From Hubris to Nemesis: Aleksandar Vucic and the 1 of 5 Million Protests in Serbia.

For the Serbs the scene is by now familiar. As familiar as the fake tits and fake melodrama of reality TV. Aleksandar Vucic, the President of the Republic, former extreme nationalist now reforming neoliberal Eurocrat, stands triumphant at his party headquarters, sycophantically flanked from behind by his lackeys, as he proclaims yet another electoral victory for his Serbian Progressive Party.  It doesn’t matter where that victory might have occurred nor how small the locale. No place provides too small an excuse for the exhibition of hubris.

The last example of the species, in December 2018, was most instructive. This occurred after contiguous municipal elections in several small local municipalities, the most significant centred upon the town of Lucani with a grand total of 5,142 inhabitants. The local election campaign saw Lucani plastered with electoral material by the ruling party, invariably featuring the visage or the name of the President of the Republic. Party activists from all over Serbia were bussed in for the campaign, especially on voting day. The State Secretary of the Ministry of the Interior, reputed to have ties to the criminal underground, although in Serbia underground appears to be a misnomer, oversaw this operation on the day of the election. Video exists showing the head of the largest employer in town extolling his assembled workers to vote for the ruling party. Media with a national distribution, both electronic and print, provided little space for opposition parties to air their case. Vucic won, of course, and so there was the President once more at party headquarters. Again triumphant, a triumph as real as silicone. The display of hubris was of a type revealing an essential smallness of character.

Was it not those from a little bit down south who observed long long long ago that hubris makes way for nemesis?

In the very midst of the Lucani campaign the protest movement currently rocking the country, the 1-of-5 Million demonstrations, began to take shape. Instead of petering out into nothing, as hubris doubtless thought they would, the protests have only grown in scale both numerically and geographically. From seemingly nowhere the greatest Serb since Stefan Nemanja, the holder of the Order of Aleksandr Nevsky, bestowed upon him by the grandest of all the Russias mind you, a man publicly given to openly contemplating decades of rule found himself unexpectedly confronting the dim, though very real, outlines of nemesis.

The message for Aleksandar Vucic is clear enough. Nemesis is real, and it’s spectacular.

One could almost feel in the marrow of one’s bones his credibility, his aura, his strut taking a hammering unlike at any preceding moment. Something seemed to snap in Serb society and Vucic continues to be unsettled by the nationwide protest movement which gathers momentum week by week by week. The demonstrations are now into their 12th consecutive weekend, and they’re matched for longevity only by the Yellow Vests movement of France. The proximate cause of the scale, growth and persistence of the protests was Vucic’s declaration that he would not meet even one of the demands of the initial protest even if their number should be five million. Hence the slogan adopted by the movement, “1-of-5-Million.”

Hubris, that is to say.

Vucic demonstrates a certain progression in so far as these things go. Back in the day, in March 1991, Slobodan Milosevic felt compelled to sit in on a televised meeting with protesting students, one of who’s number, Dragan Djilas, is a prominent opposition figure to Vucic and to whom we return. As did Chinese Premier Li Peng in 1989. Both Milosevic and Li received a humiliating tongue lashing broadcast to the nation. The tanks in both Belgrade and Beijing came later. Vucic evidently doesn’t fell the same obligation as Milosevic and Li, nor does Macron in Paris.  Times have changed. The gas and the armour, in Belgrade if not Paris, remain confined to barracks. For now.

For those with a sense of history there’s no small irony here. At the September 1987 8th Plenum of the Central Committee of the 10th Congress of the League of Communists of Serbia, where Slobodan Milosevic effectively took power, one of Milosevic’s key backers, long standing party supremo Dusan Ckrebic, infamously declared “Srbija je umorna od lidera.” Serbia is tired of leaders. Apparently not, for since has followed one charismatic authority figure centralising power in their person after another; Milosevic, Zoran Djindjic, Boris Tadic, Aleksandar Vucic.

