Serbian Octobers

In Serbia, apparent euphoria has turned to voter apathy in the space of just two years.

Philip Cunliffe

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With a positive outcome in the Irish referendum over the Nice treaty on European Union (EU) enlargement, the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia is now guaranteed entry into the EU in 2004.

A vote in another former Yugoslav republic, Serbia, has gone less well, threatening regional political stagnation. Serbia’s first opportunity to elect another president since the fall of Slobodan Miloševic two years ago ended in fiasco on 13 October 2002, as the second round of presidential voting was invalidated by a low turnout of 45 percent of those eligible to vote (50 percent turnout is required by the constitution) (1).

It is a strange sight, reflecting the vast political and social disparities of the region: while one country that emerged from the chaos of Yugoslavia’s collapse sees the heavenly gates of Fortress Europe creaking open, another is still trapped in history, struggling with the legacy of the Balkan wars.

Voter apathy is a dull ending indeed to the political drama of ‘Serbian October’, the ‘revolution’ that overthrew Miloševic only two years ago. The fall of Miloševic (‘Europe’s last communist dictator’) on 5 October 2000, the day when hundreds of thousands of protestors stormed the parliament and state television buildings in Belgrade, was likened to the velvet revolutions that brought down the Eastern Bloc.

Broadcast live via satellite on CNN, BBC and Sky (as well as the host of independent provincial channels throughout Serbia itself), ‘Serbian October’ was proclaimed a ‘telerevolution’ by Timothy Garton Ash, writer and fellow of St Anthony’s College, Oxford, who reported on the velvet revolutions eight years earlier (2). Indeed, so powerful were the banners and smoke-and-flame images of ‘Serbian October’, that the ‘Belgrade effect’ was credited with the October 2000 popular uprising against military strongman Robert Guei in Cote d’Ivoire. How could such euphoria and triumphalism end only two years later in the political cul-de-sac of voter apathy?

An overwhelming sense of weariness is the dominant mood in Serbia, tempered by frustration and disillusionment with the post-Miloševic government. Everyday life grinds on much unchanged: fewer shortages and less inflation but wages remain sunk at an average of $40 a month (‘European prices, African wages’ goes a popular refrain).

Miroljub Labus, pro-Western presidential candidate and current Yugoslav deputy prime minister, blamed foul weather for the low voter turnout. But the explanation is unfortunately even more banal than that. People’s concerns over the summer were dominated less by impending elections than by electricity bills.

With the post-Miloševic regime under intense Western pressure to liberalise and reform, the government has sought to re-capture colossal arrears owed to public sector utilities. Battered by NATO bombs and beggared by Miloševic (who maintained low price ceilings and ignored non-payment of bills to avoid stoking discontent), the state electricity industry is desperately seeking to modernise itself through price rises and cutting off non-payers. But there is little hope in such a strategy. ‘They can’t cut half the country off, can they?’, grumbles Goran, aged 54, an unemployed factory worker in the southern city of Niš.

Unemployment and poverty are still rife. Much of the ‘charm’ of Serbian life – the pulsing nightlife and overflowing cafés that stupefied Western journalists visiting Yugoslavia under UN sanctions – has more to do with unemployment and boredom. Looking around a night-time café, one quickly notices people lingering over the same drink the whole night, having no work to go to in the morning.

After a decade of UN sanctions, corruption, neglect and mismanagement, and 78 days of devastating NATO bombardment, Serbia has been more or less reduced to a self-sufficient peasant agricultural economy. Only cigarette factories maintain high wages and high productivity – otherwise industrial production declines as decaying factories stand idle (3). Wealth is increasingly polarised, as evidenced in the growth of the so-called ‘Beverly Hills’ suburbs of the factory bosses and their mafia cohorts around urban centres.

It could be argued that the high hopes and expectations raised by a popular revolution must inevitably founder on the gruelling tasks of rebuilding state and society. But in reality the weariness and political disillusionment flows from the fact that there has been no real change at all – let alone a revolution.

Much of the sound and fury of the ‘telerevolution’ was set on a platform raised by the West itself. The mass demonstrations were a stage army – Miloševic’s power imploded when he was abandoned by the military high-command and upper ranks of his police force.

