The past couple of years have seen a decline in Serbian democracy. Like many European countries, Serbia is currently led by an authoritarian leader, Aleksandar Vučić. Since he took presidential office in 2017, the country has suffered from democratic backsliding seen largely in a decline in civil liberties and media freedom.
Most recent reports have labeled Serbia as a hybrid regime or stabilitocracy. This basically means that the country still maintains some democratic criteria while simultaneously failing to uphold certain democratic values.
Vučić has a political history as he served two terms as Prime Minister before coming into the presidential office. He is part of the center-right Serbian Progressive Party which currently not only holds a domineering majority in Serbia’s parliament but also has control over just about every aspect of government in the country. Vučić also has a stranglehold on mainstream media which he garnered through loyalists within the nation’s advertising agencies.
Vučić’s control of the media helped him win the 2017 presidential election as he was able to gain more media coverage than all of his other opponents combined. With his strong use of media control and silencing of his opposition, many label him a populist. Other characteristics that support this are his highly nationalistic ideologies and claims of “corrupt elite” in previous governments. A sense of “us vs. them” is also foundational for a populist regime which Vučić channels through his “othering” of the global West and international community. Vučić claims to be a leader for the people and for Serbia, yet he does so by limiting their civil liberties
This past November saw protesters outside of a mural in Belgrade. The picture was of convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic who, in 1995, headed the genocide of Srebrenica a town in eastern Bosnia. Here, he had around 8,000 Bosniaks killed most of whom were Muslims. Mladic is still serving his life sentence after being convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia. Serbian officials continue to deny the genocide, and many right-wing nationalists still view him as a hero and a freedom fighter.
Activists attempted to besmirch the mural by throwing eggs at it. However, the gathering was banned by the police, and the protesters who threw the eggs were arrested by plainclothes police. The police also banned a rally that was planned to remove the mural altogether.
By protecting the mural, the Serbian government has made it clear that they have no problem with Mladic’s actions. The Minister of the Interior Aleksandar Vulin even paid a visit to the mural after the arrests were made. All of this shows clear support and pandering of highly nationalistic ideals which exist in Serbia. Banning the right for protesters to gather further plays into Vučić’s populist repression of civil liberties.
Other recent protests have been met with harsh government opposition. This can be seen in arrests made at an environmental protest against mining laws in late 2021 and in COVID-19 related protests in July 2020. During the protests in 2020, riot police used excessive force against protesters, bystanders, and journalists.
Attacking freedom of assembly is a clear sign of worsening civil liberties for Serbian citizens. Democracies rely on input and participation by the people. If they can’t do that safely, then there is a clear decline in Serbia’s democracy. If a government won’t listen to the voices of its people, then it isn’t truly representing their needs.
For a nation to be democratic, it also needs to hold free and fair elections. While on the outside Serbia may appear to have those, with the complete media control that Vučić has, it’s nearly impossible for the opposition to have their voices heard. Because of this, Vučić’s regime is likely to maintain power in the upcoming election in April.
Even with all of the corruption, however, Vučić is leading in the polls. As a populist leader, he comes off quite charismatic to the people and makes television appearances on talk shows for hours each week. He still wants to maintain his image as a president for the people, yet he is receiving increased levels of criticism since his start as president in 2017.
Once again Vučić’s limitations on the media help him out as any form of criticism can come at a cost. News outlets that speak out against the government can have funds withheld as Vučić controls the advertising agencies. Individual journalists whose remarks were deemed too harsh have been taken in for questioning by the Serbian intelligence agency. All of this ensures that Vučić cannot be held accountable for any of his egregious actions. There is no room for conversation.
Vučić has created a government that consists solely of people from one side. They all think the same which is detrimental to democracy. A functioning democracy needs political turnover between parties and needs voices from all sides of the political spectrum. If Vučić is able to maintain and even increase the amount of power and control he has, he could go so far as to make constitutional changes that would keep him and his people in power for a long time.
Using democratic institutions to undermine democracy is very dangerous as it is not always evident what is really happening. With an authoritarian leader, there is often little transparency between the government and its people. With executive consolidation of power, the president can eliminate institutional checks and balances. This can be seen through processes like court-packing. It could also lead to increased misinformation which would be easy for Vučić as he already controls mainstream media outlets. More power would also enable him to further remove any opposition to the ruling party.
Overall, it’s clear that Serbia is seeing a decline in its democratic institutions. The president has uncontested control over just about every aspect of the government. Freedom of media and citizens’ civil liberties seem to be the most affected by Vučić’s authoritarian rule. Clear support for a war criminal and attacks on freedom of assembly solidify Serbia as yet another country dealing with a contradictory leader who claims to fight for the people but is really fighting against them.