LONG READ: Voters in Serbia starkly divided into pro and anti Vucic camps before ‘corona elections’

LONG READ: Voters in Serbia starkly divided into pro and anti Vucic camps before ‘corona elections’
President Aleksandar Vucic's name won’t be on the candidate list for the June 21 election, but he is the reason why many Serbians vote for the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS).
By Ivana Jovanovic June 15, 2020

Just a few days before the regular parliamentary elections on June 21, voters in Serbia are sharply divided between those who support and those who oppose the country’s President Aleksandar Vucic, who is also president of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). 

While Vucic’s name won’t be on the candidate list, he is the reason why many Serbians vote for the SNS, as well a reason for others to vote against it. As president, Vucic cannot run for a seat in the parliament but his name can be used for his party’s campaign. 

Serbian society has been divided for centuries, and remains so. In a worrying development, both sides are now moving to the extremes and are ready to fight anyone who expresses an opposing view. 

More than 6.5mn citizens have the right to vote in the upcoming parliamentary election. Local and regional elections for the parliament of the autonomous province of Vojvodina will be held on the same day. The elections were initially planned to be held in April but had to be postponed because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The pandemic, and measures to stop the spread of the virus (that included long curfews) taken by Vucic increased the divisions in society between those who were listening to his advice and those claiming that the steps were bad — either too radical or too easy. There are no doubts that this led Vucic to decide to cancel the state of emergency and let things go completely back to normal, even though there were still sporadic new infections. 

SNS remains preeminent 

Despite the presence of strong anti-Vucic sentiment, there are no real chances of a change of government after April’s elections. The SNS’ is still the largest coalition bloc with only one prominent leader. Its opponents, by contrast, are widely spread among multiple parties, lists and blocs, which downgrades their chances to even pass the (recently downsized) threshold of 3% to win seats in parliament. 

The anti-Vucic side is a mixed bag of EU-haters and EU-lovers, pro-East and pro-West oriented citizens, those who won’t give Kosovo up and those who would strive for a solution to the crisis in order to reach a better future, anti-Nato and pro-Nato, Russophiles and Russophobes, conservatives and socialists, those that dislike Vucic’s autocracy and those who are unhappy because “he should be stronger” (especially when he talks to the West and the US, seen by some as traditional enemies of the Serbian people, who, Serbs say, took Kosovo from Serbia like a “heart from a human body”). There is a whole spectrum of reasons why people dislike Vucic personally and his politics, and there are almost as many options for them to pick if they want to vote against the SNS. 

Meanwhile, Vucic advocates Serbia’s EU membership, military neutrality, close ties with Russia, China and the US, searching for a solution to the Kosovo question according to which “Serbia will get something”, he offers social justice but also advocates privatisation and encourages private investment. Thanks to his roots in the far-right Serbian Radical Party (SRS), his narrative still has a lot of nationalism or patriotism, depending on what people prefer to call it. Vucic is indeed a dominant leader and main decision-maker, who dislikes criticism and cannot get used to it, even though he has been on the political scene for his entire adult life, almost 30 years.

Thus, on June 21, pro-Vucic and anti-Vucic voters will be able to choose between 21 lists on the ballot, as the Republic Electoral Commission finished the process of verifying submissions on April 10. The SNS is number 1 on the ballot. Number 2 is its junior partner the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) that will most likely pass the threshold to enter parliament and, if Vucic wants it, gladly participate in the next government. Of the remaining 19 lists, at least 10 are anti-Vucic options and most of them struggled to collect 10,000 signatures from citizens to submit their candidacy. 

Small-scale boycott

The saddest fact for Serbia and everybody who ever fought against dictatorship and the politics of Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, is that the backbone of this fight, the Democratic Party (DS), won’t be in the next parliament. What remained of the DS, and is still officially called the DS, together with a few new parties formed by former party members, will boycott the elections.  

This decision is unlikely to make an impact. With over 6.5mn voters, Vucic needs at least 2mn to vote to have legitimate elections. In Serbia usually about 50-55% of the electorate vote. It’s unlikely that this number could decline by half even though there are still people who do not plan to go to polls on June 21. 

