[INTERVIEW] The Serbian opposition to Vučić without a plan

Note from LeftEast editors: Ahead of the parliamentary elections in Serbia on June 21st, we publish an interview with Aleksandar Matković. A shorter version of this interview was originally conducted by Dimitris Givisis for “Epohi.gr”. Questions 3, 6 and 7 were added by LeftEast editors. 

Photo: Euractiv  [EPA-EFE/KOCA SULEJMANOVIC]

1) What do you think the elections on June 21st will mean for the future of Serbia? 

I think that the current president – Aleksandar Vučić and the ruling party, the Progressive Party of Serbia – will win. There’s no doubt about that. They are too embedded in the domestic political life and international relations, at the same time: for example, Vučić is China’s new self-proclaimed “brother” in the Balkans (a role that is set to become even more important), and it is in Trump’s interest that his Kosovo negotiations are finished by the end of this year. Vučić will have to do a lot of bargaining before that happens (with the European Union and his local nationalists), but he is too important to be lost -from the lens of such right-wing establishments.

2) What are the reasons why Vučić is ahead according to the polls? Generally, why is the Serbian Progressive Party so highly accepted by the Serbian society?

Domestically, his party controls crucial public-sector job positions, which means that it has the means to blackmail its electoral constituents (as it usually does). If it wishes to recognize Kosovo as a state, and make a general precedent in Serbian politics, it will have to deal with its extreme nationalist right-wing (one of the two wings of the ruling party: the other is pro-European) – but that will come only after the election. For the time being, the ruling party has a firm grip on power.

3) Numerous parliamentary and non-parliamentary political subjects are boycotting the elections, including the major opposition coalition the Alliance for Serbia. Why is that the case?

Yes, this is the heritage of the previous elections. In 2017 the former Democratic Party of Serbia (basically, the ex-ruling party) lost the elections and accused Vučić of stealing the elections. This was an impression shared among the many oppositional movements, and those who did not have such political ambitions (including the Student movement of Novi Sad) at the time.

From the street protests, for example, the “1of5 milion” movement would emerge (or, I would rather say, it hijacked the protests, which were formerly led by the left-wing leaning student movements in Belgrade and Novi Sad). They re-focused the energy of the movements from social issues, again back onto electoral fraud and the like.

Like it or not, this is the heritage that is the background of the ideas that have led to the so-called “boycott” – or at least the idea of it. 

I say “idea”, because, while the Alliance for Serbia is boycotting (and the “Dveri”, about which I will talk more in the next question), most of the movements and parties which have stood along for the boycotting, are now boycotting the boycott, if I could phrase it like that. 

Examples are the neoliberal-turned-right wing movement led by Saša Radulović (the man responsible for advocating the neoliberal labour laws in 2014). His list is called, funny enough, “The Souverenists’, after he turned right-wing and started anti-immigrant and, curiously, “anti-Western” propaganda. He’s now in the race.

The second example is the above mentioned “1of5milion” movement, which is also running for the Parliament. They even had the (very stupid) idea of “entering the Parliament, and then boycotting it from within”.

So, in Serbia, the word “boycott” apparently has many meanings, most of which are dependent upon the current mood of their political advocates. But, the bottomline is – there is no general boycott. 

4) Do the parties that support the boycott have some clear policy/tactics beyond the elections?

Most disappointingly, none of the oppositional leaders have any sort of economic plan or any considerable alternatives to the present situation. They mostly attempt to fight capitalism with capitalism, with a little bit of ranting about “free media”. It’s unbearable to watch them failing to come up with a plan for more than 3 years. The best they came up with was some sort of a “social contract” between them and “the people”, which they printed out and gave the copies to the people on the streets of Belgrade, allegedly for passers-by to “sign” it. It was most pathetic, to say the least. As of now, they are openly fighting just for personal power – to most of the people, they look like actors on a stage, unaware of what’s going on in the daily lives of the rest of the country.

5) How would you describe the political scene before the elections?

Well, the ruling party has changed the electoral laws so that it can fragment the opposition: it has lowered the electoral census for entering the Assembly from 5% to 3% of the votes (meaning that, if 3 million people vote, only 90.000 votes will be needed to enter the Parliament, instead of 150.000). This may appear good, for smaller parties. But it also translates into more competition between them, and hinders their unification. And, so far, it has only strengthened the disintegration within the opposition, which has previously called for a boycott of the elections, which they termed “illegal”, at least one part of them (such as the right-winger Boško Obradović and the “Dveri” movement (this translates, quite literally, into “The Doors”, although not the band! But the name emphasizes a “church door”, to emphasize their orthodox Christian beliefs).

So, “Dveri” (“The Doors”) and one part of the opposition is still boycotting the elections: the rest will attempt to race in the parliaments, despite their previous rejections of the elections (like the movement called “1 of 5 million”, which participated in the last protests against the president’s elections in 2017).

Lastly, what could have been news, is that a small communist party called “The New Communist Party of Yugoslavia” (it’s just a name), consisting of 40 or so people, wanted to enter the electoral race, but they failed to come up with a sufficient number of supporters – they handed in 360 out of the required 10,000 signatures! In terms of elections, they were mostly on their own, without any connection to the broader left, and failed spectacularly.

