We recently spoke with social anthropologist Marek Mikuš, whose book Frontiers of Civil Society: Government and Hegemony in Serbia is one of the best books out there on contemporary Serbia. Marek’s book is essential reading for anyone looking to gain a better understanding of Western government involvement in “reshaping” postsocialist Eastern Europe.
In this interview, we talk about what he calls the “post-2000 hegemonic project” in Serbia, its entropy under Vučić, and recent events in Kosovo.
LL: Can you describe the relationship between civil society and hegemony?
MM: In the writings of Antonio Gramsci, which were the main source of theoretical ideas for my thinking about this issue, the relationship between civil society and hegemony is very close and intimate. Civil society is where hegemony – defined as rule by consent and political, intellectual, and moral leadership – is constructed and reproduced, and in that sense civil society is part of the wider infrastructure of social domination that goes beyond the state. However, it is also where counter-hegemonic projects are formulated, and by enlisting the support of a sufficiently strong social coalition for alternative agendas, these can potentially come to succeed ascendant hegemonies.
LL: Can you describe the features of what you describe as the post-2000 hegemonic project in Serbia?
MM: What I call the post-2000 hegemonic project in Serbia was essentially an agenda of neoliberalization and transnationalization carried out by the elites that came to power after the so-called October Revolution that ended the rule of Slobodan Milošević in October 2000. The agenda was formulated in opposition to Milošević’s nationalist project in the 1990s, which set Serbia on a path of direct confrontation with the West, culminating in the NATO bombing of the country in 1999. Due to economic mismanagement, the looting of public assets, but also Western sanctions, the economy was in a deplorable condition by the end of the decade and support for sacking Milošević and bringing Serbia in line with the rest of transitional Eastern Europe was growing. Eventually, with the significant involvement of foreign actors, a political and social coalition was assembled that essentially toppled the Milošević regime and opened the door for the post-2000 hegemonic project. The 2000s were a time of rapid, frequently criminal sell-offs of public assets and a host of standard neoliberal reforms, including external liberalization and erosion of the welfare state. The process of integration into the European Union (still incomplete and with no prospects of being finalized any time soon) provided the main institutional and ideological framework for this restructuring.
The post-2000 hegemonic project lost much of its dynamism in the 2010s when the Serbian Progressive Party and its leader Aleksandar Vučić came to power and built up their authoritarian and criminalized regime, but the main tenets of the project are still there; basic neoliberal governance is maintained and EU integration is still pursued, at least formally. While the regime continues to flirt with Serbian nationalism, mainly in relation to Kosovo and Republika Srpska, these and other strategies of rule derived from far-right and mafia-state repertoires have so far eroded the post-2000 hegemonic project rather than replaced it with something else. This is broadly comparable with Orbán’s Hungary, though when it comes to economic governance, the Orbán regime has been more adept at deviating from neoliberal orthodoxy than the Vučić regime. In contrast, what we see in Serbia is the slow entropy of the post-2000 hegemonic project along with general institutional and social decay rather than any alternative agenda [as in Hungary], however stunted and incoherent.
LL: For well over a decade now, the Belgrade Pride Parade has been a highly contested event where two competing ideas of what Serbia should be clash. You link this to the broader issue of globalization. Can you describe how it is so?
MM: In fact, the first attempt to hold the Belgrade Pride Parade took place in 2001, when pride participants were beaten by their opponents, including members of far-right movements and organizations. Two subsequent parades planned in the 2000s were banned by the government in response to far-right threats of violence. During the 2000s and early 2010s, the organizers – a succession of mostly Belgrade-based LGBT activists and NGOs – pressured the government to back the parade as a sign of its commitment to EU integration, and the EU itself supported this pressure by monitoring attempts to organize the parade, criticizing the government for its failures to back it and so forth.
This finally led to the first Belgrade Pride Parade backed by the state in 2010, which was held against the backdrop of extensive security measures and rampant violence in the city centre. Since 2014, such state-backed pride parades have taken place every year, accompanied by threats and anti-Pride protests. As I describe in the book, the 2010 parade was already heavily framed as part of the EU integration process and adoption of “European values” of tolerance and non-discrimination in the discourse of the organizers, as well as the government and media. This was also evident in the EU’s open involvement in the event and in symbols at the actual parade, such as EU flags. For its part, the ruling political elites tended to present the parade as a requirement imposed by the EU and the wider West that they were essentially forced to accommodate. The opposition to the Belgrade Pride Parade – nationalist and far-right politicians and groups, the Serbian Orthodox Church and others – picked up on this link between the parade and EU integration (or globalization more broadly) and attacked the parade and the state’s support for it as evidence of Serbia’s subjugation to immoral and alien agendas imposed from the outside to destroy its unique ethno-national identity and way of being. With this overall framing, then, the parade serves as a kind of training ground for the battle between the two visions of Serbia – the globalized and liberalized Serbia versus the neo-traditionalist, ethnically pure and authentic Serbia.
