Nomen est omen

ANALYSIS  Ivan Živkov Published: 22. 02. 2024.

On the way to the plum tree under which we will all fit

Perspectives of Serbian society with quasi-elites

It can often be heard that our society is deeply divided, that there is an unbridgeable gap between the ‘two Serbias’ that are irreconcilable in their values and perceive the state’s position in the international framework quite differently. Is it really so?

In an atmosphere of general public support for the then Yugoslav politics of ‘peaceful coexistence’ in the world, the Non-Aligned Summit was held in Belgrade in 1989, just two months before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the general collapse of the bloc division of the world. Ten years later, under NATO bombs, anti-Western hysteria reigned in Belgrade with larcenous attacks on the embassies of the USA and the most influential EU members. Another decade later, in the same, then friendly embassies, or at least with their wholehearted help, the pro-European value pattern of Serbian society was created and maintained. In the last ten years, we have witnessed the closing of the circle of foreign policy and value orientation of the local political elite, followed by the majority of the public, which is best visible through attempts of taking a neutral (non-aligned) position towards the war in Ukraine, i.e. strengthening ties with Eastern powers, above all with China, in order for Serbia not to (only) be a Western colony.

An unequivocal majority of Serbian citizens are against our country’s entry into the European Union, according to a survey by the Ipsos agency at the beginning of 2022. Only 35% of citizens at that time supported the continuation of European integration, and after a year, especially after the May tragedy for which the power blamed ’Western values’, and the renewed armed conflict in Kosovo with human casualties, which was accompanied by salvos of state-media lamentations about to the ill-intentioned West, it is justified to assume that the public was further pushed into anti-Europeanism.

We have always had a situation where the vast majority supports ‘the path that has no alternative’, and different opinions are being considered dissident or extreme, with wholehearted attempts by society to make them completely marginal.

The greatest support the EU had in Serbia in 2003, when 72 percent of citizens voted in favor of joining, and only eight percent were against it. Until 2013, support for that foreign policy direction was above half. The majority of the population during the 1990s had a negative attitude towards the West, and if we were to go back even further, to the 1980s, we would see a strong majority support for ‘Tito’s path of non-alignment’. Thus, in four decades, the public in Serbia went from unquestioning support for the ‘neither East nor West’ politics, through support for a complete confrontation with the West, then support for the politics that the West (EU) has no alternative, to a return to the kind of ‘neither there nor here’ position, with majority sympathies towards Russia as it carries out a war of aggression against Ukraine and Hamas as it carries out terrorist attacks against Israel, which is part or at least a close ally of the ‘collective West’. In none of those four decades was there a serious pluralism of competing ideas and politics among the public. We have always had a situation where the vast majority supports ‘the path that has no alternative’, and different opinions are being considered dissident or extreme, with wholehearted attempts by society to make them completely marginal. The described situation actually indicates that instead of the term public in Serbia, it would be more appropriate to talk about the (official) pseudo-public.

Uncritical Yugoslavism (Titoism), uncritical Serbian nationalism, and uncritical Europeanism are different manifestations of the same state of political consciousness in Serbia during the 1980s, 1990s, and the years after the 2000s. In the last decade, this consciousness has converted in appearances again, but its essence has not changed. It is characterized by the inability to see differently, wider and deeper than what is currently the ruling value matrix, with extreme intolerance towards everything that differs from it. Another general characteristic of such a state of political consciousness, which is perhaps the biggest reason for pessimism about the future, is the way and dynamics in which it abandons the ruling system and accepts a new system of values. Namely, the more real life proves that the ruling, widely accepted values do not lead to the proclaimed and desired goals, the value system is defended more emotionally and brutally by the political elite and the means of state repression, including the media, and the degree of conformity in the general population grows, all until the key social processes arising from that value system seriously threaten the overall social existence. Then the value system breaks down, and the majority of the public adopts a new value matrix that will be uncritically adhered to in the following period.

A Ruling party needs to be established, the local population respects and supports it, the others are generally not to their taste.

According to what we are seeing in recent months, the current matrix is worn out, it is close to collapse, but there is no sign that there will be fundamental changes after that, in terms of creating a true pluralism of ideas. Just as after the initial, original concept of non-alignment, the battle for a dominant position was fought between the advocates of civil society according to the Western model and those who were in favor of kitsch Serbianism at the cost of war and isolation from the world, so it is how now, after the expected collapse of the farcical-tragic attempt of copying non-alignment by sitting on multiple chairs, once again the battle is waged for taking over the dominance of society between the minority pro-Western elite and the majority, anti-Western elite, which offer us an equally farcical-tragic repetition of uncritical Europeanism, i.e. uncritical nationalism which leads to isolationism. In the daily political context, it is a fight between ‘pro-EU’ and ‘patriotic’ opposition. The participants of that battle, on both sides, are not even considering the long-term coexistence of competing ideas and values, but expect that the majority that supports the current value matrix will bow down and side with them after they take institutional power, in the next, at least ten-year period. Historical experience justifies such expectations. Cynically, it can also be formulated like this: a Ruling party needs to be established, the local population respects and supports it, the others are generally not to their taste.

How far have we come as a society with such ideological-political practice? So far as to, after an armed conflict with fatal consequences in Kosovo, in which a high-ranking official of the ‘Serbian List’, which is the local branch of the ruling party, was a key participant, wait a whole day for one man, the president of the republic, to tell the public what is happening and what actions will be undertaken by state authorities. And so it is for every problem, in every situation. After which, ‘government officials’ and ‘analysts’ repeat his words, praise his ‘wisdom’ and carry out his orders. There are no institutions, no procedures. That is a bigger issue for us even than Kosovo, and Kosovo has been holding us captive for half a century.

