The upcoming general elections in Serbia on April 3 do not seem to pose a threat for the regime of President Aleksandar Vučić. Even with a green-liberal opposition alliance born out of ecological protests, there is no credible challenge to the liberal-conservative business friendly politics that have dominated Serbia for decades. As Nationalism reaches ever uglier heights in the election campaign, the absence of a credible Left in Serbia becomes ever more transparent. Balkan Stories has asked the political sociologist Jovo Bakić why that is the case.
Balkan Stories: With elections coming up in Serbia, the political spectrum seems to have shifted very noticeably towards the right. Stranka slobode i pravde, officially a left wing liberal party, for instance proposed conservative Zdravko Ponoš as opposition candidate for the presidency. Is that a surprise for you?
Jovo Bakić: It is no surprise. The left has degenerated in Serbia since the end of the 1980-s. Of course, Stranka slobode i pravde (Party of freedom and justice) is a liberal party, committed to a kind of the state-capitalism. Furthermore, its leader Dragan Đilas has his own ambitions, he wants to become the undisputed leader of the opposition. That is why he picked Ponoš, who was one of the vice-presidents of Narodna stranka (People’s Party) led by Vuk Jeremić. In other words, he wanted to destabilise Narodna stranka.
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, someone who can‘t even run for any office was arguably a central figure in the election campaigns. That is war criminal Ratko Mladić. Zdravko Ponoš talked about him as a hero, his mural in the city center of Belgrade is still the center of much attention. This was not the case a few years ago. Has mainstream politics in Serbia really become that openly nationalist?
Bakić: Politics in Serbia has been nationalistic since the beginning of the 19th century. One can argue that it has been the same in all of Serbia’s neighboring countries as well. Nonetheless, the Vučić regime has certainly deliberately manipulated the public using both kinds of Serbian nationalism, the banal one, which his party likes to stress in public, and the xenophobic kind by means of regime controlled far-right groups in Serbia.
Has the war in the Ukraine had an impact on the election campaign in Serbia? It certainly mobilized radical nationalists in the country, but it probably doesn‘t come at a very convenient time for Aleksandar Vučić who likes to present himself as the face of stability.
Bakić: It is very difficult to estimate the impact of the war in Ukraine on the election campaign in Serbia. However, one can argue that the war has overshadowed the campaign. Vučić’s position has certainly become weaker than it was before the war. In future, it will be much more difficult, if not impossible, for him to balance between the US-EU axis and the Russia-China axis.
The only leftist coalition in the field is Moramo, a left wing liberal – green alliance of citizens‘ initiatives and smaller opposition parties such as Ne Davimo Beograd. Or am I missing something here?
Bakić: “Ne da(vi)mo Beograd” (Don’t let Belgrade d(r)own) is part of the Moramo (We must) coalition. It is social-eco-liberal, pro-capitalist, pro-EU, and partially pro-NATO coalition. In other words, it cannot be considered really left oriented. Nevertheless, it is the closest to the left in Serbia, if we do not take into account some politically weak leftist groups who seem to be hardly existing at all. Unfortunately, one cannot find a strong and proper left party in Serbia.
Moramo has decided to field its own presidential candidate, Biljana Stojković. Do you think this is a good idea? Or is it a distraction from what most people consider to be the really important race for Moramo, which is for the city council in Belgrade?
Bakić: I think that the presidential candidate will not distract any attention from the city council race. Most supporters of the Moramo coalition are familiar and supportive of Biljana Stojković who is a well respected university professor. However, one should not expect that the presidential candidacy would help the Moramo coalition to make election base broader.
Why do you think there is no strong leftwing opposition in Serbia?
Bakić: As I have already mentioned, the Serbian left has degenerated since late 1980-s. At the time, Slobodan Milošević and Mira Marković utterly corrupted the Serbian left. It was impregnated with nationalism, instead of internationalism, while it remained committed to social ownership and anti-imperialism. Today, it is very difficult to make out a clear leftist ideological programme, acceptable for most of the Serbian left. What is more, Serbian leftists are mostly highly intolerant factionalists (Stalinists, Trotskyists, Anarchists, Titoists etc.) who still live in the last century and think very badly of each other. In other words, they are incapable of strategic, tolerant, and cooperative behaviour.
In January it looked like as if ecological concerns could play a central role in this election campaign. There were Serbia-wide protests against the Rio Tinto mine, and SNS appeared helpless in dealing with it. How is the situation now?
Bakić: The situation has not changed. However, protesters from the Jadar region in Western Serbia, where Rio Tinto wants to build its Lithium mine, are mostly conservative. Many of them were supporters of the regime, but they got worried when their own houses and properties became endangered by the interests of big multinational capital. In the aftermath of the elections, Rio Tinto will continue to do its business anyway.
How successful is Aleksandar Vučić‘s and his SNS‘ strategy to confuse voters by secretly sponsoring pseudo-green splinter parties? And is Savez 90/Zelenih Srbije part of the scheme in your opinion?
Bakić: I think that he is rather unsuccessful in it. Regarding Savez 20/Zelenih Srbije, I am pretty sure that it is the part of the scheme.
What long term effects on Serbian politics do you expect from these elections? Other than the strengthening of Vučić and the SNS? Will it lead to a further shift towards the right or could it create some room (and pressure) for future alternatives, namely a left movement?
Bakić: Certainly, there is no room for the left in Serbia.
Thank you very much for your analysis and for taking the time for this interview.
Jovo Bakić is a political sociologist lecturing at the University of Belgrade. He is an expert on the rise of the Right in Europe and particularly in former Yugoslavia and has continually analyzed the failings of leftwing movements in challenging the neoliberal mainstream. Jovo has published numerous studies in international scientific journals and periodicals and is the author of several scientific books.