Serbia’s nationalists have long argued that the most consequential purge for Serb interests in Tito’s Yugoslavia was that of Tito’s key right hand man, Aleksandar Rankovic who took the revolutionary nom de guerre “Leka” and “Marko.” They say after the fall of Rankovic Kosovo was progressively cleansed of its Serb population. That Yugoslavia began its slide toward an ethnic confederation. I would argue, rather, that the most consequential purge was that of Marko Nikezic in 1972 by Tito, and Dragisa Pavlovic (the Belgrade party boss) in 1987 at the 8th Plenum by Milosevic. Both purges represented a cross roads that ultimately foreclosed a more enlightened, more progressive, more tolerant, and more emancipated future. Call it socialism with a human face if you will. The Serbs again find themselves at a cross roads.

Is Serbia tired of leaders?

The 1-of-5-Million protest movement has developed almost in parallel with the Yellow Vests movement in France. These are, at time of writing, the largest sustained protest movements in Europe. Aleksandar Vucic has taken a fig leaf out of Macron’s playbook and began a fake country wide “dialogue.”  I would submit that both movements arise from similar impulses and teach us similar lessons even though they have different methods. The protests in Serbia should not be viewed in isolation. They are symptomatic of a wider malaise that exists in the Balkans, which has increasingly been recognised and commented on. However, the underlying cause of the malaise has rarely been identified and discussed.

That can be found in the reincorporation of the Balkans into the periphery of the world capitalist system. This has been accompanied by the progressive Central Americanisation of Balkan political and economic life. What Central America is for the capitalist colossus to the North, the Balkans are to the traditional centres of capitalist and imperial power in northern and western Europe.

One of the most revealing, if not the most revealing, episodes of the Cold War occurred in the Balkans and that at a nondescript meeting in Sofia. What happened has been related by Raymond Garthoff in his memoirs, US Ambassador to Bulgaria in the late 1970s and a superb former CIA analyst. Garthoff has the Bulgarian Communist Party boss, Todor Zhivkov, at a diplomatic gathering proclaiming Bulgaria to be a colonial power for she imports raw materials from the Soviet Union, at subsidised prices, and exports back manufactured industrial and consumer products including to the wider Warsaw Pact. The extraction of resources was from centre to periphery, the export of manufactured goods from periphery to centre. Moscow was Sofia’s third world. There would be few in Bulgaria who would say the same today of NATO or the EU and no Central American would ever have said the same of Washington even in jest.

Nor could the Croats, Serbs, Bosnians, Romanians, Albanians, Macedonians nor Greeks say the same of Washington, Brussels, Berlin and London today either. The experience of the former Yugoslavia and Greece is perhaps the most closely related. For different reasons to do with different historical processes both Greece and Yugoslavia managed to escape from a subordinate position in the periphery of the world capitalist system, coming to enjoy a type of semi-peripheral status during the Cold War. However, the collapse of Yugoslavia and the Eurozone debt crisis has effectively seen the former Yugoslav republics, including Slovenia, and Greece return to their traditional peripheral status in the world capitalist system. Eastern Europe and Ireland constitute the original third world. 

Allow me to return to Serbia to sketch this thesis out further. The regime of Aleksandar Vucic is often described externally as “populist” but that is misleading. Two of the main ramparts of Vucic’s claim to legitimacy demonstrate this. Vucic has always argued that he has, correctly, diligently brought macroeconomic stability to Serbia, and that through an austerity programme at the direction of European and international economic and financial institutions what in Central America would be called “structural adjustment.” This process Vucic in his Eurocratese calls “fiscal consolidation.” The second is his boasting that he has created a favourable investment climate for multinational corporations and investors. Vucic is endlessly seen in yellow vest visiting a factory or a construction project touting this. Aleksandar Vucic is not a populist. He is a good little neoliberal satrap.

The 1-of-5-Million protests took off after the leader of the small Serbian Left Party (Levica Srbije), Borko Stefanovic, was brutally attacked following an opposition gathering in the town of Krusevac in late November. Many of the tiny opposition political parties in Serbia have joined a broad coalition called “Alliance for Serbia” in hopes of confronting Vucic and his Progressive Party collectively. It’s a coalition featuring left, centre, conservative, liberal, and nationalist parties. The smallish rally in Krusevac was organised by the Alliance for Serbia. Stefanovic was viciously smashed in the head with a metal implement by a group of thugs, an attack that left him with a profusely bloodied shirt and in emergency. Stefanovic himself maintains that the attack was an act of attempted murder by local supporters of the regime. The evidence appears to support his assertion of provenance. The protest in Belgrade following that attack, demanding a “stop to bloody shirts,” attracted a larger than expected gathering. A televised report by a young journalist on regime friendly TV, a woman whose father is connected to the apparatus of power, in comical fashion declared not many were in attendance, the protest organisers were hypocrites for they had called for lynchings, raping, a coup d’etat and on and on. The litany quickly went viral. Vucic arrogantly chimed in with his hubristic declaration. These were the sticks that broke the proverbial’s back.  The attack on Stefanovic was by no means an isolated incident.