And then there’s the threat of the “Leviathan” – a neo-fascist organization, allegedly for the protection of animals (that is its “real” description). Initially, the Election Commission did not approve its participation in the elections as it suddenly presented more than 4,000 signatures in one night, which was very suspicious. But on Tuesday it was decided that they could participate, as they collected 10,847 signatures. Unfortunately, what I feared happened in that the Serbian state is allowing these fascists to run in the elections.

6) Are the developments around a possible (Grennel-brokered) agreement on Kosovo making their way in discussions/debates in the run up to the elections on Sunday? 

There are no mentions of this agreement in any of the electoral campaigns. However, there has been a small formation of right-wing intellectuals under the so-called “Proclamation for the defense of Kosovo and Metohija”, which then became the “Movement for the defense of Kosovo and Metohija” on June 14, only one week ago. 

They are affiliated with the right-wing heritage of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, which played an infamous role in fostering Serbian nationalism in the late eighties, paving the way, in the intellectual centre of Belgrade, for the rise of Slobodan Milošević. Like now, its role was a climax of the inner dynamics of Serbian nationalist circles. Besides the Serbian Academy, today these circles include the Monastery of the Holy Archdeacon Stefan, near Belgrade, where the movement was recently established, and a list of 73 academics, scientits, journalists, right-wing sociology professors and even army generals (it also holds some of my Institute’s former members, and the movement was also founded on the “Day of Holy Justin”, while the Institute has organized a conference on the same Holy Justin and his thought one year ago, so I can speculate there’s a connection here as well).

This is important: only a couple of days after the establishment of this movement, Sergej Lavrov, Russia’s Minister of Foreign affairs, told our president Vučić that he most not gamble Kosovo away, that Moscow will block such a move, and that, if he intends to do so, he should resign.

This is a power struggle, pure and simple, and the stakes are high. Serbia’s entire foreign policy is based on four pillars (USA & EU, Russia & China), and I would say that Serbia’s politicians have unwillingly formed around themselves two blocs which are now clashing. In a sense, this was predictable. For, since Merkel’s mandate is up this year, and since that coincides with Trump’s elections, the pressure to recognize Kosovo as a state is high, with these two powers backing it up. On the other side, you have China and Russia (which do not recognize Kosovo), pushing for the opposite. 

Thus, on the one hand, I would say that we have an international block of direct interest to Russia, and, secondarily, China (both are permanent members of the UN’s Security Council, and hold the power of veto). On the other hand, I would speculate that we are now on the brink of a new intellectual and political right-wing domestic front against Vučić, forming precisely around the issue of Kosovo.

7) And how are the different left groups positioned regarding Kosovo as well as on the possibility of an agreement brokered by Grennel- US President Trump’s Special Presidential Envoy for Serbia and Kosovo Peace Negotiations?

That is a complicated issue. You can find completely diverging interpretations, sometimes even within a single organization, so I will classify them according to their currents.

For example, one sees Serbia as a victim of Western imperialism, and that’s it. End of story. Kosovo was taken away from us, NATO bombed us, and that’s it. It is a bit one-sided, and this is a current I do not agree with, because there is no mention of Milošević’s attack against the working class within Serbia herself; no mention of his neoliberal policies in the eighties (I’ve written a couple of texts about it here, on my blog), and no mention of the maltreatment of the Albanian populace, when its workforce began to strike. 

On the other hand, there is a current that wants Kosovo recognized as a state, and that’s it. Sometimes this can be one-sided as well (this is often the liberal narrative). 

A third current, advocated, for example, by Marx21, is both against domestic and Western imperialism: it is for the independence for the people of Kosovo, but argues that Kosovo is not a free state as long as remains under NATO’s protectorate, so it argues for the withdrawal of NATO troops from Kosovo.

So, the stance on Kosovo usually depends on how you define imperialism. For me, it is very true that we need to speak of imperialism: I think that both the wars and the bombing of Serbia were a precedent on a global scale, in terms of an international power like NATO, bombing a country in Europe, after the World War. Victims exist (and, contrary to nationalist interpretations, they were not only ethnic Serbs; they were public sector workers, whom the state ordered to stay at their posts during the bombings, as in the case of TV networks. They were also poor. And they were also Roma – about whom Serbian nationalists never speak about). 

But I would never reduce everything to the bombings: you can’t just reduce everything to those ten weeks of 1999. There’s a huge pre-history, as well as a sequel, to that event: the role of the IMF is well known; there were workers strikes against austerity measures in the eighties; Milošević’s politics of attracting foreign direct investment also complemented, rather than stopped, Ante Marković’s ending of self-management in Yugoslavia (Marković was the last Prime Minister of Yugoslavia. His advisor was the banker Jeffrey Sachs, so even his alternative was not devoid of neoliberal “flaws”). 

