Nomen est omen

ANALYSIS  Branka Ćurčić Published: 04. 01. 2024.

Political capacity of people in Serbia

The power as a response to the silence of power

How do people in Serbia today participate in politics? They walk and vote. Therefore, they cast their vote in the elections and participate in protests that have been happening in this protest cycle since 2016. Also, those who are considered more serious in their intent to get involved usually do so by becoming members of political parties. Thus, the most massive membership is that of the party in power, with the fact that it is quite certain that people do not join it because of political engagement, so the question is rightly raised whether it is a political organization at all, considering the mechanisms of corruption, blackmail and capillary subjugation by which it successfully implements the depoliticization of its own membership and their immediate environment, which in total makes up almost half of the population of Serbia. The party in power is not a political place because no one in it is interested in politics and public affairs anymore, but rather in preserving their own existence, that is, the life that was provided to them through depoliticization and guaranteed by accepting corruption. People who intend to get politically involved also join opposition parties, from the more traditional ones that propagate the view that politics has a place only in parties and the state, to new and liberal ones that advocate for an attitude ‘one foot in the institutions and the other on the street’, hence, among the people. However, cooperation with the people, informal initiatives, movements and civil society organizations that do not necessarily have to be members of the party has remained unclear ever since the platform as a form of organization was abandoned, and thus the possibility for all of them to participate in decision-making and party policy-making, being its first critics. Moreover, the primary concern of the entire opposition is building the party’s infrastructure, promoting its own activities and certainly winning power by partaking in it, and with it all the support to the people, i.e. everything they do on the street and with the people, is being subordinated to these goals.

Today, however, it is not an uncommon occurrence that by persuading into politics and rhetorically trying to mobilize people, it is often said that everything is politics, and when it is everything, in actuality it is nothing.

Therefore, it is the rationality of the party, that is, the rationality of the representation and being a declarative proxy of people’s interests, that which conditions the involvement in politics, and in the ultimate consequence, it is a matter of the rationality of the power as the only determination of politics in Serbia. For those who are being represented, there is a whole series of party programs which, once the power is won, will make life better and thus improve their overall existence. Making people’s lives better is the primary rhetorical preoccupation of both the party in power and the opposition, thus also their point of convergence, with a strong belief that this can only be done from the position of power – whether it is being preserved or conquered. In that sense, there is a consensus between seemingly opposing positions, so the power could comfortably support the statement of an opposition leader that the problems of the citizens can only be solved in the state capacity. This means that today in Serbia, the involvement of people in politics is exclusively reduced to joining a party, that is, the dominant rationality of politics is the conquest of power through parties, groups of citizens and elections.

Today, however, it is not an uncommon occurrence that by persuading into politics and rhetorically trying to mobilize people, it is often said that everything is politics, and when it is everything, in actuality it is nothing. The banal rhetorical proliferation of the word ‘politics’ or, on the other hand, its dismissal, can only be completed in achieving an apolitical consensus which is ubiquitous in Serbian society, even though it may seem that it is oversaturated with politics. Because let’s remember, many civil activists in recent years have been explicit in their refusal to regard their informal initiatives as politics, which was an insufficiently thought-out response to the populist manipulation of the power, which insisted that they were so, moreover, that their politics was an opposition politics of winning power, which also meant of overthrowing the current regime. When everything is politics and everyone is called the opposition, there is a politicization at work carried out by the power, but one that as its clear goal has the absolute depoliticization of the people.

But what about the capacity of the people themselves for politics, that is, what about their subjective political capacity? What is it and how is it ‘measured’? The first thing that needs to be said is that it is not an essential and immutable property of people, nor does it appear with the mere presentation of proposals to the state, ‘but rather it appears under the rule of that which is possible on the side of the people.’ More precisely: ‘When such capacities exist and take their form, they clash with the state, but not as an alternative vision of the state, but as those who carry principles, proposals, which the state considers inadmissible, contrary to its own conception of power and domination. Therefore, it is by no means a matter of abandoning the question of the state, but taking into account that we can no longer make it the source and role of forms of subjectivation on the side of the people, as well as that it is absolutely vital to emphasize the spaces inherent to people and their subjective and political accounts.’1

What can be heard almost from pole to pole is that the people who are protesting today just want the power to hear them, that is, to hear of their struggles, to acknowledge their existence and to fulfill their demands.