The political order in Serbia, as applies throughout the Balkans, consists of a neopatrimonial system of patron-client networks where control of the state and politically connected commercial enterprises are used to dispense patronage. Multinational investors and corporations are aware of the rules, and happily comply with them. That is no small concern in a region characterised by high rates of poverty and unemployment. Those who can dispense patronage come to possess political authority, and so the exercise of power becomes highly concentrated in the individual rather than the institutionalised structure of the state. Political power is not invested in institutions, the rule of law, or democratic participation. Whether a state is or isn’t a member of the EU has no real bearing on this.

Take, for example, the town of Jagodina. Here Dragan Markovic “Palma” (Palm Tree), a former associate of the war criminal Zeljko Raznatovic “Arkan,” to whom Milosevic sub contracted some of his atrocities (for a cut of course), has effectively reigned supreme and that for a long time. He is well connected to the overall structure of power, both now and when Boris Tadic was President, and his capacity to dispense patronage in Jagodina is considerable. Every year some of the poorest inhabitants of Jagodina are invited to attend his party offices to relate the misfortunes and miseries of their lives to the chieftain. After hearing their tales of woe, he taps each on the shoulder declaring proudly how much, not much, money they will receive from wherever due to his grace and benevolence alone. When one’s eyes bare witness to the spectacle what is there for one to do other than tearfully pity the nation.

The media, especially the mass media which alone can reach a national audience, is owned by corporations and investors closely enmeshed to the patrimonial power structure. They favourably report on the doings of the leader and the ruling party, while largely ignoring opposition politicians, free thinking intellectuals and independent commentators. The rancid tabloids function as the regime’s attack dogs who enforce discipline through smear, slur, and smut.

Aleksandar Vucic sits at the top of this structure and the more influence his party obtains throughout the society the more pervasive his role at the apex of the pyramid formed by the integrated patron-client networks becomes. Only the town of Sabac is not controlled by Vucic’s party, much to his chagrin it might be added. Employment in both the private and public sectors, from top to bottom, is dependent not so much on merit as loyalty and connection to the ruling party. Nothing happens in Serbia that does not find the approval of Aleksandar Vucic. His presidency of the ruling party gives him more real power than his heading the state, which is why he has had real power in Serbia since 2012.

The patron-client networks enabling all this have been infiltrated by the mafia, and so it has become difficult to know where the mafia ends, and the state begins. The political system is of an authoritarian-mafioso type. Those who criticise all this can, and have been, subject to violence. In Kosovska Mitrovica it is widely reputed a local thug possessing defacto power and close ties to the regime may have been involved in the murder of the opposition politician Oliver Ivanovic. Whether that is true or not isn’t really known as more than one year later the murder remains unsolved. Unsolved crimes in Serbia are regarded as intimating state and or mafia connivance, a functional perception for it leads to the view that the law provides no protection for dissidents and activists who are quickly arrested when need be. The house of a journalist investigating the alleged nefarious activities of a local tender process has been fire bombed whilst he was quietly sleeping inside with his wife. He too has described that act as attempted murder. The crime remains unsolved, although the police can be relied upon to evict destitute tenants at a moment’s notice. Local newspapers are shut down on account of low advertising revenue.  Not too many companies are prepared to advertise in independent newspapers so risking the next tender. That too is a widespread feature of Balkan media.