One of them is Biljana K (45), an economist from Belgrade. She says that she is staying home on election day because she is tired of politics.

“I’m done with this. Whatever I do I will feel bad. I would vote for the opposition if there was something like that. Not because I hate Vucic but because he has too much power — legitimate power — and that’s not good. Everyone would take it if they had a chance like he does. I don’t want to vote for conservative options that want to take us back to the past. Vucic’s programme is ok but I simply can’t be one more person that votes for him, because it will be too much. So, I am staying at home. Not because of corona or because of what used to be the DS, but because I don’t have an appropriate political offer to take,” Biljana told bne IntelliNews

Dimitrije A. (18), also from Belgrade, has a similar opinion. This will be his first election as he just turned 18 in April. He is very loud against Vucic, believing that he represents everything opposite to democracy and social justice.

“He is a liar, a manipulator and a dictator! This is all fake opposition and the only solution is a boycott. If we don’t succeed now, we will boycott again and again and again until we get rid of him. Europe will see that he lies about democracy when every person who goes to vote votes for him and that’s where this is going. Me and my parents are boycotting. I don’t want to risk voting for any pro-EU option because I don’t believe that any of them will not go in coalition with him if he offers it. So, no! Boycott until the victory!” Dimitrije told bne IntelliNews

However, his cousin Sofija S. (18), who is also voting for the first time, disagrees with him and believes that any government with more pro-EU oriented parties is better than one without them. 

“I do not have doubts as to whether I should vote or not. There are three lists that I like and I still don’t know which one I’ll pick. One is the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the other is United Democratic Serbia (UDS), third is the one with [New Party leader] Zoran Zivkovic and the Green Party. They are all interesting to me and one will have my vote definitely. I just wish they were all together,” Sofija told bne IntelliNews.

Constructive but fragmented democratic opposition

The Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) led by Cedomir Jovanovic, a close associate and friend of Serbian’s first democratic PM and president of the DS Zoran Djindjic, who was murdered in 2003, is a smaller party with a clear programme that includes condemning crimes from the civil war, Euro-Atlantic integration and solving the Kosovo issue. These are reasons why this party never became very popular because those are topics that most of Serbs dislike and don’t support. The LDP is running with the slogan “Coalition for Peace”, alongside a group of small political parties: Tolerance Serbia, Bosniak Citizens Party, Party of Montenegrins, Vlachs’ Peoples Party (Vlachs are an ethnic minority group in eastern Serbia), the Liberal Democratic Movement of Vojvodina, Association of Yugoslavians in Serbia, the Action Network of Associations and Organisations of Roma People and the Citizens Association Romanians of the Homolje. 

Jovanovic lost significant support during the last few years because of his mild criticism of Vucic. He openly supports Vucic’s efforts to solve the Kosovo issue, modern approach to foreign capital and privatisation. However, he still criticises his close ties with Russia and China, calling for more focus on EU accession. For anti-Vucic citizens, this is a big minus for the LDP, and even many of those that used to support the party now don’t want to because that could mean supporting Vucic as well. Jovanovic is popular as “the favourite Serbian politician outside of Serbia”. He was one of the most prominent members of the DS until in 2004 he was kicked out by the president of the party and Serbia’s then president Boris Tadic after personal disagreements between the two. 

The other option that Sofija is considering is United Democratic Serbia. This is a coalition similar to the previous one, consisting of former members of the LDP and DS as well as regional Vojvodina parties (Vojvodina’s Front, Serbia 21, Ligue of Vojvodina’s Social Democrats, Together for Vojvodina and Vojvidina’s Party), three parties representing national minorities (Democratic Alliance of Croats in Vojvodina, Union of Romanians of Serbia and the Montenegrin Party) as well as minor political entities such as the newly formed Party of Modern Serbia (SMS), Democratic Block and Citizens’ Democratic Alliance. 

“Dobra vest" (good news) says the campaign material of United Democratic Serbia (UDS). 

