denounce it, but a huge number of people will say, “Even if it happened, the number of dead wasn’t that high and anyway, what does that matter in 2012?”

But it is important — because of the reconciliation process. My friends in Bosnia tell me that it’s not any more a question of if but when: when some serious incident will happen again. I doubt it will be a civil war like the 1990s. But it’s a very important indication that we’re still trapped in the 1990s.

The Serbian economy is in really bad shape. Although the government says that it’s because of the global economic crisis that resulted from the collapse of the U.S. economy, the professional economists and analysts are saying that we would be in the same position even if there were no economic problems at the world level or the European level. We are not dealing with these problems. We are only dealing with the “hot topics,” and we are creating those hot topics, like Kosovo, because the politicians are using these topics to distract attention from the main problem. Every time the government has wanted to do something controversial, like selling the oil company NIS, they raised tensions in Kosovo to shift focus away from this other, controversial issue.

Right now we’re able to watch these famous investigative reports called Insider on B92 that are now focusing on the political and corrupt mechanisms behind the Kosovo issue, especially concerning trade and the grey economy. That’s actually the bottom line of the government policy: a few people are enriched by these policies but the poor and uneducated are being fooled. That’s why we say that we don’t have an accountable government.

The Open Parliament initiative attempts to open up parliament and make parliamentarians more accountable to their constituents. But the real nest of evil is in the executive branch. Even some organizations, like the National Democratic Institute, tried unsuccessfully for years to open up the executive branch. This means that we are still preserving the same model of governance, without the participation of citizens or professional associations. The majority of processes are done just between two or three people. And there’s a big influence from tycoons, the couple of people who own everything in Serbia, from land to the processing of food to the chains of stores selling that food. Monopolies control the most important goods and services here in Serbia.

You will quite often hear that we never really had an October 6, 2000, the day after the Milosevic government fell. Why? We had a great opportunity. But the level of skepticism among citizens was pretty high. The new democratic wave ended with the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, and with that assassination was killed the opportunity for Serbia to move forward.

That saying was confirmed in 2012 with the election of Tomislav Nikolic and the victory of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and Serbian Socialist Party (SPS). We could have followed the Croatian example. The Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), Franjo Tudjman’s party, lustrated itself and changed its policy views. At a national level, all the political parties agreed to several key issues around which they built a consensus. And HDZ made more progress toward EU accession than the SDS did. I would have been really supportive if this similar process happened here, if the SNS and SPS transformed themselves into strong, conservative European parties. But they didn’t do that. The same figures lead those political parties as they did in the 1990s. That’s why I don’t actually think they will be able to produce any change.

The only difference is that now the EU is much more involved in Serbia’s business. If something good happens here, it will be because of international pressure or EU influence. We’re waiting right now for the EU progress report on Serbia’s progress toward EU accession. It will be a bad one. It will be one of the first signals that we are not on a good path. We always make one step forward and two steps back here in Serbia.

The second quantitative question is: same time period and same spectrum, how would you evaluate the changes in your own personal life?

2 or 3.

In 1989, I was only eight years old. I graduated high school in 1999, when at least one-third of the classes couldn’t actually attend because of the situation. Only a handful of my generation actually ended up in good positions in the professions we wanted. The majority of my friends from high school or the law faculty ended up without any prospects. Some tried to go overseas or to Europe, mainly to work, not to study. Just yesterday, I heard new data on the news that the biggest Serbian export is people: our brain drain.

During the 1990s, we were in a really bad economic situation. My parents are middle-class people. My mom is a doctor, my father a lawyer. We had a decent life during the 1980s, and I’m not just speaking about financial circumstances. My father was the CEO of a huge company that had a chain of stores, like Wal-Mart, but it didn’t deal with its employees like Wal-Mart or have Wal-Mart values. But it was really big, in the third place of successful companies in Yugoslavia. It was called Angropromet, and it was centered in Kikinda, in the north of Serbia, in Vojvodina, where I come from.

But during the 2000s, my father ended up without a job because he was labeled in his small community as politically active. He’s now too old to be employed by these new companies. And his financial potential to start some office of his own was ruined in the 1990s. On the other hand, my mom reached retirement level, if we can call that success.

My father often says that he’s a “loser of the transition.” That’s a phrase we often use here to describe all the people who couldn’t find a place in the new circumstances. They didn’t want to work in businesses outside the borders of the law. They didn’t want to use the new opportunities just to make some profits. They didn’t want to join some political parties just to get jobs. He didn’t want to suddenly become an Orthodox believer and to denounce all of his beliefs just to be popular, because it’s popular to be a believer these days. All of the people who stood by their beliefs, who found it so hard to adapt, they were eaten by the dragon in the end.

