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Tsipras in Serbia: Redwashing Vulin’s Neoliberal Movement of Socialists

This publication has been made in cooperation with the Serbo-Croatian political web portal Bilten.Org

The Movement of Socialists (Pokret Socijalista, PS) together with their leader, Aleksandar Vulin, the current Minister of Labour in the Serbian government, for years have been trying to maintain their public image as the Left political option. At the same time, Vulin has reduced wages and retirement benefits, changed the labour law to the detriment of Serbian workers, slashed disability support pensions, and imposed a work obligation on people receiving social assistance. Although he declares himself to be a leftist, Vulin’s policy, beyond any doubt, is neoliberal.

vulin1On 5th of December, Alexis Tsipras, president of SYRIZA, Greece’s radical left visited Belgrade. There he met with Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić and Patriarch Irinej of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC), before visiting Obrenovac, a town severely affected by floods. In the evening Tsipras joined discussions at the Law School of the University of Belgrade, where he invoked the discourse of Serbian-Greek fraternity as an integral part of a struggle for another Europe. Finally, the SYRIZA delegation undertook a red washing adventure in the occupied cinema Zvezda, where they sent a message of support to all struggles against privatization and neoliberalism. This busy Belgrade schedule for a man that seems set to become the future Greek Prime Minister was organized by the Movement of Socialists (PS) – “the party of the fighting left” as the organization likes to label itself. We cannot be certain whether or to what extent contacts between SYRIZA and the PS are being formalized, but certainly Tsipras’ visit is a confirmation of at least openness for further cooperation between the two groups. But how did it happen that a small, declaratively left party, a member of the neoliberal Serbian regime, came to host one of the most famous politicians of the European Left and announce the unification of the Left in the Balkans? Who is Aleksandar Vulin, the leader of the PS, and what kind of party we are talking about?


Rebel and ally of the regime

Aleksandar Vulin was born in the northern Serbian town of Novi Sad, where, in 1988, as a high school student he participated in the anti-bureaucratic “yogurt revolution.” Long afterwards he still boasted that he kept the flags with the red star he was carrying on that day (both Yugoslav and Serbian). Since the ruling League of Communists of Yugoslavia was dying, the young Vulin decided to begin his political career in the League of Communists – Movement for Yugoslavia, a marginal party of General Stevan Mirković, whose aim was to inherit the tradition of Yugoslavia and Titoism from the collapsing ruling party. However, Vulin became better known to the general public in 1994 as one of the founders of the Yugoslav Left (JUL) where he served as a spokesman and later became a deputy to Mira Marković, the president of the JUL and Slobodan Milosević’s wife. The image of a long-haired and eloquent leftist rebel – who, it should be noted, became a part of the ruling regime only to fight against the “traitorous opposition” – did not prevent him from establishing important and close contacts with a part of the “local business world.” Young media magnates on the rise, such as the owner of TV Pink Zeljko Mitrović and Robert Čoban, co-owner and president of news publishing house Color Media International Ltd. belonged to a fraction of the new elite directly or indirectly associated with JUL. They benefited from this connection in terms of protection and profits.

However, when the Milošević regime collapsed in October 2000 Vulin did not belong to any party. Two years earlier, in 1998, he had resigned from all positions in JUL, and later left the party altogether. Was this a demonstration of his sharp political instinct? His rush to leave what he understood to be a sinking ship? Or should we trust his statements[1] claiming that he withdrew because of his disagreement with the leadership’s decision to participate in a government of national unity with not only Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), but also with officially right wing parties – the Serbian Renewal Movement (a pro-Western post-Chetnik party, led by Vuk Drašković) and the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) (an anti-Western post-Chetnik party, led by Vojislav Sešelj)? Regardless, by the early 2000s Vulin was to be found in the business world, where he held leading positions in the marketing sectors of media empires owned by his friends from the 1990s.

A lawyer by training, a politician by practice, a fan of Che Guevara, Marquez novels and songs by Azra, he tried his luck as a writer of fiction and as a political columnist for several newspapers and magazines. The latter allowed him relatively continuous presence in the media, at least those that at times positioned themselves as opposed to the new pro-Western government. For his political comeback this was even more important than his founding of the Party of the Democratic Left. Although this party was largely unnoticed at the time, it was given greater political significance in 2002 when, together with another similar one-man project – the Democratic Socialist Party of Milorad Vučelić, one of Milošević’s bards – it joined the disoriented SPS. Despite the strong support from the party’s base, which felt that the new party leader, Ivica Dačić, had slowly come to distance himself from Milosević’s legacy, Vulin refused to become Vice President and in 2006 left the SPS altogether, claiming that the party was owned by oligarchs and had been compromised and blackmailed by Dačić’s affairs.


