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A supporter of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic waves Serbian flags and shouts slogans during a rally to counter months of anti-government protests in Belgrade, Serbia, April 19, 2019 (AP photo by Darko Vojinovic).

Two Decades After the Fall of Milosevic, Dictatorship Is Returning to Serbia

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

BELGRADE, Serbia—The night in mid-March when protesters stormed the headquarters of Serbia’s public broadcaster began like many recent Saturday nights in the Serbian capital. Weekly protests against the government of President Aleksandar Vucic had entered their fourth month, and several thousand people turned out for a mile-long march across the city. They planned to vent their frustrations over escalating political violence and democratic backsliding in the country.

The previous 14 protests had largely unfolded without incident, and there was no reason to believe this one would be any different. But as protesters made a pit stop in front of Radio Television Serbia, which is widely regarded as a government propaganda service, events took an unexpectedly confrontational turn.

Capitalizing on the relatively meager police presence, the protesters pushed their way to the broadcaster’s front doors, forming a human blockade in front of the building. Opposition leaders stood at the head of the crowd and demanded airtime, which they claim has been denied them. Unsurprisingly, the station’s staff wasn’t sympathetic to these demands and tensions continued to rise. Then, out of nowhere, the crowd surged forward, flinging the doors open and flooding the building. They occupied RTS for several hours before the police eventually came to remove them by force.

Listen to Aleks Eror discuss this article on WPR’s Trend Lines Podcast.

For those familiar with Serbia’s recent history, as most of the protesters surely were, the incident was full of symbolism. That’s because nearly 19 years ago, on Oct. 5, 2000, protesters ransacked the same building as part of mass demonstrations that finally overthrew then-President Slobodan Milosevic. The broadcaster at the time, as now, was viewed as the mouthpiece of a corrupt political elite led by an autocrat.

This isn’t the only parallel with the past. Vucic and several members of his Cabinet served as ministers in Milosevic’s government, underscoring just how little has changed in Serbian politics since the 1990s, despite claims to the contrary, by the government and outside observers alike. The lack of turnover at the top has thwarted efforts to address Serbia’s most pressing needs when it comes to political reform.

Nearly two decades after Milosevic was overthrown—an event that many hoped would usher in an era of reliable democratic governance and reconciliation across a volatile region—history is instead repeating itself in Serbia. The reasons why run deeper than the fact that Milosevic-era holdovers and cronies still wield considerable power. The country is where it is today because of a more comprehensive failure to properly sever ties with the Milosevic era and conclusively reject the brand of politics that it propagated.

Vucic’s Rise

Serbia’s winter of discontent started one Friday last November, when Borko Stefanovic, an opposition politician, was assaulted by a group of masked assailants armed with bats and blunt objects in the southern city of Krusevac. The attack, which left Stefanovic bloodied and in the hospital, was just the latest in a series of incidents in which critics of the Serbian government have been targeted. A week later, the Alliance for Serbia, a coalition of opposition parties and political organizations that includes the Serbian Left, which Stefanovic founded, held a protest in Krusevac calling for the government to, as the protest’s rallying cry put it, “Stop the Bloody Shirts.”

On the following Saturday, Dec. 8, activists in Belgrade organized their own demonstration, which attracted more than 10,000 people who marched across the city demanding free and fair elections, an end to political violence and more balanced coverage in state media. Since then, the weekly protests have spread to more than 90 cities and have grown into a full-fledged movement that goes by the name of “1 in 5 Million.” The name is a play on a remark made by Vucic, who said that he would not give in to protesters’ demands “even if there were 5 million of them on the street.”

The president’s uncompromising, arrogant response reflects the security of his position. His center-right Serbian Progressive Party, or SNS, which he helped found in 2008, has topped the polls in every parliamentary election that it has contested; it currently holds all but three municipalities in the entire country. The party’s membership is reported to number at around 730,000, which would make it one of the largest political parties in all of Europe. And Vucic, as its undisputed leader, dominates Serbian political life in much the same way that Recep Tayyip Erdogan does in Turkey, or even Vladimir Putin in Russia.