The UDS and LDP, as well as a coalition of the Green Party and Zivkovic’s New Party, belong to so called ‘modern bloc’ that promotes democracy, rule of law, EU integration and tolerance. All are the subject of rumours and media reports, created and spread by the anti-Vucic side, that they would go into government with him if they manage to enter the new parliament and he offers that. Their potential is also significantly smaller than it could be if they were united and had only one list. Their programme is not based on anti-Vucic principles but on constructive criticism of his autocracy, weaknesses of institutions and slow democratic development. United they could indeed be a strong opposition and a real option for voters. 

Some people are ready to give one or other of the parties a chance, but they still they risk not getting seats in the next parliament, as votes can be lost during the calculation process. 

“I never liked the LDP because I don’t think we should go to Nato because of bombing. Everyone who lived in Novi Sad in 1999 knows how their bombs hurt when they destroyed our bridges. It will never be forgotten. I like to vote for Vojvodina’s parties and even voted for Hungarian parties earlier. My choice will be UDS this year. Boycott is never an option for me, and nor is Vucic! He doesn’t have the face of a goodhearted man and I don’t trust him. I just don’t…” Sladjana Stefanovic (42), a store manager from Novi Sad, told bne IntelliNews.

Unlike Stefanovic, Lidija Milosavljevic (35), an unemployed administrative manager from Belgrade, will vote for the LDP.

“I’ve been an LDP voter since the party was formed. That’s the only party in the country that hasn’t changed its principles and programme in order to lick voters’ bu**s. That’s why the slogan for this campaign “we’ll never give up” is the most appropriate one. And I don’t see anything wrong if a political party has an ambition to be a part of the governing coalition. That’s the purpose of a political party! I know we are a minority but we exist and the only way for us to prove that is to go and vote and be part of official political life — the parliament and the government — why not?” Milosavljevic told bne IntelliNews.

Anti-Vucic but without an actual programme

Among the players on the current political stage in Serbia are also those whose main idea is just to be against whatever Vucic does or doesn’t do. 

At the beginning they seemed to be united around a common goal, which they showed in anti-government protests in front of the parliament or in front of the public broadcaster building. Those protests were very often on the edge of violence but still attracted people and led to the formation of the Alliance for Serbia (SZS) in September 2018. The SZS consists of dozens of small parties, the most prominent being what remained of the DS under the same name, the Party of Freedom and Justice that was newly formed by former DS president and Belgrade mayor Dragan Djilas, and Serbian Left, which was formed by another former DS member Borko Stefanovic. Also in the SZS is the People’s Party established and led by Vuk Jeremic, a former foreign minister and yet another former DS member, who was kicked out of the party by Djilas in 2013. The far-right Dveri movement is also a member of the SZS. 

The alliance chose boycott as its campaign for the upcoming elections and stuck with that initial decision. However, a few members left the coalition and decided to participate in the elections. To widespread surprise, one of those was the Movement of Free Citizens (PSG), formed by former ombudsman Sasa Jankovic and then taken over by controversial actor Sergej Trifunovic, who delights in cursing and smoking publicly. The group of opponents of the Vucic regime that started the ‘1 of 5 million’ protests that have been ongoing throughout Serbia since 2018 also left the SZS and submitted a list for the June 21 elections. This movement as well as Trifunovic’s one are going it alone in the elections. 

What this entire bloc lacks is a programme and ideology. Their main principle is ‘stop Vucic’ and the goal is to attract as many people as possible around that idea. However, after deciding to take part in the elections, the PSG has been declared ‘Vucic’s satellite’ and called fake opposition. These accusations started on June 7 on the Utisak Nedelje (Impression of the Week) talk show when the leader of another anti-Vucic movement, Enough is Enough’s (DJB’s) Sasa Radulovic told Trifunovic that the SNS was helping his PSG to collect the signatures needed to submit its candidacy. Trifunovic reacted furiously, saying that was a “bad lie”. Trifunovic was using strong words to criticise the boycott campaign even though he was one of its main initiators. Despite the fact that the SZS disqualified itself voluntarily, the PSG’s chances of attracting a significant number of voters also decreased when it left the coalition. 