The most horrifying question that we have to ask ourselves is whether we have the human potential, that necessary driving fuel, to make a breakthrough and reorganize society, or are we permanently stuck into a hole from which there is no return until we are reduced to a nation that can fit under one plum tree?

And the next elections, either the snap parliamentary by the end of this year, or regular local and provincial at the beginning of the next, will not take place in an atmosphere of public controversy about tax rates, inflation, purchasing power or human rights and corruption, but again about history, wars, graves, victims, heroes, revenges, oaths, and in the package with that also about the orientation of Serbia towards the west or the east. Accumulated problems in the economy, education, healthcare and everything that depends on the quality of life in the present have been pushed aside again, even for debate, let alone for resolution. The fifth of October was at least eight years late due to a similar environment. And now it is late again, at least as much, which causes irreparable damage by the autocratic and criminal power, but also leads to spiritual misery and material poverty, which cannot forge a promising society even after political changes. That historic delay comes at a high price. Now, when it seems that the circle is closing, but also that the offered alternatives have also already been witnessed, the most horrifying question that we have to ask ourselves is whether we have the human potential, that necessary driving fuel, to make a breakthrough and reorganize society, or are we permanently stuck into a hole from which there is no return until we are reduced to a nation that can fit under one plum tree?

The capacity of the local population to become a pluralistic society was probably similar to that of the Croatian or Romanian population at the end of the eighties, but it has not been realized as in those two neighboring examples. This did not happen by chance, but was the result of systematic prevention from the top, by all the aforementioned elites. Here, too, a terminological remark should be made that those are actually quasi-elites. And no matter how different they were in advocating the desired foreign policy direction of Serbia and the organization of society as well, all of them, sometimes individually, and sometimes jointly, have made moves that led to today’s apathy, confusion and disorientation of our public in the modern world, that is, in Europe.

In order to better understand why it is a question of quasi-elites, it is necessary to draw attention to the widespread phenomenon of intellectual conversion, which is closely followed by the phenomenon of ‘switchovers’ in daily politics. At the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade, where critical thinking should be born, nurtured and respected, in 2010 the professor of the University of Maribor Dr. Sergej Flere was a guest and held a lecture on ‘open society, multiculturalism and tolerance’ teaching our future sociologists pluralism and European values. The honored guest and lecturer, Dr. Sergej Flere, is an intellectual convert who once fervently defended the values of the Yugoslav, socialist, one-party society. He was the president of the ideological commission that in 1981 expelled the sociologist Laszlo Sekelj from the University of Novi Sad on the grounds that he ‘underestimated the importance of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the classic works of Marxism’, that he ‘unilaterally and non-objectively assessed the state of social thought’ and with it that he ‘came into conflict with the line of the League of Communists’ (the statements are from the Report of the faculty commission formed to review and analyze the works of magistar Sekelj, and the Review of that commission for the re-election of Sekelj to the position of assistant). The ideological conversion of intellectuals can be easily traced because they leave behind material evidence of their former and current, contradictory ideas, attitudes and actions. Even a cursory look into the past of today’s domestic ideologues of ‘European values’ (take for example Janko Veselinović, an opposition politician of the ‘Pravac Evropa’ parliamentary group, and a former delegate at the Congress of the Communist League) shows that they are often former promoters of ideas such as social property, socialist self-management, non-alignment and the like. Is that why they have been exposed to public criticism or reasoned questioning of their professional or at least moral credibility? Mostly they have not. Criticism and questioning of that kind does not exist in Serbia.

Serbia has been consciously and purposefully centralized for four decades, by the described members of the (quasi) elite, its electoral system has been brought to the point where only the head of state is elected by majority, by their first and last name, and all other instances are elected proportionally, through electoral lists and strict party control. Furthermore, negative personnel selection has been present in political organizations for decades, and they are formed as political family enterprises, which have an (undisputed) leader, a group of their close associates and unquestioning followers. The public space is inhabited by groups and organizations that, with the help of power centers from the so-called ‘deep state’, popularly known as ‘services’, were formed with the aim of making the political struggle meaningless and compromising civil activism. Political changes have been compromised by the quick and easy abandonment of pre-election promises by the union of yesterday’s supposed ideological opponents into a single power, as well as countless examples of switching over from opposition to ruling groups.

To us, the country looks like a political experiment in which the election campaign does not stop, and this is supported by the fact that during the three decades of multi-party rule, there were more snap elections than regular elections. At the moment of writing these lines, there are hints of more such elections by the end of the year or next spring, and the atmosphere increasingly resembles that of the 2000s: the opposition seems weak and broken, unpopular, but despite this, even the power cannot ‘sleep peacefully’ because its results are such that the traditional voters of every local autocrat, primarily members of the contingent of older and less well-informed people, increasingly openly show their dissatisfaction with the rapidly collapsing standard of living. In those conditions, neither the ‘pension card’ nor salami propaganda helps.

Political changes will come about, the population in Serbia has enough political capacity to at some point overthrow the ruler by voting against him, even in extremely anti-democratic conditions, but the big question, since it is getting smaller and older every day, is whether it has the capacity to, within the institutional frameworks, or in a revolutionary way, make a civilizational step forward and not just stop at personal changes at Andrićev venac and in Nemanjina street.

Translation to English: Ivana Purtić

The text in Serbian is published in the Bulletin TENANT 20&21

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