Throughout Europe, democratic values have been under assault. Generally these attacks have come from forces of the authoritarian, nationalist right – in Poland, Hungary, Russia, the Czech Republic, Germany, the Netherlands, even Britain ― and of course in France. In other cases the assault has arisen from good old-fashioned kleptocratic autocrats who seek complete control of a country – with no checks and balances – in order to enrich themselves and their loyalists. Such is the case in the Republic of Serbia.
In either case, of course, the attack on democratic values and institutions presents a grave threat to democracy – and democratic societies – around the globe.
The current Serbian Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vucic, is a recent convert to “democratic values.” In the late 1990s, he served as Slobodan Milosevic’s Minister of Information, leading the fight to suppress freedom of the press. Until a few years ago, he served as the second-in-command of the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party, whose leader spent more than a decade in detention at the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Vucic is now running to be President of the Republic, and while his rhetoric may have changed, his methods remain fundamentally grounded in the anti-democratic tradition of the 1990s. If Vucic succeeds, he will be in a position to select a prime minister of his choice, control the judiciary, and the election apparatus – eliminating all checks and balances in the Serbian government.
As was the case when he served Milosevic’s regime, Vucic again totally dominates the news media – both through the state apparatus and the control of major media assets through his oligarch allies. A recent survey showed that Vucic received almost 120 times more news coverage than his three most prominent opponents in the presidential election combined.
His operatives have used strong-arm tactics to intimidate opposition activists.
And he has felt free to use the government’s tax collection authorities to investigate opposition figures.
Vucic’s brother and alleged multi-millionaire Andrej Vucic, is his closest confidant. Andrej has been involved in dozens of controversies, including the beating up of elite soldiers who then went on to be charged for beating up his own bodyguards. He is involved in a variety of business ventures including many that are widely known to have ties to various criminal syndicates.
It has been reported that the German authorities believed that Andrej controlled a cartel that is is one of the top narco-trafficers in the Balkans. He has also been accused at various times of black market smuggling of petroleum, and cigarettes.
In one particularly brazen incident, it has been reported that Andrej used his official government position at the Institute for Manufacturing Banknotes and Coins to print tax stamps not counting them as they were printed, worth one billion Euro, and sold them for 600 million Euro to Albanian marijuana smugglers.
Vucic and his brother are connected to a network of businesses that use their relationship to the government to make money – and in turn – help protect Vucic’s political power. His closest associates benefit from privatization, spending public money, or control of the media industry.
Andrej has also been widely accused of using his relationship with his brother to extort various other business operations.
The Vucic brothers are both especially close to Nikola Petrovic, an entrepreneur who is reputed to be involved in most big deals involving the energy sector in the Balkans. Petrovic and Andrej were involved in a scandal several years ago when it was reported that they had demanded 2 million dollars from an energy company that wanted to build a wind farm in Serbia. The license was reportedly denied because the wind farm developers refused to pay the price.
In October of 2015, a bi-partisan group of five members of the U.S. Congress, Edie Bernice Johnson, Carlos Curbelo, Scott Perry, Adam Kinzinger and Zoe Lofgren, wrote a letter to then-Vice President Joe Biden in anticipation of Vucic’s visit to the United States.
According to the highly-respected online news portal BalkanInsight, they alleged that a group led by Andrej Vucic, Petrovic and Zoran Zorac, “has consolidated their influence and interest in energy, telecommunications, infrastructure and all major businesses in Serbia.”
They also charged that: “Media outlets have been consolidated and are controlled directly by the Prime Minister, his family and close business associates,”
All the while, the quality of life for ordinary Serbians has suffered.
When Prime Minister Vucic took office five years ago, he pledged to raise the wages of ordinary working people. He pledged never to cut pensions. He pledged to improve the quality and access of our educational institutions and universities. He pledged to improve the quality of health care.
Today, wages are lower in Serbia than they were five years ago – and instead of building an economy that grows the jobs of the future, he has concentrated on courting big foreign corporations who want to cut costs and exploit Serbian workers with low paying jobs.
He cut pensions for retirees. The quality of Serbian educational institutions has not improved – and to get really good health care many Serbians now find they have to pay a bribe to a doctor.
The only group for whom life has improved during the last 5 years is the small corrupt, elite political class.
Vucic’s leading opponent in the April 2 first round balloting is Vuk Jeremic. Jeremic was the Serbian Foreign Minister in the previous government. He also served as president of the U.N. General Assembly and is widely known as an honest, progressive figure who is completely committed to democratic principles.
The conventional wisdom is that Vucic – who already has such dominant control of the media and state apparatus – will achieve more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round elections and avoid the need for a run off with Jeremic – or one of the other opposition candidates who are contesting the race.
Jeremic has been running an energetic populist – and aspirational ― race to surprise the pundits and force a second round election on April 16.
His campaign message sounds like a combination of Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama:
We don’t need to be a country where young people have only two options: joining the ruling party or leaving the country to find their future.
We can once again grow the good paying jobs of the future – right here in Serbia.
We can once again be a proud, respected nation. We can once again turn the hard work and skill of our people into a growing economy with growing wages for everyone – not just a corrupt political class.
He believes he can count on a vigorous get-out-the-vote operation – and an aspirational message ― to turn out young voters, and he has been holding rallies of thousands of voters throughout Serbia to generate enthusiasm to go to the polls. His Saturday rally in Belgrade had the look and feel of the most high-powered and motivational “Yes We Can” Obama rallies from 2008.
Jeremic says that:
They know that the possibility of a one-on-one face off will send a shock wave through our country that will awaken everyone to something all of you here today know already: that change is possible – that victory for the political elite is not inevitable – that we can take our country back.
The campaign to prevent Vucic from winning an absolute majority in the first round is a long shot – David and Goliath battle. But Jeremic is quick to remind listeners who won that contest.
While it may seem far away for Americans, and many Europeans, anyone who studies the history of the last century knows that we all have a lot at stake in the prospects for democracy in the Balkans.
And, as we all know, most of the major conflicts of the last century and a half have in some way involved the battle between authoritarianism and democratic values. One more battle in that struggle will be fought on April 2nd in the villages and cities of the Republic of Serbia.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com. He is a partner in Democracy Partners. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.