Regime-organized rallies, fake analysts and experts, fake PhDs, and a tabloid-mediated alternate reality: Welcome to Aleksandar Vučić’s Serbia.
‘Disunity’ is the term that best describes Serbian society today. Under the authoritarian regime of Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić, a political impasse has unfolded that threatens dialogue, understanding and compromise. The President’s party, Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), has nothing to do with progressive politics. Instead, it is a band of power elites, a wicked blend of political profiteers who unilaterally benefitted from Vučić’s privatization of the Serbian state. These rulers threaten to monopolize the discourse of what is and what ought to be in Serbia. Consequently, the emerging bipolarity of thought divides the country into two camps: those who support the government and those who oppose it, leaving no room for anything to exist in between.
Despite, and perhaps due to, ever larger anti-government protests throughout Serbia over the last four months, the ruling party has reinforced its position. In the government’s perspective, anyone who opposes the official party line is an enemy, be they students, intellectuals or political actors. Added to this is the grotesque bias exhibited by nearly all media outlets in the country, which seem to have no issue in promoting the ancient tactic of divide et impera in favor of the Vučić regime. To compare their efforts with Orwellian practices would be an understatement.
On April 13, Belgrade welcomed several tens of thousands of citizens from around the country who wished to show their discontent with the continuous authoritarian practices of the power elites. While crowd estimates vary, the protest was undoubtedly one of the largest since the Milošević era. Despite this, the official, government-affiliated media presented the demonstration as having a mere 7,500 people. And if editing pictures, using online bots and spreading misinformation were not enough for the party officials to create a parallel reality, the government-affiliated media hired political analysts-for-sale. These ‘experts’ utilized the magic of spin to label several tens of thousands gathered for the anti-government demonstration as thugs who hate Serbia and who hope to prevent the progress of the Serbian state. Of course, the creation of a favorable alternate reality is nothing new for President Vučić, who mastered the playbook of political spin while serving as the Propaganda Minister under Milošević.
Creating this parallel reality requires much more than just the defensive tactics of misinformation and false narratives. On April 19, the Serbian government utilized the unusual tactic of organizing a counter-rally to demonstrate that it can gather more popular support than the opposition. On that Friday, Belgrade was put on a standstill as more than one thousand buses from all over the country blocked its main streets in order to drop off government supporters. Many public sector employees were ordered to leave their offices and to go to the government rally. Some demonstrators were paid by the regime; others were threatened that they would lose their job if they did not attend. President Vučić gathered all of the politicians of the ruling party alongside Milorad Dodik, the Serb member and current chairman of the tripartite presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Hungarian Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó. One by one, these politicians praised the government’s achievements and hailed Vučić’s rule. Flanked by 27 Kosovar Serbs who had walked 400 kilometers to see him speak, President Vučić then entered the stage to patriotic chants of “Aleksandar the Serb” from the crowd.
After this rally, government-affiliated media outlets reported that 150,000 people had been present, a figure more than 20 times higher than the historic demonstration of the previous week. This government victory was crowned by a front page feature in Politika, the oldest daily newspaper in Serbia and the Balkans. Only six days earlier, this same newspaper used its front page to bash the opposition protest. In the 20th century, Politika built the careers of the region’s most respected journalists; today, it uses tabloid tactics, lacking both objectivity and the courage to stay true to its founding principles of independence and political impartiality. Like many other organizations present in the public sphere, Politika has now become a tool of the power elite, a weapon through which to numb and neutralize the masses.
Serbian politics has today become a struggle for numbers rather than ideas. The hunt for power and political survival has killed all debate and divided Serbian society. In this game, there is no utility for individual thought, no space for free citizens with independent opinions – there is only ‘us’ and ‘them’. These (largely imaginary) divisions threaten to undermine any possibility for positive change.
Those who are contesting Vučić and his authoritarian regime, the opposition leaders, are largely relics from the past. These relics, vilified for years through government propaganda as corrupt, face a formidable challenge in winning popular support. For many voters, particularly Serbian youths, these old relics are seen as being responsible for the many wrongdoings of the last few decades. Because of this, many young folks in Belgrade and beyond express a conflicting desire to get involved in politics while refusing to share a stage with the current opposition leaders. (New political actors do exist, although there are too few of them and too little doctrinal coherence among them to revolutionize Serbian politics. They claim to want change, but seem unwilling to make the necessary sacrifices to bring that change about.)
President Vučić wants this fragmentation to continue. He feeds on the political disunity of his opponents. Vučić is conducting a concerted and overt political campaign to solidify his authority for years to come, and disharmony in the opposition plays right into his hand. On the official side, the party apparatus has increased exponentially, to the point where thousands of public sector employees now depend on his political survival. He also commands several thousand online trolls who sell their integrity for little to no money, spinning alternative narratives to just about every story that emerges. Indeed, after seven years of Vučić’s rule, hardly anyone knows what absurdities tomorrow may hold.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, media freedom in Serbia has decreased significantly since Vučić came to power. This year, the country fell 14 places in the World Press Freedom Index, ranking 90th of 180 countries. Recently, a video emerged on Twitter that labelled several journalists as traitors and foreign agents, painting a clear target on their backs and demonstrating that those who meddle in or criticize government affairs will be blacklisted and ostracized. Several months earlier, thugs used Molotov cocktails to burn down the house of a journalist investigating charges of local corruption.
The international community has mostly stayed silent on these unfolding events. Occasional condemnations have largely been overshadowed by the overwhelming silence of top EU officials. Some EU functionaries have even questioned the seriousness of the situation in Serbia, adding an element of legitimacy to Vučić’s power grabs. In a recent interview, the European Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn, who has developed a close relationship with Vučić, even went so far as to question the veracity of the threat to media freedoms in Serbia: “I have heard this several times [concerns about media freedoms in Serbia] and I am asking always about proof. I am willing to follow up such reproaches, but I need evidence and not only rumors.”
Overall, President Vučić and his allies will continue to stage Serbia’s surreal political theater. The overriding culture of Shakespearean selfishness and corruption presents a rather grim picture of the future of Serbia. The corruption, self-interest and divisions within the opposition mean that it does not present a significant threat to Vučić’s authoritarianism. On top of that, most of the media and many of the country’s most powerful businesses support his rule, giving Vučić nearly unlimited power to create a new reality with him firmly in charge. This symbiosis of money, media and power on the side of the ruling elites has privatized discourse and now decides what is real and what is not. The result is that those with a voice are silenced, those who are undecided are demoralized, and those without a voice are oppressed without their consent.
Cover photo: #1od5miliona protest, April 13. Credit: Balkanist