More than a decade ago, when I started studying politics at the University of Warwick, no slogan captivated me more than ‘The personal is political’, popularised by the second-wave feminist Carol Hanisch in 1969. Having spent my childhood in Milosevic-era Belgrade, the idea of the ubiquity of politics seemed natural.
Back then, even if your parents wanted to shield you from the daily news, politics and its effects were everywhere. You saw long queues for bread and milk on the streets, you hung out with new schoolmates who sought refuge from Bosnia and Croatia, you probably saw a protest against Milosevic on the streets, and you definitely heard the air-raid sirens during the NATO bombing in 1999.
If you were lucky (and I was), you didn’t have your father (or a cousin) conscripted to join the army, but rather just played with him when he was put on ‘forced leave’ due to the sanctions. You heard your parents debating whether a neighbour or a school-friend’s parent was ‘theirs’ (meaning: pro-Milosevic) or ‘ours’.
Before I left for the UK in the late 2000s, although politics was very much part of daily life in Serbia, it no longer felt all-immersive and as all-important as during those days when it was literally a matter of life and death. When you wondered when and if there will be another war.
The arrival of large coalition governments attracting all sorts of political chancers also meant there were different flavours of politics (and cronyism). The internal 1990s polarisation of ‘us’ against ‘them’ prompted by Milosevic’s choke-hold on Serbia’s institutions, media and even culture, lessened and even evolved into something a bit more pluralist.
After my time at Warwick, marked by sit-ins and heated debates around the ethical provenance of student society hoodies, fair-trade coffee and wars in far-off lands, I led a life – as a foreigner who had taxation without representation in the UK – where I could for the first time in my life almost completely silence the din of politics from my daily life. Although I still followed and raged at the developments in Serbia and Westminster, it was more like a hobby or spectator sport.
Now that I am back in Serbia, politics is back in my daily life. As the institutions that ensure political freedom, including a free media and an independent judiciary, are increasingly weakened, politics has once again filtered all the way down to the most ridiculous levels.
Even if I decide to switch off the TV with its constant stream of increasingly fawning coverage of the current government’s activities and accomplishments, or log off from the internet, which is now almost the only source of news that exposes the government’s frequent scandals, politics will find its way into my daily routine.
It will rear its head as a friend who works in the public sector recounts being asked to canvass for votes for the ruling party by their boss, or it will bubble up in the dilemma faced by an artist friend, who thinks they can only get ahead in their career if they join the ruling party because they saw peers progress after signing up.
In the increasingly polarised political climate (apparently one of the most polarised in the world), it has become difficult to judge anything on its own, non-political, merits, without using a political qualifier to make sure you are not misunderstood. A criticism of the quality of a new public project, or praise for a state-organised art event, will both need to be qualified with a statement of your political affiliation, because you will be accused from one side or another that your opinion is mere ruling party or opposition propaganda.
Labels like ‘traitor’ or ‘paid-agent’, which seemed to have been only briefly confined to the gutter press, are now increasingly present in everyday life. A few days ago, stickers bearing the words ‘foreign agents’ that were created by the ultra-right wing party Zavetnici, appeared on the buildings of Centar za Kulturnu Dekontaminaciju, an alternative cultural centre, and on Human Rights House, a centre dedicated to the fostering democracy and raising awareness of discrimination.
At one point, a friend talked about someone being a ‘collaborator’ with the government, while other friends avoid a number of popular restaurants in Belgrade because of rumours that they have been acquired by new government-linked owners. Ironically, only a few of my friends are in any way directly, or at least voluntarily, involved in politics.
Sadly, it was much before the existence of Vucic or even Milosevic that politics barged, uninvited, into the daily lives of Serbs. Looking at my only moderately political ancestors, I am comparatively lucky.
My apolitical maternal grandmother, born in the 1930s, avoided speaking on the phone about daily news because of the constant fear of surveillance. Both my grandfathers briefly spent time in prison for their political beliefs. Almost half of my great-grandparents needed to move towns because of politics, while one of them was even accidentally killed due to a clash between two political clans.
It may come as little surprise that I am increasingly fed-up with my beloved slogan from the student days, although I am very aware how true it is, even in much less politically fraught countries.
Nevertheless, it seems that it will take a long time and a lot more daily politics to ensure that Serbia has strong institutions and systems that guarantee enough political freedoms, so we might finally be free(r?) from the incessant intrusion of politics in our daily lives.
This article was published in BIRN’s bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.