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Early elections in Serbia: Progressive win is a warning to the working class (part 2)

koricaNote from the LeftEast editors: this is the second part of the text of Vladimir Unkovski-Korica on the early election in Serbia. The first part could be read here.

The collapse of opposition and the crisis of representation

To understand the rise of the Progressives, it is necessary to also explain the demise of all opposition. Certainly, that the Progressives managed to become so palatable to the West so quickly helped the Progressives, but what did it do to the others? It created without doubt a sense that politics was finally without alternatives. As David Harvey has argued, neo-liberalism was never truly about free markets, but a ruling class project based in large part on the will to reverse decades of rising worker strength. Part of the project was all about de-politicising key decisions, often by taking them directly out of government hands and handing them over to unelected quasi-governmental organisations or market-friendly institutions like central banks. The European Union had had similar intellectual origins in the post-war era, and became easily wedded to the neoliberal project. Ever since the fall of Milošević, ‘Europe’ was the standard explanation for the neo-liberal transformation. As noted, the Socialist Party and the Radical Party were a block to this project in the 1990s, and the latter in the 2000s. Following 2008, with the conversion of the Socialists and formerly Radical Progressives, it looked like there was nothing of substance to disagree about, and the tired refrain of voting Democrat to keep the 1990s from returning seemed to backfire in 2012, leading to a crisis of identity in the main party of the 2000s, the Democratic Party.

There were, of course, more reasons for the Democratic Party’s crisis of identity. As noted, it presided over the effects of the world economic crisis, and its period in government was tainted with corruption, authoritarianism, and an inability to move towards the EU because of its inability to find a solution to the Kosovo conundrum, i.e. because of its slavish wish to prove its fidelity to the dream of Greater Serbia. Following its unexpected and humiliating loss of power in 2012, the party that had become wedded to power found it difficult to continue without the privileges power had conferred. As many parties of power in history, it began to fracture along interest lines, with a majority in the party rallying behind then mayor of Belgrade, Djilas, and a minority either siding with Tadić or leaving.

Djilas, however, proved unable to provide a clean break with the corruption of the past because he himself was involved in many scandals arising from alleged conflicts of interest, between businesses he had a connection with on the one hand and his role as city mayor on the other. Indeed, once Djilas lost power in Belgrade, as the Socialists finally abandoned him in the course of 2013 in order to maintain their governmental coalition with the Progressives, his ability to at least represent success in power in the clientelist model of politics dominating Serbia disappeared. Now he could act as a weak object of hatred for all those who already saw the Democrats as corrupt, and who hated the Belgrade-centric discourse of the party to boot. Djilas just about survived a challenge from the resurgent Tadić, but failed to prevent a split in the party weeks before the elections. Tadić set up his own party and ran in coalition with a regional liberal party from Vojvodina. Rumours continue to swirl that Tadić wanted the Democrats to present themselves as capable of cutting a deal with the Progressives. Split, though, neither wing of the Democratic Party could pass into double figures. With their voters angry, disillusioned, apathetic, or confused, the two rump organisations managed a small vote and look nothing like a confident opposition. Djilas is in fact facing potential leadership challenges following the poor vote, while Tadić seems set on a stint in power, in the vain hope that its glow may rub off come the next election.

The United Regions of Serbia seemed to fall to the same logic: once out of power, Mladjan Dinkić, the long-term economic architect of post-2000 Serbia, a functionary or member of every government, could offer no further carrots to anyone and he failed to cross the 5 percent barrier. The Liberal Democratic Party, too, fits into the same pattern, despite never holding the reigns of power. In the wake of the 2012 elections, one of many scandals rocked the party leader, Čedomir Jovanović, seemingly irreversibly. He was accused of lying and misreporting his property in the run-up to elections. He was widely seen as embroiled in many dirty affairs and of hiding the extent of his business empire or its possible connections with his political activity. On this occasion, his party effectively owned up to the mistake but he himself rejected the allegations. The result was that the LDP failed to get re-elected in Belgrade, though it did win enough votes in coalition with a regional liberal party from Vojvodina to stay in parliament in 2012. With the loss of this ally to Tadić in 2014, the LDP collapsed like a house of cards. Its future prospects, like those of the DS, do not look bright.

