Poverty and Politics in Serbia

I only became aware of inequality and class division once I moved to a country which is almost synonymous with them: the UK. At both university and work, my British friends frequently dissected levels of “posh-ness” in themselves and others, assessing how appropriate it was to play rugby or vote Conservative, given their background.

I was, of course, dumbfounded. In Serbia, discussing “class” and inequality openly comes across as very strange and is often limited to an unaccomplished middle aged crowd whose only claim to fame is having been born to somebody relatively successful or in a particular place (more often than not, Belgrade). Nevertheless, the turmoil of past decades has made discussions of inequality and social divisions increasingly necessary.

During Josip Broz Tito’s egalitarian times, identifying as anything but working class invited the risk of being labelled anti-government, a remnant of old bourgeoisie. A system promoting quality free education and social care, as well as the violent disruption of pre-war class divisions through nationalisations, imprisonments and exile, significantly levelled the playing field. The socialist mantra of equality and meritocracy was somewhat credible.

The turmoil of the 1990s and post-Milosevic economic transition to capitalism meant the redistribution of social, cultural and economic capital. Previously middle-class teachers, doctors and other government employees were reduced to near-poverty, while many involved in semi-criminal networks had connections to ruling parties and amassed significant wealth, becoming the new upper crust.

Factory closures due to privatisation led to the collapse of several towns outside Belgrade and created large numbers of people barely able to get by on their salaries. Population-wise, Belgrade is the only area that has shown population growth in Serbia; good jobs are increasingly concentrated in the capital. Deteriorating social support, state healthcare and education further decreased the livelihoods of the worse-off and stunted social mobility.

It is difficult to tell from Belgrade’s swanky new restaurants, about a quarter of Serbs live at risk of poverty, according to World Bank and Serbian Statistical Office. New studies show that GINI inequality coefficient in Serbia in 2017 stood much above the European average (at 38,1 vs. 31).

The past thirty years have transformed Serbia from a relatively egalitarian society with a functioning social support network, to an increasingly stratified society where the benefits disproportionately flow towards the wealthy.

This stratification is increasingly shaping Serbia’s political scene and putting an enormous strain on our fledgling democracy. While those who went through the transition unscathed or wealthier are content with the untamed “invisible hand” sorting out Serbia’s fortunes, those who did not benefit mourn for the times of socialist stability and state control.

In this situation, promises of investments, jobs and poltical stability from a controlling leader like Aleksandar Vucic appear very enticing to someone who feels lost and abandoned by a system that has radically changed in a short space of time.

The functioning of Serbian political parties as employment bureaus also means that their power to control lives has disproportionately grown in impoverished areas. Clientelism’s strength grows as any option of finding work outside party-connected places becomes increasingly limited, and the free expression of democratic will is threatened.

Although some in Serbian liberal circles have blamed the “Serbian mentality” for the lack of functioning democratic institutions, risking poverty for the sake of ideals is a valiant but often impossible choice if you have dependants to feed. Even more worryingly, for a significant number of Serbians, the post-Milošević democratisation coincided with the loss of jobs during the transition, and they cannot see them as separate entities.

To make things even worse, democratic liberals in Serbia have had, at best, a mixed record in terms of communicating with the wider public and clearly demonstrating the benefits of a functioning democratic system to an average person.

The most recent example was a blog post by a prominent comedian critical of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) government. Zoran Kesic wrote a blog post, published by Al Jazeera Balkans, deriding the supporters of the ruling party. He termed them a movement of “toothless” people (the Serbian equivalent of “deplorables”) enticed by the SNS’ promises to snatching wealth from those with teeth.

Given that the liberals are already facing an uphill struggle – the pro-government media regularly describes them as out -of-touch “enemies of the people” – poking fun at those who are much worse-off does not win any hearts.

Ironically, in the 2016 presidential election campaign it was a spoof candidate who most directly and effectively addressed the problem of inequality and poverty in Serbia. Ljubisa Preletacevic Beli, an alias of 26-year-old Luka Maksimovic, promised his voters “crumbs.” In doing so, he highlighted the dynamics of clientelism in Serbia and showed empathy with those left behind during the transition.

Unfortunately Beli’s campaign and the enthusiasm it provoked, did not further discussions about inequality and poverty among Serbia’s liberal political elite, and few lessons were learnt, leading to the most recent stunning defeat in the Belgrade municipal elections. Unsurprisingly, Belgraders were hesitant to vote for people who are widely seen to be synonymous with corruption and lack of common-touch during the pre-Vucic era, so the Democratic Party, once a symbol of the fight for pluralist democratic Serbia ended the election humiliated.

“Ne Davimo Beograd” initiative ran on a leftist platform, and even garnered support from the current rock stars of left politics in Europe: Yannis Varoufakis, the former Greek Finance minister,  and Ada Colau, the mayor of Barcelona. Unfortunately, its trendy aesthetics and ideals of self-organisation and  citizen-activism did not seem to resonate with the majority of people they worked to protect, and did not achieve their goal of entering the city hall. It turns out that middle-aged Serbian working classes, do not seem to be tempted by protests against forced evictions, let alone  urbanist problems, nor are they crazy about YouTube videos of their potential municipal politicians singing and dancing.

To date the most sobering insight about poverty and politics came from the most unlikely source a few years ago. Dragan Markovic Palma, a prominent local politician from Jagodina who started his political career with Zeljko Raznatovic Arkan, a Serbian paramilitary leader in the 1990s. He explained his abrupt turn away from nationalism towards supporting Serbia’s EU accession, by pointing out that one cannot pour patriotism into an oil-tank of a tractor.

Unfortunately, if democratic liberal movements in Serbia cannot find a way of showing that a functioning modern democracy can have tangible benefits to the majority who feel betrayed by transition (and step away from their self-pitying privileged bubble) a slide away from a functioning democracy is likely to continue even further.

This article is an updated version of the article which was published on Balkan Insight portal

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