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Vol 2, No 14
10 April 2000
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Serbia Democracy Serbian Style
Slavko Živanov

It is a gloomy fact that the fall of the Berlin Wall brought a completely different set of events and consequences for the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRJ) than elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe. This was true in many respects - one of which was the inability of Yugoslavs to realize in time the importance of the historical and social processes that were unfolding around them and to adjust accordingly.

As Socialism collapsed throughout Central and Eastern Europe, many countries followed the road to democracy. Conversely, in the former Yugoslav republics, one can still sense the feeling of the retrograde tendencies of the current ruling regimes. In Serbia, these tendencies are dominant, where there seems to be an overall resistance to general democratic pluralism. Do the reasons for this political climate in Serbia rest on the shoulders of an inept opposition, can it be attributed to the "nostalgic" ruling government, or are the reasons to be found elsewhere?

With its oppressive nature, the ruling Serbian government has shown throughout its years in power that it is not fond of democratic change. Moreover, it has also illustrated quite clearly that it does not wish for democratic change. The opposition, however, has wrestled for the last ten years with the current political situation; sometimes it has even appeared that the opposition would be successful, though it has largely failed. The citizens, or at least those who are eager for change, accuse the ruling government of being good for nothing, and in the same way, the opposition, because it is not capable of "agreeing," has united in order to change the ruling government. In Serbia, it is widely believed that the guilty one is always on the other side, which can be seen in the conflicts and finger-pointing that take place between the government and opposition. Isn't one of the reasons for the survival of the current regime - or any regime for that matter - based on individuals' opinions and voters' decisions?

Majority support?

So far, the established election results point to the fact that the majority support the ruling regime, which makes claims about a lack of legitimacy for the government questionable, and maybe even futile. One could even argue that some opposition parties are illegitimate, since they went into the elections in an opposition coalition, and only after the elections did they join up with the ruling Socialist Party.

However, the legitimacy of the Socialist government has been damaged, because the status of Kosovo has changed, and the representatives of that province still sit in parliament. The election results have been acknowledged, and, despite some abnormalities, have been declared legal - not only in Serbia.

The boycott planned by the opposition coalition was a failure, as it ended up benefiting not only Milošević's Socialists but also Vojislav Šešelj 's Radical Party. The majority of those eligible to vote did, but the elections were not completely fair and free, and some citizens felt let down - maybe a significant number of citizens - but not the majority.

Infantile opposition

At any rate, there is enough legitimacy to enable the ruling government stay in power. But when speaking of the credibility of this government, one should also bear in mind that enough people voted for referendum against "foreign aggression [during the NATO bombing campaign, ed]." On the other hand, the opposition, for the last ten years, with all its subjective weaknesses, did not succeed to oust the ruling government, primarily due to their lack of the voter support. No reasonable Yugoslav can justify the infantile nature of the opposition, but this is just part of the problem that does not need to be equalized with the fact that these same citizens did not support the opposition in large numbers. Šešelj, Milan Milutinović and Vuk Draković together got over three million votes even though, officially, they are not on the same side - but they have proved themselves to be democracy's adversaries long ago.

There are certain claims that the majority of citizens voted against the Socialists, but if one adds up all the votes gained by the Serbian Renewal Party, the Serbian Radical Party, the Zajedno (Together) coalition party, the Democratic Party of Serbia and the parties of the national minorities and other democratic parties, then this claim can be seen as partially correct. The question remains open whether the democratic "alternative" got majority support, or has it, in an abstract way, been put in a category somehow worse than the Socialist Party of Serbia. In other words, do the majority of voters even want democracy, are they conscious of what they want or have they decided that the current government has allowed enough freedom already and that a "strong ruling hand" is now needed? It could also be said that the majority is not satisfied with the current political situation, but they themselves are not sure what they do or do not want.