Finally, looking into the near future, how would you evaluate the prospects for Serbia, on a scale of one to 10, with one being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?

That’s really hard. If I give a high score, then I could be seen as giving good scores to the government, which I don’t want to do.

For the first time, I didn’t vote in these last elections, at any level. I couldn’t find a person or a group that I could actually stand behind. Actually, at some level, I wanted to see the SPS in government. To see what they can offer? No, I know what they can offer. I wanted actually to see the process of catharsis in the Democratic Party (DS). I thought, and I still think, that if the DS had won another election, it would have become even worse than the Socialists. Because the DS actually showed that it could do even worse things than the SPS did.

For instance, during the DS period, the government didn’t resolve the political conflict with Kosovo, and they could have done this: they controlled parliament, government, all the significant positions. They never solved the killings of the journalists of the 1990s, like Slavko Ćuruvija. We know it was done by the secret police on the order of Milosevic or his wife. But these people are still somewhere in the structure. This is how the assassination of Djindjic happened, because these people were still in the structure. Not deconstructing the Milosevic regime — that was the biggest problem.

I don’t think the Serbian Progressives will do any significant good for the people — on the contrary. We are now witnessing the internal elections inside the Democratic Party. We can expect some new people with some new ideas who are going to lead Serbia after these guys go away. Maybe we won’t even have the Serbian Progressive Party in power for the full four years.

So, if I need to give a number, I would give a 5, because some processes are hard to stop. They can be slowed down to the point where you can’t actually see the difference between slow and stop, and we’ve witnessed that happen. But some things can never be undone, like extraditing war criminals like Mladic and Karadzic to the ICTY. European Union accession cannot just be canceled. We cannot just turn toward the Russians, which this government is doing its best to do. From this perspective, we’ll see some micro-progress in different spheres of life and society, which is why I give it a 5, which is much better than 2 or 3.

You said you graduated from high school in 1999 and that it was a difficult period. You went directly to university. That was a great time to be at the university, because things were just beginning to change, yes?

I was at the law faculty, and I was really involved in politics in those days. There were some professors who were in line with democratic politics, and it was a good opportunity to hear those clever guys and learn something from them. But on the academic side everything was still in chaos. Our academia could not be transformed into a system to educate professionals in needed professions. We failed to transform our educational system according to the Bologna standards. We made some significant progress during the Dzindzic period. But after that, we had an awful minister of education under Kostunica who even wanted to ban computers in schools and enforce creationism as a simultaneous doctrine preached alongside Darwinism. These were tectonic differences. All the Bologna processes were wasted.

Now you have some kind of a mixture. You still finish the faculty without learning the necessary skills by graduation. And you probably won’t find a job. On the other hand, the students who are above average go away for their masters and Ph.D. studies abroad. They are getting scholarships.

What motivated you to become involved on these issues?

I was always socially active, first as an activist and then as a functionary of a political party, the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina (LSV), the strongest regional party in Vojvodina. It’s a leftist party, with social democratic values and regional patriotism. We had a strong opponent in Milosevic. LSV was the strongest anti-war party and the strongest voice against Milosevic. It never had any secret deals with Milosevic.

Then, at a certain point in 2005 or 2006, I became disappointed with some internal party processes. I realized that a political party — all political parties but that one especially — exists just for the political benefits of a few people at the top. This is also confirmed by the fact that the leaders of all the parties have been pretty much the same for the last 22 years. The Democratic Party is different because it has had several splits in the party.

I was always in pretty good contact with civil society activists. And I was active in some initiatives led by civil society. I started to work with human rights organizations, like the Youth Initiative on Human Rights (YIHR). After a couple years there, I worked with the OSCE (Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe) in Sandzak. My job was to do monitoring activities and work with civil society. So, I was pretty much doing the same job as here, providing support and developing new projects together with civil society.

When you worked with YIHR, you were doing exchanges with Kosovo?

Yes.

You were working with a regional party in Vojvodina, with OSCE in Sandzak, and on youth exchanges in Kosovo. So you’ve been working in different regions. What was it like when you arrived in Sandzak after spending that time in Vojvodina?

It was a shock for me in those regions. In Sandzak, what I realized is that the biggest problem is that they’re forgotten. No one cares about those people. At that time in Sandzak, there was a division between the leaders of two different political parties, Rasim Ljajic and Sulejman Ugljanin. They supported different religious communities. The divisions went so deep that there were even store chains divided by political affiliation to Rasim or Sulejman. Over time, things changed, and they are now in the same government for the second time. But the central government could cultivate these divisions. If needed, it could pick a side to make whatever impact it wanted.

