“One of the great ironies of how democracies die is that the very defense of democracy is often used as a pretext for its subversion.” This line from Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s book How Democracies Die holds a new relevance today. As COVID-19 surges throughout the world, the threat of the coronavirus has functioned as a tool used by would-be autocrats to accelerate the process of democratic erosion. Specifically we can turn to Serbia, where a leader with a history of subverting democracy through control of the media is seizing an opportunity to repeat these strategies.
Seizing a crisis moment to extend executive power is a tactic not unprecedented. Scholars such as Levitsky and Ziblatt  have documented the use of a crisis situation to suppress civil liberties and subvert democratic norms. It has been observed that approval ratings for leaders and heads of government surge during catastrophes such as war, natural disaster, or external attack . Although unprecedented in living memory, a global pandemic can–and has–functioned as a crisis with potential for would-be autocrats to exploit. In March of 2020, Serbian President Aleksander Vučić began to do exactly that.
President Vučić is not new to practices which exacerbate democratic erosion. His political career began as the Minister of Information under Slobodan Milošević, the former ultranationalist leader of Serbia who played a large hand in inflaming tensions between the former Yugoslav republics. As Milošević’s Minister of Information, Vučić imposed fines on journalists publishing pieces against the regime, and banned foreign television networks from the country. After Milošević was ousted peacefully in 2000–surrounding the results of an election viewed internally and externally as undemocratic–Vučić laid low. Then, in 2008, Vučić rebranded himself, making a surprising decision to leave the Serbian Radical Party–an ultraconservative right-wing group–to become Deputy President of the brand-new Serbian Progressive Party, a much more moderate movement drawing approval from Western Europe for its pro-European Union stance. In 2012, Vučić’s party swept Serbian elections, displacing the left-wing Democratic party. Vučić was elected to the presidency in 2017, where he will sit for a five-year term.
Before any mention of COVID-19, Vučić began to exhibit behaviors befitting a would-be authoritarian. Calling back to his days as Minister of Information, Vučić began to build his image in the state media relentlessly, much as Milošević used this platform in the 1990’s. Vučić’s influence led to public and private networks broadcasting pieces applauding Vučić and denouncing opposition leaders. The tactic of “sidelining, hobbling, or bribing key players” appears in Levitsky and Ziblatt’s work as well, specifically mentioned to include “major media outlets” . Without alternate sources of information to examine Vučić’s policies in an unbiased manner or check abuses of power by Vučić, Vučić’s opposition struggled to gain traction, with no consolidated party or figure to lead it. The 2016 elections were met with a boycott by the splintered opposition front, who hoped to prove the elections were completely illegitimate; yet, Vučić was reelected in a landslide.
COVID-19 has provided Vučić with a new opportunity to test the limits of the Serbian constitution, specifically in regard to freedom of speech. On March 15, the Serbian leader declared a state of emergency in regard to the coronavirus–despite the fact that this power is only granted by the constitution to the Serbian National Assembly. Under the state of emergency, the Serbian constitution allows the President to halt certain civil liberties, including freedom of speech and freedom of movement. Shortly after announcing the state of emergency, the Serbian government forbid anyone not on its Crisis Staff to issue any information about the coronavirus, effectively muzzling Vučić’s opposition and experts non aligned with either political side. Even more directly, journalist Ana Lalić was arrested in April after reporting on hospital conditions in Vojvodina, citing lack of basic protective equipment for nurses. Although she was released after 48 hours after the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina (NDNV) came to her aid, the police seized her phone and laptop.
Gutting an independent media, silencing opposition voices, and arresting journalists are all obvious violations of a government which claims to be democratic. And the fact that these actions were taken in quick succession in a period of crisis makes them even more alarming. While Serbia is by no means an autocracy, its status slipped from “Free” in 2018 to “Partly Free” in 2019 according to Freedom House. With Vučić unchecked and the pandemic still spreading, resistance has begun to grow despite the continued presence of COVID-19. Grassroots groups such as Ne Davimo Beograd (“Don’t Let Belgrade Sink”) have begun daily protests against Vučić’s actions, similarly to the protests which eventually ousted Milošević in the 1990’s. Hopefully, recognizing Vučić’s suppression of the media for what it is–an attempt to consolidate power during a crisis–will lead to a more democratic Serbia in the future.
- Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Broadway Books, 2018), 93.
- Levitsky and Ziblatt, How Democracies Die, 81.