President Vucic dominates Serbian political life in much the same way that Recep Tayyip Erdogan does in Turkey, or even Vladimir Putin in Russia.

At 49 years old, Vucic is a relatively young politician, but he is by no means a political novice. He joined the extreme-right Serbian Radical Party in 1993, when he was just 23, and was elected to the National Assembly that same year. His political mentor was the party’s founder, Vojislav Seselj, who would later be accused of involvement in war crimes committed by paramilitary groups in Croatia and Bosnia during the Yugoslav Wars.

Seselj’s Radicals propagated an ideology of ethno-chauvinism that aimed to establish an ethnically homogenous “greater Serbia” covering the entire territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro and a significant portion of Croatia. Milosevic, who had become president of Serbia in 1989, also supported this agenda; he just wasn’t so brazen about it. It is precisely this school of thought that inspired the worst atrocities of the Yugoslav Wars, which erupted in 1991 as the six constituent republics of Yugoslavia—and later, Serbia’s separatist autonomous province of Kosovo—descended into ethnic bloodshed.

The wars were triggered by Slovenia’s decision to secede from the federation. This unilateral declaration of independence resulted in a 10-day conflict between the separatist Slovenes and the Yugoslav National Army. But the Serb-dominated federal government eventually accepted it on the basis that Slovenia was a largely ethnically homogenous republic with its own distinct language. Croatia and Bosnia, on the other hand, were home to sizeable ethnic Serb minorities who professed loyalty to the government in Belgrade and rejected the authority of Zagreb and Sarajevo, respectively. As these new republics pushed for independence, majority Serb provinces like Krajina in Croatia or Republika Srpska in Bosnia went the other way and attempted to join with Serbia.

Attempts to disentangle the cultural, ethnic and religious heterogeneity of Yugoslavia in order to create separate, independent republics presented a complex political problem for all sides. These resulting tensions triggered widespread ethnic cleansing that displaced some 4 million people and led to atrocities such as the Srebrenica massacre, where Bosnian Serb forces attempted to stamp out opposition to their political agenda by killing several thousand Muslim civilians. By the time the last of the wars finished in 2001, the casualty count stood in excess of 130,000.

Vucic was a wholehearted advocate of Seselj’s chauvinistic ideology. On July 20, 1995, mere days after the Srebrenica masacre, he stood before the National Assembly in Belgrade and delivered a warning to the international community: “You go ahead and bomb [us], kill one Serb and we’ll kill 100 Muslims.” He rose quickly up the Radical ranks and was appointed information minister when the Radicals entered government as coalition partners of Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia in 1998. In this role, Vucic acted as a sort of government censor and is remembered for imposing fines on journalists who criticized the government and banning foreign TV networks.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic, center, addresses the
media in Belgrade, Serbia, April 5, 2019 (AP photo by Darko Vojinovic).

After Milosevic’s downfall in 2000, Vucic returned to the opposition with the Radical Party. Though the Radicals topped the polls in the 2003 and 2007 elections and finished second in 2008, they remained locked out of government because the Democratic Party, which was the standard-bearer of pro-European centrism in Serbia, refused to enter into coalition talks with a party defined by the politics of the Yugoslav Wars. Frustrated by their pariah status, a group of 21 Radical politicians led by the party’s then-president, Tomislav Nikolic, decided to break away and form the Serbian Progressive Party in October 2008. Vucic, who was Nikolic’s deputy at the time, was among that group, and he now claims to have exchanged Seselj’s chauvinism for a moderate, pro-EU conservatism.