At the personal level, people there were very hospitable. I was well accepted there. Maybe I was lucky. But I jumped into a circle of open-minded people in Novi Pazar, a place that was witnessing all the same problems and conservatism faced by other parts of Serbia where the Orthodox Church is increasing its influence and people are dealing with religion in a populist way. Except that it’s the Islamic community in Sandzak.

Serbia introduced fiscal receipts and value added tax (VAT) for the whole country. In Novi Pazar, however, most stores didn’t have to submit their VAT receipts. Maybe something changed last year, but that was the case a couple years ago, and it was unique for Sandzak. Our IRS here in Serbia justified it as some kind of positive discrimination toward endangered people. But the fact is, we don’t treat the people there as equal citizens. The state is just not present in Sandzak. That’s what allowed the Bosnian War or the Kosovo War to happen: we wanted everything for ourselves and we didn’t want to accept other ethnic groups into the policy-making process.

Given that experience, what are your expectations of a multiethnic Serbia surviving?

It will survive because those people will survive. But if we are going to have multiethnic communities, Serbia will have to find a way to preserve those multiethnic communities. Unfortunately these days, the Serbian government is appointing only Serbs to the key positions, like the ministries of force — justice, police — especially in south Serbia. Until we see a representative of the Albanian community in some key position in government, we will not actually be a true multicultural society.

On the other hand, Rasim Ljajic has been in some important positions in past years. He was, and maybe still is, the head of the unit for cooperation with ICTY. He was at one point the head of the unit responsible for Serb-Albanian processes in south Serbia. He was in charge of the ministry of labor. He has all these difficult portfolios. But still, his people don’t see him as a unique representative of their interests. Of course, he will win elections and will have good polling numbers because he now creates jobs for a lot of people. A majority of the employees in Serbia are working for public facilities. Only an estimated 300,000 people are actually employed in some other branches of industries of the economy.

So, we really do have lessons that we can learn from. The bad part is that we never started a serious process of facing the past. We never had an opportunity to start the reconciliation processes. One of those initiatives is the Regional Conference on Peace and Conciliation (REKOM), started by the Fund for Humanitarian Law and YIHR and their peers in Bosnia and Croatia and Kosovo. This is the only organized effort to establish processes to build a sustainable peace in this area.

I doubt we’ll have any escalation of violence in Sandzak and in south Serbia. But still, the Serbian state can choose to use those tensions if it wants to.

Your institute was founded in…?

2006. The aim is to build the capacities of local groups to advocate for their own interests, to organize themselves to increase their influence, and to participate in making decisions that are now made completely without their input. We have a methodology of making change at various levels: at the level of law, process, and system. We are still at the level of small changes: in procedures, bylaws, laws. We are still far from making changes at the level of the system. But by equipping CSOs in Serbia, they will be better able to make those changes sooner rather than later.

Your partners are civil society organizations.

Exclusively.

Do you work with both NGOs and informal organizations?

We cannot work with informal groups because 95 percent of our activities implement USAID’s civil society program. We are attached to the bureaucratic process of awarding, monitoring, and reporting. By those rules, we need to work with entities that are recognized by the law so that they can make a contract, open an account, receive money, report back.

We recognize the value of supporting informal groups, which are sometimes more influential and have a bigger impact than some well-established NGOs with multi-million-dollar budgets. One of our partners — we have five partner organizations – is the Balkan Community Initiative Fund. BCIF has a re-granting component in their program, and through that we are able to support smaller initiatives.

Can you give me an example of a civil society organization that you’ve worked with to build up its capacity so that it has more impact?

That’s the goal. Unfortunately, here in Serbia, everything is tied to politics. You can work with a group of people, build up their capacities, invest the time and resource in some idea, and then you witness the shift of political parties in power and everything is cancelled. But one civic initiative, which is also one of our partners, has for years worked on building up the framework for how civil society organizations operate in Serbia. We have created the laws and bylaws that provide a clear foundation for the work of civil society organizations.

We have also worked with people who are now becoming leaders, even in governmental bodies. The Office for Cooperation with Civil Society, for instance, is led by a really progressive person. She has formed a team of really good young professionals who are adding a different color to the spectrum of colors in government.

There’s also the Open Parliament initiative. For the first time in our multi-party system, our parliamentary sessions are open to the citizens. From 1997 to today, 15 years of transcripts, 150,000 speeches, are now available to the public and to researchers. After we started to disclose that information on our website, parliament also started to put transcripts on their website, although their transcripts are not in a form that allows other organizations to download and analyze them. But these are steps. In a period of two years, we hope we’ll have a completely different situation regarding the transparency of parliamentary procedures.

