Serbia: from ‘people power’ to public passivity

If the ousting of Milosevic really was a revolutionary moment, why is the country in a state of stagnation a mere five years later?

Philip Cunliffe

Topics Politics

Five years on since Slobodan Milosevic was ousted in a so-called ‘people power’ revolt, it seems as if Serbia has finally managed to overcome being an international pariah.

On 29 September 2005, European Union ambassadors finally gave the green light for the recently formed union of Serbia and Montenegro (or ‘S&M’ as the state is known, with characteristic Serbian black humour) to enter ‘Stabilisation and Association Agreements’ that are a precursor to eventual membership of the EU (1). Presumably intended to signal Serbia’s re-entry into the fold, foreign ministers rubber-stamped the decision on 3 October 2005, two days before the fifth anniversary of Milosevic’s ejection from power on 5 October 2000.

The Serbian government also recently received a rare pat on the head from UN tribunal chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte, who said: ‘Finally we can say we have a reciprocal cooperation between The Hague and Belgrade’ – as if ‘The Hague’ were an independent country merely establishing diplomatic relations (2).

Where ‘Serbs’ were once a byword for nationalist aggression, now Serbia can claim to have exported ‘people power’ around the world. The overthrow of Milosevic is widely seen as having provided a template for a wave of revolutionary and peaceful popular revolts that have rattled and sometimes even ousted dictators, from the Ivory Coast in West Africa, through Ukraine and Uzbekistan in the former Soviet Union, to Lebanon in the Middle East.

In each country, a similar scenario occurred: elections were disputed, crowds came out on to the streets brandishing iconic symbols and colours (the clenched fist in Serbia, the rose in Georgia, the colour orange in Ukraine, the tulip in Krygyzstan), and then an authoritarian strongman fell. But how does this uplifting tale of democratic upheaval stand up in its country of origin, five years on from Milosevic’s overthrow?

There have certainly been some minor economic improvements in the past five years, noticeable in more and newer cars on the roads and some improvements in infrastructure. The southern town of Niš (scene of some of the worst civilian casualties in the 1999 war when NATO cluster bombs fell on an afternoon market), has seen a modest construction boom since Philip Morris bought up the local tobacco industry and laid off workers with generous redundancy packages (generous at least by Serbian standards, where, according to World Bank statistics, GNI per capita in 2005 was $2,620) (3).

But blackened ruins in Belgrade show that the scars of the 79-day NATO bombing are still around. Six years on from the 1999 war, NATO bombs are still a big problem – part of Niš’s industrial district was closed down during summer this year when unexploded cluster bombs were discovered. The Serbian economy grew by 7.5 per cent last year, drawing in $1billion of foreign investment – though this was mostly through deeply unpopular privatisations in the industrial and financial sectors (4).

Infrastructure and statistics aside, the overwhelming sentiment is a pervasive sense of stagnation. The scale of people’s political disenchantment is monolithic. While Serbs have long been mistrustful of the bureaucratic and political elites, even in the recent past many of them would passionately talk about politics and focus their hopes around redeeming political figures: Milosevic for some; for others, the current foreign minister Vuk Draskovic, in his early days, before he was compromised by his record of relentless opportunism; and for others still, the plodding current Serbian prime minister Vojislav Kostunica, who originally took over from Milosevic in October 2000.

Yet today, Serbs are confronted with a bewildering array of squabbling ‘fronts’ (most post-Yugoslav Serbian parties have ‘front’ in their title), and venal political leaders more concerned with chewing the bones tossed to them by the EU, World Bank and IMF, than with responding to the concerns of their electorate. It is small wonder that few people have the stomach to talk about what passes for politics in Serbia today. ‘How the hell does [Serbian president Boris] Tadic afford a millionaire’s mansion?’ demands Goran, an unemployed factory worker from Niš, referring to the palatial residence that the former mayor of Niš has built for himself on the outskirts of the town. Yet deputy prime minister Miroljub Labus, a champion of privatisation, still has the temerity to say: ‘Our real problem is public perception.’ (5)

Whatever hopes were raised by the overthrow of Milosevic, they clearly haven’t been met. This is most evident among Serbian youth. Traditionally at the forefront of revolutionary transformation, a country’s youth are a good barometer of change, and should be among those who reap most of its rewards. Chaffing behind the international travel restrictions imposed on Europe by the EU’s Schengen system, many young, educated Serbs’ desire to flee offers the most powerful testimony to the drift and lack of opportunity that afflicts Serbian society as a whole.