This follows from the incorporation of the Balkans into the periphery of the world capitalist system, and the subsequent Central Americanisation of Balkan life. Our picture of Central America is one of rampant terrorist states inflicting mass terror upon their populations and that largely confined to the Reagan era. To be sure this has been the experience, especially in El Salvador and Nicaragua, following the growth of active resistance to the imposition of third world capitalism. But for the most part the region was, and continues to be, characterised by a regime of low level terror. The occasional murder, beatings, harassment, defamation, and so on constitute the normal run of the mill. The low level terror always carries an implicit threat of escalation. We see a similar low level terror increasingly characterising the Balkans, and the correlation with Central America is no accident. The current order in the Balkans is at variance with democracy because its Central American style incorporation into the third world, a process overseen by corrupt and kleptocratic domestic elites on the familiar third world model, does not conform to the preferences of the population nor does it meet with their consent.  The imperial centre becomes concerned only should one of two things happen. When the local elites, through a mixture of greed, hubris and incompetence lose control so imperilling the stability of the colonial order or when a local satrap should get out of control by ceasing to loyally follow orders perhaps also through greed, hubris or incompetence.

The reports on all this in the imperial media has emphasised the authoritarian manner of Vucic’s rule, and at times have made similar points regarding the other Balkan states. But Serbia has received a singular focus unlike the others. This is not because protest movements haven’t existed elsewhere. It is because Vucic runs a nonaligned foreign policy, not to be confused with a pro Russian foreign policy, and one more tilted toward the West than commonly assumed. Vucic supports Serbia’s armed neutrality rather than its joining NATO. It takes only a few seconds of thought to see this. The same media that, correctly, criticises the authoritarianism of Vucic in Serbia takes umbrage at any suggestion you should not die for Milo Djukanovic next door in Montenegro a NATO member state and soon to join the EU. Compared to Djukanovic, Vucic is not just a choir boy but a veritable Castrato. Nobody quite reaches the heights of kleptocracy like Djukanovic, although the Western protectorate of Kosovo doesn’t lag far behind.  The irony is that Belgrade’s nonaligned foreign policy is the one thing most Serbs find little to fault Vucic with, yet it is precisely what the New York Times and the imperial centre most dislike about him. They rather wish that Belgrade become a fully subordinate neocolonial dependency like every other Balkan state that does what it’s told, when it’s told, no questions asked. In return, as Djukanovic well shows, the satraps can do as they please domestically so long as they keep things stable and the profits flowing.  

The incorporation of the Balkans into the periphery of the world capitalist system has resulted in a socioeconomic catastrophe. Serbia has not just one of the lowest per capita GDP rates in Europe. It just about has the lowest per capita GDP in the Balkans, which is no mean feat. Both the average and minimum wage are shockingly low, with the minimum wage often violated by corporations who know the patrimonial state can be relied upon to ignore its own laws, and those on fixed incomes such as pensioners eke out an existence as best they can.  Hungry, injured animals haunt the streets. The country, like elsewhere in the Balkans, has been deindustrialised through neoliberal privatisations that took the form of state sanctioned robbery and piracy. In Serbia that is a process that mostly followed the October 2000 revolution that overthrew Milosevic. The tycoonisation or oligarchisation of Serb society happened after, not before, October 2000. Vucic, like Putin, has built his legitimacy by promising to eliminate the oligarchs as a class.  But both have only disciplined the oligarchs in the interests of stability, whereby stability is meant oligarchic stability. The oligarchic order thereby can continue to function, and the riches can remain in dirty hands hopefully in perpetuity. Vucic and Putin have not eliminated the oligarchs as a class so much as saved them from the consequences of their own avarice, and so delayed the oligarchs’ own meeting with nemesis. One of those to implement, and benefit from, the neoliberal privatisations was Dragan Djilas, the key leader of the opposition Alliance for Serbia and former Major of Belgrade. He isn’t the only political figure of significance in the opposition to have had a prominent seat in the governments responsible for the tycoonisation of Serbia.

One means of investigating the impact that third worldisation has had on the region is through the textile, clothing and footwear industry a typical third world socioeconomic bellwether. In 2017 the Clean Clothes campaign reported on the working conditions of Serbia’s garment workers, who previously would have worked in industries nominally theirs and nominally managed by them under Tito’s slogan of “workers self management” but who now toil, and they do toil, for multinational brands. They conclude that many of Serbia’s TCF workers are paid wages below a living wage, work long hours, often are confined to their machines without even allowed a toilet break, paid below the minimum wage, often working in summer without air conditioning, are asked to sign contracts foreclosing pregnancy and on it goes. At the expressing of the merest displeasure or pleas for mercy workers are offered a choice; work or walk out the door. That is what it means to work and to live in a third world society. For multinational capital the Balkans provide a ready source of cheap and well trained human capital.  The effect on the social fabric has been horrific. Family breakdown, domestic violence, criminalisation of urban life, drug use, sex trafficking, suicides taking the form of deaths of despair, a stampede of the young to greener pastures, that is all the familiar horrors of the colonial form long known to have affected Central American life.

