Time for an Alternative

The spontaneous protests in Serbia show how little mainstream politics has to offer voters.

Milovan Milenkovic / Jacobin

After securing 55 percent of the vote in the April 2 election, Aleksandar Vučić became the new president of Serbia. Various officials from the European Union, the United States, China, and Russia immediately congratulated Vučić, praising him as a guarantor of Serbia’s stability and future prosperity.

However, mass protests are now challenging what seemed to be a sweeping victory and a smooth transition from the position of prime minister to president. Demonstrations, organized on social media the night of the election, spread across the country the following day. With no political parties or other formally organized entities visible, thousands of citizens spontaneously expressed their dissatisfaction with what they perceived as a fraudulent electoral process and with the newly elected president’s increasing concentration of power.

Within three days, Belgrade saw thirty thousand protesters; eighty thousand came out on day six. As the demonstrations have continued, their slogans and demands have changed. Though the uprising retains its spontaneous character — in the sense that it has no party or organization at its head nor does it express a coherent ideology — economic and social justice issues have come to the fore.

The Student Movement of Novi Sad, an active participant in the protests, circulated their set of demands through social media before presenting them publicly in various cities. Protesters reacted positively to this document, which calls for the end of austerity policies, freedom of the press, solidarity with unions and workers on strike, and the recognition that the problems in Serbia come from its economic system.

Social justice issues also feature heavily. Demonstrators replaced a favorite right-wing homophobic slogan with a progressive variation, and signs reading “gays are with the people” appeared at the head of the protest line.

Matija Jovanovic / Jacobin

The demonstrations are far from achieving social or ideological homogeneity. However, the participants have started to recognize shared social and economic interests — the students’ call for worker solidarity was an important element in the movement’s development.

But a scene on April 8 in Belgrade demonstrates the complexity of the situation. Police, military, and teachers’ unions decided to protest the government’s treatment of these sectors by joining forces with the students. Belgrade streets have seen numerous protests since the nineties, but the state’s armed institutions generally stayed on the other side of the barricades. Activists never perceived the police or military as possible allies in an action directed against the government, and the police force had a notorious reputation for actively supporting the repressive government during the 1990s. Now, the military and police union flags fly alongside a huge anticapitalist banner and LGBT slogans. The protest playlist included one of the Right’s favorite military marches as well as the communist song Bandiera rossa.

To understand what has united these traditionally opposed factions, we must understand the election’s political choices.

Candidates from both the ruling party and the opposition tried to give the election extraordinary significance. Vučić deployed the arsenal of campaign weaponry made available to him by the Serbian Party of Progress’s (SNS) vast power and the cronyism and clientelism it practices. Using his influence in public broadcasting and private media he made himself synonymous with stability and prosperity. Based on information circulating on social networks, he also secured votes by giving small bribes — enough for a few meals — to poorer voters, by threatening mainly public-sector workers with layoffs if he lost, and, according to a recent report in one of the main Serbian dailies, by using the identities of fake voters.

Opposition candidates, on the other hand, tried to frame this election in terms of “us” versus “them.” “Them” consisted of Vučić, his party, their cronies, and their voters, who liberal intellectuals frequently accused of political ignorance and lack of education. The opposition directed ad hominem blabber at Vučić and a not-insignificant portion of the population, which did not prove to be a successful tactic.

Further, the opposition failed to coalesce behind a coherent “us,” never putting forward a candidate all, or at least some of its factions, could agree on. Thus, one could have chosen between ten opposition candidates. Since no agreement among the opposition parties seems forthcoming, Vučić can now call for snap parliamentary elections in response to the current political turmoil — a possibility he in fact alluded to months before the presidential election. Without a united opposition, these elections would almost certainly prolong Vučić’s control over parliament or, in an even darker scenario, secure him an absolute majority.

Matija Jovanovic / Jacobin

Undisputedly, Aleksandar Vučić is this decade’s most successful Serbian politician. He had been a leader in the ethno-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, but he broke with it in 2008 and went on to cofound the SNS, shifting to centrist, right-wing conservatism. The new party managed to ease the contradiction between patriotic, nationalist sentiment and pro–European Union politics by forging an eclectic ideology out of cultural nationalism, pro-Europeanism, and friendship with Russia. The party also zealously committed to neoliberalism, winning wide support from international leaders for giving foreign capital new ground to exploit.

The opposition candidates did not challenge this core of Vučić’s politics. Indeed, they could not, since they share Vučić’s stance on privatization, austerity, and liberalizing labor codes to further degrade workers’ rights.

No one demonstrated this more clearly than the opposition’s most popular candidate, Saša Janković. He focused his political message around a call for rule of law, completely ignoring the fact that Serbian law is designed to fit IMF diktats, not increase freedom, democracy, equality, and general well-being.

When we consider the relatively low election turnout — just 55 percent — in conjunction with the increasing need to protest, as some of the banners read, against the system, it seems obvious that the people, contrary to what liberal commentators believe, are not politically illiterate. Rather, they recognize that no organized political force represents a desperately needed alternative.

Marko Risovic / Jacobin

Other signs also point in this direction. A few stories capture the Serbian working-class growing misery: workers getting fired after ending up with disabilities due to harsh working conditions; workers being obliged to wear diapers instead of taking breaks in order to speed up production; or the recent tragedy of an employee who committed suicide after his company failed to give him his last thirty paychecks.

Young people can hardly imagine having a decent life. The unemployment rate among youth sits at approximately 40 percent, and, based on 2015 data, 15 percent of young people have emigrated in search of better prospects. At home, even those with postsecondary degrees are more likely to end up in part-time, precarious jobs than in standard employment.

The middle class is also suffering. Teachers’ salaries have fallen below the country’s average, which hovers around $4,800 annually after tax. The opposition refused to address these fundamental problems, which the majority of Serbian citizens share.

In the months leading up to the election, public- and private-sector workers staged a number of protests. Pensioners also demonstrated, and many marched against the massive investment project called “Belgrade Waterfront.” All of these uprisings reflect the deteriorating living conditions and antisocial policies of neoliberal governance.

Only an organized left force can provide this missing alternative, but the Left in Serbia, discredited after the disintegration of socialist Yugoslavia, is still trying to rebuild itself. Whether the ongoing protests will provide a momentum for the growth and cohesion of radical organizations remains to be seen. While demands such as to end austerity, provide publicly financed and quality health care and education for all — as well as the outright anticapitalist slogans — are invigorating, it would be unwary to conclude that the Left is winning the battle of interpretation of the protests, let alone that these protests are foretelling future victories of radicals.

Though unions and factory workers are joining the protest lines, protests are being organized in a way to cause the least disturbance possible (usually not even the traffic is being blocked), hence business can be done as usual. This is reflected in the fact that the newly elected president is calling the demonstrations a proof of democracy, and says that they can go on for ten years for all he cares as long as they remain peaceful.

But most importantly, there are no political organizations which could realize even the most modest demands the demonstrators are putting forward. Thus, rather than focusing on the question of momentum, we should hear the message these protests are emitting towards the Left. If the underlying issue is the missing alternative which would address the problems most Serbian citizens share, than this message states the need to face the challenges of political organizing.