All of this points to an unavoidable conclusion: there was no revolution in Serbia five years ago, and there has been precious little progress since. The ejection of Milosevic was styled by the Western media as an example of dictatorship being toppled by popular discontent. But the people who flooded on to the streets were largely a stage army. Milosevic did not flee because his regime was annihilated by mass revolt, but because he was betrayed by the ‘tumbling pigeons’ – elite figures who switched their allegiance from Milosevic to opposition leaders, thereby earning the scornful comparison with a type of pigeon that pulls off acrobatic stunts in mid-flight. Ever since the opposition leaders secured the allegiance of the ‘tumbling pigeons’, the Serbian people have had their political fate taken out of their hands.

The ‘people power’ generation of Serbian political leaders have repeatedly confirmed their anti-democratic impulses. They prioritise foreign relations over making connections with their own electorate, and readily submit to the programme of national humiliation espoused by the EU and UN war crimes tribunal in the Hague, with their insistent demands for the deportation of leading generals and politicians to face war crimes charges. ‘Solania’, the other popular nickname for the union of Serbia and Montenegro, was named for EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, who brokered the deal that created the union. This reflects how much input the Serb public has had in forging the post-Milosevic state.

So it is unsurprising that Serbian politics in the past five years has been dominated by low voter turnout, farcical repeat elections and stubbornly high support for populist figures such as nationalist leader Vojislav Seselj (also currently facing war crimes charges in the Hague). Western commentators were quick to use the success of Seselj’s Radical Party at the polls as another opportunity to pontificate about the appalling backwardness of the Serbs. In fact, Šešelj’s popularity was fully in keeping with European politics more broadly. Throughout Europe, complacent and isolated elites have been challenged by electoral revolts in the form of fringe political parties that are generally one-man bands – Le Pen in France, Pym Fortuyn in the Netherlands, Robert Kilroy-Silk in the UK. Jacques Chirac and Tony Blair probably wish they, too, had a UN tribunal through which they could turf out opponents.

In Montenegro, meanwhile, the notoriously corrupt political elite only managed to conquer voter apathy in the presidential elections of May 2003 by abolishing the minimum voter turnout laws (6).

Judging by the past five years in Serbia, the prospects for other ‘people power’ regimes throughout the world are not good. The various countries that have experienced ‘people power’ transitions are all distinct, and have their own distinct problems. But already, similar trends to those in Serbia can be seen in countries as far apart as Ukraine and Lebanon – particularly in the form of opportunistic political elites more concerned with meeting Western leaders’ expectations than engaging with their own publics (7).

Oxford historian Mark Almond, who has eloquently exploded the myths of recent ‘people power’ transitions (8), nonetheless rubbishes the possibility of genuine revolutionary change. Almond argues that the historical drama of popular revolt is only ever sound and fury, whose overblown expectations must inevitably be punctured when people are confronted with the cynical drudgery of ‘real’ politics (9). But it is the absence of revolutionary change that has produced cynical drudgery in Serbian political life, and not the inflated aspirations of ordinary Serbs.

Philip Cunliffe is convening the Battle for International Relations at the Battle of Ideas in London on Sunday 30 October 2005.

(1) The union of Serbia and Montenegro was voted into existence by the Yugoslav parliament in February 2003. Previously, the two republics constituted the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the rump of Tito’s Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

(2) ‘Serbia and Montenegro: International Community Happy at Last’, Douglas Hamilton, Reuters, 30 September 2005

(3) ‘A chink of light’, The Economist, 1 October 2005

(4) ‘A chink of light’, The Economist, 1 October 2005

(5) ‘A chink of light’, The Economist, 1 October 2005

(6) Serbia and Montenegro, BBC News, 4 October 2005

(7) See No Beirut Spring, by Nick Frayn; Ukraine: after the party, by Jack Jordan

(8) The Price of People Power, Guardian, 7 December 2004

(9) The cult of ‘People Power’, Mark Almond, BBC News, 21 September 2005

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Topics Politics


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