Democracy as a new name for corruption

When Slobodan Milošević – ‘The Butcher of the Balkans’, as the world media aptly dubbed him – was overthrown, many in the West claimed that Serbia had found its soul. Twenty-two years later, 66% of Serbian citizens say, regarding the war in Ukraine, that “Russia’s position is closer to them”. Clearly, the country that is a candidate for EU membership is still searching – perhaps not for its soul, but for its path and its goal for the future.

Somewhat lost between West and East, democracy and authoritarianism, disturbing facts about crimes committed in recent Yugoslav wars and an idealized self-image, Serbia provides a chilling example of slow and difficulty of the transition and the difficulty of overcoming it. the past.

Nowadays, the most powerful political figure, who has just started his second term as President of Serbia, is Aleksandar Vučić, once Minister of Information during the Milošević regime, who is remembered for the brutality and the efficiency with which it eliminated the independent media. then.

Speaking of media now, Vučić’s track record is astounding. As media monitoring by the Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability revealed, in May 2022 he occupied 70% of the total time devoted to all politicians in the central news bulletins of all broadcasters having national coverage in Serbia.

It’s like he never stops talking to the nation, mainly about the huge economic growth, foreign investment, incredible infrastructure projects and enemies – internal (the opposition) and external (generally, unidentified envious international subjects), who want to destroy everything. this side. Still, the median salary in Serbia is less than €500. Many people are too busy making ends meet to fight for their political rights and care about democracy. And there is a popular saying in Serbian: “It can always get worse”.

A corrupt network of clientelism

Even Vučić’s publicity advisers believe that such a massive media presence could have repercussions; people have started noticing that it is literally everywhere, “even when it comes out of the fridge”. So, they created a disruptive advertisement for the election campaign in which Vučić really came out of a refrigerator, just to explain that he is only doing this to reach every citizen and tell them about Serbia’s countless successes.

Vučić is still the head of the Serbian Progressive Party, although under the constitution the president is obliged to freeze his party membership during his term. The party officially has about 750,000 members, which means that one in nine people in Serbia is a member. By way of comparison, in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, whose population was sometimes larger than present-day Serbia, the Alliance of Communists, the only legal political party, never had more than 900,000 members. .

No other representative of Vučić’s party is perceived to have significant political power – everyone is dispensable except him.

It seems to be standard practice in Serbia that anyone who wants a job of any kind in the public sector, and sometimes even in private companies that depend on political structures, simply has to join Vučić’s party. And also, they must render friendly service when needed.

A poisoned and corrupting patronage network is an important part of the strength of the current regime. The party infantry mobilized to ensure the “capillary votes”, and criss-crossed the country to attend the rallies.

“This guy did me a favor. My wife got a job thanks to the party. It’s a trap, a mousetrap,” one identity-protected party “activist” told the Center for Research, Transparency, and Accountability. “You can’t get out of this. I traveled to rallies, pushed my friends to vote for the party… People are being blackmailed – they get jobs, but the contracts only last three months.

A new name for corruption

One wonders how it was possible, in the first place, that notorious representatives of the criminalized and internationally isolated regime of the 1990s could ever be restored to power. This is certainly the most complex question.

Vučić’s parties—formerly Serbian Radical Party, now Serbian Progressive Party—built their strength, in large part, by criticizing corruption. Even now, 10 years after being reinstated in power, they continue to mention the “yellow gang” daily, in reference to the once-ruling Democratic Party.

There were too many “transition losers” in Serbia. Too many jobs have been lost, too many big socialist companies have been closed. People couldn’t grasp the logic of privatization and a new economic model in which the factories they had worked in for decades were sold for peanuts, destroyed and replaced by shopping malls and luxury residential condominiums. For many, democracy seemed like a new name for corruption, inequality and enormous social injustice. And populist and anti-democratic forces were very keen to reinforce this perception.

On the other side, the war profiteers of the 1990s were turning into a new financial elite, strongly supporting all efforts to keep society from facing the dark truth about the Yugoslav wars. The trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague have been presented as an attempt to lay down the whole nation with collective guilt.

Western support for Kosovo’s independence has also fueled the revival of nationalism and made the bleak prospects of European Union membership even less appealing to many Serbian citizens, who are continually subjected to strong Kremlin propaganda, which also contributes significantly to this great confusion.

Ironically, liberal politics was punished primarily for being perceived as corrupt, only to be replaced by a much more corrupt reality. In this new reality, there are far fewer media that dare to expose corruption, and fewer institutions that dare to do their job and fight it.