External reports of the current protests emphasise its political aspect. The bit about liberty, press freedom, democracy, and free assembly. These are important. But so are the social and economic aspects. But these are systematically ignored, and for good reason. The colonial overseers do not want these to change any. But, as I have sought to show, the dichotomy is false for both the political and the social are intimately related to the reincorporation of the Balkans into the world capitalist system.

I have seen Leftist critiques of the protests that argue they should be opposed because, unlike previous protests such as the Protiv Diktature (Against Dictatorship) demonstrations and the Ne Davimo Beograd protests, they are organised by the Alliance for Serbia, rather than social movements, the core of which seeks to slavishly adhere to the dictates of the centre through the institution of a purer neoliberal order. Their most significant publicly articulated support comes from the liberal intelligentsia, which is no less committed to neoliberal dogma now than before. Whatever one might say about the current political system one valuable thing its patron-client networks do is provide a rudimentary social welfare state that cushions some of the blow of the region’s reincorporation into the world capitalist system. Should those like Dragan Djilas get their way Serbia would revert to an even more mean spirited neoliberal order. I find myself not agreeing with these sentiments. That is because, as argued by the Left Libertarian political sociologist Jovo Bakic, uprooting of the political system is the demand before all demands. By changing the political system, rather than changing leaders, quite apart from its intrinsic justification, space is opened for the Left to organise. A space it currently does not have. Furthermore, the current protests are sustained through involvement of the many activist groups and currents which have arisen across the country, and that have long opposed the neoliberal privations discussed earlier. The movement has come to transcend the opposition parties and the liberal intelligentsia.

So it is that we come to our last point, the relation of the 1-of-5-Million protest movement to the Yellow Vests in France. I think there are two points worthy of consideration. The first is the absence of the organised working class, a characteristic both movements share. The second is the absolute necessity in the era of globalised capitalism for actions and solidarity that extends beyond national borders.

The October 2000 revolution that overthrew Milosevic has been mischaracterised in some important respects by the Left. It is often seen as a US led and financed operation seeking to overthrow a government up against the globalised new world order. Milosevic at the time was not struggling against the new world order, rather he was struggling to find a way to make his peace with it so he could again become the guarantor of Balkan peace and stability in the eyes of Washington. The US factor was certainly there, but essentially the revolution was organised and conducted by a people that rose up to defend an election Milosevic was trying to steal from them. Given the date we are thankfully spared the thesis that October 2000 was facilitated by Facebook and Twitter.

A key factor behind the revolution was the emergence of an autonomous working class movement that took direct action to defend its political interests through democratic seizure of the means of production. There were two key facets to this. The first was the occupation of the critical Kolubara coal mine whose coal accounts for 52% of the electricity produced in Serbia. So concerned was Milosevic by this he took the drastic step of ordering his Chief of Staff, General Nebojsa Pavkovic, to attend the barricades and negotiate with the workers. Secondly, throughout the country crisis committees, largely functioning as workers’ councils, developed through factory occupations supportive of calls for a general strike. These twin actions had two critical effects. They demonstrated that Milosevic had lost the confidence of his social base and could only corral the working class through military force, which the armed forces were not prepared to countenance. Furthermore, combined with external hostility, they led many in the state apparatus to the calculation that Milosevic’s days were numbered so facilitating their switch to the revolution. Indeed, an important factor behind Milosevic losing the election he tried to salvage through robbery was the relative collapse of his support amongst the working class and the peasantry.  

Class struggle is very much missing from the 1-of-5-Million protest movement, and that’s not just because of degraded social and cultural conditions. It is because after October 2000 the working class was deceived by many of the party leaders now opposed to Vucic. It is they who took on the colonial responsibility of reincorporating the society into the periphery of the world capitalist system. There exists widespread distrust of the motives of the opposition parties, and concern that whatever might happen on the streets the net effect would be their return to power something not desired by the working classes. Jovo Bakic has correctly stated that the current protests are best seen as a warming up for something altogether larger in scope and scale. Only the working class can fill the breach between the warm up and the revolution. Only the working class can ensure, through continued vigilance and mobilisation, that the ferment in the streets does not again become an opportunity to be exploited by the neoliberals. In France we see the same inchoate response of the organised Left to the Yellow Vests movement, which can only go so far without the mass support of the working class organised at the point of production.

