Serbia: Mass protests and the radical left: Interview with Pavle Ilić
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
by Ivan Lucic
For several weeks, protests have been going on in Belgrade. What is happening?
Pavle Ilić: The first round of protests occurred on December 8th. This came in the wake of a physical assault on Borko Stefanović in late November. Stefanović is the leader of a left-liberal party Levica Srbije (LS – The Left of Serbia), which is a minority partner in Savez za Srbiju (SzS – The Union for Serbia), a broad opposition coalition which ranges from them to the far-right.
An opposition coalition from left-liberals to the far-right?
SzS was formed as a response to the increasing pressure on a fragmented opposition under Vučić’s rule. However, it has failed to make any significant electoral gains. The attack on Stefanović came during a local election campaign event in a town in south-central Serbia. The suspected assailants have since been released from custody and the investigation seems to have stalled.
What happened after the attack on Stefanović?
The opposition used the opportunity to criticize the government and the ruling party claiming that they are directly responsible for the assault.
You don’t think they are?
This is probable, if not even likely, as the authoritarian aspect of Vučić’s rule has been becoming more and more prominent since he took power in 2012. But I doubt a direct responsibility.
How did the protests develop after the first days of protest?
After the second week of protests, the organizers, who were still relatively openly affiliated to SzS, tried to call the next demo for January 16th, nearly a month later. The social media groups exploded with the posts of ordinary people saying that they will keep protesting every Saturday no matter when SzS decides to call a demonstration. Faced with that, the organizers decided to keep holding weekly demonstrations and to try to present themselves as independent of SzS, despite the fact that they are relatively known members of the youth wings of the parties that make it up. Around the same time, the official slogan of the protests changed to “One of the Five Million”.
What does the slogan mean?
It is in reference to a statement made by the president of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić, who said that he would not yield to the demonstrators’ demands even if there were 5 million people on the streets. This has since been adopted as the main slogan of the protests. Structurally speaking, the current mobilizations have drawn out a significantly smaller proportion of younger people, despite overall being slightly more numerous than the mass protests against the protests of April 2017 in the wake of the presidential election. In that one, the radical left, including the activists of Marks21, played a significant, and at times leading role. Overall, the protest are rather petit-bourgeois and will stay insignificant, as long as they are being captured by the SzS-parties.
You will have to explain that.
This is evident from the overall atmosphere among the demonstrators which are more akin to a procession than an uprising. Likewise, the songs booming from the sound system mounted on a lorry were all recorded in the nineties. Also, the demonstrations are “civil demonstrations” –meaning simple gatherings and protest walks with speeches filled with pathos are being held, however without any political meaning. This is due to the big influence the SzS-parties are having in the protest movement.
What are the demands of the protest movement?
One of the official demands of the protest movement is an increase of the time allotted to the official opposition on public TV. Their demands are irrelevant to the living standards of the majority of the population.
Does that mean that the SzS-parties have taken the protests as a platform to gain electoral advantage?
Simply put, yes. They are even honest about the nature of their alliance – it is to result in an “expert” (i.e. technocratic) interim government.
What was the role of the radical and anti-capitalist left in the protests?
The first two demonstrations caught us off guard. Also, the radical left was skeptical to intervene anyway due to the influence of the SzS-parties.
This situation was not to last. The broad ranks of the left in Belgrade sensed that the demonstrating people are not just SzS supporters but also express real anger and the desire for change. Since then we want to use the protest movement as building blocks towards a revival of an independent, working class orientated left.
How did the radical left intervene in the protest?
It happened under the banner of a broader “Left bloc”. The meantime had witnessed a direct confrontation between Left bloc activists and Dragan Đilas, the former mayor of Belgrade. He is notorious for evicting several large Roma settlements in order to clear up real-estate for urban development projects. In a tirade fortunately caught on video and published, Đilas is seen deriding activists and resorting to misogynistic and homophobic swearing. The video went viral and the left was given unprecedented publicity. Naturally, the ruling party and its media tried to use the situation to their advantage and present Đilas as a violent thug. Meanwhile, the liberal opposition whipped up its own, smaller but much better-spoken media machinery into a frenzy trying to paint the radical left as Vučić’s agents provocateurs.
Could the left gain any advantage out of that?
The week that ensued was one of feverish anticipation and organizing. On January 26th, the first protest after the video of the altercation went public, the Left bloc’s numbers swelled, and it integrated into the protest movement. The very next day, the biggest ecological protest in Serbian history took place against the destruction of the streams and rivers at the hand of developers building mini hydro-electric dams. The radical left was prominent in this mobilization as well.
What did you want to achieve with that?
We have to demonstrate the need to link up different struggles. The majority of the people taking to the streets of Belgrade and many more towns and cities in Serbia do so in spite of the fact that SzS is trying to utilize the movement for its own strictly electoral gain. They are angry at Vučić, but they do not look too kindly upon his predecessors who are trying to reinvent themselves and to hide their neoliberal reforms.
Please tell us more about Vučić and his administration.
