Fear of a drift towards authoritarianism in Serbia

Aleksandar Vučić won the presidential election in Serbia in just one round.

Serbia’s strongman, prime minister since 2014 and head of the Serbian Progressive Party, sailed to victory on 2 April, guaranteeing his position as the country’s president until 2022.

Having secured an absolute majority in the first round, with 55.09 per cent of the vote, he will take the place of his party colleague and outgoing head of state, Tomislav Nikolić.

Wearing jeans and a navy blue jumper, whilst the champagne flowed freely, the man who was information minister under Milošević and has now become president, declared victory on the Sunday evening: “Our victory is crystal clear: I am 12 points ahead of all the other candidates put together.”

Such a victory in the first round had not happened in Serbia since 1992, when despot Slobodan Milošević (deceased in 2006, charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia in The Hague) congratulated himself for the same feat. 

Only 54.55 per cent of the 6.7 million voters turned out on Sunday, in this country that became a candidate to join the European Union in 2012. Aleksandar Vučić, who presents himself as a moderate and protector of the nation, won the votes of nationalists and those who share hostility towards NATO, fuelled by the memory of the Belgrade that was bombed by the West in 1999 during the Balkans conflict.

As soon as the results were announced, whilst Vučić pledged that a new government would be formed within two months, his opponents took to the streets of the capital in their thousands in a “demonstration against the dictatorship”, to denounce what they consider to be non-democratic elections.

Boško Jakšić, a long-standing editorialist with the leading daily Politika, made no secret of his disappointment. He told Equal Times: “If Aleksandar Vučić hadn’t won the election in the first round and citizens had been called out to vote during a second round, we would have had proof that his hold on Serbian politics is not absolute, but this result is very bad news for democracy and very good news for Aleksandar Vučić and his party.” 

Although Jakšić believed in the possibility of a second round, he had nonetheless predicted that Vučić would win the presidential election regardless: “We have the impression that the vast majority of people are against the regime but, at the same time, this will not be reflected in the vote.

’’It should not be forgotten that his party employs many people and that he has used the instrument of fear during the electoral campaign, which is why the general discontent will not necessarily be reflected in the results,” he explained, in Belgrade, prior to the election.

This same view is shared by Dušan Veličković, a writer and former editor of NIN, the country’s leading weekly news magazine from the time of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: “We live in a patriotic society in which people are afraid of change. They would rather have a ‘soft’ dictatorship than freedom. It makes them feel more secure and protected.”

Like Jakšić, he believes that the mass vote in favour of Serbia’s strongman is thanks to the machinery he put in place years ago: “Our society is corrupt. Here, people find a job if they are members of the ruling party. They don’t earn much, but at least they have a job and they say it’s better than nothing.”

In spite of this, the two journalists want to believe in an opposition that will prove capable of organising itself better for the next elections. 

This opposition, which is currently very fragmented and was not able to rally around a single name, had 10 candidates in total. Amongst those who wanted to challenge Vučić by trying, above all, to ensure a second round, was former ombudsman Saša Janković, who secured a distant second place, with just 16.26 per cent of the vote.

Trailing him is a young, sarcastic candidate, Luka Maksimović, nicknamed “Beli” (“White”), who denounced a corrupt state (9 per cent of the vote). There was also the former minister of foreign affairs, Vuk Jeremić (5.7 per cent) and the ultranationalist Vojislav Šešelj (who heads the Serbian Radical Party that Vučić was a member of until 2008), who won 4.5 per cent of the vote.

Threats against the press

Saša Janković, whose candidacy was supported by around 100 intellectuals and a number of opposition groups such as the Democratic Party (DS) and the New Party led by the former prime minister, Zoran Živković, is by no means admitting defeat.

On the contrary, “This is only the beginning,” he declared, when the results were announced, visibly determined to build on the support he has received since he decided to take part in the presidential race.

At the beginning of March, at the height of the campaign, citizens would spontaneously gather to talk about the elections.

“We believe, without a doubt, that Saša Janković is capable of winning,” Snežana, an activist who “refuses to live in fear”, asserted with conviction at the time. Others in the crowd agreed, nodding their heads. They, like her, consider the authorities to be an “absolute evil.”

They were hoping to see a change of system in this country plagued by devastating economic problems, with youth unemployment reaching 44.2 per cent in 2016.

Back at his headquarters, after greeting those who had come in large numbers to show their support, Saša Janković lamented: “We are a pre-political society, in which it is no longer political ideas that clash, but brutal forces. I would like to speak about my political opinions, but unfortunately we have not yet reached that stage. At the moment, it’s just a matter of survival.”

In Belgrade, civil society and intellectuals are expressing concern over freedom of the press and the propaganda used by the former head of government and now new head of state to secure absolute power.

The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (IJAS) recorded 69 physical and verbal attacks, threats and direct pressures against journalists in 2016 and noted “a continued trend in the deterioration of freedom of expression in Serbia”.

The propaganda was observed until the eve of the election in the country’s newspapers. On Thursday 30 March, three days before the vote, seven national daily newspapers agreed to print AV, the initials of Aleksandar Vučić, in giant letters, on their front pages, to encourage citizens to vote for him.

As for corruption, “It is omnipresent in all the projects orchestrated by the authorities,” says Ksenija Radovanovic, a young activist who has been fighting since last year with the "Ne da(vi)mo Beograd"movement (which loosely translates as “We won’t let Belgrade d(r)own”), to stop the government’s plan to convert the right bank of the Sava river into an ultra modern business district with financial backing from the business magnate from the United Arab Emirates Mohamed Alabbar.

Sitting at the terrace of a popular cafe in the capital, she said, just before the vote: “This presidential election will either show that change is possible or, on the contrary, that we live in a dysfunctional country.”

European Union looks the other way

It is the dysfunctional state created by the authorities that the pro-European opposition is condemning first and foremost.

“I want to give citizens their dignity back and restore the meaning of institutions. Today, they are not equal before the law, they live in fear. The last time we felt fear like this was at the time of Milošević,” said the former ombudsman Janković

He denounced a “fake democracy” tolerated by the European Union to ensure “short-term stability” in the Balkans at the expense of “long-term security”. 

European representatives anxious to maintain stability in the region regard Vučić as a man who has shown himself capable of “delivering results”, says a diplomat based in Belgrade, in reference to the dialogue initiated with Kosovo (which Serbia does not recognise as independent), as well as his rhetoric in favour of reconciliation with the neighbouring countries, and his outward support for the EU.

This external encouragement will only serve to bolster the internal strength of this former nationalist officially turned pro-European.

Since his victory, Vučić has been congratulated by EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Federica Mogherini, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, and the EU enlargement commissioner, Johannes Hahn.

Vučić’s press service did not respond to Equal Times’ repeated requests for an interview.

This story has been translated from French.