The surprise of the 2016 elections was the DJB. Back then, the party was newly formed by the former minister of economy in the first SNS government, Radulovic. He resigned over disagreements regarding the pace of structural reforms in early 2014. However, his DJB managed to pass the threshold and get seats in the parliament. The DJB strongly opposes Vucic as well but also claims that Serbia doesn’t need the EU to prosper. For this election, the movement named itself “Sovereigns”, which implies that it is leaning towards the right. The DJB has been promoting anti-vaccine ideas lately, which also qualifies it as a far-right player. Many members left the movement in the last four years mainly because they didn’t like the way Radulovic leads or the ideological shift. In 2017, lawyer Vladimir Gajic left the DJB because of Radulovic’s decision to run for president in that year’s election. Professor at the Belgrade Faculty of Political Sciences Dusan Pavlovic left DJB in 2018, claiming that “ideologically it is going too much to the right”. DJB still has sympathisers among people who support state owned capital, oppose capitalism and miss some of the values of communism.

Further right than the DJB

The loudest contenders and with large support are, of course, far right movements and parties. Out of 21 lists for the June 21 elections, at least five are standing within far-right postulates. Among them is Vojislav Seselj’s SRS that in 2016 managed to enter the parliament and as an old party still has a chance of repeating this. Seselj is very popular because of his controversial speeches and statements, thus many television programmes often invite him to be a guest. As the name of his party says, he is also (proudly) radical and doesn’t hesitate to rail against Croatians, Albanians, sexual minorities, Nato and the EU, as well as to deny war crimes committed by the Serbian regime during the 1990s. He included his son Aleksandar in his current campaign, which is supposed to suggest that they follow traditional values according to which a son succeeds his father. Father Seselj was sentenced in April 2018 to 10 years in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the civil war caused by the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. He was found guilty of committing war crimes against Croats and Muslims in Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and the Serbian province of Vojvodina in 1991-1993. 

Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj’s son Aleksandar on the cover of the official SNS magazine Velika Serbia. 

Another right-wing party is Party Zavetnici (Oath Keepers). Zavetnici also like to call themselves “Sovereigns” and they advocate values such as family, religion, nation and tradition. Their narrative mainly consists of threats to the “betraying government and deep state”. 

The political movement Metla (the Broom), formed and led by the president of the military union Novica Antic, has similar principles. The term ‘metla’ is used in Serbia when someone wants to say that something has to be ‘cleaned’ or that someone needs to go away. Also among the right-wing groups on the ballot is the Russian Party formed by Serbs who admire and love Russia and its values and would like Serbia to be closer to them. 

A campaign poster for the Metla movement. 

To the surprise of many, the last that got a good to go from the Electoral Commission is the Leviathan movement, an ultra-nationalist political entity that managed to submit at least 10,000 valid signatures from citizens. The slogan of the movement is “I live for Serbia”. The movement is known as a fighter for animal rights and at the same time a fighter against the human rights of migrants. Leviathan organised a protest rally with the slogan “Stop illegal immigrants” in front of the reception centre in Obrenovac, near Belgrade, in May, balkaneu.com reported. The whole rally was broadcasted on social networks.

Anti-migrant sentiment has been present in Serbia lately exactly thanks to various kinds of material distributed on social networks, showing how migrants are ‘bad’ and a ‘danger’ for Orthodox Serbs. This was also used in anti-Vucic campaigns. A video that was very popular among the anti-Vucic population shows an older Serb criticising Vucic for taking care of migrants (mainly Muslims) and saying that Vucic should marry his daughter to a “Jusuf” (a common Muslim name) so his grandchild can be a Muslim — the video is full of vulgar words and insults to Vucic and his daughter, as well as to all women and all migrants and Muslims. 

Z. M., a man in his 30s from Belgrade, excitedly showed the video to bne IntelliNews, initially finding it funny, but then got mad because the reporter told him that the video is full of hate speech. 

“And when Vucic speaks hate speech then nothing? They destroyed my town by bringing so-called refugees from Bosnia. They now want to destroy the whole country. Vucic is just one more American money-receiver just like Milosevic and his wife Mira Markovic were. Everyone who thinks nice things about Vucic is not my friend anymore!” he said angrily.

