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03 May 17

Poverty and Politics in Serbia

Srdjan Garcevic

Serbia’s inequality is putting a strain on its struggling democracy.

It is difficult to tell from Belgrade's swanky new restaurants that about a quarter of Serbs live at risk of poverty. Photo: Flickr/Goran Necin.

I only became aware of inequality and class division once I moved to a country which is almost synonymous with them: the UK. At both university and work, my British friends frequently dissected levels of “posh-ness” in themselves and others, assessing how appropriate it was to play rugby or vote Conservative, given their background.

I was, of course, dumbfounded. In Serbia, discussing “class” and inequality openly comes across as very strange and is often limited to an unaccomplished middle aged crowd whose only claim to fame is having been born to somebody relatively successful or in a particular place (more often than not, Belgrade). Nevertheless, the turmoil of past decades has made discussions of inequality and social divisions increasingly necessary.

During Josip Broz Tito’s egalitarian times, identifying as anything but working class invited the risk of being labelled anti-government, a remnant of old bourgeoisie. A system promoting quality free education and social care, as well as the violent disruption of pre-war class divisions through nationalisations, imprisonments and exile, significantly levelled the playing field. The socialist mantra of equality and meritocracy was somewhat credible.

The turmoil of the 1990s and post-Milosevic economic transition to capitalism meant the redistribution of social, cultural and economic capital. Previously middle-class teachers, doctors and other government employees were reduced to near-poverty, while many involved in semi-criminal networks had connections to ruling parties and amassed significant wealth, becoming the new upper crust.

Factory closures due to privatisation led to the collapse of several towns outside Belgrade and created large numbers of people barely able to get by on their salaries. Population-wise, Belgrade is the only area that has shown population growth in Serbia; good jobs are increasingly concentrated in the capital. Deteriorating social support, state healthcare and education further decreased the livelihoods of the worse-off and stunted social mobility.

It is difficult to tell from Belgrade’s swanky new restaurants, that about a quarter of Serbs live at risk of poverty, according to World Bank and Serbian Statistical Office.

The past thirty years have transformed Serbia from a relatively egalitarian society with a functioning social support network, to an increasingly stratified society where the benefits disproportionately flow towards the wealthy.

This stratification is increasingly shaping Serbia’s political scene and putting an enormous strain on our fledgling democracy. While those who went through the transition unscathed or wealthier are content with the untamed “invisible hand” sorting out Serbia’s fortunes, those who did not benefit mourn for the times of socialist stability and state control.

In this situation, promises of investments, jobs and poltical stability from a controlling leader like Aleksandar Vucic appear very enticing to someone who feels lost and abandoned by a system that has radically changed in a short space of time.

The functioning of Serbian political parties as employment bureaus also means that their power to control lives has disproportionately grown in impoverished areas. Clientelism’s strength grows as any option of finding work outside party-connected places becomes increasingly limited, and the free expression of democratic will is threatened.

Although some in Serbian liberal circles have blamed the “Serbian mentality” for the lack of functioning democratic institutions, risking poverty for the sake of ideals is a valiant but often impossible choice if you have dependants to feed. Even more worryingly, for a significant number of Serbians, the post-Milošević democratisation coincided with the loss of jobs during the transition, and they cannot see them as separate entities.

To make things even worse, democratic liberals in Serbia have had, at best, a mixed record in terms of communicating with the wider public and clearly demonstrating the benefits of a functioning democratic system to an average person.

The most recent example was a blog post by a prominent comedian critical of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) government. Zoran Kesic wrote a blog post, published by Al Jazeera Balkans, deriding the supporters of the ruling party. He termed them a movement of “toothless” people (the Serbian equivalent of “deplorables”) enticed by the SNS’ promises to snatching wealth from those with teeth.

Given that the liberals are already facing an uphill struggle – the pro-government media regularly describes them as out -of-touch “enemies of the people” – poking fun at those who are much worse-off does not win any hearts.

Ironically, in this past election campaign it was a spoof candidate who most directly and effectively addressed the problem of inequality and poverty in Serbia. Ljubisa Preletacevic Beli, an alias of 26-year-old Luka Maksimovic, promised his voters “crumbs.” In doing so, he highlighted the dynamics of clientelism in Serbia and showed empathy with those left behind during the transition. Hopefully Beli’s campaign and the enthusiasm it provoked, will encourage honest discussions about inequality and poverty among Serbia’s political elite.

A similarly sobering insight about poverty and politics came from another unlikely source a few years ago. Dragan Markovic Palma, a prominent local politician from Jagodina who started his political career with Zeljko Raznatovic Arkan, a Serbian paramilitary leader in the 1990s. He explained his abrupt turn away from nationalism towards supporting Serbia’s EU accession, by pointing out that one cannot pour patriotism into an oil-tank of a tractor.

Unfortunately, if democratic liberal movements in Serbia cannot find a way of showing that a functioning modern democracy can have tangible benefits to the majority who feel betrayed by transition, a slide away from a functioning democracy is likely to continue.

Srdjan Garcevic is a writer and a founder of The Nutshell Times blog.

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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