The other crucial missing ingredient is international action and solidarity. Without organised resistance, without an international picket line, the working class cannot fundamentally change the system of global capitalism especially in the periphery. That’s because any social movement would be met with capital strikes enabled by the internationalisation of the system of production and finance. That is especially so in the Balkans which is too small to successfully resist an internationally organised capital strike. The neoliberal order and globalised capitalism fit together hand in glove, and moment-by-moment capital strikes impacting across borders are critical to its stable reproduction. Organised movements at the national level can win concessions and make gains especially in the advanced industrial states, and these should not be dismissed, but overcoming neoliberalism, that is globalising capitalism, requires international action. The Yellow Vests have yet to be supported by the mobilisation of the French working class, yet alone the European. The same applies in the Balkans. The flip side to this is that global capitalism is encouraging the sprouting up of social movements in opposition to the depredations and vulgarities of the neoliberal order. These arise as if mushrooms. They come, they go. Some hang around for relatively longer than others, some have impacts yet wider from their source of origin. Witness Serbia, better still the Balkan peninsula, which has seen many come and go from its fertile soil. Some of these will take on sturdy roots holding them in place, allowing their growth, facilitating their spread. It is through this struggle that the global working class will come to know of its own being and to know of the necessity of international action and solidarity.

I had promised to finish with these last two points. But I cannot finish without making a point about something that is said to be missing from the 1-of-5-Million protests.

Kosovo.  

The choice that Serb society makes here too has great bearing on its future as a tolerant, open and enlightened society. Two commentators have recently drawn interesting historical parallels regarding Kosovo. Ljubisa Ristic, a well known theatre director and exponent of the thespian arts from the Yugoslav period (but also former president of the vanity party of Milosevic’s wife), compared the formation of the Kosovo state with the formation of Panama. He may well be right but if so only with regard to method. The better analogy was drawn by Milos Kovic an historian of the younger generation who hails from Sabac hence close to home. Kovic has stated in a recent interview that Kosovo is like Israel. Just as the Jews through centuries of domination dreamed of a return to the holy land so did the Serbs. But Kovic leaves the analogy there. He should have gone on to say that in the 20th century the Serbs returned to Kosovo, like the Jews returned to Israel-Palestine, only to find it largely populated by another people.

From that point Kosovo could remain a part of Serbia only in the same fashion that Israel-Palestine could remain an exclusively Jewish state, namely through the occupation of a people possessing their own identity and their own national aspirations. That can be done only in a fashion that risks perpetual war and conflict.  A tolerant, democratic, and enlightened Serbia cannot make the same choice as Israel, and the making of that same choice a person of principle cannot support. That is not to say that the Serb population of Kosovo, especially in the north whose land and communities were long part of Serbia proper not Kosovo, have not been subject to discrimination and violent ethnic cleansing. They have, and that as late as the organised pogrom of 2004 under the very eyes of NATO. That’s not to say that the Albanians of Kosovo possess a monopoly on suffering and virtue. They don’t. That’s not to say that the Serb population doesn’t have the right of self determination both intrinsically and given recent history. That they do. But all these points apply in reverse, and to deny that is to deny reason. Even Kosovo can have no future as a tolerant and enlightened society so long as its very essence is defined against the Serb other, a point no less applicable to Croat, Bosniak and Montenegrin society. The Balkans can never be the master of its own destiny so long as the divisions among her peoples are seen as primary for that serves the interests of global capitalism and imperial power.

The Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin in his Statism and Anarchy, one of the most insightful works of political analysis and theory since Aristotle’s Politics, said of the new Serbian state that developed after the emancipation of the Serbs from Ottoman rule; “The one and only function of the State, therefore, is to exploit the Serbian people in order to provide the bureaucrats with all the comforts of life.”

Find one Serb who disagrees with that sentence and you shall find for me a Serb on the payroll of Aleksandar Vucic.

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