The good old days under Tito

In this context, one can observe the results of the numerous polls in which respondents have expressed their desire for urgent change. It is not certain, however, whether they want democratic change or a return to the days of Tito, and all the "privileges" of those times. In Yugoslavia, there is still nostalgia for the days of Tito's regime, when people were allowed to travel and enjoy a relatively decent standard of living.

In fact, today's Yugoslavia, to most people, seems worse than the totalitarian days of Tito, and many people would not object to a return to those days, in exchange for the right to travel and the standards of those days. Put another way, Milošević has done nothing to improve the situation in Yugoslavia, but has rather worsened the standard of living and the international status of Yugoslavia, which is something he cannot be proud of.

One should also bear in mind the period of Ante Marković. Though his economic reforms lasted only a short time, because doubts undermined the attitude towards them, and even because of negative sentiments toward this period of our history. This is primarily because of the formation of the national minorities and the prejudices that his (Ante Marković) input is connected with the anti-Serb campaign.

Along with all "child diseases" of democratization, (one should always keep in mind the weakness of multi-parliament systems in the region since the beginning of the last century; the foundations of such traditions are dangerously shallow) today in Serbia there are several democratic options. During the transition period it was alright to put up with a lower level of democracy as long as pro-democratic parties were in power. Unfortunately our electorate did not believe that was enough.

The ideal opposition

What is important to our electorate is the theory of an ideal opposition, one that would confront the ruling regime from a unique election list, but most importantly an opposition that would, by the electorate's estimation, definitely win. Because our electorate does not wants to vote for losers and the electorate likes to calculate the odds. "These are not bad people, but they cannot win, so I will vote for someone else who is capable of wining," is the most commonly heard "argument."

Today, despite the fact that social and state crisis is dramatic, and, we have clearly outlined the democratic options, it is up to the electorate to see them. Those options include the social democratic parties, moderate conservatives, national parties and democratic (liberal) parties, or combining them in ad-hoc coalitions with ideologically-ideal characteristics and designed to achieve better electoral results. That might be enough, and to go ahead with elections under these circumstances may well be succesfull for the democratic opposition. Might be, but, only if the following four conditions are present:

1. If the elections are fair and without fraud
2. If the elections are free and applied equality to all
3. If the state run RTS TV station worked as well, and freely, as it does now
4. If there was a real and genuine desire amongst the electorate to change the current government.

So unless citizens stop supporting the ruling coalition, or in other words if that ruling coalition has small support, the election principles, set out above, do not need to be operational. However, the opposition knows that they have quite a bit of electoral support and voters, though they constantly worry about how much support they actually have. This is where the inconsistent and variable tactics of the opposition parties stems form. They are trying to be liked by the voters, to please them, whilst, at the same time trying to acquire as many votes a possible from across the electoral spectrum

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As a result, it is not certain that elections can be won in Serbia by criticizing the government in an electoral campaign. No doubt that criticisms are important, but they are not the main tools to be used. It is also necessary to point to the existence of some other alternative and to point to them and give a coherent argument as to why they would form a potentially better government.

Moreover, through its current actions the present government is showing that it will not withdraw even if the elections are lost; however, it is slightly more reasonable to suggest that it might step down if all public opinion turns away. One of the main characteristics of this ruling government is its irrationalism. It rules dictatorially yet understands, recognizes and accepts that a part, if not all, of its existence depends on the support of a significant number of the Serbian population. Unity of the government's irrationalism and that of a large section of the public is the magic formula for Milošević's rule.

While it is not certain that the government will start to rule rationally, it is more likely that the citizens, or at least the majority, may start to think rationally. Until then situation in Serbia will deteriorate. What will be the trigger to change people's consciousness is hard to say: biology, education, soldiering - who knows?

What is certain is that democratic rule will be established because it imposes itself as a natural law, even if each step on that road may seem to take forever. It is tragic that for some individuals, to whom democracy is a worthy objective and characterize them with the contemporary part of the world, will not live to see that moment arrive in Serbia, this only goes to prove that all people are mortal, even Slobodan Milošević.

Slavko Živanov, 7 April 2000

Translated by Vana Suša

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