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The reach and paradoxes of the Protest against the dictatorship

“Informer” is lying to you! None of the parties are ours!!!, photo: Darija Badjul

The protests of students (and other citizens) against the authoritative government and unfair elections have cast a long shadow over the legitimacy of Aleksandar Vucic’s election. The trigger for the street protests were unfair presidential elections and Vucic’s insistence that he had to crush his opponents in the first round. There was not going to be a second round at any cost. Due to this pathological intention, election conditions were the most unfair, dirtiest and the most painful since the beginning of multi-party democracy in Serbia. Sasa Jankovic is right when he says that Vucic has „kidnapped the presidency“. The protests are a direct consequence of Vucic’s overdose on power and such irregular elections are a logical consequence of his disregard for democracy during his entire rule. For the first time in history, he ran for president from the position of a prime minister with almost absolute power. He has already kidnapped all the functions, the only one that was missing from his collection was the presidential one.

Protest against the dictatorship in the name itself clearly indicates that the causes of dissatisfaction are deep and that they’ve been piling on silently for years. The citizens have silently endured a dramatic deterioration in the social, economic and political conditions of life. Impoverishment of citizens caused by rigid austerity and reduction of salaries and pensions (while, on the other side, the money was tossed away carelessly), by converting workers into a cheap labor force with no rights, unpaid salaries and insurance, high unemployment, and employment opportunities available only to those with a party membership card. In addition, corruption and incompetence have stifled innovative entrepreneurship and denied the economy a sound basis. Such an economic policy, supported by IMF’s official economists, took place in a political environment that was destroying democratic freedoms, media, and institutions for the sake of establishing the personal rule of one man, “adorned” by a dark past and rude personal characteristics. However unpredicted the street revolt was, the big picture of today’s Serbia says that it was long awaited and that it’s welcome. We can only hope that the Protest and previous gathering around presidential candidate Sasa Jankovic have started the fight against the authoritarian and unjust regime.

I have already stated some of the reasons for the widespread citizens’ revolt. But it is worth asking what it was that Vucic had overlooked and how did he let himself be surprised by student demonstrations. The simple answer is that he doesn’t know what’s been happening in Serbia for the last thirty years on the side he did not belong to. He doesn’t know that the citizens of Serbia have made progress in spite of the cataclysm they were put through, a cataclysm he wholeheartedly contributed to. He didn’t know that fair elections are a big deal in Serbia and that you shouldn’t play with that. Many shoes were torn and beatings taken during the last three decades to win democracy. It is etched in the citizens’ consciousness. From one generation to the next, the stories of the walks, sticks, and beatings were passed down until they reached today’s “facebook generation”. Acquired freedoms were verified in every election since October fifth, until Vucic decided to invalidate our only collective success and destroy the opposition. And this is where he crossed the line. No one before him has abused electoral opponents, making them invisible, nobody blackmailed citizens, nor tried to falsify the elections in private homes. This was done so carelessly that the social networks were flooded with videos of “family games” with the ballots with Vucic’s name on them. Vucic’s corrupt police expressly characterized this embarrassing footage as an electoral joke. Allegedly, some merry men in Novi Pazar were stuffing ballot boxes for fun. But no one is stupid enough to believe this „investigation”.

In the early days of the demonstrations, the protestors asked for free and fair electoral conditions, seeking the dismissal of the institutions involved in the electoral process, such as the Regulatory authority for electronic media (REM), the Republic electoral comission (REC), and Radio television of Serbia (RTS). As the protests spread, their requests expanded to include systemic changes. It was a double-edged sword. The main aim of the protest became a dismissal of Vucic’s authoritarian regime and the entire corrupt political class. Now that we know all the demands (fully aware of how different they are), it should be noted that these young people have made a pretty good political program.[efn_note]This is how I summed up the program demands of the Protest against the dictatorship:

(1) Fair and free elections: editing voter lists, impartial operations of REC, REM, and RTS, mandatory TV debates, strict sanctions against election fraud and blackmail, changes to the way campaigns are funded, electoral control, etc.