It should be said right away that the subjective political capacity of people does not even exist today in many other places, and especially not in Serbia, although rebellions, protests and various initiatives can still happen. In other words, the political ability of people to lead organized politics by themselves without the rationality of power, profession and theory is not at work today. First of all, because the dominant alternative vision of a better state which will be realized through elections, and state power as an object, is precisely the source and stake for all forms of subjectivation and political capacity of people. What can be heard almost from pole to pole is that the people who are protesting today just want the power to hear them, that is, to hear of their struggles, to acknowledge their existence and to fulfill their demands. However, the citizens of Serbia are mediated in this as well and do not speak directly, in their own name, because today they are protesting at the invitation of the opposition, supporting it after a long time, as well as its demands towards the state. In addition to the fact that presenting demands to the state power is not enough without the organization and capacity of people on whose side nothing has yet happened, the refusal to fulfill the demands was ‘solved’ with a convenient catch, but still only a catch, that if the power does not fulfill the demands, the opposition will fulfill them when it wins the elections. This dispelled any illusion that the stake of the protest is the entire restart of society and the change that is necessary to make, which was called for after two mass murders.

The general lack of political capacity of the people is a consequence of the division established by the power, but it has spread among all of us, among the citizens and the political opposition, by accepting the criteria of division, that is, the polarization of society into those who participate in the power and those who still don’t participate. Today, we can hear from the opposition ‘that they are them, and we are us.’ That criterion of division is specific and in that sense different from the meaning, for example, which the category of a separate state carries in France. First of all, because people talk about it and point out that the French state is no longer the state of everyone who lives in it, which primarily refers to people of non-French origin. This was done by confessionalization and criminalization of workers of foreign origin. Just as the worker, that is, the work, no longer is the source of any right for foreigners there, same is with the people in Serbia who is not a citizen unless they participate in the power. They are deprived of almost all rights, which makes them excluded, so we could safely say that it no longer makes them residents of Serbia, let alone political actors. And if they even think of engaging in the restoration of their rights, they must join the fight for the conquest of power. It then infers that in Serbia today only those who have or want to have power are citizens.

The technique by which the power, from the division of society into those who have power and those who still don’t have it, creates the only space for politics, is its silence and ignoring of rights and demands. Every citizen’s initiative ended with the silence of the power. And since direct and non-politicized contact with the power for the solution of the citizens’ problems remained absent, many initiatives left them even though they gathered around them and decided to fight for the state or municipal power in whose capacity their initial problem should also have been solved. An unequivocal example of this is the situation in Novi Sad, which was evacuated from civil initiatives because they all poured into the electoral struggle for power and thereby made the manipulations of the power real.2 Let’s remember that a prophetic call could often be heard from the authorities: ‘beat us in the elections and then do what you want’. However, the impulse of power in the people was simmering even before such a decision, which could be seen in the example of the elections for local community councils, also in Novi Sad, when the people won several of them, but they did so by creating informal electoral lists even without the pressure of the law and authorities. Today, the work of civic councils differs slightly from the work of other local communities led by members of the ruling party, because they do nothing to defend the civic character of local self-government.3 The institutional capacity of political subjectivation of people, such as local communities and then other forms of immediate, direct participation of citizens in political processes, is still unused, just as all the capacity of civil society is unrealized. Perhaps this is precisely because local communities are organizations of citizens, and local self-government is not one of the levels of power – the power that wants to be conquered.

Therefore, the only response to the silence of the power that we can see is the power itself, that is, the decision to conquer it. That is why we say that today in Serbia, the silence of the power and then the politicization of citizens done by it are the basic mechanism of their depoliticization. Although it may seem paradoxical, the basis of the depoliticization of citizens is the induced desire to participate in power, even though its complete seizure is difficult to come by under the given circumstances. Whatever the case, the power reduced the positions in the political space to two – the power and the opposition – leaving no room for any other form of engagement, which is supported by the current subjective opinion of the citizens. This reduction can only be seen if we distance ourselves from the political situation established by the power, and which is being reproduced by the media and by the opposition. Therefore, it is only possible to see it from a civil perspective.4