Nor were the key actors of the ‘telerevolution’ as beloved by Serbs as by the Western media. Zoran Djindjic, the current Serbian prime minister who was acclaimed in the Western press as ‘handsome’ and ‘charismatic’ two years ago, has long been despised in Yugoslavia as little more than a silken-suited German lackey. The ‘democratic’ credentials of his small Democratic Party (DS) were mostly affirmed by his willingness to accept financial ‘aid’ from the West. Dollars compensated for political legitimacy as he bought allegiances through patronage and graft. ‘I’m the only person I know who likes him’, laughs 24-year-old Katarina, a student at Belgrade. ‘Probably because I study German. I think everyone hates him for fleeing to Germany during the [NATO] bombing.’

And Otpor (‘Resistance’), the student organisation that spearheaded the anti-Miloševic demonstrations with their slogan Gotov je (‘He’s finished!’), was not as autonomous as Western coverage would have us believe. Founded in 1998 by students sickened with the chronic squabbling that caused the collapse of the anti-Miloševic ‘Zajedno’ coalition in 1996-97, it gradually succumbed to Djindjic’s dollar charms.

‘It changed after late 1999′, said 19-year-old Ninoslav, a former Otpor activist and student at the University of Novi Sad. ‘I left after Djindjic colonised it and started throwing money at people. Before that, it was just about getting rid of Miloševic; after, people started to fight over money and rank.’ Given the evident lack of deep political change, it would be more accurate to describe 5 October 2000 as a putsch – glorious and popular perhaps, but a putsch nonetheless.

While the ponderous Yugoslav President Vojislav Koštunica, (acclaimed as a ‘new Vaclav Havel’ by Timothy Garton Ash) is broadly trusted (he won this year’s elections by a comfortable margin of 66 percent), he remains essentially a conservative jurist and scholar, having neither the charisma nor the political cunning to capture and inspire the public imagination.

‘The main problem’, according to 21-year-old Miloš , a student union official from Novi Sad, is that ‘Koštunica is the president of a country that doesn’t exist’ (2). Since Serbia and Montenegro, the two remaining sister republics of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, agreed in March 2002 to establish a looser union of ‘Serbia and Montenegro’, the political role of the office of the president has been left in limbo, in anticipation of a new constitution for the proposed union.

Moreover, with Miloševic’s demise, it is readily apparent that most of the powers of the president rest on the symbolism the office has retained from Tito’s Yugoslav federation. With largely symbolic powers and amorphous political jurisdiction, the terrain was laid for the bitter feuding that has dominated Serbian politics since Miloševic’s overthrow: on the one hand, the pro-Western pragmatist prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, whose office incorporates real political power, and on the other, the nationalist president of a political fossil, Koštunica.

There is scant agreement about the path to further progress. Serbian people, the young especially, yearn for a better quality of life through opening up to the world market, but many also fear losing the few remaining benefits of ‘workers’ self-management socialism’ (one example being the fraying public health system).

Sweeping privatisation programs are provoking widespread unease. ‘This regime will destroy more than the last one!’, exclaims 46-year-old Milan, an unemployed factory worker from Niš. ‘But, then, let the foreign capital come in’, he adds nonchalantly. There is growing recognition, however reluctant, that accepting the liberalism of the world market and foreign corporations is the only way to gain the colossal infusions of capital investment desperately needed to rebuild Serbia’s shattered industries and infrastructure.

Gritty political realities aside, what future do people envision for Yugoslavia? Many elderly and middle-aged people look to the future only with vague apprehension, preferring to retreat from reality, either into woolly, warm nostalgia for the ‘Golden years’ of Marshal Tito’s rule, or to cheap Latin American television soap operas (still the staple diet of the state-run television company New RTS).

Only the younger generation – too young to remember Tito’s rule, but old enough to remember being indoctrinated about his glories – energetically confront the future with optimism. After growing up under impoverishment, UN sanctions, NATO bombs and imprisonment under international travel restrictions, young Serbs long to live as other Europeans of their generation.

(1) See ‘Serbian presidential election annulled’, Julijana Mojsilovic, Reuters, 15 October

(2) See From Florida to Belgrade, television calls the shots, Timothy Garton Ash, Independent 21 November 2000

(3) See the Serbian Government website

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