Catch-it-all aka win it all or Vucic’s SNS

Since the SNS was formed in 2008, it has been a catch-all party. Over the last decade, it has vacuumed many parties into a united pre-election coalition which helps it significantly to minimise the opposition as well as to generate ‘safe votes’ which are votes of party members and their immediate families. 

Currently, at least six parties that are known to the larger public are part of the SNS’ coalition. Some of them are modern with democratic bases like the Social Democratic Party of Serbia (SDPS) led by Rasim Ljajic who currently serves as deputy PM and minister of trade, tourism and telecommunications. There are also some conservative parties that have certain principles opposite to the SNS’ like the Serbian People’s Party formed by Nenad Popovic, a businessman and politician with a large portfolio in Russia, who pushes for closer ties with Russia and a distance from the EU. Popovic is the current minister without portfolio of Serbia in charge of innovations and technological development. There is also the radical left League of Socialists led by Minister of Defence Aleksandar Vulin. Vulin openly and proudly says that he is an EU sceptic and promotes military brotherhood with Russia even though the Serbian government’s main goal is EU integration and the country is militarily neutral. Vucic considers it is easier to have Vulin with him than against him. However, for some voters, he is a reason why Vucic’s list won’t be an option on June 21. 

“I agree with Vucic on most things he is doing and I do support them but every time I see Vulin, I remember Mira Markovic and how poor and miserable we were in the 90s because of her, and I just can’t vote for Vucic. I still don’t know who my choice will be,” Anita Radosavljevic (40) from Belgrade, told bne IntelliNews

Vulin was a member of Markovic’s Yugoslav Left and one of her closest people.

Radosavljevic’s husband Momcilo is still thinking to whom to give his support, and also thinks that Vucic’s policy is good for the country on both internal and international levels but says he doesn’t like how Vucic talks to people and constantly “creates drama” if he doesn’t like something. 

“Sometimes I wish he would show a little bit more emotion to people that actually support him. Someone doesn’t like you — ok, big deal! Still, the majority likes you — don’t yell because it’s not everyone. It doesn’t matter. I like how the US behaves now. I like that they don’t see us as Balkan butchers anymore but as friends. That’s result of his effort, we have to admit. Also, the sympathy that [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel has had for him has never been a secret. The French president came to visit Serbia. Those are results. I don’t want to see discontinuation of this trend, that’s why I’m thinking to vote for the SNS,” he told bne IntelliNews

The SNS’s main slogan for the 2020 elections is “For our kids” and is intended to express the party’s commitment to the future. This could be a big shift in Serbian politics and everyday life because, so far, everything is based on what was going on in the recent or more distant past — starting from the 14th century when Serbia had the largest territory under Tzar Dusan Nemanjic, through the lost battle for Kosovo against the Ottomans in 1389, five centuries under the Turks, then the world wars and communism and the breakup of Yugoslavia, to finally come to the present day when everybody still calculates based on the past. Thus, some of the positions taken in the SNS’ current election campaign indicate that besides the many pensioners who traditionally vote for Vucic, he wants to attract younger people to support him. 

Retired people are the cornerstone of Vucic’s political success but he also does his best to take care of them. Since the corona crisis started, pensioners receive their whole pensions once a month instead of a half-pension every two weeks. Also, they were the first to get the €100 so-called COVID-aid from the government that Vucic promised to every citizen aged 18 or over in the country. This is definitely a move that will bring some people to the polls in order to pick number 1 on the ballot paper. 

“I do not vote usually because I do not believe in politics. But no one ever before gave me 1 dinar, let alone €100. So, he deserves that vote!” said an elderly gentleman from the city of Vranje in southern Serbia. 

One couple, Kruna and Rade Stankovic, are also very pleased with the €200 combined income for their household but even more about how Vucic "took good care of elder people during the worst days of pandemic”.

“He told us to stay inside and isolate to survive. We listened to all the advice and thanks to that we are well now. My husband has issues with his lungs and I have asthma, we are high risk but we do not have doctors in our family to tell us what to do in such circumstances. We relied on what the president said and it was good for us. He saved us,” Kruna Stankovic told bne IntelliNews

“He is a brave man and he is thankful for everything we have done for our children that are now rising as the next generation that will lead us. Young people today don’t understand that they need to listen to the president. Those who didn’t listen got infected. I saw in local media that among those infected in our city were people who traveled, who didn’t listen to instructions not to gather, some bad company owners who made their people work in risky environments. That’s all because they didn’t listen to the president. He said do not travel, do not hang out, do not make people come to work if it is not essential,” Rade Stankovic added to his wife’s words. 

