The Serbian elections in May 2012 shocked many liberals in the country. They assumed that the electoral coalition that coalesced around former President Boris Tadic – the Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Christian Democratic Party, the Green Party, the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina – would handily win the election. Instead, Tomislav Nikolic, a former ultra-nationalist known widely as “The Undertaker,” squeaked out a victory in the presidential poll while his party coalition beat out the Democratic Party in the parliamentary elections as well.
Many of the people I interviewed in Serbia in October expressed dismay at the return to power of many of the same people who had been prominent in the Milosevic era.“The middle management people, who helped the Milosevic apparatus do all those terrible things, are now back,” a prominent civil society activist told me.“The current prime minister used to be the president of the youth wing of the Serbian Socialist Party and then the spokesperson of the party. First Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic was the minister of media and propaganda for Milosevic during the late 1990s.”
Even more dismaying perhaps to liberals has been the enduring popularity of the new government. The Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), a more moderate offshoot of the far-right-wing Radical Party, can now count on the support of around 40 percent of the population, compared to only 16 percent for the Democratic Party (DS). The SNS has increased its support by 11 percent since the beginning of 2012, while the DS has lost 7 percent.
One reason for this polarization, the activist continues, has been the deep vein of disenchantment with the Democratic Party that can be found among Serbian liberals as well.“During the DS period, the government didn’t resolve the political conflict with Kosovo, and they could have done this: they controlled parliament, government, all the significant positions,” he says.“They never solved the killings of the journalists of the 1990s, like Slavko Ćuruvija. We know it was done by the secret police on the order of Milosevic or his wife. But these people are still somewhere in the structure. This is how the assassination of Djindjic happened, because these people were still in the structure. Not deconstructing the Milosevic regime — that was the biggest problem.”
The Progressive Party continues to maintain a pro-EU accession policy, to negotiate with Kosovo authorities over freedom of movement and other bilateral issues, and to placate Serbs in Kosovo with a “platform” that preserves their autonomy. It’s quite a balancing act. Somehow Serbia is trying to move closer to Europe without quite giving up its claims over Kosovo.
Meanwhile, Serbian civil society continues to push forward on its efforts to make government transparent, support grassroots initiatives, and promote people-to-people exchanges between Serbia and its neighbors. Working at a humanitarian organization with offices around the world including Belgrade, the activist works hard on all the incremental changes that take place across the election cycles. On the condition of anonymity, he spoke with me about the disturbing political continuities with the Milosevic era, the people known as the “losers of the transition,” and the achievements of civil society organizations in Serbia.