Adopting a bland, superficially technocratic image, the SNS styles itself as a pragmatic party of economic growth, one that’s devoid of any discernible ideological agenda. This image has allowed it to claim the political center and present itself as an alternative to the Democratic Party of Boris Tadic, who served as president from 2004 to 2012. The nationalist credentials of the SNS’ founders, meanwhile, have helped the party peel votes away from the Radicals and fuse them with those of disillusioned Serbians looking for an alternative to the status quo. This coalition of support fueled the party’s success in 2012, when it finished just 1.98 points ahead of Tadic’s Democrats, a result that facilitated Vucic’s return to government as defense minister. Two more victories have followed in the snap elections of 2014 and 2016. In both of those polls, the SNS took 48 percent of the vote, dwarfing the Democratic Party, whose vote share has now totally collapsed. These successes cemented the Progressive Party’s dominance and allowed Vucic to claim the post of prime minister in 2014.

Democracy Under Vucic

In February 2017, Nikolic announced that he would not run for a new term as president in that year’s election. Although the presidency is a largely ceremonial role with little real power, it’s a highly public one that is of great importance for political messaging. The SNS naturally wanted to hang onto it.

But as the election approached, the party faced a major problem: Opinion polls indicated that Vucic was the only candidate the party could put forward who would be likely to win the vote by a significant margin. Rather than risk a surprise defeat for the party, Vucic relinquished the premiership so he could run.

He won the election in the first round, finishing some 38 points ahead of his nearest competitor, a margin of victory not seen even under Milosevic. The leadership change was accompanied by a change in the role itself: Under Vucic, it’s now widely perceived that the president, and not the prime minister, calls the shots.

Vucic’s troubling history as a cog in Milosevic’s government makes his rise all the more alarming.

Well before Vucic could be sworn in, his critics, angered both by his politics and by efforts to skew the election in the SNS’ favor, staged protests. For two months, near-daily demonstrations in Belgrade by an ad hoc movement known as “Against the Dictatorship” brought large crowds into the streets, but in political terms they achieved nothing of note. Vucic’s support within his party, his ruling coalition, the judiciary and the media is so strong that he’s able to shrug off protests and cite them as evidence that, contrary to what his critics may say, freedom of expression and political dissent are alive and well in Serbia.

The Serbian government may not be a dictatorship, but it isn’t a proper democracy either. In 2018, Reporters Without Borders ranked Serbia lower than any other country in the Western Balkans in its annual World Press Freedom Index. Tycoons loyal to the government control the overwhelming majority of private media companies, undermining their impartiality. The few remaining independent media outlets in the country, meanwhile, are regularly smeared by government officials and subjected to myriad other pressures. According to Zarko Korac, a professor of psychology at the University of Belgrade and a former Democratic Party figurehead who served as deputy prime minister between 2001 and 2004, the media landscape in Serbia is damaging the country’s democracy.

“A big problem in Serbia today is that for the first time since 2000, I’m not sure that we have the conditions for democratic elections,” Korac says. “And when I say that, I refer to the media, first and foremost.”

There is a system of “informal censorship from the top of government,” he insists. “There are formal locations where [members of] the media send what’s going to be on the front pages, what’s going to be in the morning news, tomorrow’s papers and that someone, somewhere issues their approval.”

The media is not alone in appearing to advance the government’s agenda. Serbia’s judiciary is notoriously corrupt and subject to intense political interference—a problem that dates back to the long rule of Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, but that some critics say is worse than ever before.

The authors of a 2018 study by the Open Society European Policy Institute warned that “the overall ineffectiveness of the judicial system is being used as a perfect smokescreen to give impunity for perpetrators in a number of high-level political cases.” The study also stated that “the system for holding judges and public prosecutors accountable is ineffective and inconsistent; a lack of proactive disciplinary bodies and insufficient transparency helps hide political pressure.” The Serbian government is essentially able to weaponize the courts against its opponents and frustrate any legal challenge to its rule.

With the president having established an unassailable electoral advantage, neutered the media and insulated himself from legal accountability, it’s little surprise why protesters worry that their country is returning to autocracy. And outside observers share their concerns about the country’s direction. In its latest Freedom in the World report, the democracy watchdog Freedom House downgraded Serbia to the status of “partly free” for the first time in over a decade. By way of explanation, the report points to “election irregularities, legal harassment and smear campaigns against independent journalists, and President Aleksandar Vucic’s de facto accumulation of extra-constitutional powers.”