Sisters Suncica and Zorica (69 and 74, respectively), also from Vranje, passionately support Vucic. 

“Everybody who is against him is the enemy of humans. I cry when I see what they do to him. How mean they were when his poor son tested positive [for COVID-19]. People are mean to him because they are jealous and because with him many cannot steal anymore. I don’t want to even know who are the people who can be so unfair and I do not want them close to me,” Suncica said.

Her sister Zorica affectionately calls the president “Vuca” and thinks that he rebuilt Serbia from the ashes. 

“Have you seen our roads? Have you seen [waterside development] Belgrade Waterfront? I saw it when I went to visit my son in Belgrade. The highway should be named after him! That beautiful highway. He is right when he calls it a runway,” she told bne IntelliNews

Her neighbour Stanija Tasic (83) plans to go to vote but asked Zorica to help her get to the polling station.

“I have to go to vote for my Vucko! He is the only one in this country who cares for old people and we have to support him,” she claimed. 

Elderly people in other places throughout Serbia have similar opinions. Mirjana Nikolic (84), a retired lawyer from Belgrade, says that she likes how Vucic behaves on the international scene, that he looks smart and dedicated. 

“He impresses me. He should stay in this position longer. It’s good for us,” she said, talking to bne IntelliNews.

Father and daughter Nikolic, also from Belgrade, both support Vucic, simply saying that he is the best Serbia has had so far. 

Corona campaign

Vucic has started campaigning for his SNS shortly after he lifted the state of emergency. The first step he took was dubbed “Matrix” as he presented the first online rally on May 16, which is still available on Facebook. He told his online public that the June 21 elections are not about choosing between parties but between the future and “bad past” of Serbia.

“People know who is who. They have seen everything and understand it. Let them attack and insult us. We are not going to do that. We are going to show how the modern Serbia of the future should look,” he said. 

However, even though the state of emergency was canceled on May 6, which was likely the government’s move to calm down strong resistance to the lockdown measures and that way try to stabilise its support prior to the upcoming election, the number of people newly infected with COVID-19 started going up again within the last week. Because of this, Vucic proposed to his party leadership to cancel all planned public gatherings, B92 reported on June 10. 

“Two Serbs — three political parties”

The June 21 elections most likely won’t bring any change on the Serbian political scene. Thanks to the fragmented opposition and smart moves by Vucic, the SNS will likely win a comfortable majority that will allow it to form the new government by itself. 

However, even though he only needs 126 of the 250 MPs to form a government, and he will likely win more than that, the SNS will still form a coalition government to show it respects democratic principles as well as to downgrade the capacity of the opposition. 

It seems Vucic is the only politician in Serbia who has learned that well known saying “two Serbs — three political parties”, and realises that division is the enemy of any political party. Vucic is always in campaign mode, and the upcoming parliamentary elections are actually just a preparation for the next presidential elections. The president’s term is five years and since Vucic was elected in 2017, regular presidential elections should be in 2022. However, in his earlier interview with national broadcaster Prva TV he said that the presidential election could take place in 2021, daily Blic reported. Vucic is known as a politician who plays things by ear (or perhaps better said “by the numbers”) and could decide to go for early elections. 

The June 21 elections are the third general election since 2012 when the SNS formed its first government with the SPS, which made getting the prime minister position for its leader Dacic a condition for joining. Two years later, however, the SNS decided to go for early elections aiming to take the prime minister position for itself. In the 2014 snap election, the party won its best result ever and Vucic became prime minister. In 2016, he decided to check support again and a new round of parliamentary elections was held to coincide with regular local elections. The SNS again won a majority in the parliament and Vucic formed a new cabinet. After he was elected president in 2017, his close ally Ana Brnabic succeeded him as prime minister, becoming the first openly gay PM in the entire region.