Serbia: Will 2017 be the turning-point?

Sunday 8th January 2017

Zoran Cicak, a political analyst specialising in Serbia and the rest of the former Yugoslavia

“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.”

There are probably no more pertinent words to describe and explain the mainstream of Serbian politics over the last decade, than this monologue spoken by melancholy Jacques in Act II of Shakespeare’s As You Like it.
Since about 2007-2008, Serbian and European elites have gradually established a peculiar alliance, with an ultimate purpose to preserve the existing system of distribution of both wealth and power. Serbian elites – a strange triangle of politicians, tycoons and media barons – wanted to keep the monopoly over society, inasmuch as possible, intact. European elites wanted stability, or rather what was their own perception of one. Both of them used the same powerful middlemen, which eventually brought them and their interests together. Both of them needed political superstructure compliant with that requirement.
The 2012 political shift – replacement of an ex-ally, Boris Tadic, with an ex-foe, Aleksandar Vucic – was the first major result which that unholy alliance achieved by working together. It was underpinned not only by tacit consensus that the former was already worn out, but also by common anticipation that the latter will remain loyal and will not challenge the system he was eventually accepted by and found himself part of.
As a matter of fact, already in the early stage of consolidating his power (2012-2013), Aleksandar Vucic co-opted several prominent members of former political elites in his own apparatus, while at the same time trying to destroy opposition political parties and independent media. The Brussels bureaucracy additionally simplified the whole picture, by pursuing the pattern of brutal trade off: liberal values (and sometimes even basic democratic principles) in Serbia were sacrificed for the so-called peripheral strategy: endless string of concessions to Bosnian Moslems and Kosovo Albanians.
After early general elections in 2014 and 2016 finally consolidated his grip on power, Aleksandar Vucic faced more complicated external circumstances, sparked by the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 and the migrants’ crisis in 2015. The process continued and amplified in 2016 with Brexit, the US elections and the waning of Chancellor Merkel’s interest in the Balkans.
In early 2017, the overall international environment is substantially different than the one within which the current Serbian establishment came to power five years ago. Key Western players – the US and EU – will be less involved in the Balkans. The former will be less interested, the latter less capable, than they used to be. Russia will try to fill up this vacuum by increasing its own influence but her limits in doing so are also quite clear. The resultin geopolitical changes, in a mid term, will be that most of the Balkans, including Serbia, will remain a sort of no-man-land. For the first time in a quarter of a century, substantial political changes in Serbia are now possible without decisive influence of any single external political factor.
In Serbia proper, whilst certain members of initial triangle were replaced by another ones, and some of them simply switched sides, the system, itself, remained intact. The initial forecast was, in that respect, entirely correct. However, after almost a whole decade, such policies left a heavy toll on the main pillars of Serbian society: economic system, education, healthcare, defence and security, justice and foreign policy.
In each of the above, the magnitude of mismanagement is such that, since mid-2016, there is a growing consensus that actual government has to leave. It is now considered not only as incapable of reverting the process, but, actually, as the key factor in generating further instability. The Serbian Prime Minister desperately tried to match such uncomfortable perception by creating an optical illusion of wide international support – in Washington, London, Brussels, Berlin, Moscow or Beijing – wherever he can hope to get one. However, apart from well paid but highly controversial and, eventually, useless foreign advisers (such as Tony Blair, Rudi Giuliani, Franco Frattini, Alfred Guzenbauer or Gerhard Schoeder), the real international support to his regime is shrinking every day.
At this stage, one can already notice the growing sentiment, both in Serbia proper and outside of it, that Aleksandar Vucic is worn out, much in the same manner as it happened with former presidents Milosevic (2000) and Tadic (2012). He repeteadly failed to establish himself as a part of the solution, so he now cannot avoid being considered as a part of problem. The most important part of the problem, I would add, but by no mean the one whose removal would be enough to resolve it.
However, while in both 2000 and 2012 there was no competitive process in place to determine the successor (in 2000, all opposition forces were externally encouraged to unite in an artificial manner, and in 2012 international guarantees for loyalty of Aleksandar Vucic were deemed to be sufficient), it seems that changes in 2017, which now again appear to be inevitable, will be more complex.
Presidential elections, due this April, are widely seen as first major test (but by no mean the last one) to existing power-sharing arrangements. Likewise in Bulgaria in November 2016, if the current regime in Serbia fails to achieve the victory in the forthcoming presidential elections, the days of this government are all but numbered.
The initial triangle of political bureaucrats, media barons and tycoons, supported by the same powerful middlemen like in 2012, is now trying to replace the current Prime Minister, by building up an artificial presidential bid of Vuk Jeremic, the ex-Foreign Minister of Serbia and ex-Chairman of the UN General Assembly. The triangle is apparently looking at Mr Jeremic – the genuine political child of the system they created and have been supporting for a decade – as an embodiment of the same 2012 experience. The worn out and hated face should be, once again, simply replaced by a fresh and amiable one, but the system, itself, would remain intact. Hidden corridors of power would stay where they were, as well as non-transparent accords for distribution of wealth. Bad practices might, at the best, be alleviated, but not substantially changed and certainly not entirely abandoned. Serbia would continue to trade her national interests, on its Western and Southern fringe, for international support to what would remain an inherrently Erdoganesque mindset.
At the same time however, for already one year now, a quiet but persistent civil revolution is occuring, taking shape and momentum, and embodied by current Serbian Ombudsman, Sasa Janković. However, Mr Jankovic is only a frontman of that movement which now includes more than a hundred experts in different fields who are finalizing an ambitious agenda for changes in their respective sectors. Most Serbian cities are already covered with a well organised network of his supporters. Once the elections are officially called, on 1 March, that whole mechanism will be put into motion. The ultimate platform of this civil revolution certainly includes the replacement of Aleksandar Vucic and his henchmen, but is not limited to it. It also requires a radical break with the pre-2012 political regime and the embedded interests of the initial triangle. The key requirements for modern Serbian society, which are, at the same time, key European values, are as follows: the principle of division of power, the rule of law, freedom of speech, free media, the market economy and social justice. Those would all remain a dead letter without a radical break.
A foreign observer who is familiar with history might understand the current Serbian process by comparing it to French one in 1789. The ancien regime has to go, but the forces which, so far, used to be behind it, still have enough residual leverage to influence the patterns and dynamics of change. If Aleksandar Vucic is the 21 century Serbian Louis XVI, than Vuk Jeremic, his conservative contender, plays the role of Serbian Mirabeau, while Sasa Janković, by his pledge for changes and leadership of social forces committed to them, cannot avoid being the Serbian Robespierre – The Uncorruptible.

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