Vucic’s political journey began in 1993 when he joined the extreme-right Serbian Radical Party (SRS). His mentor and founder of the SRS, Voijslav Seslj, was a key participant in war crimes committed during the Yugoslavian conflicts. He never shied away from hate and divisive speech; at one point in 1995, announcing to the international community: “You go ahead and bomb [Belgrade], kill one Serb and we’ll kill 100 Muslims.” In 1998, the SRS joined forces with Milosevic’s Socialist Party where Vucic acted as a “sort of government censor and is remembered for imposing fines on journalists who criticized the government and banning foreign TV networks.” After the coalition’s downfall in 2000, Vucic remained effectively locked out of government for roughly 12 years. However, in 2012, he rose out of obscurity and became the defense minister, then Prime Minister and as of 2017, he is now in control of the presidency.
I argue that Vucic utilizes stealth authoritarianism in order to suppress his opposition, backsliding Serbia into what Levitsky calls a competitive authoritative regime. Levitsky defines a competitive authoritative regime as one that is not necessarily a liberal democracy but not a politically-closed autocratic regime.1 It is essentially ambiguous whether they are democratic or not.2 This ambiguity has culminated in Vucic’s recent attainment of the presidency where some Western governments have been forced to acknowledge Serbia’s competitive authoritarianism. For example, a report from the British House of Lords about the Balkans highlights the “serious concern that gains made toward good governance and rule of law are in danger of being lost as countries in the region turn to authoritarian leadership.” Authors such as Dahl and Varol would find that this report and others demonstrate the decline of Serbian democracy in recent years.
It is also important to look at Dahl’s procedural ideas of democracy. Three of Dahl’s key characteristics are under attack by Vucic. These include free and fair elections, the right to alternative sources of information, and the right of political leaders to compete for support and votes.
Firstly, under Vucic, the right to alternative sources of information has been increasingly under attack. For example, criticism coming from the media has resulted in over 102 instances of media harassment, ranging from arson attacks and death threats over 2019. Furthermore, the number of attacks on journalists has more than doubled since 2016. Varol would also see connections between harassment and Vucic’s constant displeasure with the media as extensions of stealth authoritarianism.2 For example, the N1 TV channel was threatened after Vucic publicly complained that “authorities are being attacked by N1 television 24 hours a day”. The government interprets headlines as undeserved attacks on their regime and wants their supporters to believe that the media is outright lying and ‘out to get them’. Besides the constant threat of harassment from the government, the government has also refused to address its role in press freedoms. Despite a goal set in 2011 for the government to withdraw from the media, public broadcasters such as RTS1, the most watched in Serbia, still remain owned by the state. Even for broadcasters that are completely or partly privatized, economic weakness has resulted in an unwanted but necessary reliance on government funding. Therefore, grants are often given to pro-government media which encourages media to self-censor and avoid critical reporting.
Secondly, according to Dahl, elections are required to be free and fair to allow for citizens to have their preferences weighted equally.3 However, the final report from the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe have found ‘credible allegations‘ of practices such as votebuying with medical care and free food. Furthermore, some of these allegations accuse Vucic’s party of bending electoral laws to disenfranchise and unfairly prevent the opposition. According to one of Varol’s tools of stealth authoritarianism, increased electoral costs may be implemented to prevent opposition from gaining the upper hand.4 This would allow Vucic to remain uncontested and ‘invincible’ even in a potentially unpopular political decision. Reportedly, Vucic allied candidates abused resources to aid their re-election campaigns- for example, hosting SNS campaign events on municipal premises, or distributing campaign leaflets during official visits by government ministers. Even some Serbian people recognize the failure of the election system. According to a survey from October 18th, 33% of respondents believed that there were severe irregularities that compromised past results and will compromise future results.
Thirdly, Vucic’s government explicitly denies opposition input and preferences in important legislation. This relates to Dahl’s requirements of a democracy where government institutions must depend on the input or preferences of their constituents.5 For example, civil-society networks (NGOs) in Serbia perform a social, public service that the government is unable to efficiently perform and receive government grants in return. Many of these NGOs also aim to provide input in government legislation that concerns the area in which they work. However, when NGOs are critical of Vucic’s proposals, the authorities that harass critical media extend these to NGOs. For example, in 2018, a representative of Serbia’s equivalent of the CIA warned that critical NGOs played a “subversive role and channelled foreign influence.” Furthermore, a member of Vucic’s cabinet made similar claims against members of an NGO think-tank which then received violent threats. Even when NGOs persevere against government attacks, the legislation is passed under emergency procedures, giving little if no time for any input. If there is input, NGOs claim that the government only regards them formally and does not consider them as actual stakeholders in the process. For example, in one landmark legislation, NGOs grew frustrated enough that they completely withdrew from consultations as they believed that they were essentially ignored.
Through the suppression of the media, election unfairness, and an outright refusal to even consider opposition preferences and viewpoints in government legislation, Serbia’s democratic pillars remain threatened. It is clear that Vucic’s continued degradation will ensure a competitive authoritarian regime for the foreseeable future as long as his opposition remains disenfranchised.
1 Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. (2018). How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.
2 Varol, Ozan. (2015). Stealth Authoritarianism. Iowa Law Review 100.
3 Dahl, Robert. (1972). Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven-Yale University Press.
4 Varol, Ozan. (2015). Stealth Authoritarianism. Iowa Law Review 100.
5 Dahl, Robert. (1972). Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven-Yale University Press.