After Milošević, neoliberalism returned through foreign capital reliance, the infamous “race to the bottom” and the attack on wages throughout the 2000’s. What we have today is a product of both periods. So, I wouldn’t say that there was only one form of imperialism, but the bombings were the most visible (speaking of “visible”, I myself was 11, and my family used to live near a huge army barracks. So, it was quite an interesting experience to live and play right next door to a military target! Today, it’s a run-down building, along with the entire neighborhood, out of which a lot of my friends emigrated – kind of a sign of the times?).

8) Finally, I would like you to inform us about the situation of the left intelligentsia in Serbia, and what the current challenges for the Left, social movements and civil society are?

Well, this important question revolves around the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory at the University of Belgrade, where I myself was employed for 6 years (from 2014-2020). Since it also deals with the broader left and the elections, I will first start with the left.

With regards the left-wing movements, I’m afraid the elections don’t bring much change. None of the left groups has officially entered or been cleared to enter the race, and even the “Let’s not drown Belgrade” anti-waterfront movement (a more-liberal oriented movement) is boycotting the elections. During the publication of the first version of this interview, we were waiting to see what would happen to “Leviathan”. Since then, the only novelty is that, after “Leviathan” has been cleared to enter the race, we have organized ourselves to publicly oppose the “Leviathan”. The initiative is called “strike out fascism” – and calls for voters to go out, and instead of voting, cross out their votes in protest against the “Leviathan” entering the Parliament, which will make it harder for them to enter the Parliament (since the turnout will be greater, and the total number of votes they need in order to achieve the 3% census will be higher. It’s the only legal tactic we’ve got, for the moment). While this has received insufficient public attention, in my view, where it has, the public is accepting it wholeheartedly, and a couple of us have been writing about “Leviathan” in order to expose them for what they are. 

With regards to the Institute or Philosophy and Social Theory at the University of Belgrade, it has featured prominently in the media prior to the elections, almost every day! Namely, this state-owned institute was supposed to include new members to its executive board, but the former Institute’s management (including the Petar Bojanić, the ex-director, who was also a student of Derrida) failed to reach an agreement with the government – a common practice in Serbia, although, according to the law, the Serbian government directly names both the director and all of the board members.

The friction between the management and the government escalated, and the former director, Bojanić, used local and international media ahead of the elections, in order to gather support for “the defense of academic freedom” in Serbia. Judith Butler, Francis Fukuyama and a host of other global theorists signed a letter in support of the Institute, while Noam Chomsky even wrote a letter to president Vučić.

But, as every Marxist knows, this Institute was always close to the government: Zoran Đinđić, the assassinated former Prime Minister of Serbia, Ljubomir Tadić (father of the former president Borislav Tadić), Vojislav Koštunica (another former Prime Minister) and even Vojislav Šešelj. The former director was facing several trials for mortgage trading and was accused of mobbing by several of the Institute’s employees, has connections to the Serbian Orthodox Church and the military, even publishing alongside the convicted war criminal Radovan Karadžić. So, the Institute’s management had previous ties with the government, and now, ahead of the elections, they used the liberal media in order to get a better deal for an executive committee that they wanted to chair, ahead of the elections.

Soon after, the Institute got its executive committee members, so the media thing was “successful”.

9) From what I understood, under this liberal ideology of the type “the state against the free academic community”, a much darker reality was hidden?

Yes, and most of us who resisted the (neo)liberal management, including myself, have been “cleansed”, and reports are circulating, as of now, claiming that in the shadows, about 20 people were fired, last of which are a colleague of mine and me, after I received threats. And, in January 2020, I was illegally sacked, without any legal grounds. The Scientific Union reacted to this, calling the expulsion illegal, and the Ministry of Education, as well. Colleagues from other Institutes also reacted. This is still in progress, and I am beginning to be contacted by others who were “cleansed” from the liberal academia.

In my view, this exposed both the limits of “academic (un)freedom” and its connections with the deep state, which are usually hidden from view.

Both have a capacity to act, but when they do, things are not what they seem: in the Serbian media, there is the liberal narrative of “The state vs academic freedom”, while, if you dig deeper, there are a couple of us who are fighting for legal rights and working conditions, and exposing the truth about the aforementioned connections between the academia and the deep state. Some of us are gradually recognizing the need to expose this, while forced to fight for our labor rights. And, (forgive me for speaking too personally), but since I am involved in this, I belong to the latter.

So, while the so-called “attacks” on academic freedom have been “resolved” (when the Institute’s management got its executive committee), the second – our fight for labor rights – is still on the agenda.

Aleksandar Matković (1988) is a Serbian Marxist and political activist, dealing mainly with the political economy of fascism. He worked as a researcher at the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory at the University of Belgrade and as a coordinator at the Regional Science Centre in Novi Sad (2014-2020). He is a PhD candidate in philosophy at the Slovenian Academy of Arts and Sciences in Ljubljana. In 2018, Matković was a visiting researcher at the Institute for Philosophy at the Humboldt University in Berlin, and a visiting researcher at the South-East European History Department, also at the Humboldt University in Berlin, in 2019. He has been actively involved in several left-wing student and workers’ organizations in Serbia and the Balkans.

 

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