But if people also have power or want to have it, why do they participate in protests less and less and why don’t they massively join opposition parties and the struggle for power? There is a belief that they have not changed their opposition opinion, which they will translate into a vote in the elections, although they are walking less and less. Novi Sad is again exemplary, because only opposition party activists participated in most of the protests, while the citizens walked around them as if the protest, its demands and the elections did not concern them. This obviously influenced the decision of the organizers to stop the protests in Novi Sad, which made the second largest city in Serbia take first place. However, this still does not give us an answer to the question of where the citizens are if they are not there, if they do not occupy one of the positions in the divided and reduced political situation in Serbia. Perhaps a glimpse at the situation in Russia, a fraternal authoritarian state, can help us in this. In addition to the fact that many people have been depoliticized by individual corruption, in terms of attitudes about the war in Ukraine, research5 shows that their support for the war and the power that leads it is less a consequence of the clear imperialist ideology of the power, and more of a deep depoliticization and demobilization of the people on which Putin’s regime rests. Russians who stand by the regime believe that it knows the geopolitical situation better on the basis of which it makes decisions, that is, that there is state knowledge which is unavailable to them, and that they themselves are not the ones who can and should articulate their own political position. Aided by the repression of the power, their opinion is therefore that politics is something in which they should not participate.

In other words, citizens have the freedom not to participate in the articulation of their own political accounts and positions, even if they decide to participate in the politics of power by voting and walking.

In Serbia, however, people do not end up in prisons because of their engagement and, unlike Russia, there are no laws that would legitimize such forms of repression. This makes the local situation perhaps more difficult to distinguish, even though violence exists, as there are individuals who have suffered it and who spoke publicly about it, for now only in the capacity of the new power. What can be concluded at this moment is that people have the freedom not to get involved, even though the opposition is asking them, not only for support but also for involvement in the elections. The number of those willing to be engaged remains one of the major problems for the opposition, which at the same time leaves room for manipulation if it decides to count them. In other words, citizens have the freedom not to participate in the articulation of their own political accounts and positions, even if they decide to participate in the politics of power by voting and walking. Such ‘freedom’ is the ultimate and most obvious consequence of the depoliticization in question, and reducing the entire political space in Serbia to two tracks does not help bring change to the situation and does not lead anywhere. There is also a third one, but that track mostly takes citizens outside of Serbia.

And finally, is there anything that can be done in this situation? We believe that the civil perspective with regard to politics is not exhausted and that the political work of questioning and presenting the singular and individual opinion of people with regard to elections, parties, the state and power is still possible, which can potentially lead to a new way of thinking and perhaps to new proposals with regard to them. That is, we think that it is still possible to work on expanding the possibility of intelligible discourse among people6 whose interests differ from each other or are not expressed at all, and who in today’s world find it increasingly difficult to avoid each other, just as they cannot avoid the power itself.

1 Sylvain Lazarus in collaboration with Claire Nioche, Chronologies of the present 2018 – 2019, translation and publisher: GCP, Novi Sad 2020, p. 104—105.

2 The only citizens’ initiative on this issue that deviates from what has been described is the initiative of citizens in the Belgrade neighborhood of Stjepan Filipović, which organized their own elections for the council of their local community and elected their neighbors as members of the council. Watch the video document: 

3 After these elections in smaller towns in Vojvodina, defeated independent candidates mostly became members of opposition parties, while in Novi Sad such candidates won and liberated local communities, but also became members of opposition formations (electoral lists, citizens’ groups running for power).

4 In addition to the electoral struggle and strengthening of its own organizations, the opposition is giving up on creating other areas of politics and thereby dynamizing democratic life in Serbia. The first conclusion we can draw within the process of advocating the civic character of local communities is that the democratic opposition political parties we met with are more open to cooperation on changes to the general acts that regulate the work of these institutions, and less open to the commitment that they will not participate in elections for its councils by mobilizing their own members. Instead of leaving them to citizens and civil society, encouraging them to participate in local politics, parties prefer to see this space as a training ground for mobilizing new membership, or as the will of local party committees that have a certain level of decision-making autonomy. Therefore, what we have is a misunderstanding of the importance of direct participation of citizens in political processes and the system of institutions of local self-government.

5 The research ‘Imperialist ideology or depoliticization? Why Russian citizens support the invasion of Ukraine’, Volodymyr Ischenko, Oleg Zhuravlev, Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 2022.

6 Clifford Geertz, Anthropologist as Author, XX century, Belgrade, 2010, p. 167.

Translation to English: Ivana Purtić

The text is published in the printed Bulletin TENANT #20&21, autumn-winter 2023.

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