Written by Stojan Savić
The power of choice and the imposition of adequate reagents are of fundamental significance with regard to the outcome of political conflicts. These topics are at the center of the battle. Whoever has the initiative and steadily dictates the tempo and issues has a runaway advantage. By his actions he directs the public’s perceptions and initiates the reaction of competitors to topics that he defines. He thus chooses the arenas of electoral confrontation that suit his purposes. To accomplish that one must have at one’s command the appropriate resources, a clear strategy, and opponents who lack both. In Serbia, Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić has all that.
In internal politics, he is the rider who skillfully handles the reins while his party is an unwieldy but obedient horse responding to his directives and proceeding in the direction he orders. They thus easily manage to be the first to reach the finishing line, not because they are exceedingly strong but because their competitors are exceedingly weak, even in those areas where they needn’t be due lack of money or media support. That will be the subject of our analysis.
1. The significance of topical initiative: President Nikolić’s debacle
Regular presidential elections are scheduled to be held in Serbia in the first half of the year. Those in the know point to April 9 as the date when that will happen and consider it a certainty that Aleksandar Vučić will be the candidate of the ruling majority. “Ruling majority” means Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and other parties which are included in the government. The position of parties that were also on the ruling majority ticket but are merely represented in the National Assembly, without participation in the current government, is uncertain. Within that smaller but effectively the core governing block, Vučić is undoubtedly the strongest candidate. It is assumed that he might win even in the first round. That will shape his decision whether to join the presidential race, but not decisively, as it is falsely being represented. Current Serbian president Nikolić could certainly win as well, but there is an effort to systematically foster the impression that this would not be the case, making Vučić the guarantor of the survival of the ruling majority. The blasphemous rumor has been launched that he is loath to break the promise not to move from the prime minister’s to the president’s office, but that – for the love of the people and the party – he might make the sacrifice.
A complementary argument has been introduced for the benefit of those who don’t care whether SNS remains politically predominant or loses power. That argument comes to the assertion that Vučić is the guardian of Serbia’s stability. Even those who do not necessarily appreciate the prime minister favor peace in their country. As Deputy Prime Minister Zorana Mihailović rather forcefully put it, “wolfish times are afoot” and only Vučić is capable of managing them (a play on words: the root of Vučić’s surname is “wolf”). Selectively speaking, that is correct. We live in complicated times, but the fact is that Vučić might change the prime minister’s for the president’s job not in order to better deal with problems, but to augment and concentrate his power. Foreign Minister Dačić, who used to be a partner, has been slowly reduced to the status of Vučić’s appendage. Vučić has also pushed Nikolić to the margins but knows that he cannot neutralize Nikolić as long as he has formal status in the country. So now he has decided to eliminate Nikolić completely and deprive him of any status, with Vučić himself ascending to the post of president and bossing the ministers through his chosen marionette.
Tomislav Nikolić is on the verge of being discarded not because he is strong and resolute in the intention to oppose Vučić, but because at some point he might turn into a rallying point for SNS dissidents and parts of the opposition. The rising tide of external and internal displeasure might activate even the inert Nikolić. To prevent such an anticipated development, Vučić is destroying the foundations for this sort of party realignment that Nikolić might personify. Preparatory blows, which have significantly discredited the current president of Serbia, began three years ago. At times they were stronger, at times weaker, but they have been constant. They have diminished now because the job is done. Nikolić contributed to the effort to undermine him by his own inept, defeatist, and scandal-ridden conduct. He was made to deal with subjects that were over his head, which gradually discredited him. Thus, on the eve of the elections, he has become known as the “self-styled candidate, Tomislav the Feeble.”
