In 2017, Serbian democracy officially reverted to authoritarianism. This comes after the constitution written in 2006 at Serbia’s establishment as an independent state began eroding in 2013. The Serbian Progressive Party has been using state resources to hinder opponents and dominate elections. There are severe concerns about the integrity of polling, the media has been increasingly disparaged and soft-censored, and the party system is breaking down. Coming hand-in-hand is the country’s consistently decreasing Freedom House score from 76 in 2017 to 62 in the 2022 report. Some of these shortcomings were born out of the hastily written constitution, but that is neither the most important nor most salient precursor of this loss of democracy. Serbia’s democratic collapse wasn’t random or unpredictable. Though Serbia has a very high level of national unity and pride in their culture, which is an important precursor of a successful democratic system, it is just that – Serbia’s culture – which caused the democracy established to fail so swiftly. This national culture caused the failure of the democratic system through two fundamental shortcomings: exclusionary and undemocratic leanings.
Serbia’s national culture is centered around its religious heritage: as of 2016, 88% of Serbians identify as Orthodox. This alone allies a huge proportion of Serbia’s population in terms of morals and ideals and ways of life. But a big part of this largely unified national identity is that it is fundamentally exclusionary, because it is centered around a religion – those that don’t fit the doctrine, be they immigrants, ethnic minorities, women, LGBT communities, or those in religious minorities – are inherently excluded from the idea of national unity. They are seen as illegitimate parasites to a united front of “true” Serbs. This means that in a government controlled by the majority, even if there are constitutional safeguards in place to protect those in minority groups, the constitutional guidelines will go generally ignored by those elected into office. The other biggest symptom of Serbia’s exclusionary culture is the formation of their written language: Serbian is a digraphic language, but in an intentional attempt to exclude and differentiate Croats from Serbs, Cyrillic text became the standard for Serbians, as many Croats would not be able to understand it. This is not unusual, especially in places where spoken language is not as standardized, or there is a big difference between dialects spoken between the elite and the lower class. Around 40% of children worldwide are taught in a language they don’t speak, from Greece to Sub Saharan Africa. This is a common exclusionist tactic which sets elite, highly-educated, and “truly Serbian” children above minority and immigrant children. The revival of Serbian Cyrillic has been accompanied by a rise in Serbian nationalism – even Serbs who had been living in Croatia have become unable to read properly in Serbian because of their assimilation to a Croatian Roman version of the language.
Despite the huge proportion of Serbians who are fundamentally in agreement about national values and culture, the basis of this culture has given way to great polarization in recent years. Polarization can be measured along four guidelines: general social polarization, use of hate speech by political parties, the strength of anti-establishment social movements, and whether political elites respect counterarguments. In the first two years since backsliding began, Serbia scored higher than any of their regional peers on all four measures. Due to the majority of Serbia being united against these “outsider” groups, ethnic, racial, and religious divides between the “true” Serbian identity and “outsider” identities drive the surface level polarization in Serbia, but deep divides between the cosmopolitan outsiders and nationalist orthodox are what truly allowed a majority party with authoritarian tendencies to seize power in a popular election. Those who don’t fit the cultural ideal have spurred the ongoing conflict in Kosovo and socioeconomic divides between Northern and Southern Serbians.
The nail in the coffin that sealed Serbian democracy’s fate even before its conception is the complicated, but generally undemocratic and staunch political culture of Serbia. Only 25% of Serbians see democracy as the most preferable form of government. 43% – nearly half – of Serbians believe that types of government don’t affect them. In addition to this incredibly widespread political apathy and lack of prioritization of democracy, 78% of Serbians generally see their culture as contradicting the culture of the West, and 80% believe a geopolitically strong Russia is necessary to balance out the influence of the West. They also largely (by a 65% majority) believe that their culture is superior to others. These cultural symptoms ensured from the beginning that democracy would not thrive in Serbia. One of the fundaments of a participatory democracy is just that: participation. In a country where there is little attention given to the government at all, Serbia runs a risk of not putting any pressure on the political elites to maintain democracy and the cost of oppression (or authoritarianism) falls below the cost of democracy, and democracy disappears.
Serbia’s culture fated democracy from the very beginning. The attitude of the culture is primarily exclusionary to racial, ethnic, religious, and other minority groups, so as the Balkans became more cosmopolitan and borders shifted, deep rifts began to form between the exclusionary and the growing population of the excluded. It also boosted the growing Serbian nationalism, which was then magnified by Serbia’s already existing attitude of cultural superiority and anti-Western leanings. A helpful factor in developing successful democracy is the West’s linkage and leverage – and Serbia has neither. In fact, their anti-Western opinions drive them to believe in the importance of a strong Russian state, one that does not value democracy. This culture, where the unity drives polarization and the natural anti-Western cultural standpoint drives both political apathy and a lack of belief in democratic systems at all, is the most important precursor of Serbian democracy’s failure, and why it will be very difficult for democracy to be rebuilt there.