If the Progressives took the pro-European votes, and the European parties of the 2000s collapsed for a variety of reasons, why did the right fail so dramatically to even gain a seat in parliament? This is a harder question to answer. Undoubtedly, a large part of the formerly Radical vote still goes to the Progressives. Nikolić and Vučić have gone to pains to disguise their American links. The latter has, for instance, trumpeted his special relationship with the United Arab Emirates, though he has not mentioned the UAE is a key ally of the US in the Middle East. Vučić claims to be personal friends with Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and he has promised help from the UAE totaling $12 billion. This includes $4 billion redevelopment of Belgrade waterfront, a $4,5 semi-conductor factory, a lending programme for farmers, an aircraft component plant, and $2-3 billion of sovereign loans to cover holes in the state budget. A state loan worth $1 billion over ten years was in fact signed ten days before the election. UAE direct investment in Serbia during 2013, though, was only $29 million dollars of the total $631.5 of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). It remains to be seen whether the promised projects materialise and whether the relationship is more than the usual pre-election stunt, such as Tadić’s promise that FIAT’s acquisition of Zastava in 2008 heralded a boom in FDI. Nonetheless, the promise of apparent non-US and non-EU money seemed to speak for the Progressives as potentially capable of avoiding the worst demands of the IMF and the EU in the coming years, at least in the eyes of many voters.

That must in part explain why some of the more nationalist forces failed to mobilise against the Progressives. Russia’s actions in the Crimea probably also added to the inability of the far right to cash in on apparent Progressive vacation of the right wing space. Putin’s grab for Crimea, after the EuroMaidan effectively tilted the balance of power in Ukraine westwards, was accompanied by his claim that Crimea was like Kosovo. Putin was clearly mocking the US-sponsored secession of Kosovo from Serbia and suggesting he was prepared to do the same in the Ukraine: he had a precedent in US action. Since the Russian veto remains a key asset of Serb nationalists in preventing Kosovo gaining a seat in the United Nations, any implied trade of territory between the Great Powers coming from Moscow must have come as a shock to ardent pro-Russian Serb nationalists. Any self-righteous talk of state right, international law and Slav brotherhood lay in tatters after Putin’s actions and words. Though some might have taken heart from Putin’s resolute response to Western gains in Ukraine through his seizure of Crimea, the underlying perception seems to be one of Russia at least momentarily weakened, and certainly less principled. Serbia’s long goodbye to Kosovo, which accelerated in 2008, and has been made even more explicit with Russia’s actions in 2014, could not but erode Serbian nationalism’s self-confidence, in view of the centrality of the Kosovo myth to Serbian nationalism.

That confidence can of course in part come back in case of further geopolitical shifts. Certainly, the fate of Crimea may encourage secessionist movements in Bosnia and Macedonia, and even north Kosovo. Russia appears bent on preventing further NATO expansion and may back Serb secessionists in Bosnia and north Kosovo. For the time being, though, Belgrade appears unwilling to get involved in any rash moves. Serbia has abstained in the UN in relation to the Crimea issue, while Vučić has said he respects Ukrainian sovereignty but would not be introducing sanctions on Russia. He continues to tow a careful line of integration into Western military and economic structures without alienating Russia, or his nationalist supporters at home.

Lack of alternatives in the international sphere and Progressive success in appearing to maintain realistic balances in international affairs therefore explains in large part the failure of the right. There was widespread surprise, though, when the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), led by the hero of the anti-Milošević revolution of 2000, Vojislav Koštunica, failed to enter parliament. Koštunica’s moderate but conservative brand of nationalism, as well as his personal stature, appeared to guarantee parliamentary representation. Nonetheless, it seems his party’s inability to speak on any other but the geo-political issue, at such a turbulent time internationally, seemed not to be enough. The DSS also has a weak party structure and its leaders seemed unwilling to energetically fight what they were rhetorically denouncing as the worst sell-out in history when the government was dealing with the EU over Kosovo. This apparent hypocrisy must have chimed badly with potential voters. Only 4.24 percent voted DSS this year, on a reduced turnout, compared with 7 percent in 2012. If this moderate and conservative nationalism failed, the more militant variety did not manage to break through either. The SRS, as noted, collapsed from 4.62 percent in 2012 to 2 percent in 2014. Dveri, a younger force on the right, based more on clerical ideas and moral panics mobilised against the LGBTQ community in recent years, lost almost 50,000 votes, falling from 4.34 to 3.58 percent.  Dveri still outpolled the URS and LDP, though, suggesting they were not yet finished as a political force. They may be the embryo around which any future protest movement, infused with right nationalist ideas, may arise, as it has done in almost all the countries of the Balkans during the crisis. It is the height of folly to dismiss the right, in clear transition from an earlier set of forms, because of a set of poor electoral results, particularly when the ruling party has its roots and continuing links in radical right politics.

