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13 Apr 17

Protests Show Serbia Has Not Lost its Dignity

Srdjan Garcevic

The protesters in Serbia may not ‘win’ - but at least they show a large number of people in this country still believe dignity and democratic rights are worth fighting for.

Protest in Belgrade. Photo: BIRN

Last Monday, after Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic won the presidential election, I received a Facebook invite to join an “Anti-dictatorship protest” in front of parliament. It came from a name I did not recognise and had all the youthful enthusiasm and as little focus as you would expect from a student protest organiser.

I scoffed and decided to go for a run instead.  Vucic, like him or not, had won the election by a large margin.

Any protests about civil liberties in Serbia, where the media is increasingly government-controlled - and where a vice-president of a ruling party can call the wife of an opposition candidate, Natasa Jeremic, a drug king pin, despite all the evidence to the contrary - should have happened before, not after the election.

Finally, I thought, how will a protest by a few young hotheads solve anything? It is not as if the ruling coalition around the Serbian Progressive Party will just hand over the reins because people are shouting in the streets. And it is also not as if there are ideal candidates in the opposition to safeguard what is left of Serbian democracy.

During my run, I passed the parliament and saw a few hundred youths preparing to start a protest walk around the city centre; I felt justified in my scoffing.

Later on, I caught the crowd once it had swollen to a few thousand and felt more perplexed. This was not the childish outpouring of emotion over a loss that I had dismissed. The election and even Vucic featured little on the banners: what people were complaining about were the daily realities of life in Serbia.

One complained about the way so many jobs in Serbia are reserved to members of the ruling party. Another was about the routine slandering of political opponents in the pro-government media. A lot of them wanted RTS, the taxpayer-funded state broadcaster, to do its job and report on the situation in Serbia beyond the government’s own spin, as well as allow more space to opposition voices.

Of course, I knew about all of this, but seeing them together I was struck by how basic and quotidian most of the concerns were, and how these people still had to be fighting for them on the streets.

They were about showing basic respect for people and democracy. Yet, this government, and many of the opposition parties, could not address even these demands. And all of this was happening only 17 years after the people of Serbia overthrew Slobodan Milosevic’s regime and demanded democracy.

The pro-government media, like the tabloid Informer and Kopernikus, a TV station, predictably slandered the protesters as paid agents and even druggies. RTS and most of the dailies abstained from any significant reporting on the protests, although they were happening all around the country, from Subotica to Nis.

It was all too reminiscent of the 1990s, when the government-linked media regularly claimed that the opposition to Milosevic consisted of traitors, delinquents and degenerates.

Vucic himself, in a regal manner, has said he will “allow” the people to protest, while the rest of the governing elite has tried to paint the protesters as sore losers, organised by the opposition to wreak havoc and motivated by personal hatred of Vucic.

All of these statements reflect the government’s conscious personalisation of the state, its disbelief in the possibility of non-self-interested political activism, as well as its preferred style of talking, which echoes enlightened autocracy in which Vucic “allows”, “gives” or “withholds” constitutionally guaranteed rights.

This has only reinforced the feeling that Serbia is saddled with a lot of powerful people who see no real value in freedom of information and opinion and are happy to take these rights away for their own interest.

Government rhetoric that the protests were organised from abroad was especially ludicrous given the regular endorsements that Vucic receives from the EU and the US.

Furthermore, coverage in the foreign mainstream media, which usually picks up stories about democratic protest movements immediately, was conspicuously light.

An editorial in The New York Times came out a week after the start of the protests, expressing concern about the state of democracy in Serbia. The BBC published a somewhat muted assessment of the situation on the same day.

The fact that the leadership of democratic Europe and the US are “OK” with the seeming death of democracy in Serbia does not mean that it is OK for Serbia, however.

Europe and the US are also OK with Saudi Arabia, which lashes political opponents; they were once OK with Pinochet’s Chile, too, which killed its opponents. Even more closely to home, they are OK with Montenegro, which the ruling party runs as a principality.  After all, none of them have to live here.

The current protests are a sign that a significant number of people in Serbia do not think is OK for us to lose our democracy for whichever geopolitical reason.

Every night, they bring together LGBT activists, nationalists, conservatives and socialists who believe that the dignity of the Serbian people needs to be protected, who believe in our freedom to informed and choose political alignment without fear of oppression.

Throughout the protests, my belief in how crucial they are has only been strengthened by hearing stories of how hard the system works to crush those who value their own freedom of opinion.

A friend of a friend was threatened with losing his engineering job in a state company if he joined protests against the government. Another acquaintance told me about similar threats to her brother after her aunt refused to comply with some demand of the ruling party. Many whisper about votes being bought for less than 20 euros. Many more incidents that happen daily will never be told, let alone prosecuted.

It is depressing that after so many people fought against those same practices in Milosevic’s time, we are back to defending basic human dignity.

It is also dispiriting to think that there is no easy way out. With a shambolic opposition and a controlled media, it is impossible to see how the government can be ousted, or even forced to respect its people.

Nevertheless, the protests continue and I join them. They may never reach their ambitious goals of ensuring a more equitable system in Serbia. But every day at 6pm, all around Serbia, they show that many people in Serbia still believe their dignity is worth fighting for.  

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