Serbia: Newly elected president Vučić faces mass protests and strikes

Serbian President, Aleksandar Vučić. A hard-line nationalist turned pro-EU, neo-liberal enthusiast

On 2 April, presidential elections in Serbia were won by the current Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić. A hard-line nationalist in the past, who miraculously converted into a pro-EU fanatic, he is the latest in a line of Serbian leaders to push the neo-liberal agenda of privatisations and austerity. In that, he is proving to be even more aggressive than his predecessors, showing an utter disdain and condescension towards the suffering of workers. As such, it is true to say that he is the most hated Serbian leader in recent years. Following his election, there have been protests in many cities and towns.

How did he win the election, by 55% in the first round, thus managing even to avoid the second round run-off that many people were expecting? mostly by manipulation of the pre-election regulations and, partly, by the still pervasive apathy of many voters. The turnout was again low, at 54%, despite the promising, and for many young people, very inspiring, Beli phenomenon (for more information

It is very instructive to note that the Western monitors saw no irregularities with the election procedures. The reason is obvious; they are not interested in democracy, as long as “their preferred choice” wins. Since Vučić is friendly and open towards the intrusion of the big foreign capital into Serbia, the foreign agents of capital will be friendly towards him. Incidentally, Putin also congratulated the newly-elected President.

Serbia is a textbook case of a country at the periphery of the global capitalism. After the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the former republics very quickly became the economic colonies of the dominant Western capitalist countries and other powers. Everything that the working class in the capitalist West is experiencing in terms of the squeezed wages, poorer work conditions, unemployment, systemic corruption, non-union rights etc. is more accentuated in a country like Serbia.

Workers’ rights are generally non-existent. It is a normal practice for employers not to pay workers for several months (or not at all), while, at the same time, banning any union involvement. Workers lack confidence to fight back and feel abandoned by the government, which, to their mind, only serves to sell them off as slave labour to foreign “investors”. Trade unions are mostly in collaboration with the government, with maybe only one or two exceptions. Self-harm, or even suicides among workers, are a common occurrence. It is a desperate state of affairs when workers are seeing the solution to their problems in chopping their own fingers or killing themselves rather than fighting back. Moreover, in a country that only a few decades ago prided itself in, although imperfect “socialist workers’ self-management”.

Corruption rife

Corruption is rife and it goes into every pore of the society. The ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), with Vučić as its leader, controls the parliament, most of the media, state institutions and even workplaces. Laws are being made, ignored or broken at a whim, and they always go against “the little man”. Taxes are diligently, even aggressively, collected from workers and small traders, while domestic tycoons owe millions. Huge amounts of money are given as an “incentive” to foreign investors. Membership of the ruling party is very big but not because it is popular. Rather it is because it is the key to getting a job, or even some life necessities, like food stuffs.

It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Serbia is like a mafia-state. Children are run over by cars driven by the drunken sons of leading politicians, with no prosecutions. The “Communal Police” terrorises old women selling embroidery or a few pieces of fruit to survive, while the real criminals, both on the political top, and those from the underground, are left alone. But it would be wrong to think that the ruling party is solely responsible for this. On the contrary, the so-called opposition is an integral part of the parasitical political system that has been in place for more than two decades and in which politicians change parties “like shirts”. The sole ideology is servitude to foreign and domestic (although on a much smaller scale) capital for personal privileges.

The manipulation in the run-up to the election was so rampant and perfidious that the election actually went smoothly for the regime. There are reports of the rigged electoral registers to include dead people or people in diaspora, whose “votes” all went to Vučić. There were threats of losing jobs, blackmailing, and terrorising people into taking a photo of themselves proving they had voted. There were some quite surreal rallies in “support of Vučić”, where hundreds of coaches followed him around the country carrying the “supporters” (all bribed with a sandwich and the equivalent of £6). The regime does everything to humiliate and degrade its people, and there is no wonder that many end up feeling humiliated and degraded. This results in voter fear, or otherwise apathy, the precise result that the regime wants. 

But there are signs that this is beginning to change and Serbian workers and youth are joining with the movements against the establishment that we have already seen in Europe or the US. The first was the Beli phenomenon, followed by the protests. Although Beli did not in the end manage to gain youth votes to go into the second round, he still secured just under 350,000 votes of mainly young people who voted for the first time. Many of them are now working at organising local activities, although, at the moment, they lack the political understanding of what exactly is needed and how to proceed. 

Protests after election

The protests started the next day after the election, spreading to many cities and towns. The slogan “Against the dictatorship” was quickly adopted, but in many places a more radical slogan, “Against the system” is seen. Tens of thousands of people in Belgrade, Novi Sad, Niš and other smaller towns have been taking to the streets every evening to demand the end of the Vučić regime. The protests seem to have been initiated on social media, but very quickly started to be organised locally by different groups or individuals. In most places, the protesters rejected all political parties, including the “opposition” parties, because they are rightly seen as the part of the problem. However, this excluded some genuine left-wing groups from presenting themselves openly in the protests. The protesters, very much like the Indignados in Spain a few years ago (before Podemos with a more clear left character grew out of it), tried to distance themselves from “left and right” divisions.