“National responsibility of fighting left”

vulin2Aleksander Vulin’s era of transitional wandering ended in 2008 – or so it seemed to those few who could still be bothered following his political career. This was the year in which the historic reconciliation of the Democratic Party and the SPS took place, and the two parties formed the backbone of the new government. During the same period, Vučelić launched a new weekly magazine Pečat (Stamp), co-edited by Vulin, which became a headquarters for the remains of the so-called “First Serbia,” and opened itself to the conservative views of the Serbian Orthodox Church, the old Serbian Radical Party and the new opposition right wing bloc of the Democratic Party of Serbia and Dveri. Finally, Vulin, together with the academic Mihailo Marković, one of the authors of the SANU Memorandum and the main ideologue of the early stages of Milošević’s SPS, established the Movement of Socialists (PS), “a nationally responsible party of the fighting left.” After Marković died in 2010, Ratko Zečević, a figure far less well-known from the wars of the 1990s, but no less controversial, became the group’s honorary president.

The party’s clumsy and tendentious combination of social and national issues was already obvious from its first program, entitled the Manifesto of New Socialism. In it, the party advocates “socialist social relations,” but also the increase of the Serbian economy’s export competitiveness. It talks about internationalism, but “considers that the ‘Israeli’ model of preserving security and territorial integrity is a good practice to be followed.” This is certainly connected with an uncompromising attitude against the self-proclaimed independence of “Kosovo and Metohija.” In the official party documents we can also read that “…[T]he essence of the struggle of PS as the only fighting left, is the struggle against injustice, and in today’s world injustice is mostly directed against the Serbian people.” Such a position is also reflected in Vulin’s claims that “the Serbs are absolutely a leftist people.”

The slogan that PS used to unsuccessfully win over the public, especially the “losers of transition,” in the first two years read: “the worker is not a slave, the peasant is not a servant, Serbia is not Delta.” However, in 2010, the turning point came: Vulin’s party entered into a coalition with the Serbian Progressive Party (led by Šešelj’s former associates Vučić and Nikolić), New Serbia (a monarchist party) and the Strength of Serbia Movement (an organization related to Bogoljub Karić, oligarch at large). With the help of the SPS, which Vulin left years before, the coalition won power. At the Second Congress of the PS, the party’s delegates were greeted by representatives of SYRIZA and by the SPP’s Aleksandar Vučić. This clever politician – a “Europeanized” Serbian radical – after the elections of 2014 led the reconstructed government with a suspiciously similar composition to the previous government. They set before themselves the task of finally beginning the long-delayed, “painful but inevitable reforms.” And in both of these governments there was a place for that “fighting leftist,” Alexandar Vulin.


The fight for Kosovo and neoliberal reforms

In the first “progressive-socialist” government (2012 to 2013) Vulin held the position of director of the Office for Kosovo and Metohija. Dressed in a black uniform, he energetically devoted himself to work in the field. First he presented Kosovo Serbs with a “Serbian hard line,” only to resign after Serbia’s signing of the Brussels Treaty, which brought a relaxation of relations between Belgrade and Pristina. However, no sooner had he returned to his position – supposedly, after Vučić and the Kosovo Serbs persuaded him – than he vehemently embraced the opposite view. Now he called on Serbian people in Kosovo to participate in the same “Pristina elections” that up until a day before, he had described as illegal. His energetic pursuit of this goal sometimes even turned into aggression, threats, and accusations of treason, if elections were boycotted. In addition to these acts of persuasion and his sudden changes of attitude, Vulin’s Kosovo adventure will also be remembered for at least one financial scandal.

The new-old government (2014) helped Vulin to advance his career. During its formation, he arrived at the helm of the Ministry of Labour, employment, social and veterans’ issues. Finally he was on his own turf – after all, he is a man “on the side of those who suffer.” But the government’s orientation has been neoliberal – they have passed a new Labour Law – and the unions this year have at least momentarily woken up from their hibernation and started causing some problems. When everything was over, Vulin started fabricating the positive aspects of the new legislation. We’re still waiting for his explanation of the benefits that will be gained by the cuts to the public sector scheduled to happen in 2015, as well as the ongoing reductions in salaries and pensions amounting to 10%. To this we should also add the elimination of the ‘past services’, leading to a smaller base for the calculation of wages – yet another consequence of the new restrictive labour law. The minister also does not mind the way Serbia advertises itself to foreign investors. To keep up with global trends, he has made social assistance conditional on work engagement, and scandals continued when he withheld money from the NGO sector. Perhaps the best evidence of Vulin’s “modernization” is his justification of austerity measures. They indeed are “uncomfortable”, but present a better alternative to foreign loans, which would eventually lead to bankruptcy. This “socialist” Vulin acts as if he does not know that part of the government has no intention of terminating the arrangements with the IMF. Nor does it cross his mind that different ways of social redistribution of wealth may exist.

