IBNA/Interview with Srdjan M. Jovanovic: Vučić is still a “kid authoritarian”

IBNA/Interview with Srdjan M. Jovanovic: Vučić is still a “kid authoritarian”

“The point of the protests in Serbia is not to depose Vučić. This will not happen, not like this. The point is for the West to see what is going on and realize that supporting him is something they are not doing in almost all other cases, such as Turkey’s Erdogan, Hungary’s Orban or Russia’s Putin. Even Milošević was initially seen as a ‘factor of stability’, sacrificing democracy for the sake of “stability”, said in the interview for IBNA Srdjan M. Jovanovic.

Srdjan M. Jovanovic taught at the Istanbul Sehir University as a fellow of the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey. He is currently a Swedish Institute fellow at Lund University in Sweden.

Following Aleksandar Vučić’s electoral victory, some observers compared him with the Turkish president, Erdogan. At the same time, protests “against dictatorship“ erupted in Belgrade and other cities. In your opinion, is Vučić really an authoritarian ruler?

It is impossible to answer this question without explaining the term “authoritarianism” as it is today, and this is why we have to introduce the term “authoritarianism 2.0” by the politologist Ivan Krstev. As he explained, many authoritarian rulers of this day and age – and he spoke primarily about Putin, though a parallel with Erdogan is valid as well – are no longer handling their citizenry by keeping them within closed borders (Kim Jong Un is an exception, for instance, a type of “old school” authoritarian), but instead handling an “open border policy”, in which most of the opposition can opt to leave, as they are systematically having their lives and chances for prosperity destroyed. This is the type of authoritarian ruler that Vučić is. He has created a personality cult that is even beyond partocracy – Jovana Gligorijević of the Vreme weekly once wrote how there is no Serbian Progressive Party, as the party mechanisms do not function, since the prime minister-cum-president controls literally everything. He has created a media-controlling open-border type of authoritarianism where any dissent is destroyed, so that any and all opposition has to leave in order to survive. The huge numbers in emigration statistics from Serbia serve to prove the point, as well as the brain drain, which is currently holding Serbia in the world top by the number of highly educated people who have been forced to leave. Should they have been kept in a “closed borders” type of regime, at a certain point, they would probably rise against him, and he is, like Putin, very aware of that fact. There is a staunch similarity with Erdogan as well, primarily in the desire to control the media, spit hatred on the “enemies” (any opposition or dissenting voice) and constantly stay in the spotlight.

The leaders of both the West and Russia undoubtedly support Vučič – shortly before the voting day, Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin met him in Berlin and Moscow, respectively. When the protests started, Russian officials suggested that the West was inciting another “colored revolution”. How do you see this?

Russia’s influence on Serbia is, in summa, terrible. The Kremlin is lead by an extremely experienced authoritarian, a person who is both intelligent and cunning, and plays the “game of thrones” extremely well. He probably understands Vučić better than Vučić understands himself; to him, Vučić is a “kid authoritarian”, still struggling to establish all-encompassing power, where Putin achieved the same (and much more) years and years ago. He understands that by exerting influence on Serbia, he is, in essence, misusing the country to promote his agenda, which is to spite the West, which, in turn, has an internal political goal to further strengthen his rule back home. The West’s support of Vučić is, thus, a deplorable act. Having in mind that Vučić is still a “kid authoritarian”, and having in mind he rules over a small and unimportant country (unlike Turkey or Russia), he is left to his own devices, with a carte blanche to govern as he sees fit. When Erdogan won (probably by stealing votes) in the referendum on ultimate presidential power, he was bashed by the West. Vučić did not even need a referendum – he simply became the president, and will have the same amount of power as Erdogan does, putting his authoritarian competences above Erdogan’s (yet still below Putin’s), as he achieved what Erdogan did in a much easier way. But the West’s reaction was to congratulate instead of to criticize, as Serbia is, simply, irrelevant. I cannot stress enough how horrible and important this issue is, as it further strengthens the Right Wing in Serbia, that has been claiming for decades that the European Union is ruining Serbia. The Right Wing is under the heavy influence of Vladimir Putin, where the allegations of “colored revolutions” come from. And Vučić is playing Right and Left – adopting Right Wing discourses when he sees fit, and “European” ones on the other hand at the same time, in what I have dubbed “fractured discursivity”. Thus he can use his media minions to complain that the West is preparing a colored revolution or a “Macedonian scenario” within Serbia, at the same time acting with his head down in front of EU officials and presenting himself as a democrat. His discourses change as he deems them to be necessary.

Students, which appear to be the organizers of the protests, have not been protesting with political demands for almost 20 years. Do you think this generation is strong enough to succeed taking into account the very ambitious requests such as Vučić’s resignation and the fact that Serbian opposition parties are still divided?

This remains to be seen. The divisions in Serbia, not unlike Turkey, are strong. Both countries are divided between authoritarianism (that has won) and a more liberal (and by that I do not mean “economic” liberalism) Weltanschauung. These divisions need to be kept at bay in order for the protests to have any impact. The iconic picture from the protests – where one of the protesters wore a punk-style haircut, standing next to the other, who had the Serbian “šajkača”, the traditional headwear – is thus a positive instance. But the point of these protests – and I am not sure many of the protesters are aware of this – is not to depose Vučić. This will not happen, not like this. The point is for the West to see what is going on and realize that supporting him is something they are not doing in almost all other cases, such as Turkey’s Erdogan, Hungary’s Orban or Russia’s Putin. Even Milošević was initially seen as a “factor of stability”, sacrificing democracy for the sake of “stability”, supported by the international community. Vučić will fall once he loses the support from the West, as much as Milošević fell when the same happened to him. In one of his final mass meetings prior to the election, Vučić put a brobdingnagian picture of himself, positioning a picture of Angela Merkel on the left, and of Vladimir Putin on the right, presenting himself as being supported from both the East and the West; it is a known issue in political theory that authoritarian rulers will boast their “international successes” to their electorate. Yet the problem is that the European Union is facing a crisis itself – often dubbed an “immigration crisis”, even though it is not about immigrants, but about refugees; furthermore, it is not even a “refugee crisis”, as this construction would serve to peg the blame onto the refugees. It is facing a crisis of xenophobia, a Right Wing crisis, and it cannot allow itself to handle small, irrelevant countries such as Serbia. This is the largest problem, this is why the West’s support for Vučić might probably remain in action for years to come, and this is why the protests need to keep going on – to constantly remind the West that they need to stop supporting Vučić. Some of the Western media (primarily in German-speaking countries) have already started to see “what is going on”, and this is an extremely positive development. What the Serbian opposition needs to do now is to start making friends in the West. Without the West’s support, they are probably doomed to failure./IBNA