Anti-Populist Protests in Serbia: Why Some Social Movements Fail

The day Ratko Mladic was convicted of war crimes and genocide in The Hague, Byeongsun Ahn sent me this piece on the protest movements against the Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić. Vučić, among other things, has been for a long time a big fan of Ratko Mladic (before allegedly changing his mind, as you will see). Byeongsun Ahn presents the development of the protest movements that for a couple of weeks last spring seemed to be successful, and explains why they eventually imploded. From the same author you can also enjoy an article in two parts (here and here) on the links between the Austrian populist FPÖ and its serbian migrant supporters. 


“For Every Killed Serb We Will Kill 100 Muslims”
Aleksandar Vučić, 1995 *

Aleksandar Vučić, a former fan of Greater Serbia and Ratko Mladić, won 55 percent of the vote in the 2017 Serbian Presidential Election. After the former President, Tomislav Nikolic, withdrew his candidacy, Vučic (Prime Minister between 2014 and 2017) ran the election as candidate of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). As many had expected, Vučic won the majority of the vote already in the first round.

Considering the very aggressive election campaign of Vučić and SNS, their victory against the ‘Others’ did not represent much of a surprise. Indeed, before the 2017 election, SNS’ populist-conservative messages dominated much of the (pro-government) media, its members and supporters – quite literally – stormed into cities and villages in masses, and a crackdown on opposition figures followed soon after.

Vučić and SNS were able to impose their populist-nationalist preach throughout the country due to their long-standing control over police forces and media. The incident in Kraljevo, where three supporters of the independent candidate (Sasa Jankovic) were detained for removing posters of the SNS, exemplifies the manipulative campaign strategies adopted by Vučić. A member of an opposition party, Local Front, said in an interview with Deutsche Welle: “Our town is now filled with SNS posters…police forces were dispatched to protect posters and billboards so Vučić could be welcomed in a ‘friendly’ atmosphere”.

Vučić’s draconian censorship extends beyond the country’s political space. As he rose to power, the former Minister of Information quickly learned how to use Internet and TV as means to propagate his autocratic messages across Serbia. Despite mounting allegations, the electoral success of Vučić and SNS in 2017 once again evidenced that the rigid support they had enjoyed in the last decade nevertheless continues to shape Serbian politics. The stability of Vučić’s authoritarian populism was also apparent in the soon-followed international endorsement from the EU and Russia.

Unlike his Southeast and Eastern European counterparts, Vučić has not been much of an eyesore to the international observers. Albeit ever-growing democratic deficit, Vučić’s willingness to cooperate with Brussel and, more importantly, to pursue a dialogue about the ‘Kosovo problem’ gained him a strong support both inside and outside the country. As the EU Enlargement Commissioner, Johannes Hahn, said in an interview: “He will fully respect the constitutional framework, and I trust him.”

In the eyes of the international observers – both the EU and Russian, he might be a tyrant, but he is a “safer kind” of tyrant compared to his predecessors, most of whom had ended their careers in the courtroom at The Hague. In the eyes of his domestic supporters, Vučić is a hard-working nationalist whose politics might be authoritarian, but also in the interest of the people. To obtain today’s international and internal recognition, however, Vučić had to dramatically change some of his most controversial positions. As he claimed, he is now a changed man: “There is an idiom in Serbia – that only donkeys don’t change. It’s very normal to change your views. It’s very normal to change yourself, that you become more mature, more responsible”.

Vučić’s normalization and his promises to improve one of the highest unemployment rate, one of the lowest living standards, and one of the lowest minimum wage in Europe, indeed, were not enough to grant him full legitimacy. To the contrary, the continuous intimidation and manipulation of voters that Serbians experienced in the last decade turned some – especially the youth – against another atrocious five years under a populist government. Vučić’s plan to turn what was a mere ceremonial office into a more powerful position made apparent for some voters that the new government’s interest lies more on the securing autocratic power of Vučić and SNS – not so much on the feasible plans to better the lives of every fifth citizen living in poverty.

anti vucic

Check the Wikipedia article about the Serbian protests in 2017: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2017_Serbian_protests

The day after the election, the dissatisfied youth of Serbia gathered in front of the Parliament in Belgrade. As their chants “Vučić, You thief! You stole our votes!” or “End the dictatorship!” echoed through the streets of the capital, the young protesters demanded an investigation both into the electoral commission and the Radio Television of Serbia, RTS, whom they accused of being a pawn in Vučić’s election fraud. Despite the – obvious – lack of media attention, the protesters, who were mostly first-time voters, organized cross-country demonstrations via social networks, and the discontent quickly spread to other cities, including Novi Sad, Niš, and Kragujevac. Nation-wide demonstrations continued for days. What initially began as students demonstrations grew into a wider movement with more diverse participants, from elderly to youth, from professors to students, and from politicians to activists.

The April protests in Serbia were a shout for democracy fueled by the exasperation against clientelism, corruption, election fraud, and media manipulation among many other problems that post-socialist Serbia has suffered from. The spirit of anti-Vučić-ism, however, has been short-lived. In the following weeks the number of protesters shrunk, counter-demonstrations appeared, and, most importantly, the movement began to implode. The two major-protest groups – ‘Against the Dictatorship’ and ‘Seven Demands’ – had split after failing to agree on a common protest-agenda.

As the inauguration of Vučić approached, thousands of people who gathered in the streets of Belgrade against the socioeconomic and political ills of post-socialist Serbia were no more to be seen. What happened to the spirit of anti-authoritarianism of the previous month? Why did the movement so suddenly fade away?

The April protests began as anti-partisan demonstrations that occurred sporadically based on loose organization via social network. The strong anti-establishment flair of the movement meant that the organizers intentionally avoided any association with traditional political oppositions or formal organizations, and therefore the movement remained strictly non-political. As seen in the split between two major protest-groups, ‘Against the Dictatorship’ and ‘Seven Demands’, the organizers could not agree upon the participation of established political parties, the decision of addressing or not the political issues of the Vučić regime, and the clear future direction of the movement. Under these circumstances, the downfall of the April movement perhaps was not a surprise to many.

Social movements do not simply begin and prosper with an identity, a problem, or an enemy already “out there”. Rather, they are processes wherein different people learn to identify themselves, to adapt different experiences to a shared one, and to construct a ‘we’, a collective identity. This is a process of coming-together based on shared memories and shared movement-biographies that people construct. The outcome of this process – the movement’s identity – determines the long-term sustainability and permanence of social movements.

The thousands of people filling the streets of Serbia last April demanded democracy and political integrity. They showed they are not willing to tolerate in silence the ills of post-socialist Serbia that had jeopardized their lives since the breakup of Yugoslavia. The failure of the April movement can teach us that rampant populism in the country is not invincible, but a lack of self-awareness among protesters limits the sustainability and permeance of social movements. Moreover, it is importance to notice that the failure of the movement came from ‘within’, and that these failures can become important shared-experiences for future movements – because, otherwise, the defeat of Vučić is far from realization.


* Just a few days after 8,000 Muslims were slaughtered by Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić in Srebrenica.


Byeongsun AhnByeongsun Ahn  works on the identity negotiation between self- and meta-perception among second-generation ex-Yugoslavian migrants in Vienna. He looks at the lived-experiences second-generations have throughout their life time, and how their encounters with other people around them had affected the way they perceive themselves.

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