The threat of Orbanisation and the need for a Left alternative

There are obvious dangers for a democracy in which a single party holds absolute power, while its opponents appear unable to find a compass, increasingly tainted with the brush of corruption and criminality. As in Hungary, a nationalist party with close to a two thirds majority and holding to ransom several opposition leaders, but unable to deliver quick economic results to satisfy high popular expectations, may turn out to be an unpredictable and long-lasting phenomenon. It may indeed create an opposition to its right, as Fidesz did with Jobbik, and recreate some of the authoritarian and aggressive regional features of its predecessor, the Radical Party, in the 1990s. But that is speculation about the future, though it ought to be a warning to all who care about democracy and peace. More immediately, the scenario looks very much like one where neoliberal transformation of Serbia will continue, facilitated by the crushing victory of the Progressives at home, and subsidised by money coming in from the UAE or the possible privatisation of major and still public assets. Whether the Progressives will turn into Fidesz or manage a less radical transformation of Serbia, along the lines of the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) in Croatia, depends on many uncontrollable factors, the international economic and security environment being the most important, though the Progressives’ ability to craft wider political coalitions domestically may also buy them time and support. That the Progressives will try to craft a new system in which labour is in an even weaker position than today cannot be doubted: that was literally the first step Vučić tried, and failed, to take, when he began his meteoric rise to power. The low turnout in the election suggests there are many who would oppose him again.

For the forces of the Serbian left to stop the neoliberal offensive led by a party holding absolute power will be difficult, however. Though there are many possible points of unravelling for the Progressive project, as discussed in this article, the lack of working class political representation, alongside the lack of critical mass on the left more generally, makes the prospect of left revival in Serbia difficult. The two union campaigns that stopped the first Vučić attempt to reform labour legislation have stopped in their tracks. The representative unions seem generally hesitant to oppose such a powerful government and prefer the safety of tried-and-tested compromise to all-out resistance. The other non-representative unions appear less pleased to compromise, and one of the main ones, UGS Sloga, ran on the oppositional Democratic Party list. Yet all the union leaderships remain ambiguous about the market, and appear to be wedded to it. Unless and until the unions break with the idea that neo-liberalism and Europe have no alternative, it is difficult to envisage them setting up a labour party with a programme akin to any of the parties of the European Left. There do remain powerful countertendencies to the leadership inertia, however, as workers and union activists at all levels in the unions fear a future marked by austerity and authoritarianism. This was evident by the prominence the unions gave to their links with the left during the period before the election. This remains an important entry-point for future left intervention.

More immediately, the left in Serbia continues to search for ways to overcome its marginal position in society. Tainted by the Socialist Party’s policies in the 1990s, and incapacitated by the global collapse of social democracy and Stalinism more generally, the left in Serbia also faces in extreme fashion the pressure towards fragmentation imposed by successive decades of debt-austerity cycles, war and sanctions, and neo-liberal transformation. A major step towards overcoming this was taken with the convocation in late 2013 of the Left Summit, a convention of several dozen worker, feminist, youth, political and other local groups from across Serbia. It was initiated by a political organisation from Zrenjanin, Pokret Ravnopravnost (The Equality Movement), which emerged from a successful worker struggle to win legal rights to employee ownership of a factory, and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (Foundation) South East Europe, affiliated with Germany’s Left Party. The Summit still represents largely a dialogue of different groups about steps forward. The Summit, for instance, in its last meeting in February in 2014, only released a single statement, one of solidarity with the Bosnian worker protests. The discussions about the way forward are still open and shaped by the extreme array of different experiences of struggle, though they are united by a common thread, that of opposition to neo-liberalism. Left reformist ideas on the pattern of the European Left Party, worker ownership and shareholding, and more militant action programmes usually formulated by the revolutionary left are all part of the discussion. The next meeting to be held will also discuss the question of closer ties with the unions, an increase in the number of groups participating, and concrete steps forward. Though much seems uncertain, the vicious nature of the government we face and the lack of mainstream opposition make the current period one of many dangers, but also one of many opportunities.

If the left can work together against authoritarianism and austerity, as it showed it could during the struggle against the anti-worker laws that Vučić tried to pass, and if it could deepen its links with sections of the unions, as it also showed it could, then we stand a chance of grasping the opportunities we have. We can achieve nothing less than the construction, from below, of a democratic and inclusive political movement of the Left that will offer genuine hope rather than apathy and fear to those who have nothing to gain from the neo-liberal transformation of Serbia.