2. Opposition’s self-inflicted wounds instead of use of opportunities
We now return to this article’s leitmotif: the political significance of being able to define and promote an advantageous narrative. Nikolić is a case study of how one seizes and then loses the levers of political power. Vučić understands that perfectly and that is why he is maintaining control over the narrative. He calculatedly discredits friend or foe, and sells the public on what he thinks is relevant and what isn’t, in accordance with his own interests rather than the facts. The opposition either has no idea how to do that or does not dare to respond to him as it ought to. Possibly, the pro-Western opposition is not allowed to enter foreign policy territory in a way that might be troublesome for SNS because to do so would be to offend the US, Germany and the EU, the true powers behind the Serbian politicians who pledge allegiance to the “EUropean path”. And these politicians know that it would be ill-advised to offend these powers by criticizing Serbia’s concessions to NATO, the irrationality of negotiating with Priština, or the outrageous cost of the Serbian army’s participation in EU peace missions.
That is not the end of rational limitations, but irrational motives should also be discussed. The basically ideological pro-Western opposition is in a frenzy and resentful of Vučić for robbing it of its monopoly on EU advocacy. Therefore it attacks him on a personal level, and does it quite disgustingly, instead of sticking to principles and arguments. They are accustomed to treating in this manner anyone perceived to lack a democratic (i.e. anti-Milošević) pedigree from the 1990s. The Serbian Westernizers display a racist-like intolerance toward anyone they regard as inferior. Vučić lacks the pedigree, and yet he has managed to snatch the pro-EU agenda which this segment of the opposition dares not question. So they are reduced to making Vučić into a personal target, but that is not enough for serious political action.
As far as the patriotic opposition is concerned, its political space is more ample, but its leaders are probably unwilling to make use of functional narratives in order not to offend the authorities. The nationalist opposition is split into a number of parties and quasi-party groups. Once significant parties from that category are now infinitely fragmented. A small army of ambitious leaders are competing for supremacy. In order to enjoy a modicum of media attention and other signs of official favor, they take good care to not confront Vučić head on. They avoid criticizing too strongly and they make sure to miss the regime’s most vulnerable spots. They mostly deal in threadbare stereotypes. When citizens hear an allegation a hundred times, even if it happens to be true, they start losing interest. The authorities know that so they allow that sort of toothless anti-Vučić agitation. All that’s important is that the contrarians are not a real threat, even if they sound like one.
3. Raising genuine issues instead of looking for false middle ground
When the analysis is performed, the conclusion is crystal clear. Vučić is entering the presidential campaign as the privileged candidate in every sense. That includes the select the topics over which the political actors will be competing. Vučić will continue to stick to his old formula of making himself appear as the golden mean. One group attacks him for not being patriotic enough and being pro-Western, others criticize him for being excessively patriotic and leaning toward Russia. His answer is that ever since antique times it has been well known that the best option lies between the extremes. Thus, astride a distorted Aristotel, he manages to keep a firm hold on his political star.
This will go on until someone shows up capable of confronting him or until the nation is fed up. That will happen regardless of the opposition’s weakness. The cycle of power inevitably at some point comes to its end, and then the reasons why someone had been previously lionized suddenly turn into rationale for rejecting him. That is something that Vučić cannot avoid, it is only a question of when it will happen. It would happen sooner if there were a serious opposition, later with a frivolous one, but even in opposition ranks frustration will start gathering momentum and the grass start appearing greener on the other side of the hill when the current leader becomes utterly insufferable. But that is not the main point. It should not even be the most important point from a patriotic political perspective. The main concern is what can be done for the benefit of the Serbian agenda today, even if Vučić is elected president. The same would apply if he were succeeded by someone who is no less an opportunist than he.
The important thing is what political direction is being pursued and not who is directing it. Vučić is seriously flawed but that does not mean that his successors are bound to be an improvement. That is what we have to grasp and act aggressively to alter the dominant political discourse. Social climate to a great extent defines political practice. When politicians make mistakes, we share the blame for that. Serbian citizens who are patriotically oriented, using their NGOs, activating individuals who are responsible and may be in the ranks of any of the political parties, the few but existing free media – they must all begin to impose their discourse on Vučić, his sparing partners or genuine rivals, as well as possible successors. Also on those who are entering the great carousel of politics and may end up in a leadership position.