Vucic’s troubling history as a cog in Milosevic’s government makes his rise all the more alarming, says Stevan Filipovic, a Belgrade-based film director and political commentator who frequently writes for Pescanik, one of Serbia’s most respected outlets for political analysis.

“That past isn’t just a footnote in his biography—it’s a major thing that couldn’t be more politically significant,” Filipovic says. “It’s like someone who was a member of Mussolini’s party, and then they’re suddenly rehabilitated and everything is forgiven because they now propagate a different political program.”

The president, Filipovic adds, “was the member of an organization that was the absolute extreme, one that openly propagated war, murder on an ethnic basis and so on.” Making matters worse in the eyes of Vucic’s opponents, he’s not the only former Milosevic loyalist to have returned to prominence in the new era.

Members of the Serbian gendarmerie stand guard in front of the Serbian presidency
building in Belgrade, Serbia, March 17, 2019 (AP photo by Darko Vojinovic).

The Old Guard Hangs On

2008 is widely seen as the year when Milosevic’s allies began their return to the highest levels of government. Following that year’s elections, the Democratic Party, which finished in the lead with 38 percent of the vote, faced an unenviable dilemma: It could either form a government with the Radicals, who finished nine points behind in second place, or it could enter into a coalition with Milosevic’s old party, the Socialists. The latter party was led by Ivica Dacic, who was its party spokesman during the 1990s and was so close to its leader that he earned the nickname “Little Sloba.” Choosing what many Democrats saw as the lesser evil, the party went with the Socialists, an arrangement that allowed Dacic to become interior minister.

Although it’s difficult to overstate the extent to which the existence of this coalition helped normalize and rehabilitate the Milosevic regime, it’s also true that Serbian politics had remained littered with Milosevic’s cronies despite the ouster of Milosevic himself in 2000. Unlike the countries of the Eastern Bloc, which went through a thorough lustration process after the fall of the Iron Curtain, Milosevic’s state apparatus was never cleared away. The police, judiciary, army and secret services remained largely unchanged deep into the new millennium. The reasons for this are twofold.

First, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, or DOS, an opposition coalition that banded together to finally defeat Milosevic in the 2000 presidential election, consisted of 18 parties that spanned the entire breadth of Serbia’s political spectrum. Its two most prominent figures were Zoran Djindjic, a pro-Europe liberal reformer who served as prime minister in the first post-Milosevic government, and Vojislav Kostunica, a conservative nationalist who replaced Milosevic as president. The starkly different backgrounds of these two men indicated that the DOS was really only united in its opposition to Milosevic, a fact that made it difficult to build consensus once it came to power.

Early on, Djindjic made clear that he wanted to see Milosevic-era officials sidelined. Speaking at a town hall-style event the city of Sabac in 2002, he told the audience that as soon as Milosevic was removed, he wanted “every judge fired and all of the police let go, so that at the very least we could have a judiciary and police that didn’t contain the worst elements of the previous regime.”

The main opposition to Djindjic’s campaign to remove any and all Milosevic allies and holdovers from the government came from Kostunica, who argued that the pillars of the state, including the police, army and intelligence services, were essential to maintaining stability in what was a highly uncertain time. In a bombshell TV interview that aired in 2005, Djindjic’s former communications director and close personal friend, Vladimir “Beba” Popovic, accused Kostunica of working hard to maintain the status quo. “Kostunica protected Milosevic’s state apparatus in its entirety,” Popovic said, with his usual bluntness. “That means the army, Milosevic’s media, Milosevic’s institutions, Milosevic’s family members and everything else.”

But even without Kostunica’s resistance, Djindjic’s effort to clean house would have been constrained by Yugoslav-era laws, which protected public servants from the sort of purge that he proposed. “We found ourselves in a very specific situation,” Korac recalls. “You had Milosevic’s state apparatus, which was criminalized in its entirety: the police, the top of the army, the top of state security. But at the same time there was this prevalent view that things should be done lawfully. Yet the law was completely inappropriate and you weren’t allowed to fire those who warranted it.”