LL: Your fieldwork took place mostly during the era of the “pro-EU” Democratic Party’s time in power. But in 2012, a “pro-EU” nationalist party, the Serbian Progressive Party, took over. How do you think EU integration acquired this degree of “inevitability” in Serbia, wherein even nationalists embraced it? Who and what enabled this shift, and do you think it’s reversible?
MM: The answer to this is partly implied in my response to your question about the post-2000 hegemonic project. EU integration was already the strategic horizon of the anti-Milošević opposition in the 1990s – a time when the construction of the EU project was rapidly advancing and other post-socialist countries were joining en masse while Serbia was deeply isolated. As such, EU integration was a major pillar of the agenda of the anti-Milošević opposition when it came into power in 2000, and even key nationalist politicians accepted it as inevitable at the time. The Serbian Progressive Party was actually established by a group led by Aleksandar Vučić who left the Serbian Radical Party – the far-right, aggressively nationalist constant of Serbian politics – precisely over the issue of the EU. The hardline Radicals wanted to maintain their unwavering anti-EU stance while Vučić presented the argument about the inevitability of EU integration that he has repeated ever since. The fact that most of postsocialist Eastern Europe has already joined the EU, while the rest (except Russia and Belarus) pursue integration plays into this sense of inevitability, but, as I show in the book, Serbian political and civil society elites also cultivated this narrative, especially in the period from the October Revolution to the takeover by the Serbian Progressive Party in 2012. It seems that the narrative of EU inevitability has lost some of its force under Vučić, as the integration process has stalled and it has become obvious that Serbia will be forced to formally recognize the sovereignty of Kosovo if it really wants to get ahead. The Vučić regime makes small or symbolic reforms and concessions in order to keep the integration process alive and to maintain access to EU funding but EU centers of power have made it increasingly clear that the time for this game is up. Meanwhile, the recent tensions in Kosovo reveal that the Belgrade government has already abandoned Kosovo Serbs in all but name. On top of that, Serbia is under pressure for not joining anti-Russian sanctions. In 2022, a majority of Serbian citizens said they opposed EU accession for the first time since opinion polls on this question began being conducted, and recent developments make a reversal of this trend unlikely. The EU integration process has been dragged out for so long that people have stopped believing [in it] or caring if it will ever be completed, and now the EU also appears rather hostile and harsh vis-a-vis Serbia.
LL: When you say that recent events make it clear that Belgrade has already abandoned Kosovo Serbs in all but name, what do you mean?
MM: As a part of the 2013 Brussels Agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, Belgrade further cut its remaining institutional presence in the Serb-majority municipalities of Kosovo (in particular in North Kosovo), and these were instead integrated into Kosovo institutions in key areas such as the judiciary and police. In turn, the Serb municipalities were supposed to create a Community of Serb Municipalities that would enable their mutual cooperation and give them a measure of autonomy within the Kosovo legal and institutional system. However, this never happened and it has been clear for some time that Pristina has no intention of honoring this part of the deal. Instead, Pristina continues to expand and consolidate its control over Serb municipalities and the Belgrade government has repeatedly proven itself unwilling to back the Kosovo Serbs in any meaningful way, despite certain gestures such as putting the army on ready. Most recently, the Pristina government moved to sanction Kosovo Serbs who owned cars with registration plates issued by Serbia. This led to Kosovo Serbs setting up border and road blockades along with growing unrest. All the Belgrade government was able to obtain in return for another concession to Pristina – the issuance of registration plates for Kosovo – was that the Kosovo police agreed not to sanction the owners of existing cars with Serbia-issued plates (for now). On recent visits to the Serb municipalities, Belgrade officials were greeted with chants of “traitors, traitors” and a lot of anger, so there definitely seems to be a strong sense of abandonment in the community. My impression, also supported by various statements made by Vučić, is that Belgrade has followed an unofficial “slow drift” strategy towards recognition of Kosovo sovereignty and the build-up of a general sense of inevitability of that step. At the very least, it is clear that Belgrade refuses to do anything about Kosovo that would kill the EU integration process entirely, which I think implies recognition by stealth.
LL: Can you describe what “Europeanization” is and its relationship to both the state and civil society in Serbia?
MM: Originally, Europeanization was a concept in mainstream political science that described the assumed transformation of the law, state institutions and society as a whole as a result of a given country’s integration into the EU. In the book, I use the term as a shorthand for the discourse that the government and the liberal part of civil society at the time of my fieldwork (2010–11) used to present EU integration as not only inevitable but as a process of general modernization of Serbia – in an economic and material sense, but also in terms of “civilization” and “culture”, as suggested by the refrain of the “adoption of European values”. This discourse was an important element of the post-2000 hegemonic project as it gave EU integration this all-encompassing and clearly positive bent. At the time of my fieldwork, the last Democratic Party government before Vučić had invested a lot in cultivating and promoting this narrative. As for what I call liberal civil society – professionalized, Western-funded NGOs – they were supportive or even actively involved in the production of the Europeanization discourse. However, I think the discourse has grown less prominent under Vučić, as he tends to stress the pragmatic and material inevitability of EU integration rather than the more lofty “civilizational” aspects. And because liberal civil society was closely linked to the political elites in power from 2000 to 2012, its role in public policy and policy discourse has become much weaker.