4. A Serbian agenda for the presidential candidates
Genuine topics must be raised, noisily promoted, incessantly mentioned, and thus brought center stage in the political process. Then even the political parties that like to act disingenuously but count on patriotic voters will have to adopt them to some extent. The politics of those who are distant from any patriotic action will also necessarily be revised. Citizens will be expecting that. The actual topics will vary from one circumstance to another, but some constants can be noted. For years, some issues have been suspended in the background, in need of public airing. But that has not been done, or has but with little consistency and even less subtlety.
The coming presidential election in Serbia or, to be more exact, the campaign leading up to it is a perfect opportunity to pioneer this approach. Vučić will be in the center of it all and the hot potatoes that he is trying to ignore should now be delivered to him. When that happens in full view of the Serbian public he will have no choice but to do something good and in Serbia’s interest. Otherwise, he will immediately pay the price of his manipulative national-defeatism. Furthermore, the politicians will each shrewdly try to get rid of the hot potatoes – constantly heated through public pressure – by tossing them back and forth between themselves, and that in turn will generate a more patriotic climate in Serbian political life. And Vučić himself may in turn be forced to sling the occasional patriotic arrow against his opponents. Not because of pangs of conscience, but in order to do them harm, which also can be of great benefit for the dissemination of useful ideas.
There are several of Serbian topics that must be center stage in the forthcoming elections. They are: (1) the position of the Serbian people in Montenegro and Belgrade’s incomprehensible collaboration with Montenegro’s authoritarian and criminal regime; (2) the obvious harm from continuing the Brussels dialogue regarding Kosovo and Metohija, understood as compensation for EU integration; (3) the threat to the Republic of Srpska and the undermining of its president, Milorad Dodik, as someone disobedient to both Belgrade and the West; (4) the role of the Balkan criminal-political cartel in Serbia’s economy and politics; (5) Serbia’s stealthy but steady NATO integration process; (6) the staged and sterile rhetorical fireworks between Vučić and one of his ministers, Aleksandar Vulin, and Zagreb, which brings Serbs in Croatia no benefits while enhancing the patriotic rating of Serbian politicians; (7) ignoring the plight of Serbs living in Albania, who are not even allowed to have Serbian names.
5. Vučić’s fatal compromises
Vučić maintains good relations with the Montenegrin dictator (who continues to wield power even while out of office), Milo Đukanović. There is a peculiar link that binds them. Whether it is financing of the Belgrade waterfront project, as some evidence would suggest, or something else, clearly there must be a huge reason behind this. As far as the Brussels negotiations on “Kosovo” are concerned, Vučić started them based on an agreement with Germany in 2011. That was his ticket to supreme political power, and now it is the pillar of his relationship with Angela Merkel, whom he considers his European patron. He continued the policy of his predecessors, the Democratic Party, pursuant to German directives of “normalizing” relations between “Kosovo” and Serbia on a state-to-state basis. He probably thinks that he will not have to bring the process to its logical conclusion, but if his power depends on it he will. In other words – giving up Kosovo in exchange for power.
His stand toward the Republic of Srpska is ambivalent. He supports it but recoils as soon as he senses danger, thus risking leaving Dodik alone in the minefield. He may even feel antagonistic to Dodik because the latter seems to be too popular in Serbia. Vučić does not like that. He overlooks the fact that a Republic of Srpska ruled by the current pro-Western opposition willing to accept Bosnian centralization would not be sustainable. Leaving Dodik in the lurch is paving the road for Srpska’s extinction. Vučić probably does not want that, but if his political survival were at stake, he would sacrifice it. In other words – the Republic of Srpska in return for power.
Vučić’s is very cooperative with the Balkan criminal cartel, including Stanko Subotić, Vladimir Popović, and erstwhile state security officers. Rather than trying to try to tackle this Frankenstein that has been suffocating Serbia for decades, he seeks opportunities to make deals with it. With some of its members the deal making is active, with others it is a mutual non-aggression pact. In a normal country, the cartel would be a problem even if it were no more than a social, legal, and economic burden. In Serbia, the situation is catastrophic because it is much more than that. Some of its elements are in league with the Đukanović regime in Montenegro and other archenemies of Serbia, such as Hashim Taqi, the Albanian former (?) terrorist turned “Kosovo president”. Because of his business dealings with the Yugo-mafia cartel, Vučić is shirking his responsibility to defend the interests of the Serbian nation. In other words – the Serbian people and the legal order in return for power.