One key issue is sustainability. It’s great that USAID is providing assistance to Serbian civil society. But American money will not be available forever. So what are the steps being taken to ensure financial sustainability?

Especially through a new USAID initiative, we’re trying to help organizations find alternative sources of funds. One step is to develop the culture of philanthropy in Serbia, which was really endangered by the embezzlement by some organizations of money raised for humanitarian actions. We just supported a small community foundation in eastern Serbia. We’ll see how that model functions and whether it can fundraise from the local community: from businesses, from individuals, through the Internet. We just supported a small research project on venture philanthropy. We also have a business forum of the leading international companies. Unfortunately, there aren’t many examples of Serbian companies that are socially responsible and investing in these funds and initiatives.

We are trying to find the best models to implement in Serbia in order to support the small grassroots initiatives. The bigger players will be able to fundraise from EU funds, but the small and medium-sized organizations don’t have that capacity. Obviously, many of the smaller initiatives will not continue when the donor community withdraws. But the most valuable will continue, I hope.

Most of the CSOs you work with are in Belgrade?

About 52 percent of initiatives are outside of Belgrade. A large number we support are in Belgrade, but 2 million people live in Belgrade, so that represents a large population in Serbia. One of the criteria we use to deal with the huge level of applications is to support as geographically diverse a set of organizations as possible.

Do CSOs develop outside of Belgrade and then migrate here?

There are strong leaders, and organizations built around those leaders, in key municipalities, like Novi Pazar, Nis, Novi Sad. These guys develop not just one but several organizations, and those organizations are pretty successful. I’m not seeing them move to Belgrade. They are staying in their communities. They studied in Belgrade or Novi Sad, and they realized the value of their communities and returned to fight the numerous problems there. They are the heroes of civil society, because they are working in much more difficult circumstances than here in Belgrade.

Can you give me an example of a particularly successful initiative outside of Belgrade?

In Serbia, much of civil society is funded by the state. Local governments determine cooperation with civil society organizations through a particular budget line. From that line, they’ll support Red Cross, political parties, the church, and so on. If there’s money left over, they give it to some of the organizations that are close to the ruling political party. There’s a huge movement in Serbia to change this practice.

In the city of Pozega, we succeeded in changing the way local government funds civil society organizations. The local assembly adopted a procedure for announcing a request for proposals, establishing a committee to evaluate the proposals, and then hiring a person to monitor the projects. This is unique. Now organizations in Pozega are aware of competing ideas and the fact that only the most useful ideas for the citizens will be supported. Eventually the benefit for citizens will be great.

DveriSrpski, the nationalistic organization, is also part of civil society. To what extent has there been a growth of such organizations that challenge the liberal conception that USAID has promoted?

There are a couple of those organizations, but there hasn’t been a big growth in number. Most of these organizations are tied to conservative political parties or the church. Dveri is actually funded through the faculty of philosophy, and they have close ties to the Orthodox Church. I don’t see them as a civil society organization because they are now registered as a political party and are now in the Novi Sad assembly. One local council member actually left Dveri to join the SPS in order to form the new majority in Novi Sad.

These organizations never wanted to cooperate with us or USAID because, if they did, they could no longer criticize other civil society organizations for being mercenaries that take orders from the American government. Some of these organizations should be banned because they are promoting hatred. There have been some initiatives to close some of them down, and some are still in the process of being banned. Unfortunately this is where our state shows a lack of strength to oppose these dark forces –and they really are dark forces! Because of these right-wing organizations, the pride parade was banned for the second year in a row, and that was a strong indication that the Serbian government has no capacity or will to oppose them.

To return to the issue of Kosovo, Sonja Biserko told me that the future of relations between Belgrade and Pristina depends not so much on official dialogue but on civil society dialogue between groups there and here. Do you see signs of hope at that level?

I don’t believe that the kind of initiatives that put representatives of Albanians and Serbs at the same table just because they are Albanians and Serbs will show any progress. First of all, why just Serbia and Kosovo and not Croatia and Kosovo? We should be making these exchanges more interesting. Also, unless there is interest from concrete professions and sphere of interests for cooperation, none of these efforts will be successful. Obviously the official negotiators should overcome obstacles for normal life, such as communication or travel. But unless there is actual motivation for travel and cooperation, the official negotiations will just be political and won’t directly affect people’s lives.

Is there a particular vector that looks promising in terms of cooperation?

Cultural exchanges. Academic exchanges. Obviously, economic exchanges, which actually never died out. Those links have remained, they’ve just been under the table. Also sports exchanges, though those can sometimes be a problem. The groups of fans can be fascistic. That’s true everywhere, but especially here in Serbia, and there are nationalistic elements in Kosovo as well.