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Serbia’s Sleepwalkers

In the post-Yugoslav transition space, we have never – until now – found ourselves in a situation in which a single party has managed to win an absolute majority in parliamentary elections. But this is exactly what has happened in the recent elections in Serbia, where a faction that split from the ultra-right Serbian Radical Party, the Serbian Progressive Party, managed to win more than 50 percent of the vote.

An indication of what the new government and its Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vučić, will do in the coming period can be seen not just from their previous term in office when Vučić was the first deputy prime minister, but also from the recent election campaign, when it became abundantly clear that the focus of the new administration would be economic reforms. Given that this is a post-socialist space, “economic reforms” can have only one meaning.

plagiarismHowever, one of the hot issues in Serbia at the moment is not the reforms but cases such as the report by three academics concerning the doctoral dissertation of Nebojša Stefanović, the Minister of Police, one of the Prime Minister’s closest associates. There are serious indications (the investigation is ongoing) that the dissertation was plagiarised.

Stefanović’s doctoral degree was obtained from the private Megatrend University, which has in recent years become a haven for those who want an easy degree, and then, even more easily, to find a job. Whether it is a coincidence or not, the Minister of Education in the last government, among others, was, in fact, a lecturer at the University, while the Rector of Megatrend is a great friend of the former Prime Minister and current Foreign Minister, Ivica Dačić. Employment along political lines, in addition to numerous informal channels, has thus become a de facto formal path to well-paid jobs in the state administration, or anywhere else.

At the same time, the Serbian public is more and more focused on the repercussions of the report on the plagiarised doctorate of the Minister of Police. Namely, there have been a number of cases involving heavy pressure on the media, and the hacking of internet portals, including “Peščanik”, the online magazine that first published an article alleging plagiarism. Even the OSCE expressed its concern, but the Prime Minister replied that there was no question of suppressing media freedoms.

Today, only someone who has never worked in the media when the opposition Democratic Party was in power can be shocked by the level of this lack of media freedom. At the same time, it is important to emphasise that this matter is not a mere diversion of the public’s attention from existential issues connected to the proposed economic reforms to “less important” phenomena such as academic plagiarism or media freedom.

On the contrary, the purpose of citing these two levels – the economic reforms on the one hand and the current issues that are preoccupying the public on the other – is to point out the close connection between these two levels of social reality. In fact, the latter emerges as a paradigm for the universality of the socio-economic relations that flow from the economic “logic” inherent in neoliberal legislative proposals, and whose goal is the commodification of society in its totality.

In other words, when you privatise institutions of public importance such as universities in the capitalist periphery, what you get is perfectly exemplified by the plagiarised dissertation of the Minister of Police, Nebojša Stefanović. As for what pensions and the health care system will look like after being subjected to the same economic “intervention”, this we can discuss only by relating it to the education system.

On the other hand, when it comes to pressure on the media, what is evident is that the current situation is only the most visible manifestation of a permanent process, involving both external censorship and the self-censorship that prevails among journalists themselves. This is what things look like on the capitalist periphery. When the rule of capital no longer gets results and is unable, as at the time of Democratic Party rule, to suppress media freedom sufficiently, it resorts to authoritarian methods and violent government intervention in the public sphere.

What is important here is that the use of the state apparatus for repressive purposes does not stand in opposition to liberal democratic practice; on the contrary, it is always an integral part of a system that stands in readiness for cases like this, when one part of the capital in the ownership structure of the media turns against the government (because the previous government suited it better), or (more often) when popular initiative demonstrates the potential to jeopardise the interests of capital and the state as a legislator that serves that same capital.

In this way, the Serbian public is currently preoccupied by issues that are not unimportant. However, the public has failed to assess the issues with which it is presently engaged as a mix of practices and phenomena that could represent what Žižek calls “signs from the future.”[1] Instead, the public space has been flooded by cheap liberal moralising that indicates that what is, from the liberal perspective “unacceptable” (plagiarisms, pressures on media etc), unacceptable is, at the same time absolutely necessary so long as it is determined by economic postulates that precisely they, the liberals, wholeheartedly support.

Paradigmatic here are the representatives of the New Party of the former Prime Minister, Zoran Živković, who reacted so bitterly during one of the parliamentary debates to the mere mention of the word “redistribution” – and said they hoped it would never become part of the economic agenda. At the same time, they are the ones who condemn in the severest terms the consequences of a system that abhors redistribution.

Using Christopher Clark’s metaphor from his revisionist book about the First World War,[2] we can ask ourselves whether, then, this is a matter of “sleepwalkers” among a political elite whose confusion is such that it does not know what it is saying, let alone what it is doing. As a reply also to Clark’s revisionism, we should issue a word of warning here: be careful, gentlemen, that when you next sleep-walk, you do not fall out of the window…

(translated from Serbian by Dragan Plavsic)

za blogFilip Balunovic is a political scientist from Belgrade. He gained his Bachelor degree at Faculty of Political science in Belgrade in 2011, after which he gained the MA in Advanced European and International studies at the European institute in Nice. His MA thesis ”Serbia on the European periphery – a blurred reality of post – socialism” was published by a German publisher ”LAP LAMBERT” in September 2013. He is the editor and the writer of a blog ‘Levo smetalo’.

[1] See the final chapter of Slavoj Žižek’s The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, London and New York, Verso, 2012.

[2] Christopher Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, London, Allen Lane, 2012

By Filip Balunovic

Filip Balunovic is a PhD candidate at Scuola Normale Superiore at the department of Political Science and Sociology in Florence; executive editor of Le Monde Diplomatique Serbia; author of the book "Freedom Notebooks", member of "DiEM 25"