LL: Do you think the NGO sector in Serbia has changed in any significant way over the past 22 years or so? Have its priorities shifted, or has the class composition of the sector changed?
MM: In terms of priorities, there have been a number of shifts already – from activities geared towards regime change before and in 2000, to a variety of “development” and “civil society-building” agendas funded by foreign donors in the 2000s, to increasingly institutional, formalized and depoliticized activities funded mainly by the EU (after most other foreign donors left or cut their presence) and increasingly the state in the 2010s. Although there have been efforts to reorient NGOs towards a reliance on funding from the domestic public, I assume that most NGOs remain dependent on foreign donors and/or the government and this gives the donors a lot of influence over their agendas. If we’re talking about relatively professionalized NGOs with paid staff, I think the middle class (especially the faction with global cultural capital) have remained the stable source of their personnel throughout. Going beyond this type of NGO, new agendas and to some extent more varied class composition characterize the new environmental movements that have recently emerged in opposition to hydropower development, industrial pollution, and mining expansion that have become one of the main fronts of opposition to the Vučić regime. There is a sense that the regime’s mounting attacks on the environment as the bare necessity of a life worth living have re-energized civil society in a more inclusive and political sense than the more limited liberal NGOs.
LL: What do you make of the focus on corruption and anti-corruption in the NGO sector, including media close to the NGO sector? It seems to me that corruption is now a catch-all explanation for all of the failings of “transition”. Why is it of particular interest to Western donors?
MM: I think corruption is of particular interest to donors and policy-makers in general because it holds up the very appealing promise of improving the system by removing the proverbial few “rotten apples”. Capitalist democracy as such is let off the hook while the focus is on moral failures of individuals. In postsocialist Eastern Europe, the corruption framework is especially appealing as it always locates the source of developmental failures within those states and societies, in their faulty political cultures or old-time elites in need of replacement, rather than in the processes of transformation they were subjected to in which foreign actors played key roles. Eastern Europe is thus forever in the position of the incompletely modern and the inferior, while the West is its role model and the source of anti-corruption wisdom and initiatives. Even the language used to describe the same phenomena in different places reflects that: Eastern European media would not hesitate a second to label the various scandals of the Boris Johnson government as “corruption”, but the term of choice for UK media was “sleaze”. In addition, networks of Eastern European politicians, media and NGOs backed by foreign actors spin corruption and anti-corruption narratives such that they damage certain actors, such as politicians that are insufficiently “pro-Western”, while benefiting those whose “pro-Western” and/or (neo-) liberal credentials are beyond reproach. As such, the corruption framework is a useful tool of both foreign domination (and the associated auto-colonization) and daily political struggle.
LL: The EU and US have pursued a policy of accommodation with respect to the Vučić regime. Why do you think that is, and do you think that policy was reflected at all in choices made about funding for civil society?
MM: After Vučić came to power in 2012 and started monopolizing power, he strove to present an image palatable to Western policy audiences – that of a nationalist who had come to embrace a moderate, pro-globalization and economically liberal politics. He also presented himself as an anti-corruption warrior coming down on the country’s oligarchs and enjoyed a very strong popular mandate. Meanwhile, the EU was dealing with a series of near-permanent crises in the 2010s and the US probably stopped considering the Balkans as geopolitically significant by the early 2000s, which might have also contributed to a lack of interest in taking Vučić on and trying to engineer regime change. Besides, even as the authoritarianism and general criminality of the Vučić regime became obvious rather quickly, and despite the fact that Vučić likes to play a nationalist for the domestic audience (often by outsourcing the most inflammatory statements to his minions), I think Western policymakers still prefer to accommodate him because they believe that when push comes to shove, he will always deliver on what they care about, such as compliance on Kosovo and adherence to neoliberalism. Perhaps they also fear that the current opposition will bring even less stability and predictability. As for EU and US funding for Serbian civil society and whether the policy of accommodation influenced it, I didn’t track how this funding continued to develop after 2012 to such an extent that I could give a truly informed response to this. My general impression is that these donors continued to fund Serbian civil society in similar “neutral!” ways as they did before Vučić came to power, without a shift to openly political efforts to use civil society as an instrument of regime change as in the late 1990s. This would be in line with the policy of accommodation and treating the Vučić regime as an essentially legitimate and standard partner.
Cover photo credit: BSF/Aleksandar Andjic/flickr/some rights reserved