COMMENT: Satire in Serbia as early elections approach

COMMENT: Satire in Serbia as early elections approach
By Alex Young in Belgrade December 17, 2015

Those facing accusations of misdemeanours in Serbia now have a new line of defence after the country’s prime minister undertook a polygraph test to fend off blackmail allegations. Amidst talk of a coup d’etat and early elections, Aleksandar Vucic’s performance was the latest act of theatre that lends itself to political satire. Through smear and divide-and-conquer campaigns, Vucic and his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) are ready to further consolidate their grip on the country’s politics for four more years. 

In November, Dragan Vucicevic, editor-in-chief of the daily Informer, called on Vucic to postpone a visit to China, as he was allegedly facing a coup d’état and assassination plot. Around the same time, Serbian daily newspaper Kurir published allegations that Vucic had persuaded its former director, Aleksandar Kornic, to make damaging accusations against the company’s owner, Aleksandar Rodic. Vucic volunteered for and passed a lie detector test, before delivering a fiery interview for Pink TV in which he again denounced the claims. Serbia’s interior minister, Nebojsa Stefanovic, declared that Kurir’s text was a lie with the “goal to destabilize the country”.

This rather extraordinary political theatre served not only to further discipline an already servile media, but to reinforce Vucic’s image as the stern hand against unsavoury forces (tycoons, organized crime figures etc.) opposed to the government’s reform plans. Vucic has proven adept at projecting himself as a reform crusader, even publicly stating it is the Serbian people themselves that are the main barrier to reform.

It is now a question of when, not if early elections will be called – possibly to coincide with planned municipal and provincial elections in April 2016. Vucic, still riding high in the polls after less than two years in the prime minister’s hot seat, is eager to capitalize before shaky economic data emerges or some other crisis (notably refugees) threaten to undermine his standing.

A smear campaign against key political opponents, some currently serving as allies, is well underway. In early September, videos of Ivica Dacic, leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and the country’s foreign minister, meeting with Rodoljub Radulovic, a renowned druglord (linked to the convicted drug ringleader, Darko Saric), were leaked to the Serbian media. The existence of the videos – which date back to 2008 and 2009, when Dacic served as interior minister – has long been known, but the timing of their release has aroused considerable suspicion. Dacic’s political acumen and pendulum – which has swung from the Democratic Party to the SNS – make him a figure of great intrigue for the SNS, and the inevitable subject of future attacks.    

At the same time, Vucic’s strategy to divide and conquer the opposition shows no signs of abating. Borko Stefanovic, one of the vice-presidents of the already much-depleted Democratic Party (DS) – which dominated Serbian politics during the now-distant days of former president Boris Tadic – was encouraged to quit and form “The Left of Serbia-Borko Stefanovic”. Such vanity projects only serve to further embolden the SNS, which continues to insist that it is more a movement than a party. 

Tadic himself has already split from the DS to establish the New Democratic Party (subsequently rebranded as the Social Democratic Party), which has found itself in competition with the DS for votes. The curse of Serbia’s democratic opposition, beset as it was in the early part of the century by infighting and factionalism, shows little sign of ending soon. 

The fragmentation of the opposition raises the prospect of fewer parties crossing the 5% threshold required to enter parliament, giving the SNS an even stronger grip on power. This would make constitutional reform inevitable in the next mandate, including the contentious issue of Serbia’s reference to Kosovo in the preamble of its constitution. It would also give Vucic an absolute mandate to drive through International Monetary Fund-mandated reforms, especially of the public sector, labour markets and pensions.

Divide and rule

Once upon a time, Serbian governments were desperate for tangible EU progress to underpin domestic support. Today, however, the opening of two chapters of membership negotiations with the EU – Chapter 32 on addressing financial control and 35 on normalizing relations with Kosovo – passes with relatively little fanfare. Whilst the latter will prompt some soul searching in Belgrade, it is less of an obstacle now than several years prior, when even face-to-face talks with Pristina were a pipedream.

Vucic has also been largely unaffected by the controversy surrounding the former defence minister Bratislav Gasic, who was fired for sexist remarks directed at a female journalist. Regarded as one of Vucic’s close associates, Gasic will have been surprised by the speed with which the axe came down. In a male-dominated political scene, Vucic managed to turn the incident to his advantage, initially winning plaudits for his decisive response. And yet over a week on from the incident Gasic has still not been replaced, with the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia calling protests to ensure his ousting. 

Vucic remains the darling of many Western embassies, despite refusing to support the sanctions regime against Russia and ongoing concerns about media freedoms. Whilst some of his opponents deride him as a Western puppet, Vucic’s ability to orchestrate and manipulate crises for his own ends makes him the puppet master of domestic politics. Relentless in fragmenting the opposition, and aided by their own suicidal tendencies, Vucic is on course to reaffirm his party’s domination of all levels of government. The only dilemma that remains is whether he should pursue the presidency, currently filled rather passively and incompetently by his party colleague, Tomislav Nikolic.

With the media firmly on board, the curtain is far from falling on Vucic’s political theatre. Aside from the years of Milosevic, there has rarely in Serbia been so much material for satire, yet too few permitted to satirize it.