On Pride and Putin Parades

The stage-managed government of Serbia has received the expected praise from the West for holding its first peaceful, hooligan-free Pride Parade in Belgrade. Boxes on bureaucratic EU forms marked “human and minority rights” will be checked off, and the country will move one step closer towards being labeled a “free and democratic society”. The reality on the ground, however, is likely to continue on its current course towards an open return to authoritarian dictatorship.

In fact, the Pride Parade was just the prelude and the pretext for a much bigger spectacle to honor Vladimir Putin. It’s no coincidence that the government of Serbia is throwing a parade to pay tribute to the Russian president in two weeks; by putting on a massive military march — the likes of which Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic says the city has not seen “for 40 years” — the country’s leadership can both distance itself from the marginal, EU-mandated Pride event, and trot out its true allegiances in populist, autocrat-aggrandizing fashion. Significantly, the grand military parade and attendant ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade will celebrate the PR-manufactured image of Putin as superhero/tsar — a role Vucic is trying to mimic — rather than Russia, Russians, or any other version of Russianness. Rather, Putin will be presented as Russia. The entirety of Russian culture, art, language, literature, and history will all be subordinated to the authority of a single man.

This all suits the sheik-worshipping Vucic quite well.

Reading the populist, pro-government Serbian tabloids recently, one could predict that something strange was going on. The more effusively pro-EU, pro-Kosovo, pro-US and pro-NATO the headlines are, the more likely it is that Serbia or perhaps even Russia is preparing to do something that those same powers will not like. In recent weeks, popular tabloids have published articles about Serbian and Albanian schoolchildren as a model of tolerance, the new head of NATO’s love of Serbian stuffed peppers, baked beans, and cevapi, and a potential future for Albanians and Serbs as allies, based on their shared history. This is not a reflection of any commitment to a clear nonaligned strategy or ideology. The point is to create confusion and a sense of non-reality through an incoherent melange of messages, fake political scandals, and scripted stunts to cover for an absence of any ideology or aim other than the consolidation of power. It’s a form of heavy-handed governance Vucic has plagiarized from Putin. Peter Pomerantsev, a British writer working on a book about 21st century Russia, describes this system as “postmodern dictatorship”.

Vucic rescues a child from a snowstorm for the cameras.
Vucic rescues a child from a snowstorm for the cameras.

Serbia can now hold a Pride Parade and a Putin Parade within the space of a month. As Pomerantsev says of contemporary Russia:

“The regime’s salient feature is a liquid, shape-shifting approach to power. Freed from the cumbersome body of ‘hard’ totalitarianism, the leaders of today’s Kremlin can speak like liberal modernisers in the morning and religious fanatics in the afternoon. The regime can morph from monarchy to oligarchy, from free market authoritarianism a la Pinochet to sinister populism, a la Chavez. It works less by oppressing narratives but by co-opting them until there is no more space for an opposition to exist in.”

This system is especially well suited to maintaining groups of government-controlled criminals, who can be relied upon to show up and perform whatever dirty deed is necessary, and whenever the ever-evolving script calls for it.

Taking his cues from Putin, Vucic co-opts the language of democracy and “rights” and recasts them to affirm not freedom but autocracy. When workers’ protests in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina spread to cities across the country in February, Vucic gave a statement about balancing respect for freedom of expression and association with the need for security. It was just the kind of thing the staid officials who answer to Washington D.C. and Brussels wanted to hear from the new leadership in Belgrade.

“All kinds of protests are allowed in Serbia, but we will not allow people’s safety to be jeopardized, institutions to be demolished, buildings to be set on fire, and people to be attacked only for thinking differently,” he said. The workers’ protests in Bosnia-Herzegovina were directed at the state and the perceived corruption of its leaders. Of course, the right to “think differently” is something we associate with citizens, but in this instance, Vucic presented it as the right of the powerful to rule undisturbed by popular discontent — something he fears deeply.

Belgrade Mayor Sinisa Mali, probable PhD plagiarist, posing at the Pride Parade.
Belgrade Mayor Sinisa Mali, probable PhD plagiarist, posing at the Pride Parade.

The Pride Parade on Sunday delivered on all of the pledges Vucic made during the February protests in Bosnia. In previous years, many hundreds of hooligans in black hoodies turned out in droves to hurl molotov cocktails at riot police and to ritualistically set the first McDonald’s restaurant in Serbia on fire. But there were no attacks on the Parade this past Sunday, in suspiciously stark contrast to the “anti-gay riot” of 2010. No buildings were demolished or torched. Rory Archer and Jovana Gligorijevic have both written that the conspicuous lack of violence at this year’s Pride Parade seems to confirm some very dark suspicions about the relationship between thugs and the state.