(2) Media freedom; dismissal of all corrupt and party officials in public companies, understanding that politics and political parties should work for the public interest and not personal and private benefits; decentralization of political power; „departization“ of the society;

(3) Social justice and dismisal of neo-iberal economic policy, including protection of rights of all workers (changes to the Labor laws), protection of the quality of life of the citizens and completely publicly financed education and health insurance available to all.[/efn_note] And therein lays the biggest problem. How can the major changes that this program envisages start, let alone be accomplished on the street? The protesters find themselves facing an unsolvable task. The more fundamental and long-term their goals became, the weaker the protest energy grew and the protest started crumbling. You’re walking, but the goal is very far. For many, it became clear that the dismissal of Vucic’s regime would take years of dedicated work and organized engagement. You should be equipped for such a large undertaking. In 1996/97 the protesters got their specific demand – the return of the stolen election results, but it took the opposition another four years to bring down Milosevic. Zoran Djindjic managed to turn the Democratic party into a modern political instrument, able to cope with authoritarian rule, but open enough to gather and unite all existing parties and individuals. Numerous and serious research about overthrows of authoritarian regimes have shown that the only way to defeat an authoritarian system is unification of all democratic parties, movements, and individuals. There need to be two camps – the regime and the opposition.

So far, this uniquely sustainable strategy is missing. Protest against the dictatorship inadvertently contributed to that by taking an ideological position that there shouldn’t be any contacts with the opposition and that its representatives are not welcome in the protest walk. The Protest failed to associate itself with the new movements, like the one founded by Sasa Jankovic, the most successful presidential candidate. And that would be a wise move – to join Sasa and, thus, preserve and strengthen both the protest and the opposition. This exclusivity (equally distant from both the opposition and the government) is derived as much from radicalism (“storm to the heavens”) as from buying into Vucic’s propaganda about “the dark forces of the past, which destroyed Serbia and which will not be allowed to return”. For Vucic, the protest itself is part of the “dark forces of the past” as much as the opposition parties and all of his opponents. He alone is good and works hard for the Serbia he loves above all else. All others are hateful to him and Serbia. It seems to me that the protest did not realize that nothing can be done if Vucic is allowed to use his dangerous propaganda machinery to destroy the democratic opposition. It seems to me that the protesters think it’s okay, because, to them, the government and the opposition are the same. It turns out that Vucic’s attacks have managed to cripple the opposition’s ability to control the election. When you’re not able to control the election, you’re out of the game. This was confirmed in this election: the opposition was unable to control it. The election was actually stolen already in the first round by a direct hoax that cannot be proven. And it can’t be proven because the REC, which enabled this theft, is his, as are the three coalition partners from Sandzak, where the majority of shady activities happened. His is the police, the media, so there was no chance for a regular election. And what sort of election will take place depends on the ability and strength of the opposition.

And finally, it is worth wondering: Can the Protest regain its strength and be a success? There is only one way. To break the labels that Vucic’s propaganda has been pinning on the democratic opposition and on any decent critic. Therefore, you should invite the known and non-corrupt politicians to walk together with the protesters and cooperate with them. Finally, such a move would make Vucic’s secret police unable to make those idiotic photographs of the “politicians” that prove that the protest is political (which is idiotic in itself). If the photographs showed real politicians, the secret service would receive much better images for their photo albums.

Translated by Marijana Simic

Peščanik.net, 28.04.2017.

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Vesna Pešić, političarka, borkinja za ljudska prava i antiratna aktivistkinja, sociološkinja. Diplomirala na Filozofskom fakultetu u Beogradu, doktorirala na Pravnom, radila u Institutu za društvene nauke i Institutu za filozofiju i društvenu teoriju, bila profesorka sociologije. Od 70-ih pripada peticionaškom pokretu, 1982. bila zatvarana sa grupom disidenata. 1985. osnivačica Jugoslovenskog helsinškog komiteta. 1989. članica Udruženja za jugoslovensku demokratsku inicijativu. 1991. članica Evropskog pokreta u Jugoslaviji. 1991. osniva Centar za antiratnu akciju, prvu mirovnu organizaciju u Srbiji. 1992-1999. osnivačica i predsednica Građanskog saveza Srbije (GSS), nastalog ujedinjenjem Republikanskog kluba i Reformske stranke, sukcesora Saveza reformskih snaga Jugoslavije Ante Markovića. 1993-1997. jedna od vođa Koalicije Zajedno (sa Zoranom Đinđićem i Vukom Draškovićem). 2001-2005. ambasadorka SR Jugoslavije, pa SCG u Meksiku. Posle gašenja GSS 2007, njegovim prelaskom u Liberalno-demokratsku partiju (LDP), do 2011. predsednica Političkog saveta LDP-a, kada napušta ovu partiju. Narodna poslanica (1993-1997, 2007-2012).