The current government retains the full support of the European Union. But there is good reason to believe that Brussels’ faith in Vucic is misplaced.

Attempts to revise the law were thwarted by divisions within the DOS. Korac says that, ultimately, only 20 to 30 of the most senior figures in Milosevic’s state apparatus were removed from their positions. Even those changes sparked fierce resistance from the DOS’ nationalist wing. For months, Kostunica pushed back against the removal of Radomir Markovic, the head of the State Security Services, or SDB, which had orchestrated the assassinations of Milosevic’s opponents. Markovic was ultimately forced out in 2001 and is currently serving a 40-year prison sentence for ordering a botched assassination attempt in 1999 against opposition politician Vuk Draskovic that claimed the lives of four of Draskovic’s associates. In April of this year, Markovic was sentenced to an additional 30 years behind bars when he and three other former SDB employees were convicted of orchestrating the 1999 murder of journalist Slavko Curuvija.

Another troubling Milosevic-era figure who remained influential after Milosevic’s ouster was Milorad “Legija” Ulemek. Legija was the leader of the Special Operations Unit, or JSO, a paramilitary unit formed during the Yugoslav Wars and directly financed by the Serbian state. Also known as the red berets, it later functioned as a branch of the SDB, and its members were largely recruited from the Serbian mafia. Legija himself was a career criminal and one of the leaders of the Zemun Clan, Belgrade’s most notorious gang during the 1990s. In 2007, he was convicted and sentenced to 137 years in prison for a long list of heinous offenses, including the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, who was gunned down in 2003 by Zvezdan Jovanovic—yet another JSO and Zemun Clan alum.

In Korac’s view, this failure to make a clean break with the past and publicly ostracize those complicit in Milosevic’s abuses created an opening for the likes of Vucic and Dacic to return to power. “Because they were absolved of all legal responsibility and even political responsibility, it’s only normal that, years later, the exact same people have returned [to power],” he says.

Today, Milosevic-era figures are propping up Vucic’s electoral machine. The president receives support from Milosevic’s old party, the Socialists, led by Dacic, who is now the foreign minister. Other active former Milosevic loyalists include Goran “Guri” Radosavljevic, a member of the SNS’ executive committee who’s been accused of leading a special police unit that massacred ethnic Albanian civilians during the Kosovo War. The current defense minister, Aleksandar Vulin, was a founding member of the Yugoslav Left, a party led by Milosevic’s wife, Mirjana Markovic. Jorgovanka Tabakovic, the vice president of the SNS, is an ex-Radical who served as a minister in Milosevic’s final government. The list goes on, creating the impression that, within the Serbian political class, the events of October 2000 might as well have never happened.

This state of affairs has implications for how Serbians process, or don’t process, the horrors of the 1990s. In a November 2018 interview with Deutsche Welle, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic was quizzed about her government’s consistent refusal to describe the 1995 Srebrenica massacre as an act of genocide. After qualifying that she does believe that the massacre was “a war crime,” Brnabic gave voice to a widely held view in Serbia, telling her interviewer that the extermination of 8,373 Muslims by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica “was not done in the name of the Serbian people and Serbia cannot, Serbs cannot collectively be blamed for what happened. I do not think it was a genocide."

This tendency to downplay the severity of atrocities committed by ethnic Serbs in the Yugoslav Wars is common among both nationalists and those with more moderate views. It stems from a collective failure to properly reflect on the events of that period. There has been no national conversation of the sort that took place in Germany after World War II. Instead, the breakup of Yugoslavia is seen as a run-of-the-mill civil war in which atrocities were committed on all sides, rather than a uniquely brutal one that saw the return of concentration camps to European soil.