Collaboration between kriminalci and the government dates back to Tito’s Yugoslavia, when mafiosi or small-time crooks would be enlisted as agents for UDBA, the Yugoslav state security administration. Their missions would be to infiltrate “enemy émigré” circles and plant disinformation to sow confusion and in-fighting. Some of them carried out assassinations. John Schindler, a former NSA intelligence analyst and counterintelligence officer in the Balkans, says these links between criminals and both republican and federal state security services in Yugoslavia have shaped the post-Yugoslav political landscape.

“One cannot understand much about the former Yugoslavia since 1991 – murders, corruption, mass killings, assassinations – without understanding how UDBA… politicized crime, and criminalized politics. We think of events such as the 2003 murder of Zoran Djindjic as ‘normal’, but when the [Serbian] prime minister is murdered in broad daylight by assassins who are simultaneously state security officials and organized crime bosses – this is not normal, this is the legacy of UDBA.”

Most significantly, Schindler told Balkanist that the problem has never really gone away: “What I term ‘Tito’s Ghost’ remains a festering wound for politics and society.”

Hooligans, mafia, and other criminal groups are still rumored to operate as an unofficial arm of Serbia’s security apparatus. If that is the case, then it is likely Vucic they answer to. The prime minister has complete control over the country’s state security services.

Just a few weeks after Vucic’s “pro-EU” Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) scored an unexpected victory in the May 2012 elections, the-then deputy prime minister and defense minister succeeded in changing the law on the Organization of Security Services. The revised version of the law eliminated the requirement that the secretary of the National Security Council be the president’s chief of staff. With that obstacle out of his way, Vucic seized the position for himself. The Progressives won an absolute parliamentary majority in the media-manipulated March elections of this year, and have only tightened their grip on the security sector since. “The police, army, private security sector, intelligence agencies, judiciary, and customs service are all under party or personal control,” one Belgrade-based security analyst says.

Vucic also has long-standing ties to the football club Crvena Zvezda FC (Red Star Belgrade) and its notorious hooligans. Red Star “ultras” have an especially bad reputation owing to their alleged cooperation with Serbian paramilitary units during the war in the 1990s. And just one month ago, the popular daily Blic announced that Russia’s Gazprom would likely purchase Crvena Zvezda for 100 million euros, including a sizeable plot of land and the team’s 55,000-seat capacity stadium. The cover of the newspaper’s print edition that day ran an illustration of Vladimir Putin looking uncharacteristically relaxed, wearing shades and kicking a football. The text promised that President Putin’s visit to Serbia to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the city’s liberation “would begin a new page in Red Star history.”

But the whispering that Vucic might be commandeering Serbia’s thugs started nearly a year ago, long before Sunday’s peaceful Pride Parade.

The first major test of the “historic” agreement “normalizing relations” between Belgrade and Prishtina was the Kosovo election in November of 2013. Belgrade encouraged Serbs in the North to participate for the first time, but there was a boycott and far-right hooligan gangs showed up and smashed ballot boxes. A video appeared on YouTube that seemed to follow a group of hooligans as they ransacked a polling station in North Mitrovica. The thug recording the blurry video can clearly be heard saying, “those are Vucic’s guys” in reference to a separate gang. But it’s hard to know who made the video and why. At the time, Belgrade’s credibility with the EU and United States was iffy because of the boycott. High voter turnout among Serbs would mean the agreement was a success for all parties involved, including Western diplomats and mediators. Much was at stake: EU diplomacy’s international image, Belgrade’s showing of commitment to regional stability, and Prishtina’s ability to hold a vote free from the “industrial-scale fraud” that had characterized the previous election.

Regardless of what actually happened, the West apparently decided in advance it would call the elections a victory for democracy — even if it meant overlooking a significant number of irregularities at polling stations, or the fact that Serbs were essentially being forced to vote against their will under very undemocratic conditions. The YouTube video may have been  captured by a rival, hardline hooligan gang hostile to Vucic’s “pro-stability” thugs. It is also possible that the video was staged for Vucic’s benefit, so that there would be proof of his commitment to “resolving” the Kosovo issue, even in the face of a massive election boycott.

As Pomerantsev says of postmodern dictatorship: “this is a world where nothing can ever be said to be genuine.” But controversial London-based PR firms and Western governments have played just as much of a role in bringing the current Belgrade government to power as the most talented of Kremlin ideologues. That is why one of the only truly autonomous acts left in Serbia today is to attempt to ascertain what is real and what is not, to see beyond the stage-directed violence and stability, the fake snowstorm rescues, the fake sheik-priemers, the whole pile of faked PhDs, and to recognize that they are nothing more than elements of an increasingly well-executed script.

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Lily Lynch

Lily is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Balkanist Magazine. She lives in Belgrade, Serbia. https://www.instagram.com/lynch.lily/