This still did not prevent some more radical and explicitly left protests, namely in Serbia’s second city of Novi Sad, organised by the ‘Student Movement’. This is an organisation that had been protesting and demanding better conditions for students for a few months before the elections. They immediately took to organising the anti-Vučić protests in Novi Sad. After a few days they issued the demands, something that was until then missing from the protests. The demands were subsequently adopted by the protesters in Belgrade. They included: the abolition of the dictatorship and a complete change of political elite; free and fair elections; free media; end of corruption; protection of workers’ rights; agrarian reform, end privatisations and a revision of the agreement with the IMF; free education and healthcare, for all.

Significantly, there have been several strikes organised to join in with the protests, including a Post Office strike and a strike by the Goša factory workers, where a worker committed suicide a few weeks previously because of 15 months unpaid wages for. One trade union, “Sloga” (“Unity” in Serbian), joined in with the protests after a worker and the “Sloga” activist was made redundant – because he called for workers in his factory to support the protests!
However, most trade unions have been absent from the protests. A bureaucratic leader of one of the biggest unions even shockingly asked, “Where were the students when the Labour law was passed?” This union leader seemed to have forgotten that it was he who collaborated with the government to introduce this atrocious law a few years ago. It brought in “zero-hours contracts” and, in effect, striped workers of any rights, whatsoever.

There was also a shameful incident during the May Day march, which coincided with the protests. Another right wing union uncharacteristically turned up in numbers at the event. Their officials tried to prevent students and other protesters from carrying placards and banners with anti-Vučić, or clear left-wing slogans. They tried to push the students away and were heard, on phone videos, claiming that it was a “private march”!

Protests have since lost in intensity, but they are still going on. Unfortunately, the smaller turnouts is to be expected because, even though they have had a clear social character (the first one after a long time), and even though there have been some clear demands, they still have not been clear and radical enough. This is also understandable given the inexperience of the students, but it is also the result of conscious attempts to sabotage the protests. It is important that the protests have a clear social character. As one observer said, the protests “are left-wing” even if the protesters do no quite understand it yet themselves.

Divisions amongst protesters

Divisions have taken place amongst protesters over how radical the protests should be. There are now three groups that identify themselves. One group is in favour of continuing with daily protests, despite their falling numbers, as well as seeking support from the opposition parties. The second group (the smallest) thinks that the protests have lost their purpose because “the demands are impossible to achieve”, and should carry on under the name, “Against the dictatorship through culture” (whatever that means!). The third group is the most significant, and not surprisingly, involves the Novi Sad students. They think that the “protest stage” is finished, and that the next stage should be around organising some concrete actions, while keeping the seven initial demands (the group is now called “7 demands”). They absolutely, and correctly, refuse collaboration with the “opposition” parties, and are instead calling for stronger ties with progressive trade unions and other left-wing organisations. One small action by this group – but a significant victory – has already been achieved. They successfully organised opposition to a demolition of a small park in Novi Sad and an extension of a petrol station in its place (which is owned by Gasprom through a Serbian subsidiary). This is significant because a public space has been defended from its usurpation by private interests, but also because the city council and the mayor (who is also a vice-president of the ruling party, SNS) have been for too long used to having no opposition in any dealings or policies concerning the city.

It is clear however that the anti-Vučić protests have not, so far, managed to shake up the Belgrade regime. Vučić has even used them to show off the “democratic” character of his rule, making statements like, “They are doing their job, and we are doing ours” and “They don’t worry me, they can go on forever as far as I am concerned”. He is, in fact, right in this – the protests, or any further actions, need to be radicalised in order to be more effective.

However, the reasons for optimism are great. The movement behind Beli before the elections, and the protests afterwards, are really the two sides of the same coin. They both involve a big layer of young people who grew up in the aftermath of the 1990s civil wars in the former Yugoslavia, in relative poverty, under the dominant neo-liberal politics and an atmosphere of political reaction. For them to reject right-wing nationalism, out of hand, but also to reject the neoliberal mantra that “there is no alternative” to poverty, austerity, student fees and the future without jobs, prospect and hope, is a great step forward. Many of them are learning from their parents and grandparents who lived in the former Yugoslavia that indeed there is alternative to capitalism. But many others will, with the continuation of the struggle against Vučić, come to the same conclusion themselves. They will understand that Vučić’s regime is not about Vučić himself, but about capitalism. For this, the leadership of the groups, like the Novi Sad students, will be crucial, but also their joining up with other genuine left-wing and socialist organisations, which although small, do exist in Serbia.

As soon as the more radical tide is created, Vučić will find that indeed he has a lot to worry about. He will find that his “bubble” of a support among Serbians is just that, a bubble. The truth is that he and the political elite in Serbia have no support amongst the working class whatsoever. Remove the “perks” of sandwiches and other petty privileges, and most crucially the fear (which unfortunately exists, particularly in the countryside, in the south), and he will find that he has no social base and that he is profoundly hated.

The task for the Left in Serbia is how to direct this deep dissatisfaction towards the only possible successful solution – not just the end of the regime, but also of the entire capitalist system. For it is capitalism (and not some “innate” characteristic of the Balkan peoples, as some commentators would like to present it), that is the fundamental reason that a country like Serbia, on the periphery of the global capitalism, creates corrupt servants to imperialism, on one hand, and dictators over their own people, on the other hand, like Vučić.

The overall task is to build a strong independent workers’ movement against corruption, joblessness and poverty, and for a democratic socialist society, which acts in the interests of the vast majority not the elite.

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May 2017