“Fundamentally, there hasn’t been any reflection on the ideology of the 1990s,” says Filipovic, the political commentator. “This was a nationalistic ideology that caused everything that took place, and we haven’t seriously come to terms with that,” he added. “We haven’t drawn a line under it.”

For Korac, it’s clear why Serbian society is keen to avoid reflecting on the past. “The majority of citizens either passively or actively aided Milosevic,” he says. “Milosevic won those first elections in 1990, ‘92, ‘93 fairly and effortlessly. He had the support of Serbian citizens and that’s why most people aren’t prepared to have that conversation—because they’d have to discuss something that they’re not prepared to address right now: their own culpability.”

Refugees from Srebrenica at a U.N. base south of Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, July 13, 1995
(AP photo by Darko Bandic).

‘Europe Is Completely Unaware of the Danger’

Last month, on April 13, anti-government protesters held their largest demonstration since they first took to the streets in December. Like the storming of the public broadcaster nearly a month earlier, the protest was laden with symbolism: Opposition leaders called on their supporters to converge on the National Assembly in Belgrade, just as protesters did on Oct. 5, 2000, and stay there until the government offered its resignation. But unlike that fateful day nearly 19 years ago, this demonstration proved to be of little lasting consequence.

Although some 35,000 people turned out, the opposition backpedaled on its uncompromising rhetoric and, after a long day of speeches, the protesters quietly dispersed. The organizers issued a few demands, such as the formation of a joint commission that would oversee the organization of free and fair elections, but fundamentally nothing has changed, and the government feels no real pressure to negotiate.

As a rebuke to their opponents, the SNS held its own rally the following Friday at the same location, busing in some 150,000 supporters from across the country to signal that public opinion remains on the government’s side. This is undeniably true: With a rumored snap election later this year, opinion polling suggests that the SNS would win an outright majority.

The Vucic administration also retains the full support of the international community, particularly the European Union. Brussels is desperate to see a normalization of ties between Serbia and Kosovo, something it has set as a precondition for Serbia’s entry into the bloc, which is tentatively scheduled for 2025. Vucic is seen as the only Serbian politician likely to deliver on this objective. Until it is achieved, Europe appears unwilling to censure him for his autocratic tendencies at home—likely to the lasting detriment of Serbia’s democracy.

What the “1 in 5 Million” protesters sometimes seem to forget is that Milosevic wasn’t brought down by internal pressure alone; external support for domestic reformers was crucial. Otpor, the successful pro-democracy movement that was active in Serbia in the late 1990s, was the largest recipient of funds from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy at the time. The protests of October 2000 represented the climax of a long war of attrition involving embargoes and international sanctions. Today, by contrast, the EU is Serbia’s main source of financial aid, and by a lot. Bringing down a dictator isn’t easy, and the absence of international support for the kinds of pressure campaigns that have worked in the past makes it all the more difficult.

There is good reason to believe that the EU’s faith in Vucic is misplaced. Public opinion in Serbia is firmly against reconciliation with Kosovo and, according to a 2016 poll by the Institute for European Affairs, a Belgrade-based think tank, 80 percent of respondents would reject EU membership if it came with the precondition of recognizing Kosovo’s independence. Even a borderline autocrat would be hesitant to force through such a widely unpopular policy.

Furthermore, a resolution with Kosovo makes little political sense for Vucic, because as long as an agreement remains in sight, it is a form of leverage for him with Europe. But once a deal is struck, and normalization is off the table, Vucic would come under increasing international pressure to democratize Serbia as a new precondition for EU accession. The sort of power he has accumulated is rarely relinquished willfully, and it seems inevitable that, sooner or later, a new confrontation awaits in the Balkans.

“These are the sprouts of a regime that was authoritarian, anti-democratic and criminalistic,” says Korac. “Europe is completely unaware of the danger that these people pose.”

“I often ask myself if this government will accept the result once it loses an election one day,” he added. “And I really don’t know.”

Aleks Eror is a Serbian-born freelance journalist who splits his time between Belgrade and London. His work has been published by the Guardian, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, Vice and a number of other publications.