NATO is next. Belgrade has made enormous and asymmetrical concessions to NATO. It would go even farther if put under greater pressure, but Vučić would not take Serbia into NATO. He knows that it would be fatal for his rating. But the patriotic circles must not allow the matter to end there.
They must strive to score a plus instead of being content that the minus is not as huge as it might have been. Instead of merely criticizing, concerted action must be taken to impose specific NATO-related topics, demand a referendum, and seek a more binding legal definition of neutrality – active, not passive. And thus, beginning with NATO, we should proceed to other associated topics, such as relations with Croatia, Albania and other countries where Serbs are discriminated against. But we’ll stop here for now, as further elaboration of opposition themes would demand a much more extended article.
6. The paradigm of success vs the inertia of defeat
Vučić is sharp in domestic politics but weak in assessing international trends. Nobody has tried to make use of that. Vučić is a serious tactician, but he is no strategist (except in propaganda). It is as if the opposition fails to comprehend that. Vučić is a slave driver, but his slaves are lazy and stupid and manage to accomplish something only when he instructs them in detail in what they must do. If they were to face a dynamic opposition, they would have a problem. Both he and his pawns. Vučić would be unable to react to everything while his pawns would be lost, waiting for orders that would arrive only sporadically, rarely on time, and often general to the point of sterility. That is why an unwieldy regime with but a single brain needs topical predictability, in order to be able to get by on the basis of long-term directives, which would not be possible if there was adequate initiative from other political actors.
It may appear as if I were trying to offer advice to the opposition. Not so. I think that most of them are even worse than Vučić. He is an opportunist without binding convictions, while many within opposition ranks are ideologically indoctrinated pro-Westerners. The institutional party patriots are a story unto themselves. Many of them are opportunists like Vučić, but are not in a position to auction off Serbian interests like he is. Instead, they do it on lower, retail level, playing ping pong with the regime while avoiding making moves that might irritate it. That is why I am not addressing the opposition but the patriotic public. They should be imposing topics on Vučić, his army of servants and the opposition, at least that part of it that is superficially Serbian. They should be bombarded with the Serbian standpoint. We have the Internet, petitions, open letters, messages to parliamentary deputies, street art, we can address political parties, some elements of the media, and much else. It is time, as we approach the elections, to start uncorking bottles with nationalist genies. When they come out of the bottles they will create an atmosphere where even opportunists will have to attend to Serbian interests with greater care.
Let’s start. A few days ago, Serbian state security shamelessly arrested several Serbian citizens who were falsely indicted by the criminal Đukanović regime from Montenegro. Serbia has remained silent, when it should be screaming and reminding all and sundry that it well knows that the alleged coup attempts on the day of the Montenegrin elections in October 2016 were an event staged by the dictator in the Montenegrin capital Podgorica and that Belgrade’s continued collaboration in the hoax is toxic. Such issues should be raised with Vučić every single day from now until the elections, as well as others, such as for instance why he has refrained from making violations of Serbs’ basic human rights in Montenegro a European and bilateral issue. That would not be a waste of time or breath, nor would it be if we kept asking on a daily basis whether the authorities are prepared to stop installing an Albanian state in almost exclusively Serbian populated northern Kosovo and Metohija now that, after Albanian special police forces were sent to the province’s administrative border with Serbia – which had never happened before – it has become clear that the EU-brokered Brussels agreement is a farce. It is nice that Vučić decided to score political points for his presidential candidacy by sending a train decorated with Serbian national symbols to the northern Kosovo and Metohija town of Kosovska Mitrovica, but it would be bad if that turned out to be short term patriotic posturing which will never turn into serious action.