SNS started off as a pro-EU split from the hard right Srpska radikalna stranka (SRS – Serbian Radical Party). It is a nationalist force that had its own paramilitaries during the conflicts of Yugoslav succession, as well as being a junior partner in one of Milošević’s governments. In this time, Vučić served as minister of information in said government and was notorious in the nineties for calling for “the killing of a hundred Muslims for every Serbian casualty”. He has since reinvented himself as a mélange of modernizer à la Angela Merkel and an Orbanesque strongman and “father of the nation”.
What does that mean?
Politically speaking, SNS continues the debt-driven economic policy of the previous governments – privatizing and breaking up public sector industrial giants, low taxes for corporations and austerity in the public service sector. Unlike its predecessor, it has come to power in the context of a global financial crisis whose effects it has, rather successfully so far, made the working and popular classes pay for. The different context and the mounting dissatisfaction of the general population necessitated that SNS develop a more authoritarian style of government.
How could they establish that style of government?
The main ways in which it approached this task was to further develop a system of blackmail that was available to the ruling party in Serbia since the ‘90s. This system consists of the fact that the state apparatus as such has little autonomy from the ruling party. Thus, a ruling party has direct control over half a million workplaces in government and public sectors. Thereby, a voter base motivated by existential fear that includes the “holders” of those jobs and their families, as well as those private sector workers employed in firms loyal to the regime.
Hence, the party in power seems to have a lot of influence on society.
Civil society organizations and NGOs are significantly less influential outside of Belgrade and Novi Sad (the two largest cities). Naturally, local politicians are held under much less scrutiny in smaller towns. As a consequence, it is possible to place loyal cadre at key positions and blackmail the staff or replace it with those desperate enough to join SNS in order to find employment.
Did those conditions evoke a reaction in the public?
The progressive deterioration of almost every aspect of public life in Serbia is generating anguish and anger. The clock is ticking on the regime, but without a clear political alternative from the left, an opposition electoral victory would mean very little to the majority of the people.
How did Vučić react to the protests?
Vučić’s rhetoric is based on blaming the previous governments for everything that is wrong with Serbia today. Meanwhile, he is overplaying his achievements and presenting them as beneficial even when they are directly responsible for a drop in the living standard, the rise of real unemployment, or other acutely tangible negative social phenomena. His particular brand of modernizing liberal-right wing populist image hinges on insisting that his predecessors robbed the Serbian people – which they undoubtedly did – but he has been the one doing the robbing for the past seven years.
Other than that, he is basically “waiting things out”. Visible police presence at and around the demonstrations is minimal, and mostly limited to traffic police which clears the streets where the route is supposed to pass. Several things can be deduced from such an approach – a repressive maneuver against a highly visible public events that number into the tens of thousands could galvanize the public and plunge Vučić’s unstable support.
Could the protest movement take down Vučić’s administration?
Due to the current strategy of the protests it is extremely unlikely to push Vučić’s government over the edge. Western elites still view him as their key player in Serbia. One spark of hope however is that at the same time, the “Left bloc” is trying to mobilise sluggish trade unions to join up with extremely limited success so far.
How will the SzS-parties and the party in power react?
The opposition will try to strengthen its hold over the movement while trying to come up with a strategy that will postpone direct electoral confrontation with the government, as it believes time is on its side. It now has to worry about a proactive and street-smart left comprised of experienced and energized young activists that openly questions its legitimacy.
The government will try to wait the movement out and to try to use the cleavages to its own advantage.
What should the left do?
The left will have to keep pushing its own line and trying to use the space it has created to spread its influence as much as it can. At the same time, the left has to tread carefully as to become neither the unwitting cannon fodder for the opposition, nor accidental movement wreckers for the government. Truly a great challenge, and the following weeks will determine whether our previous experiences will allow us to rise up to it.
Ivan Lucic conducted the interview which first appeared in German on the marx21 Website
Update from Pavle Ilić: 6 February 2019
Since this interview was conducted, there was another mobilization of the movement, on 2nd February. Several noteworthy things happened.
The Left bloc was present again, however, the “official” security volunteers of the protest tried to prevent the bloc from joining the demonstration. In the end their attempts failed, and the Left bloc joined up with the bloc of the post office workers’ trade union. The security thugs who tried to foil the Left bloc’s intervention were threatening the activists and one of them tried to feign injury and claim that he was attacked by the Left bloc.The Left bloc has now spread to at least three other cities, with more expressing willingness to join coordination.The entire protest was overshadowed by the media scandal that broke out around two people who were carrying a mock gallows. They were promptly identified by the police and took into custody. The state prosecutor asks for them to be detained since the start of the trial for “calls to violence” – a criminal offence. The two young men have been identified as long time supporters of Dveri, a far right member of SzS, but the opposition has started claiming that the gallows were a planted provocation by the government.The opposition has announced that it will come out with a “contract with the people” that will lay down the promise of a provisional government that will “re-democratise” during a strict one year mandate. A similar tactic was used by the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (Demokratska opozicija Srbije – DOS), a broad front that eventually defeated Milošević. However, the promises made in that contract were swiftly forgotten when the first post-Milošević government was in place.