Probably it is obvious for Vulin himself that PS has nothing in common with progressive left politics – except in its name, symbols, occasional rhetoric and somewhat radical program on paper. The effects of the current government’s neoliberal course will probably be sufficient to demonstrate the false ‘leftism’ of our Minister of Labour. And how soon the conservative character of the PS will be demonstrated to the international leftist scene may depend on the dynamics of the organization of the New Left in Serbia.

It is clear that if SYRIZA comes to power in Greece, they will likely be the most important part of the only European government whose ideas position them to the left of the center-left (or, liberalized social democracy). Whatever economic steps this government takes – if it will be at least partially be informed by SYRIZA’s current electoral program and its promises – the (European and global) financial and political powers will likely attempt to thwart them. With the possible exception of Spain, it is not certain that we can expect a similar ‘radical-reformist’ government anywhere else in Europe in the near future. In such a constellation, a new Greek government would lack international support, even on an institutional level. It is not hard to imagine that these aforementioned centers of global power (EU, ECB, IMF as well as NATO and the US) could become very ‘creative in making trouble’ for a SYRIZA government: from political and economic blockades to provoking national and/or territorial conflicts in Greece’s backyard.

Therefore, it is understandable that a leftist party, whose conquest of power will take place by parliamentary means in an EU member state in the (semi)peripheral Balkans, is attempting to establish contacts (if only symbolic) with even non-leftist regimes in neighboring countries. But this contact with the bearers of political power or with the higher religious representatives of Serbia – or with whichever other Balkan state – could equally be established through formal, diplomatic protocols. There is no need for SYRIZA to bind themselves to the PS, a marginal party, which is doubly problematic: at once participating in the implementation of neoliberal political reforms and constantly flirting with nationalism. Both aspects should, from the side of SYRIZA, be seen as the most dangerous elements of the contemporary political reality of the post-socialist Balkans.

Instead of such suspicious arrangements with Vulin’s PS, SYRIZA should be expected to support genuine leftist initiatives which – although they are still quite small – have emerged across the entire Balkans. In addition to this being understandable for purely ideological reasons, it would also be more useful in the long term for practical-political reasons – because these small initiatives can in a time of crisis quickly grow or, at least, gain greater political significance. This is best seen in the example of Slovenia (Tsipras supported the United Left which received good electoral results earlier this year and entered the Slovene parliament). The sooner that SYRIZA realizes this, the easier it will avoid alienating other Balkan leftist groups, initiatives and parties, for whom the PS is an unacceptable partner. In a future historical moment, this genuine leftist support can have greater significance than simple symbolic, declarative acts of international solidarity; it can shape concrete forms of support for a potential socialist project in Greece.

Translated by Nadiya Chushak.

MilosMiloš Baković Jadžić is a sociologist and political activist from Belgrade. In the past decade he has participated in a number of left initiatives in Serbia. Today he is a member of the Oktobar social center and the Center for Politics of Emancipation, which are members of the Left Summit of Serbia.

[1] Rumors and urban legends of the late 90s presented several versions. According to one, it was a simple intra-party conflict regarding the distribution of seats. According to the second, the main reason for the Vulin’s withdrawal from the world of politics was his involvement in certain financial machinations. According to third version, bombing of FRY prompted him to embrace a more conciliatory position and begin to advocate for dialogue with the West. In an interview he gave just before the elections, which led to Milošević downfall, Vulin articulated his supposedly neutral “left position”: “I did not want to go to the SPS. I’m not a socialist. I’m not going to lie to myself or others. I am a communist. It’s the same as those new believers who go to church and lie both to god and to themselves. That’s why at first I was a member of SK CS, then JUL … I’m not satisfied with the authorities or the opposition. How can I be satisfied with the government that allowed such huge social differences, unemployment and close encounters with the extreme right? And the opposition is unable to articulate a single general objective, but only talks of vulnerability and Serbdom” (…) “How can we call ourselves left if we cannot renounce few our things in the name of the common good?” (Zorica Vulic, “Blic”, Belgrade, August 9, 2000). [↩]

By Milos Bakovic Jadzic

Miloš Baković Jadžić is a sociologist and political activist from Belgrade. In the past decade he has participated in a number of left initiatives in Serbia. Today he is a member of the Oktobar social center and the Center for Politics of Emancipation, which are members of the Left Summit of Serbia.

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